News & Views » Columns

The tipping point for public transit

comment

I've never been a big one for buses or subways. I've never been able to organize myself around their schedules, at least when it comes to getting to work. So I usually end up taking my car (or, now that I'm in sunny Berkeley, walking, and not worrying about getting anywhere on time). Now that gas is $4 a gallon, I'm avoiding my car altogether.

For years, policymakers have wondered just how high gas prices would have to go before drivers switch to public transportation. The answer has been assumed to be very high because Americans supposedly are in love with their cars. Yet now we know there's a tipping point, and it's not quite as high as policymakers have guessed. It's around $4 a gallon. We know that's the tipping point because suddenly millions of Americans are switching to buses, trains and subways to go to work.

Rather than bemoaning this remarkable turnaround we should be celebrating it. Public transit not only reduces congestion but also reduces the nation's energy needs and cuts carbon emissions that bring on global warming.

Problem is, the nation doesn't have nearly enough public transportation to handle the new demand. Even more absurdly, right now when it's needed the most, public transportation across the land is being cut back. This is because transit costs are soaring by the same skyrocketing fuel prices that are forcing people out of their cars, at the same time transit revenues are shrinking because most transit systems depend largely on sales taxes, now dwindling as consumer purchases decline in this recession. A survey of the nation's public transit agencies released last Friday showed 21 percent of rail operators now cutting back and 19 percent of bus operators.

Even though it's a hundred times more efficient for each of us to stop driving and use trains and buses, there's not enough money in the public kitty for us to do so.

This is nuts. If officials need more money to cover the extra fuel costs of public transit, they can raise ticket prices a bit without reducing demand; most of us would still find public transit cheaper than driving our cars. But officials shouldn't stop there. They should add services and expand whole systems — more buses, more trains, more light rail. If they can't finance this by floating bonds, they should go to Congress and ensure that public transportation is a major part of the next stimulus package.

Public transit has always been the poor stepchild of infrastructure development. America's usual answer to traffic congestion has been to add more lanes on highways, or more highways, or more bridges and tunnels for more cars. America hasn't been really serious about public transit for almost a century. Most of New York City's subway system was built more than a hundred years ago. Los Angeles ripped out its trams long ago. Boston's Big Dig, one of the biggest infrastructure projects in modern American history, was designed entirely for cars. In recent years, only a few farsighted and ambitious cities, like Portland, Ore., have invested in light rail.

But now that gas is $4 a gallon, all this may change. And what better way to get the economy going, and save energy and the environment in years to come, than to create a modern, efficient system of public transportation in America?

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. He is commentator for the American Public Media's Marketplace where this commentary originally aired.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at letters@metrotimes.com.

Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.