As the world modernizes, cities across North America find themselves under increased pressure to start boosting their public transit systems to meet the standards set by world-class cities around the globe.
But old habits are hard to break.
It’s been said many times before that America was built for the car and its infrastructure is set up accordingly, so many see the idea of hitting the reset button on the entire continent’s transportation grid as more trouble than it’s worth.
While there’s so much compelling evidence that public transit ought to be bettered for the future, what is the civilian commuter supposed to do in the meantime?
The Great Stigma
Many are hesitant to take public transportation specifically because of the bad rap it gets.
In a world that’s still very class-conscious, many see taking public transit as an anti-status symbol of those who can’t afford a car. Many believe taking the bus or the subway is beneath them, while others are simply afraid of the characters they might run into.
It’s not untrue you’ll run into some people who are reliant on the public system. But is that really such a horrible thing?
The thing about taking public transit is it’s, by definition, a public space; anything bad that a stranger could do to you could also happen in a city park or on the sidewalk on your street.
Furthermore, of all those people on transit, the vast majority of them do not approve of criminal activity. There’s safety in numbers.
The Safe Bet
There will still be those who cannot be consoled by the fact, of the thousands and millions of people who use public transportation in America every day, most of them do so without a hitch; those naysayers would insist any risk is too much of a risk.
This is about where fans of transit would mention driving puts you in a different peril altogether, and they would be right.
Driving has long been the most dangerous method of transportation for bodily injury. At this point, one might argue it’s much less likely you’ll be mugged in your car (though not impossible) and still possible for a public transport vehicle to have an accident.
Suffice it to say, it boils down to picking your poison.
Clean and Pristine
Public transportation is also better for the environment by the sheer matter of getting more cars off the road and therefore producing less pollution. This is why many see switching to public options as, not just a convenience measure, but also a moral imperative.
Furthermore, studies have concluded driving involves so much loneliness, sedentariness and stress that it’s actually worse for mental and physical health than taking a bus or a train.
But some would say there’s an even more tangible benefit to public transit.
The Matter of Money
Proponents of taking buses, trains and subways would probably say their strongest argument is how, for the commuter, transit is the cheaper option. You pay your fare once and go where you need to go, end of story.
Whereas with car ownership, you’re paying for gas, insurance, and maintenance, plus a new car altogether at least once a decade.
But much like it’s flawed to think driving is cheaper just because you don’t pay each time you get into your car, it’s oversimplifying the dilemma by saying there are no hidden costs of taking public transit.
For starters, there’s a financial cost to boosting public transportation: increased taxes to pay for upgrades and expansion.
While it’s true private driving is already subsidized with taxes paying for road maintenance, those roads aren’t going away if we all start taking the subway (and especially not if we start taking the bus).
Therefore, we would be all paying taxes on various methods of transportation when few of us are using all of them. And American culture hates taxes almost as much as it loves driving.
But there’s another cost to taking modern American public transit, and it’s one that’s much harder to argue isn’t a deal-breaker. If you thought this article was just a love letter to riding the commuter rail, this is where the picture starts getting hazier.
Time and Time Again
Taking public transportation typically takes much, much longer than driving to get to your destination; this is indisputable and it’s indisputably a bad thing.
Not only do you have to wait for the bus/train/subway to arrive to ferry you to your destination, but you’re also traveling on their timetables, not your own.
Then you have to hoof it the rest of the way when they only stop several blocks away from where you need to be.
Furthermore, they’re constantly stopping and letting people on and off, but then they’re getting held up during rush hour when the frustrated operator tries to explain to boarding passengers that the vehicle is clearly overcrowded and the commuters need to act like adults and wait for the next one.
Then, every time they leave the station, the buses get stuck in traffic and the trains get delayed by signaling conflicts.
Plus, many cities have no faith in their public transit and their system is slow and limited, which makes it worse when there’s rarely a straight line from where you are to where you need to go, assuming it goes there at all.
It’s all these problems together creating an issue bigger than the sum of its parts.
People don’t want to take public transportation because it’s inefficient, and in its current state, it’s hard to argue with that. Making back wasted money isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it is possible. None of us can regain wasted time.
Cities are hesitant to expand and improve their public transit for fear no new people would use it; commuters are hesitant to use public transit for fear it will never get better.
That’s how we find ourselves in this stalemate.
None of this even mentions that North American public transit rarely even extends past a city’s inner-ring suburbs. So, if you’ve always lived in a rural area, there’s a chance you’ve never even been on a city bus in your life. Whereas in many European countries, they have bus lines running all throughout the countryside.
But the United States is so expansive. Such a system could probably never work over here, making some wonder whether we could even copy the European metropolitan model at all; our country might just not be compatible.
What’s to Be Done?
Public transportation would be the clear winner if all American systems were up to world-class standards. That’s why many people who live in some on-the-ball big cities can already live comfortably without a car, using transit instead. But most Americans don’t have that option.
The best we can do is let our cities and states know that if there were better public systems, we would use them in a heartbeat.
In the meantime, the ideal situation would be to have access to both a car and public transit and decide which to use on a case-by-case basis. Yet that’s still not an option for everybody.
In the end, all we can do is try to make better what we can and make the best of our current situation.
If you have no choice but to take public transportation, at least you know you’re taking the responsible option, and if you have no choice but to drive, at least you know you have the option of stopping at Burger World to use the facilities if you need to.