America prides itself on being numero uno in a wide array of categories, though one area where the U.S. has fallen farther and farther behind is public transit. For decades politicians have pushed for large and costly highway expansions and improvements rather than public transportation, and the reason is simple; wealthy donors don’t use public transit.
Studies have consistently shown that Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce traffic congestion, pollution, and improve downtown metro areas. Mexico City is one of the many places that have improved quality of life thanks to innovative public transit systems, but in America many of these systems meet with arduous resistance, if they even get proposed at all.
The problem, writes Salon’s Alex Pareene, is that American politicians don’t know anyone who uses public transit. While that may be a bit of a stretch (Vice President Joe Biden, as a senator, was known to take the train from Delaware to D.C. every day), the point is that such projects don’t benefit the wealthy donors that fund most political machines. Public transit largely benefits lower and middle-income people, especially in America, and America’s ruling class all fall into the vaunted “1%” of wealthiest Americans. Most of these people have never even stepped foot onto a bus.
Unfortunately, most municipalities are cutting back on public transit expenditures even as usage climbs to all-time highs. Even in places like New York City, where public transit is used by more people than anyplace else in the country, there isn’t enough political support for the taxes and surcharges needed to upgrade the century-old subway system. While New York has made great strides to promote bicycle lanes and bike sharing programs, its mass transit systems are in desperate need of improvement.
While the author laments the failures of places like New York and Minneapolis, other places, like Hartford, CT, and Charlotte, North Carolina are finally moving forward with long-delayed plans. Hartford is building a BRT system along the busy I-84 corridor, while Charlotte is expanding its successful LYNX light rail system. Meanwhile cities like Portland have successfully integrated multiple forms of mass transit resulting in one of the best systems in the country. Then again, Republicans across the nation helped bury President Obama’s plans for a national network of high-speed trains, ending the potential for millions of temporary and permanent jobs.
Public transit in America stands on a precipice, and as far as I’m concerned it could go either way. But as long as people keep moving back to cities, the pressure to build bigger and better transit systems will only grow, and eventually even the densest politicians won’t be able to ignore it.