Why is America’s Public Transportation So Bad?
The rise of public transportation has been marked by the shift of major living areas from suburban and rural to urban areas. Starting with the humble streetcar and horse-drawn omnibus, cities have quickly turned into hubs for modern forms of transportation. Nowadays, city have turned to three main modes of public transportation: the train, the taxi, and the bus. While most European, a large portion of Asian, and even Canadian cities have kept up with an increasing demand for mass transit, America has lagged behind. In order to solve our transportation crisis, we should look to other countries and acknowledge the successes of different modes of transit.
First, we should look at the reasons why a city should provide public transportation. To begin with, an obvious benefit of public transportation is improving air quality. According to the Federal Transit Administration, air quality is often the poorest in urban areas where traffic congestion is the worst (Federal Transit Administration, 2016). By reducing the amount of emissions from private vehicles in dense, traffic-ridden cities, public transportation can help metropolitan areas meet air quality standards. But, while environmental benefits are always at the forefronts of people’s minds, the economic potential of developing public transit systems is hardly discussed. Public transportation by itself provides millions of jobs worldwide and in many European cities public transportation operators account for the largest demographic of city employers (Union Internationale des Transports Publics, 2017). Additionally, because mass transit reduces congestion, cities appear more attractive to businesses and tourists alike, enticing private investors and promoting the “global appeal” of a city.
So, why is America’s transportation system so bad? The subway or train is one major mode of transportation that American cities have yet to fully utilize. In a recent study, researchers found that “New York [was] the only U.S. city with a significant rail network where ridership [had] increased since 2012 — in several other U.S. cities included in the survey, ridership fell” (Shrikant, 2018). Additionally, existing transit systems have a myriad of safety and reliability issues. In one incident in September of 2018, a San Francisco light rail line was held up on a busy Monday morning during the citywide Transit Week event, an event that was meant to celebrate the cities mass transit systems. Workers and city officials alike were held up during a critical hour of the day taking detours and waiting for delayed trains (Swan, 2018). New York’s subway system is notorious for its unreliability. In the summer of 2017, residents’ criticism of the subway system reached its climax as a train crash in Harlem injured dozens (Santora et al., 2017). Even after authorities vowed to improve the Great Depression-era equipment wreaking havoc on the line, “major weekday incidents” are still at an all-time high, and delays are typical (Fitzsimmons, 2018). The main problem in American cities is that people view public transportation as welfare. In most cities, no more than 30 to 40 percent of operating costs are covered by fares. This creates a vicious cycle wherein officials push low fares for socio-economic reasons, but starve the transit agencies of funding resulting in poor service and limited operating hours (Stromberg, 2015). According to a survey by TransitCenter, successful train systems stemmed from high frequency and reliability (Binkovitz, 2016). The Hong Kong MTR is hailed as one of the best subway systems in the world, with trains coming every few minutes, and boasting on-time reliability of over 99.9 percent. CNN commented that the “ 211-kilometer, 150-station system copes easily with its 3.4 million passengers every day” (Falzone, 2017). American cities need to learn from the best to focus on reliability and frequency of their train systems instead of viewing public transit as welfare.
Taxis are arguably the most well-developed and reliable form of public transportation in the U.S. at the moment. Taxis provide unparalleled convenience in cities. They are safe, clean, well-maintained, and well-regulated. Contrary to what some say, taxis are an integral part of public transit. The work of Columbia University professor David King showed that “cabs are not an alternative to New York’s public transit infrastructure but rather a part of it” (Adler, 2014). In his research, King showed that the majority of New Yorkers used trains or buses to get to work in the morning, but took advantage of cabs to get home. This showed that taxis were a crucial part of the “flow” of people and transportation. Perhaps one of the biggests advantages of taxis is that they are easily implemented in a city. Many people have cited history as the culprit for America’s transit woes. In the 1950s, cities were all trying to solve the problem of getting a growing population from one place to another as quickly as possible. While European and Canadian cities invested in light rail lines and bus service, American cities tore out their streetcars to build highways. As a result, these cities still have much higher levels of transit ridership today than U.S. cities of comparable size and density (Stromberg, 2015). Taxi markets in cities like New York were able to continue developing and take advantage of the existing automobile infrastructure that was being built. Nowadays, however, the advent of ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, taxis are no longer take up the majority of ridership numbers (Hernandez, 2017). Although taxis may not be a viable solution for public transportation in the near future, it shows that America is good at utilizing existing infrastructure for mass transit.
