Since 1956, the United States has spent 2.5 trillion dollars on mass public transportation, including buses, subways, trains and others. Although this seems to be a large amount of money, it pales in comparison to the amount of money spent on highways and road infrastructures: 10 trillion dollars.
This is only one reason why the state of public transportation is so bad in the United States. Outside a handful of major cities, getting a bus, train or subway ride can be a nightmare, with many riders facing delays, cancellations and crumbling infrastructure. In the car-dominated culture of the country, this may not seem like a large issue, but it is one of the reasons that the United States falls behind its global peers in its overall quality of life.
Improved public transportation has been linked to an overall increase in quality of life. Public transportation links communities together, helping mitigate inequalities and promote social cohesion. It also leads to more job opportunities, less greenhouse gas emissions and less traffic. So why doesn’t the United States put more money and incentive behind building better public transportation systems?
One of the major reasons for this phenomenon is the rise of the automobile industry. Automobile manufacturers receive millions of dollars a year in subsidies, and on top of that, fossil fuels are heavily subsidized. This means that in the United States, it is cheaper and easier to manufacture, sell and buy cars than in other countries. This, combined with the distinct American value of individualism, means that the automobile industry thrives in the United States. If people have cars, there is absolutely no reason to take public transportation. This issue is further exacerbated by the increase in funding for highways and road infrastructures. These two different issues have coexisted to crush possibilities for improved public transportation.
The size of the country is another major explanation that is often cited as the reason that the United States lacks stable public transportation. The United States is the third most populous country in the world and the fourth largest by land mass. This makes it a bit more difficult for integrated, cohesive systems of transportation to exist, such as those seen in Europe and Asia. Europe and Asia, however, have different types of populations that have helped them to become better suited to public transportation. Humans have lived in urban settlements in Europe for centuries longer than in America; thus, the cities and pre-existing infrastructure were already well-suited for public transportation and walking. This has made it easier for modern public transportation to be built over the old infrastructure. As for Asia, much more money has been invested into public transportation, leading to better transportation, and increased usage of it feeds back and further allows the system to thrive.
Although the United States’ close relationship with the automobile industry has previously prevented a strong public transit system, there is no reason that it should not be able to fix this issue with more government spending in the public arena and less government spending geared towards the automobile industry. While it is true that the United States’ large land mass and lack of federal control in many arenas of public transportation makes it difficult to build a cohesive system, reform in government can help to slowly build towards more integrated systems of travel. There are also other examples of nations with a somewhat more similar geographic makeup to the United States that have thriving public transit systems. Canada, for example, while smaller than the United States, is a similarly large country with a very safe and efficient public transportation infrastructure.
Although corporate greed and government oversight have long served the interests of the automobile industry, there are many reasons to prefer and fund public transportation incentives. First are the economic benefits. On the personal scale, owning a car and paying for gasoline is much more expensive than taking public transportation. According to the American Public Transportation Association, a household can save nearly $10,000 a year by taking public transportation and living with one less car. According to the American Public Transportation Association, every dollar invested in public transportation generates five dollars in economic returns. On a larger scale, every $1 billion generates approximately 50,000 jobs. In our current state, where we are seeing record highs of unemployment rates, what would be a better way to generate new ones than to invest in public transportation?
There are also environmental and health benefits that come with increased spending in the public transportation arena. First, public transportation reduces carbon emissions. According to the American Public Transportation Association, communities that invest in public transit reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 63 million metric tons annually, and overall save the United States 6 billion gallons of gasoline every year. Although this may not seem to be in the best interests of corrupt politicians who subsidize the gasoline industry now, this is a better outcome for everyone involved, as it keeps the air cleaner and halts the progression of climate change. Finally, public transportation is a lot less risky than automobile transportation. The chances of an accident reduce by more than 90 percent when one takes public transit instead of traveling in a personal automobile.
Although all of these benefits to public transportation seem amazing, the hard truth is that there is still a great lack of accessibility in the public transit arena. 45 percent of all Americans lack access to public transportation. Although this seems like an insurmountable challenge, it can be overcome with better funding and urban planning. Public transportation generates wealth, bridges the gap between communities and is vastly better for the environment. It is an endeavor that must be supported by the United States government immediately.