The real reason American public transportation is such a disaster

Stromberg, Joseph
Date Written:  2015-08-10
Publisher:  Vox
Year Published:  2015
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20499

Stromberg dissects socials attitude regarding public transit in the United States, where infrastructure in most cities was designed with automobile dependency in mind, thereby causing transit to be been viewed and designed, as a form of social welfare rather than a public utility.


When cities took over these companies (and converted their streetcar lines into buses), it was with the notion that they'd maintain these systems as a sort of welfare service -- mostly for people who couldn't afford to drive. Outside of a handful of cities like New York and DC, that mentality has remained in place. Nowadays, many local politicians don't see transit as a vital transportation function -- instead, they think of it as a government aid program to help poor people who lack cars.

On the one hand, this mentality has led cities to heavily subsidize public transit: In most cities, no more than 30 to 40 percent of operating costs are covered by fares, more than the vast majority of cities around the world. But there's a huge downside to viewing public transportation as welfare -- it prevents local agencies from charging high enough fares to provide efficient service, effectively limiting transit to those who are too poor to drive.

"Transit in the US is caught in a vicious cycle," says King. "We push for low fares for social reasons, but that starves the transit agency, which leads to reduced service." In a sense, it's the same dilemma faced by the streetcar companies 70 years ago.

This is one of the root reasons why so many US cities' bus and rail systems -- even the ones that have relatively extensive networks and many stops -- have limited operating hours and frequency. "It's considered okay if the bus comes every half hour if it's a lifeline for people who literally can't afford anything else," Levy says.

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