One hundred years ago, the public transportation system in the United States was envied by much of the world. Many cities had robust electric tram lines, while steam locomotives and boats transported goods and people around the country. Today, however, effective transit systems are hard to find outside of major cities, and even urban areas struggle to provide reliable, connected services.
Why is that? Many would point to the impact of suburban sprawl and the fact that so much housing was built during and after the 1950s when automobile travel gained dominance. But that is only part of the picture.
"If you looked at the United States, Canada, France, the UK, Germany, and Australia, in the 1950s, they were all on the same trajectory — they were all racing toward automobile dependence," says David King, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "But then in the 1960s, you start to see a divergence."
While city planners across Europe began working to preserve existing transit systems and expand them into developing suburbs, the United States did not take the same approach. In fact, some cities chose to destroy existing transit systems—ripping out streetcar lines and building highways to speed up commutes from the suburbs.
With rare exceptions, the overall trend for transit providers in the U.S. has been to continually cut basic local service in a vain effort to improve finances—with public transportation often sidelined as an expendable subsidy to low-income communities, rather than a vital part of healthy public life. Against a backdrop of service cuts and cost increases, the tendency has been a drop in both ridership and revenues.
What’s missing here is the recognition of the vital role that public transit plays in the overall health of communities. A robust transit system can be a major asset to cities of any size, especially in areas grappling with serious air pollution problems. Along with better air quality, the benefits of mass transit are numerous and wide-ranging:
BENEFITS OF MASS TRANSIT
Community health & wellness Mass transit produces less pollution than cars per passenger mile, keeping the air cleaner.
Fighting climate change Public transit can help to lower greenhouse gas emissions by reducing private car use and by using environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient technology.
Public safety Buses are safer than individual vehicles and bus-related accidents have 1/20th the passenger fatality rates of automobile travel. Moreover, areas with high public transit mobility tend to have better overall security and reduced crime rates.
Physical health Compared to drivers, those who use public transportation get over three times the amount of physical activity per day by walking between stops and destinations.
Improved access to education and employment Public transportation widens the scope of reachable destinations for education and employment.
Economic opportunity Every dollar invested in public transportation generates four dollars in economic returns, through job creation, business sales and increased home values. Commuters are more productive on public transit as well, because of the free time to read, write, relax and/or catch up on work.
Access to social, cultural and recreational activities Availability of mass transit allows individuals to participate in events they otherwise couldn’t access and promotes community cohesion through positive interactions between neighbors. This is particularly true for those who cannot afford, or are physically unable, to drive, such as low-income seniors and people with disabilities.
Boost to personal finances The average household can save nearly US$10,000 a year by taking public transportation and living with one less car.