I’m sure that at some point during your MSJ commute, either to or from campus, you’ve seen the buses around Irvington. It’s not an uncommon sight either, which makes it all the more shocking to learn that only 5% of Americans use public transportation as their primary mode of travel. A significant reason for that is how inefficient and neglected they are.
On paper, public transportation should be much more mainstream. Cars generally take up 17% of annual household expenses, giving public transport an edge in terms of cost, and with fewer people driving themselves, carbon emission levels would generally go down. Public transportation generally seems like a better alternative to cars. Still, most of these modes of transit have become forgotten due to the rising car-centric nature of the United States, and as a result, the quality of their services have stagnated.
Even in my own experience, American public transport, with the exception of subways, feels inefficient and inadequate. Not only are most trains too expensive for what they give you, but buses always seem behind and almost always have some arbitrary rule or schedule that makes them inconvenient. But why is this? What led to the downfall of a system that is so prevalent in other countries?
After World War II, veterans were sent home with a sizeable sum of money through the GI Bill. The significance of this cannot be ignored, as that money allowed most Americans to buy houses, which led to the creation of the suburbs, residential areas often outlying cities.
More often than not, people from the suburbs would work in the cities, meaning they would need a means of getting there and back. While cars did exist before World War II, the need for them then wasn’t as great as it became after the creation of suburbs. With the GI Bill allowing most Americans to afford cars, the explosion in car ownership was inevitable. As time passed, families would start the tradition of each new generation owning a vehicle, ingraining automobiles into American culture and society.
In fact, cities themselves were shaped by cars and highways, literally and figuratively. Streetcars are a perfect example, as the cabs and rails used to be around every corner of nearly every city. However, as the influence of cars began to spread into cities, the rails were paved over, and most cabs that once rode them were bought out and scrapped. While a few are still in operation today, they aren’t nearly as widespread as they were over 70 years ago.
In terms of the actual shape of cities, they were usually grids, making it easy to get around on foot or by the now defunct streetcars. While the grid shape is still somewhat visible in today’s cities, the curved lines of highways carve into the once-uniform streets of the cities, disturbing the efficient system that public transport once had.
This efficiency, which can be seen in the public transport systems of other countries, is notably absent in the United States. More specifically, most American buses and subways only succeed at moving outlying communities into city centers and fail to connect the communities themselves to each other.
In 2022, America has been shaped by cars, leaving most modes of public transport to fall by the wayside, not only because of the increase in car ownership but also due to America’s geography. High-speed rails flourish in places like China and Japan, often reaching speeds up to 200 miles per hour due to their area’s relatively flat geography. In contrast, in the United States, rougher geography leads to more difficulty, time, and cost during construction.
Cost is a significant reason that trains specifically have been neglected, and it’s not hard to see why. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which supported the construction of the Interstate highway system, granted a whopping $175 million to their construction. Accounting for current-day inflation, it totals just under $2 billion, a gargantuan sum of money that our government isn’t exactly keen on spending nowadays.
A recent example of this can be seen in California, through their “train to nowhere,” that cost over $5 billion. Beginning in 2008, the high-speed rail project aimed to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles and eventually connect the entire west coast. However, after 14 years of work, the project is still in indefinite limbo due to its lack of support from the government.
The car-centric nature of the United States, developed over decades of change, has seemingly left public transport in the dust, and despite volatile gas prices, it doesn’t seem like that fact will change any time soon. It’s a shame to see that a system with such potential has been neglected, especially since – if a few slight changes in American history were made – things could have turned out very differently.