The Heritage Foundation, a think-tank full of great minds, supported mostly by the Sam Wall estate (of Wal-Mart fortune, happens to be completely wrong when it comes to transit and smart growth. They push the numbers to support their claim that urban rail is not worth the cost burden and amounts to Socialism.
First, Heritage bases their claims on current transit ridership. Ridership in the United States is much lower than any other developed country in the western World. Heritage assumes ridership will never never increase even if transit options and quality are greatly improved. Heritage fails to look at several key facets to this problem. First of all transit ridership in the United States has not always been as such low levels. Prior to the Interstate highway construction in the 1950s transit ridership in the United States was very high. Nearly all major cities had both commuter rail lines, trolley networks and or streetcars. Historically, transit was the best method of travel, and transit usage was higher than vehicular transportation. This all changed when most cities converted their electric transit operations to mostly diesel buses. As this conversion took place transit ridership plummeted and people as more people chose cars over bus transportation. This movement coincides directly with the decline in urban populations in many cities across the Western United States, especially in Salt Lake City.
Since the great decline in transit ridership and the replacement of rail transit by bus operations, transit usage has declined and attained the stigma of being an unfortunate circumstance reserved as a lower class misfortune. Those who are either disabled or cannot afford to own cars are those who are mostly using the very inefficient bus networks in the United States. Those who wait at bus stops are often poor and considered by those is cars and being in unfortunate position in the Western United States. This stigma persists especially in the lower classes. However, there is a small growing group of middle-class urbanites who live without cars and instead ride bicycles or use transit.
Despite improvements to parking lots, train stations and some bus stops, inner-city transit problems continue with criminal activity that detracts middle and upper classes from usage.
Transit proponents are quick to point out that these problems persists because of continued insufficient funding for transit operations. The Western United States has some of the worst bus stops and transit hubs in the Western World. Requiring users to be exposed to the elements or sit or stand beside busy streets makes the option of transit highly unappealing. Compare our transit hubs to those of Western Europe and its clear the United States pales in comparison. Europe uses their transit hubs as centers for not only transportation but also economic activity. With usage as high as it is even small cities have transit hubs and these places are full of street restaurants, vendors and shops catering to pedestrian traffic.
Once transit networks and operations are sufficiently funded and cities offer more incentives for transit users, transit usage will no doubt increase and users will become more homogenous. The result is if we invest more in transit like Europe and the Eastern United States, we in the Western United sates will find transit much more appealing. As more cities are adopting light-rail and mass transit, more middle and upper class riders and returning to the good sense of transit usage.
Besides the historical component and the recent increases in usage of light rail, the question that Heritage also neglects to examine is that there are many people who own cars who would gladly give them up if transit in the United States were higher quality and more efficient.
P.J O'Rourk's recent column in the Wall Street Journal takes the Heritage research a step further and compares spending money on good transit to leasing everyone $40,000 S.U.V.s. Transit, O'Rourk claims, costs as much as $600.00 per passenger, per month. He comes to this conclusion by tweaking the numbers. Claiming that if someone used transit every day the cost of that person using the train will be $19 every trip. Mr. O'Rourk fails to calculate how costs and ridership of trains go down with more usage not up, because every passenger purchases a ticket.
However, both O'Rourk and the Heritage Foundation also neglect to subtract the money that wouldn't be spent on highway construction and road maintenance as a result of more people using trains and using freeways less often.
Detriments not factored into both O'Roark and Heritage's estimates are the amount of money people would save by not being required to drive cars everywhere, (savings in repairs, gas, taxes, licensing, insurance) In addition to personal savings their is an environmental savings of both air quality and not paving over land that could otherwise be farmed or maintained wild. The small number of middle-class urbanites who don't own are car are outspoken about the huge cost and health advantages they enjoy for not being "owned by their car."
The the final huge impact not equated by naysayer opinions is the death toll due to automobile usage. 40,000 people die every year in auto fatalities in the United States every year and thirty percent of all auto accidents are attributed to poor road conditions.
American culture and the open road have a connection that some believe will never be broken. However, we can love our cars and roads and save them for them both for road trips and more occasional use. The era of cheap gasoline and uncharted frontiers to pave and build-- is over. Unless we rebuild our communities for the people who inhabit them rather than for cars, many symptoms of our dependence on our cars will continue. Obesity, diabetes, heart problems, liver failure, lung disease, asthma and inflated health care costs are all symptoms of our suburban, vehicular dependent nation. Its time to treat the cause rather than the symptoms, its time for more trains, bike paths and more sensible community planning. (click here to go to our next smart growth installment)
book recommendations on cultural problems stemming from poor planning:
recommended sprawl and smart growth links