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Mass Problems When We Don't Embrace Mass Transit

Green: Money and Sustainability Working Together Part 5 of 10: Public Transportation

tl;dr: Americans love driving their cars by themselves. This must end.

We've addressed a fair amount of issues in this series, many around the topic of carbon emissions. When it comes to US GHG emissions, the largest source is transportation. If that weren't bad enough, 46,000 people die on US roads every year. Almost 5 million injuries occur that are severe enough to require medical attention, and they cost over $473 billion per year. The average American drives twice as much as the French, Germans, and Brits. In fact, only 8.9% of all US households have no vehicle, 33.5% have one vehicle, and 33.1% have two. My wife and I are not uncommon with three vehicles, as 14.9% of all US households are in this category. As of 2020, there were 275,924,442 registered vehicles in the US. By the way, only 3.6% of those vehicles were electric. California accounts for over 40% of all those EVs, so the rest of the country is well behind the Golden State. To put it bluntly, whether the vehicles are electric or not, we have too many cars in this country and this situation is causing considerable harm.

The price for all of these vehicles is actually staggeringly high. Personal transportation is the second highest expense category for Americans. Per household, vehicular expenses are $10,961 per year. We spend almost a third more on personal transportation than we do on food, the thing that we literally can't survive without. We have always had a love affair with cars, and for the latter part of the 20th century, cars were not only viewed as a necessity but also an aspirational item to determine one's success in life. No other vehicle has had as much influence on our identity, and our culture abounds with examples of popular cars like the General Lee, KITT, the Batmobile, and Magnum PI's Ferrari Testarossa.

Every single city with a population of over 100,000 has some sort of public transportation option. Yet, with a few exceptions, Americans overwhelmingly choose to reject this option as a way to get around. Cities that have seen an increase in transit commuters in the past 50 years are Washington DC, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Boston. I can tell you from first-hand experience from the time I spent in LA on a campaign last year, the LA train system is grossly underutilized. It is easier to get a seat on a LA train than it is to spot a homeless person in LA, but that's a topic for another blog post. Cities that have seen a decline in mass transit riders are Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans. What is the reason for this? Well, it's because these cities redistributed both jobs and residents to the suburban fringes, which makes using public transportation much more difficult and time-consuming. Because of this, people that were willing riders of trains and buses now have to use their cars.

The American insistence on using their own personal vehicle has profound financial implications. Over the past 65 years, we have spent almost $10 trillion on highways and roads, and only $2.5 trillion on public transportation. How did we get to this point? Well, the answer is somewhat complicated. Not too long ago, downtowns represented the most concentrated area for jobs, so city planners could establish sensible routes that could bring an onslaught of people to the area at specific times of the day. Many cities have now seen a mass departure of jobs from downtown areas. In fact, downtowns in many cities are virtual ghost towns during business hours. Many companies now have campuses of their own situated just outside city borders that afford amenities like more space, trees, and lots of parking for cars. As commerce gets distributed throughout all areas of a municipal boundary, establishing public transport routes gets increasingly more difficult.

Above is a 2021 chart provided by the Office of Budget and Policy from the Federal Transit Administration of the US Department of Transportation. It displays how much local governments spend on various public transportation options. Buses overwhelmingly account for the vast majority of the expenditures and that makes sense because buses are the cheapest to operate and represent little capital investment compared to light, commuter, and heavy rail. However, the solution that is best for small to midsized cities is Demand Response, which ranks #4. You may have seen the acronym DART on various city vehicles, and DART stands for Demand A Ride Transportation (unless you live in Dallas, in which case DART definitely stands for Dallas Area Rapid Transit). DART and Demand Response are essentially the same things, which is a system that has no established route or timetable for rides. Essentially, public vehicles go to where people need rides, pick them up and drop them off where they need to go. We measure how effective a transit system is by ridership per hour. Sadly, many small city bus routes have ridership per hour in the single digits. Because Demand Response systems come to the rider, we see an increase in usage because it's easier for more people to use it. Opponents can quickly point to scores of empty buses travelling inefficient routes and claim that this is a titanic waste of taxpayers' money. That criticism quickly stops when we see an exponential increase in usage. If we really want to learn how to effectively use Demand Response systems, Canadian cities have been doing some truly remarkable things with algorithms that anticipate where people will want to be picked up and dropped off down to a minute-by-minute projection.

The benefit of Demand Response is that the cost and risk of establishing such systems are commonly spread across multiple stakeholders ranging from universities, non-profits, contractors, and semi-public corporations. This results in a much more financially sustainable situation because ridership can be optimized, operation and maintenance costs get spread across multiple sources, and municipal streets and roads get less use.

According to the American Public Transporation Association, every $1 invested in public transportation generates $5 in economic returns. Every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation creates $30 million in increased business sales. Also, they state that public transportation is ten times safer per mile than travelling by automobile. The financial benefit of converting from automotive-reliant systems to public transit ones are hard to calculate, but when we consider the savings from fewer accidents, less stress on roads and ageing bridges, improved air quality as a result of fewer vehicles on the road, the health benefits of people walking small distances to pickup locations, the reasons for investing in Demand Response systems become pretty compelling. Despite all of this, Americans don't use public transportation because we prioritized cars for far too long. We may love our cars, but we need to love the convenience that systems like Demand Response offer more. Combine that with one less car payment or none at all, and more time to do things that you can't (or aren't supposed to do) while driving like read a book, watch a movie, call your mom (hint hint), and suddenly public transportation looks absolutely lovely. Most towns and cities aren't embracing public transit and it is up to you, the residents, to tell government officials that you love saving money.

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