In contrast to education or health care, few think of transportation as a basic human right. But the ability to get from one place to another became an essential part of daily life as soon as farming ceased to be the way most people made a living. “We are all in a prison, physically speaking, where the walls are where we can get to in a reasonable amount of time,” the author of Human Transit, Jarrett Walker, said in a speech in December at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. This statement rings true for anyone who has struggled to keep a job without spending an unsustainable amount of free time or money to get there.
The “transportation prison” is trapping more and more people in the United States, unable to keep up with the renewed sprawl of jobs and homes. In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis described the “suffering” associated with a worldwide dependence on cars, “causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy” (No. 153). But despite such warnings, more housing is being built far from urban centers, and after the premature proclamation that the United States had hit “peak driving” in 2007, motorists are now logging more miles than ever. To promote economic growth, reduce global-warming emissions and, in many cases, provide enough hours for sleep, we need not only better roads but better and more equitable public transit. President-elect Donald J. Trump frequently complains about what he calls our “third world” airports, but the bigger embarrassment is that our national capital has a subway system that is falling apart and losing customers only a few decades after it was built.
Expensive rail projects are not always the answer. Taxi supplements like Uber, employer-provided shuttle buses and even bike-sharing programs can pick up the slack for people who cannot afford cars or parking. But these patchwork measures may not be enough in regions that face congestion on a wide scale. They may also worsen the economic divide, with low-income neighborhoods left to depend on decaying public transit lines while innovative services are offered elsewhere in the city. The Metro system in Washington, D.C., is partnering with Uber to provide reduced-fare service from certain subway stops, but it is not clear that privatized services, which have yet to show long-term profitability, can meet the demand from low-wage workers who must travel to distant neighborhoods at odd hours. Several studies have also shown that ride-sharing services can be affected by racial prejudice, with African-American customers having to wait longer for service.
There were some hopeful signs for public transit in November’s election. In Atlanta, located in a region notorious for sprawl, voters easily approved a half-cent sales tax to raise $2.5 billion for improving bus and rail service. The win came after a report by regional and state chambers of commerce saying that a long-term plan to expand the Marta public transit system would keep Atlanta competitive with other metro areas by reducing traffic congestion and increasing the number of jobs accessible by rail. (Passengers in that city have also volunteered to assist new riders and have contributed toward new bus schedules and trash bins at bus stops—a kind of do-it-yourself activism reminiscent of parents donating crayons and notebooks to public schools.)Voters in Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Seattle; Columbus, Ohio; and Charleston County, S.C., also passed tax hikes to improve public transit. And Illinois and New Jersey passed constitutional amendments mandating that revenue from fuel taxes be spent on transportation projects, as opposed to going into each state’s general funds—though this is no guarantee that transit money will be spent equitably or wisely.
But there seem to be few fans of public transit in the Trump administration or among congressional leaders. Last year’s Republican Party platform called public transit a form of “social engineering” and opposed using revenue from gas taxes on anything that does not involve moving cars around. This is short-sighted. Use of federal funding is appropriate when tackling a problem that crosses state borders; employers and businesses across the country depend on accessibility to workers and customers of all income levels. Traffic congestion hurts both the economy and the environment.
We hope that the new administration and Congress work toward transportation solutions without a bias toward roads and fossil fuels. If that does not happen, state governments, perhaps in regional partnerships, may have to assume more responsibility for ensuring that the transportation prison does not inhibit economic growth or opportunity.