Why Public Transportation Is So Limited in the United States

(Photo: Steven Baker)(Photo: Steve Baker)

On a recent trip to Baltimore, I encountered something startling: a US city with a public transportation system that actually works. From buses to water taxis, Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator (or CCC) was established in 2010 by former mayor Sheila Dixon. The program boasts a fleet of around 30 vehicles that shuttle more than 3,000 daily riders along four color-coded routes meeting over 100 city stops. The service has a smartphone app, it consists entirely of hybrid vehicles, and the fare is nonexistent.

That’s right: the buses are 100 percent free.

I thought, Surely there has to be a catch. Then I stepped back and asked myself: Why? All across the world, there are close to100 cities that offer free public transportation, and about one fifth of them are in the US.

So what do these cities know that the rest of the country doesn’t? Is the public transportation system in the US really as bad as everyone says? And if so, why?

Public Transportation: The US vs. the Rest of the World

In the interest of a fair comparison, let’s see how the US stacks up against another country that’s both a first-world superpower and of comparable geographic size: Russia.

Russia has one of the world’s largest train systems: over 50,000 miles of rail, about half of which are electric-rail passenger trains that account for the majority of train traffic. In 2007, the state-owned Russian Railways Corporation saw a total ridership of about 1.3 billion passengers.

Yes, billion. With a B. That’s almost seven times the total population of Russia. On top of that, the country has 24 subway (or “metro”) lines in just about every major city (and connected between them) that serve hordes of commuters. In Moscow alone, the metro moves over 7 million riders a day. Furthermore, the trains run reliably: over 50 percent of Russians report using publictransportation “every day or most days” and even stray dogs have mastered its clockwork schedule.

All of this is overseen by the Russian Ministry of Transportation, whose Transport Strategy of the Russian Federation has locked in place an airtight and comprehensive plan for the overall maintenance and growth of the country’s transportationinfrastructure until 2030.

Now, back to the US.

The US has almost three times the rail infrastructure of Russia – over 140,000 miles of track – carrying trains that move freight, exclusively. Most of our passenger-rail systems are old, slow, and regional – and the less said of Amtrak the better. We have a total of 15 city subway systems, none of which are connected to one another, and only one of which even approaches Moscow’s 7-million-a-day-number: New York, which sees a ridership of about 9 million over the course of an entire week.

The results speak for themselves: Only 5 percent of Americans report using public transportation “every day or most days,” and a whopping 61 percent report “never” using it. And where the Russian transport authority has a decades-long master plan, the US Department of Transportation has the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, an almost comically pathetic piece of legislation that struggles to locate a few billion dollars just to do basic maintenance and repairs on highways that need it the most (let alone building trains) by monkeying with federal employee pensions and reclassifying businesses with roll-your-own-cigarette machines as tobacco manufacturers, so they can be taxed at a higher rate.

Yeah – not good.

We better ring the bell and call the fight now. When it comes to public transportation, it’s safe to say that the US loses. To everyone.

The Source of the Problem

The problems facing the US public transportation system are complex and multifarious.

First and foremost is the issue of suburban sprawl: when everyone wants their own house with a white-picket fence, it forces usto build those houses further apart. As a result, population density drops, and the distance between any two locations increases. This means that mass-transit systems have to go further and further out of their way to accommodate suburban commuters. Toss in the magic spice of market competitiveness, and you have a recipe for transit companies that see no profit in suburban markets, and so ignore them altogether. The result is straightforward and predictable: Suburban commuters drive cars.

Beyond suburban sprawl, though, there’s another factor complicating public transportation: we don’t have the infrastructure for it – at least, not anymore. Once upon a time, cities ran by streetcar; you can still find their now-dormant tracks in most cities. But starting in the 1950’s and 60’s, propelled by the auto industry and the federal government, cities hungry for grant money began accepting proposals to tear up urban neighborhoods and build freeways. As a result, businesses, which once sprawled across all of “downtown,” began to cluster together, pack their bags, and move to literal greener pastures: suburbs outside the city. Suburban sprawl increased. At the same time, urban tax revenues fell. Cities grew poorer as the middle-class went tosuburbia, leaving only poverty behind.

And everyone began to commute by car.

This led to the final nail in the coffin for US public transport: the cyclical logic of the invisible hand. Public transportation in the US was reduced to a feeble network of buses and subways; as a result, by and large, only the poorest and most desperate (e.g. those who can’t afford cars) actually use them. This has led to an ingrained perception by those who hold the power to change things: public transportation is only used by poor people, so why should we invest in it? Surely that will just enable more poverty. That’s a strange and misguided sentiment that’s only reinforced when politicians like State Representative Daryl Metcalf and Rick Saccone utter statements that dismiss public transport systems like Pennsylvania’s SEPTA network as “welfare” and “a [financial] black hole.”

By contrast, in countries like Russia and Japan, public transport has shown itself to be an economic boon: not only a major force for growth, but the preferred method of transport for the majority of the population, including the wealthy.

One possible remedy to the public stigma against public transportation is the long-awaited fleet of autonomous vehicles – whether they’re brought to us by Google, Tesla, Uber, or someone else entirely.

At any rate, all of these factors help to explain why even the Charm City Circulator – a service that has proven a meteoric success, has been widely hailed as a shining example, and has been called “a lifeline” by Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake – is over 11 million dollars in debt, and facing uncertainty.

For the CCC, and US public transportation as a whole, the present picture is more than a little grim. Here’s hoping our priorities change sometime soon.