Buses are perhaps the best option U.S. cities have for solving their transportation issues. Like taxis, they are well-maintained and regulated. They also do not take nearly as much time to implement in cities. Hong Kong’s MTR took nearly 20 years of planning before the completion of its first line (Wood, 2017). Buses are easily implemented while still offering the environmental and economic benefits of other modes of public transportation such as subways. Vienna is a modern success story that America should model its system on. Like many American cities, Vienna has narrow inner-city streets, and while their infrastructure was provided by trams, it offers the same ideas as utilizing America’s automobile infrastructure. Vienna has already mobilized twelve electric buses that will reduce noise and emissions in the city, while working within a tight budget and time frame by using existing infrastructure from trams. While it is too early to tell yet, the city has predicted carbon dioxide emission reductions of some 300 tons per year as opposed to traditional buses (Gies, 2018).These developments have piqued the interest of private investors and innovators as well. Power Vehicle Innovation, a French manufacturer, developed an in-route charging technology called Watt. Watt’s charging poles can be mounted on buses to receive electricity from “totems” attached atop bus shelters. These 10-second blasts of potent electricity extend the buses’ range (Gies, 2018). The economic benefits from saving fuel and using existing infrastructure are obvious, and it seems America is leaning in the direction of buses as well. Just last summer in 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $55 Million in grants to transit agencies to deploy clean buses (Federal Transit Administration, 2016). With more cities recognizing the importance of public transportation and the advantages of bus service, America has a clear shot at solving its transportation crisis.
American cities must implement public transportation for its benefits on the environment and local economy. To do this, we must look to systems in other countries. We should not view public transit as welfare, but rather prioritize frequency and reliability to maximize ridership. We need to take advantage of the economic and environmental potential of reusing existing infrastructure to build new networks. Now more than ever, we need to stop being short-sighted and resolve ourselves to bettering America’s transit system.
- Adler, Ben. “Why Cabs and Car-Sharing Are Good for the Environment.” Grist, Grist, 21 Mar. 2014, grist.org/cities/why-cabs-and-car-sharing-are-good-for-the-environment/.
- Binkovitz, Leah. “What Makes Transit Successful? Survey Says It’s Frequency, Reliability and Shorter Travel Times.” The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, 12 July 2016, kinder.rice.edu/2016/07/12/what-makes-transit-successful-new-survey-provides-insights.
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- Federal Transit Administration. “U.S. Department of Transportation Announces $55 Million in Grants to Transit Agencies to Deploy Clean Buses.” Federal Transit Administration, United States Department of Transportation, 26 July 2016, www.transit.dot.gov/about/news/us-department-transportation-announces-55-million-grants-transit-agencies-deploy-clean.
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- Santora, Marc, and Emma G. Fitzsimmons. “Subway Derailment in Manhattan Injures Dozens.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 June 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/nyregion/subway-train-derails-in-manhattan.html?module=inline.
- Shrikant, Aditi. “Why US Public Transportation Is so Bad – and Why Americans Don’t Care.” Vox.com, Vox Media, 26 Sept. 2018, www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/26/17903146/mass-transit-public-transit-rail-subway-bus-car.
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- Union Internationale des Transports Publics. “Monthly Focus: The Economic Impact of Public Transport.” UITP, 23 Nov. 2017, www.uitp.org/news/monthly-focus-economic-impact-public-transport.
- Wood, Chris. “From the Archives: the 18 Years It Took Hong Kong to Get First MTR Line.” South China Morning Post, South China Morning Post, 22 Oct. 2017, www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/short-reads/article/2113217/archives-how-hong-kongs-first-subway-system-got.