McGough ’23: to get the public transport rolling, get rid of the cars


Only a few American cities have a notable metro system. Any foreigner who has taken the train to Chicago, Boston or Washington, DC will attest that the experience is charming, reminiscent of both a rustic past before cars and an urban future that is soon achievable. Many leave wondering when their hometown will be able to enjoy the simple pleasures of public transportation.

From tackling climate change to reducing barriers for low-income people, the benefits of having modernized, convenient and comprehensive transit systems are well known. Despite the United States’ long-standing automobile culture, 77% of Americans agree the country would benefit from expanded transit systems. Even when voters learn their taxes could go up, 57% still agree it’s time to expand transit options.

Considering the well-understood benefits and widespread support for public transportation, why haven’t we as a country succeed in bringing quality and efficient public transportation to every American city? Dysfunctional legislatures, austerity politics and corporate lobbying can be complicit, but the real culprits are even more common in the United States: cars. To make public transit work, we need to get drivers off the roads.

Once upon a time, any American city worth its salt had a streetcar mass transit system, operating on public rights-of-way (public property designated for transportation) and crisscrossing neighborhoods at street level. Without cars, these urban rail systems were the main force that shaped lifestyles in the metropolis. Only the busiest cities, where the streets were obstructed by pedestrians and cars, developed true subway systems at different levels, that is, subways and raised rails. In the years to come, only these systems would survive.

When first introduced in the late 1800s, cars were new to the super rich, replacing horse-drawn carriages, but by no means revolutionizing city transport. It wasn’t until 1908 that the Ford Model T was introduced at a price low enough to attract middle-income commuters. Almost instantly, the first American streetcar transit systems began to deteriorate. Gradually, driving became more popular, sucking up potential streetcar drivers and demanding more and more space to tackle the increasingly painful traffic.

The construction of the Interstate Highway System was the last nail in the coffin of early American mass transit. With the completion of the system, the car became so indispensable that we had to rebuild our communities to accommodate them: suburbs sprouted highways and parking lots sprouted up along highways. Cars quickly became a daily staple, needed for most basic tasks. Streetcar tracks were torn up or paved, and it seemed the United States had turned its back on public transportation in favor of the seemingly utopian family roadster. During this time, drivers have become key political actors, advancing their interests at local and state level.

Half a century later, cities are still paying the price for the loss of streetcars. Frankly speaking, we have killed American public transport in favor of polluting responsibilities on wheels, but the bleeding did not stop there. Politicians have also gladly ceded control of the streets to a new, uncompromising group: the drivers. Today, as cities scramble for space and money to expand transit options, inflexible motorists with decades of automotive culture behind them routinely hamper these efforts. They often force cities to abandon, or at the very least radically alter, common sense transit solutions to maintain car dominance.

Transportation is a zero-sum game: each trip can only be done once. Therefore, developing a functional transportation system is not only about encouraging public transportation, but also about discouraging driving. When we focus our efforts exclusively on building public transport that avoids disturbing drivers, we are not actually redirecting trips to public transport, we are simply putting a band-aid on a faulty system. A better future for public transit is possible, and the first step is to make driving more difficult. Once driving is difficult enough, people will ask for new options and migrate to mass transit.

To develop public transport, cities have recently attempted to neutralize the political threat of motors by building around them. Rather than putting transit back on the streets as it used to be, planners have chosen to avoid removing car lanes, instead buying expensive rights-of-way elsewhere, often far from where people actually live. . When transport authorities thrive in established corridors, they are often forced to build bridges or tunnels under streets at great expense, budgeting for a few expensive projects rather than many cheap ones. Insist on expensive new corridors or drop limit options and ultimately miss the point: Public transit thrives when driving is miserable, so planners should spend little energy protecting drivers.

This dynamic is visible in the United States today if you know where to look. Cities with notoriously gruesome car journeys, like Washington DC and New York City, have the most developed transit systems in the country. That said, most American cities don’t benefit from the natural density that makes driving a chore and a drop in elevation possible. To support good public transport systems, cities must actively work to make conditions worse for drivers to push them towards public transport. American transit will not be successful until driving is the easy default solution.

Getting started will not be difficult. After decades of automotive dominance, most aspects of our lives depend on car travel, so there are many small steps we can take to make driving more difficult. Small things, like banning new gas stations and gas stations near transit corridors, as well as repealing ordinances that impose minimum parking allocations for new developments, are first steps. smart. Nationwide urban-minded cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco have already taken these small steps and demonstrated their effectiveness.

Another trick would be to make driving more expensive through taxation, and then funnel the revenues into expanding public transit. It may seem punitive to tax cars and gasoline to fund public transit, but the current transportation system is already heavily biased in favor of driving. We spend almost $ 200 billion on the roads each year just to make driving possible. On top of that, cars cost us billions of climate and health impacts every year. Raising taxes on gasoline and vehicles would actually balance those costs and push people towards healthier and more sustainable transit systems. Taxing new vehicles, imposing tolls, charging for street parking and increasing the gas tax are all options in this vein.

Another strategy, the removal of highways, has already had exceptional national success. Amid the highway frenzy of previous decades, miles of unnecessary and later underused urban freeways were built, carving up large communities for the convenience of relatively few commuters. Cities like Milwaukee and Rochester have already realized their mistakes and have chosen to dig freeways. Many others, seeing their successes, are preparing to follow suit.

Cities should also take steps to make their streets suitable for public transport and pedestrians. Instead of trying to avoid removing parking or traffic lanes, transit planners should prioritize reducing vehicle capacity when planning projects and, in turn, focusing on reducing vehicle capacity. ensure that their projects are successful. Planners should narrow streets to more than two lanes in both directions and add sidewalks and bike lanes.

It is time for political leaders to start building the transport system we need, not planning around the broken system we have. Americans generally agree that it is time to move towards a system that expands public transportation, which requires not only building new infrastructure, but deconstructing car-centric infrastructure as well. Once leaders accept the zero-sum reality of transportation, we will begin the transition to the transit systems we deserve.

Jackson McGough ’23 can be contacted at [email protected] Please send responses to this notice to [email protected] and other op-eds to [email protected]

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