Public transit is used by 5.2% of the population in the US. Compared to similarly wealthy countries, that statistic is a major outlier. In Germany, 20% of the population reported using public transit daily. 32% of South Koreans rely on public transit to commute. Even in China, a country much poorer than the nations listed, 42% of the population used public transit. It’s fairly easy to see why Americans prefer to use alternate modes of transportation. China’s light rail system has built 23,000 miles of track in about 20 years. In 2016, the Grand Paris Express in France recently added over 68 stations and 120 miles of track to the Paris subway alone. Buses in most of Europe run every 10 minutes. In comparison, the US has added only 34 miles of high-speed rail to their cities over the course of the past 30 years, and 21.5% of buses in the US run late, with lines returning every 30 minutes. Public transit in the US is not being updated to accommodate population growth and demographic changes, which is why around 86% of the population of the US uses private automobiles to get around. It wasn’t always this way, though. In 1950, transit trips per capita in the US were around 115.8, before they declined to 36.5 in 1970. What happened between those few decades to cause public transit use to decline so rapidly? Why haven’t we improved since then? And, most importantly: what are the impacts of poor public transit on US cities?
Why is public transit in the US of such poor quality?
I. Funding Inequity
The affluence of the post-WWII era and the booming automobile industry facilitated the rise of privately owned cars and suburban sprawl. Roads at the time were either built through partially subsidized private/public partnerships by state governments or privately owned transportation companies, which slowed down their growth. The relatively slow growth of road systems allowed most privately-owned public transit companies to stay afloat, even if ridership was slowly declining. Then, in 1956, the Interstate Highway Act was passed. The act spent 500 billion dollars on building a 40,000-mile highway system over the course of 20 years. 90% of the funds for the project would be covered by the Federal government via the Highway Trust Fund. This was a watershed moment in US transportation policy as it solidified the death of public transit and the rise of privately owned automobiles in two distinct ways. First, it set the precedent that roads ought to receive some Federal funding. Today, states can get up to 90% of the cost for a road subsidized by the Federal government. Funding for highways makes up 4/5ths of the US Federal Transportation budget, while public transit receives only 1/5th of US transportation funds (this policy is known as the 80/20 split). Second, the Highway Trust Fund encouraged car ownership. New job opportunities and residential spaces were sprouting up along the highway lines, which could only be accessed using a car. Car sales skyrocketed, and more roads were needed to accommodate new traffic and development. Local and state governments were forced to allocate most of their funds to roads, leaving public transit behind. Today, years of underfunding have turned public transit into a slow, inefficient, and short-range system, used mostly by people who cannot afford cars.
II. Treated as Welfare
Only 5.2% of all commuters in the US used some form of public transit. Of the 5.2%, people of lower incomes were overrepresented, as public transit costs less than gas and car maintenance. In LA, for example, 57% of bus riders and 38% of rail riders had incomes below the poverty line. The reputation of public transit as being a sort of lifeline for the people who cannot afford cars makes it privy to the type of right-wing criticisms that other welfare policies attract. (Ronald Reagan first proposed the 80/20 split in the 80s, where it has become a staple of the Republican agenda ever since). On the national level, the overrepresentation of rural Senators provides extra resistance to urban transit proposals. Locally, cities with more right-wing leadership tend to have terribly underfunded public transit. Finally, on the community level, plans to extend bus or train routes are frequently met with protests from residents, complaining about increased traffic or crime (even if those claims are unwarrantable). Ironically, in limiting routes and increasing wait times to reduce cost, cities are making their service less profitable by cutting off demand, further grounding public transport.
Why is increasing public transit a good thing?
The setbacks of bad public transit overlap with the setbacks of American suburban sprawl in general. In regards to social justice, two of the many ways our system of city design hurts marginalized people is through segregating cities and forcing dependence on cars.
I. City Segregation
Privately owned automobiles did not create city segregation, but they are a key factor in upholding it. In the 50s, when white middle-class Americans fled inner cities for the suburbs, jobs quickly followed after them. High-paying, stable employment options were located near residential zones to provide convenience for middle and upper-class car-dependent commuters. Wealth then concentrated in these neighborhoods, which facilitated even more stable employment options in a positive feedback loop. Public transit lines are clustered in impoverished neighborhoods, making it virtually impossible for lower-income residents to commute to and from employment far into the suburbs. For poorer residents, it’s a devastating feedback loop; the richer neighborhoods get richer while the poorer neighborhoods get further and further removed from desirable employment. A 2001 study from a UCLA professor found that car driving residents in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles had access to 60 times as many jobs as their public transit-dependent residents. Simply providing cheap ways to keep all neighborhoods, regardless of income, connected would be a crucial step in fighting city segregation.
Cars cost a lot of money. In addition to the initial costs of buying a new car, it costs roughly 9,000$ to maintain and fuel a car every year. That number is bound to get even bigger, as new research suggests that infrastructure projects do very little to slow down rapidly increasing commuting times. The high costs of driving a car make transportation the second biggest expense Americans have to pay, right below food expenses. Sudden increases in the cost of car maintenance, whether it be repair or simply a jump in gas prices, can easily put a middle-class American family in the red. The fundamentally risky nature of driving a car makes it an unstable financial asset, with the power to eat away thousands of savings at a moment’s notice. While often overlooked, the costs of cars prove to be a major barrier in social mobility for most Americans.
What can we do?
Luckily, things have been shaping up for public transit. Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill proposes giving 85 billion dollars to public transit in the US, a much-needed investment to make up for years of underfunding. Before COVID-19 hit the US, public transit use increased by 2.2% from 2018 to 2019. While it will take many years to push public transit in the US up to par, it seems as though we are taking the first steps.
Individuals have an incredible amount of power when it comes to public transit. Since many decisions regarding public transport are made at the local level, small-scale, community-based organizing can make a massive difference in municipal policy. Virtually anyone who is interested can make a large impact on community policy-making. Years of bad policy have forced Americans to move in a certain way. Despite how it may seem, these trends are in fact reversible, and unlike big, national-level movements, the individual can actually make a difference in transit trends.