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The Haters are in Denial, but Trains and Transit are the Future

April 15, 2021

Public transit is thriving globally. “The world is building mass transit networks faster than ever before,” Bloomberg CityLab observed in 2018, “and ridership is increasing to match.” It’s a different story in the U.S., where the loudest voices are calling for cuts to budgets and service. This is true even though public transit is “the greatest wealth multiplier in our cities,” as the Strong Towns blog recently noted, and it should be “the heart of every local wealth-building strategy.” Instead, it’s “funded like a charity.”

Why is that? Why do U.S. cities fight tooth and nail to get companies to relocate by offering big tax breaks—but then ignore the fundamentals of building strong communities and economies?

One big factor is the false distinction between public transportation and the “private” transportation sector.

In truth, every major transportation mode in the U.S. is a huge federal program. Each one is massively subsidized by taxpayers. The ride-share companies often touted as alternatives to public transit are among the most heavily subsidized of all. And, of course, airlines got $79 billion in bailout money just in the past year. As the New York Times noted, that’s par for the course. We often socialize the airlines’ losses and privatize their profits. It’s fair to say they’re as much a part of our “public transit” infrastructure as any bus or commuter rail system.

Even so, traditional transit systems—buses and commuter rail—are often singled out as examples of wasted taxpayer dollars. Chicago Tribune writer Steve Chapman published a doozy of the genre this week, lamenting the Biden administration’s proposed investments in trains and transit as a “blue-sky vision.” He thinks the Biden plan—which calls for investing in $85 billion in transit and $80 billion in Amtrak and other railroads—is “the perfect strategy for an era that has passed,” especially since their ridership declined sharply during the pandemic.

Naturally, he doesn’t claim that flying and driving represent a bygone era because people flew and drove less during the pandemic. That argument makes no sense, whether it’s applied to flying and driving or trains and transit.

The reality is: It’s certain that every transportation mode will be a heavily subsidized government program in the post-pandemic world. The only question is how the modes will be prioritized and funded. So here are two relevant facts to consider.

We broke it. We can fix it

First, when we spend money to make any transportation mode more convenient and accessible, people use it. Highway funding proves this point again and again. We put more money into new highway lanes to fight congestion. New lanes incentivize more people to use the highways. The congestion increases.

Critics like Chapman point out that transit ridership across the U.S. was declining well before the pandemic. He implies that Americans had good transit options and rejected them. A more clear-eyed conclusion is that Americans have never had good transit options. So they mostly drive everywhere.

Our policies and budgets created this paradigm. Our policies and budgets can change it. It’s significant that the two transit systems that increased their ridership substantially in the months before the pandemic were New York and Washington, D.C. They’re also cities that made big investments in upgrading their systems in recent years.

Not your grandpa’s transit

Second, the critics of transit tend to have shockingly outdated notions of transit. Chapman is a case in point. He notes, for example, that “the pandemic has made plain the importance of mass transit to low-income and Black and Latino Americans, many of whom have kept using it to get to essential jobs.

Apparently, this is a nod to the idea that cities need a skeletal transit system for people who have no other option. But it displays a condescending and old-fashioned notion of transit as serving mainly urban centers.

In reality, the best modern transit systems serve entire cities. Toronto, for example, runs a dense network of bus lines throughout its suburbs—with service every 10 minutes—deep into the night. Some of those routes “are among the busiest on the continent,” with more than 40,000 riders a day, according to transportation analyst Jonathan English.

The result? Fares cover roughly 70 percent of the system’s costs, “compared with 47 per cent in New York and only 30 per cent in Boston.

Transit for the win

It’s the same with any transportation mode. When it’s convenient, reliable and affordable, people of all socioeconomic strata use it. Investments drive ridership. Ridership drives revenues. Revenues drive sustainability.

Disinvestment just drives people away. This isn’t rocket science.

And, despite the way critics like to frame it, it isn’t an either/or choice. Good “public transit” should include not only great bus and light-rail service but excellent airline options—and first-class high-speed rail networks. HSR is the service that pulls them all together and multiplies their value. It reduces traffic congestion and makes airports easier to get to. And, with well-timed connections, it drives ridership on buses and commuter trains. In short, it opens up whole new horizons of possibility.

Transportation systems like that—where buses, passenger rail lines, airlines, and high-speed rail work in harmony—are winning the argument around the world. U.S. cities will eventually catch on. Some, like Grand Rapids, already have. The economic and environmental payoffs are too great to remain in denial forever. It’s mainly a question of how long it will take—and how much the decades of delay and dithering will cost us.

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