Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Why the US Sucks at Building Public Transit

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As a new bus rider on what seems to be a fairly good transit system, I found Aaron Gordon’s article in Vice of interest:

American cities are facing a transportation crisis. There’s terrible traffic. Public transit doesn’t work or go where people need it to. The cities are growing, but newcomers are faced with the prospects of paying high rents for reasonable commutes or lower rents for dreary, frustrating daily treks. Nearly all Americans, including those in cities, face a dire choice: spend thousands of dollars a year owning a car and sitting in traffic, or sacrifice hours every day on ramshackle public transit getting where they need to go. Things are so broken that, increasingly, they do both. Nationwide, three out of every four commuters drive alone. The rate in metro areas is not much different.

“Without an integrated system of transit in our metropolitan areas the great anticipated growth will become a dream that will fail,” predicted Ralph Merritt, general manager of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “because people cannot move freely, safely, rapidly, and economically from where they live to where they work.”

Although Merritt’s words could just as well apply today, he said them 66 years ago in 1954. This is a crisis facing American cities right now in 2020, but it’s an old crisis. The only thing that has changed is the problem has gotten worse.

Like most crises, there is no single cause. Our cities, and our federal government, have made a lot of mistakes. Some were obvious at the time, others only in hindsight, but most have been a combination of the two. We keep doing things that stopped being good ideas a long time ago.

Many of those mistakes have to do with housing policy, which is inextricably linked to transportation policy. But the most obvious cause of our transportation crisis is a simple one: America sucks at building public transportation.

Why is this? Why does the U.S. suck at building good, useful public transit?

It’s a question that has vexed me for years. Just when I think I’ve figured it out, some other facet I had never previously considered comes to my attention. I have spoken to a dozen transit experts and historians. I have read several histories of American mass transportation policy written by independent scholars as well as government agencies. I’ve scoured federal archives and interviewed employees of transit agencies planning their own big projects. I’ve analyzed budgets and construction costs and compared them to our international peers. The tangle of American governmental dysfunction is so profound, digging into it can feel like undoing a rubber band ball with your teeth.

But the failure itself is simple and obvious. It’s apparent to anyone who has traveled abroad in the last several decades. Whether it’s traditional subway and commuter rail systems, modern streetcars and light rails, high-speed intercity rail, or even the humble bus with dedicated lanes and train-like stops, the U.S. lags perilously behind. It is a national embarrassment and a major reason our cities are less pleasant, more expensive places to live.

Just to name a few recent accomplishments abroad lacking an American parallel: Paris . . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more.

Later in the article:

There is, of course, no simple answer why our transportation systems are broken, in much the same way there’s no simple answer to why our healthcare system is broken or why our criminal justice system is broken, beyond, as Freemark put it, that our “dysfunctional, irascible political system [is] woefully unprepared to commit to anything particularly significant.”

Ultimately, this is not about trains and buses. This is about a political system uninterested in reform, a system unconcerned with fixing what’s broken. If we can understand how politics failed American transportation systems, perhaps we can make the solution part of broader reform that must occur if American government is to start addressing the needs of the people in all aspects of life, from health care to criminal justice to housing to employment law to digital privacy to climate change.

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2020 at 7:12 pm

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