Cities in the United States are almost universally lacking in adequate transit provision, both in terms of capacity and services provided. These limitations are at least partially to blame for the limited use of public transportation by Americans and inform the primary focus of this website, the expansion of bus and rail networks from coast to coast.
It is from this perspective that I disagreed so adamantly last week with Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, who has argued that transit systems must prioritize ensuring adequate support for existing services while cutting down on major extension plans for rapid transit. Despite the great costs involved, our transportation infrastructure is so weak that we have no choice but to invest in both expanded operations and the construction of new lines — in most cities. The federal government has a responsibility to play a major role on both those fronts.
Yet my previous discussion — and most of what I write here — are unfortunately remiss in their general indifference to the needs of communities too small, too sprawling, too un-urban to ever benefit seriously from the new transit systems I extoll weekly.
I want to make clear as I write this that that neglect is primarily a consequence of the focus of this website on dense inner cities. But I am troubled by the feeling that my writing is giving off the incorrect impression that I either do not recognize the existence of places outside of urban cores or that I simply do not care to think of ways to approach their problems.
On the contrary.
While I have no intention of reframing The Transport Politic entirely towards addressing the transportation dilemmas faced by the inhabitants of suburban and rural communities, I pledge to make more of an effort to incorporate them seriously in my thinking and writing on the issues discussed here. There are, after all, far more people in the United States living outside of center cities than in them.
This means a greater recognition of the fact that transit cannot provide universal mobility any time soon, and that automobiles will continue to provide an important role in connecting disparate populations. This means a renewed focus on the neighborhood as the essential building block in constructing a more livable city. This means an intense examination of where transit works and where its usefulness falls apart.
As much as I believe I have a responsibility as someone who dissects transportation issues day in and day out to better recognize the varying needs of the broader population, however, I am equally convinced that other members of the mobility field must do the same. The heavily auto-oriented interests of state departments of transportation, AASHTO, and other industry lobbies generally intent on simply magnifying the existing status quo are collectively failing to imagine different and better ways for our society to move about.
Those who call for continued massive investment in automobile lanes simply because that’s how people get about today are refusing to recognize the possibility of an alternative future. Those who do so are ignoring the massive and negative social consequences of the dependence on private vehicles that we just can’t kick.
Their continued obsession with highway expansion may be addressing more directly the mobility needs of suburbanites today than are my repeated calls for better buses and rail, but that roads focus will do nothing to improve the nation’s environmental sustainability or aid in its distribution of the movement of as broad a segment of the population as possible. These overarching goals — applicable to all Americans — cannot be ejected out the tailpipe in favor of some populist sentiment in favor of car infrastructure.
The fact of the matter is that we ought to strive to be a multi-modal society and we should be multi-modal people. We must fulfill our collective transportation needs in the most appropriate ways in each situation, at a pace that avoids unnecessary dogmatism.