Infrastructure Week concludes with this report on why we need to abandon our cars and demand trains and proper transit throughout the country.

Since World War II we’ve been focusing on car transportation as the primary form of transit for most people in the United States. through the 1930s, 30s, and 40s, America’s cities tore out streetcar systems and tracks to make more room for cars. Helpful pedestrian fixtures were torn out to make room for more cars and parking for those cars. In Seattle, a large staircase that allowed people to talk straight to Lake Union was destroyed to make room for roads. When you drive through old neighborhoods in Seattle and elsewhere you can still see leftover streetcar tracks that were never fully removed.

Remember When?

Even western cities like Denver had robust streetcar systems as late as the 1940s. However, in the years right after World War II, important decisions were made by various business people and politicians. Suburbs were one of these decisions and making it easier to buy, own, and operate cars was another. The reasoning made some sense at the time. Cars and new single-family houses meant thousands of valuable jobs. The consumer goods for those homes also meant jobs. The whole affair not only was a giant jobs program but it also meant good profits for the businesses selling those goods and services. Here in the 21st century, with rising gas prices and a focus on the environmental cost of transportation, mass transit has become more popular. Cities like New York, Seattle, Denver, and Atlanta are seeing higher ridership rates as people are looking for other options to get besides owning a car. However, unless you live in a major city and only live in certain parts of town, that can be a struggle.

Can We Get American’s Out of Their Cars?

Cars are incredibly convenient but rather inefficient. One of the best things about cars is that they are always there, always ready and you can simply step into your car and just go. There’s no waiting for a train or a bus and you can usually go directly to your destination without having to get off at a stop and either walk or use some other form of transportation to get to your final destination. Cars don’t have any of those pain points. With modern apps, drivers can even avoid traffic. As for inefficiency, cars are only used about 14 hours per week. Then you add in the costs from air pollution and chemical contamination and the car seems like less of a good idea and more of a public nuisance.

In America, we associate the car with a variety of things that make Americans happy. There is the aspect of independence. One of the fewer “coming of age” rituals we have in the United States are young people getting their driver’s license for the first time. And one of the struggles we have with aging parents is getting them to give up theirs. The car represented freedom, liberty, and all those American traditions and values that we hold dear.

How do we get Americans to leave their cars behind and embrace mass transit?

American’s Love Transit but Do Not Want to Pay For It

When compared to our international allies and rivals, our entire infrastructure is way behind. This is especially poignant in our airports. China, India, Turkey, and even the Germans are building modern airports with modern amenities, new fixtures, and transit connections. American airports, on the other hand, feel more like airports of the 3rd world. Many don’t have easy transit connections, others have banned ride-sharing services, and many of them are old, too small for modern traffic, and simply are no longer world class as they once were.

When it comes to mass transit of other sorts, the aging infrastructure problem continues to pester these systems. In New York City, the MTA has had to shut down major lines due to the piece-meal maintenance that has held the fragile system together for decades. The massive build-out of transit that occurred decades ago is falling apart and if America is going to keep up with the rest of the world, it needs a major repair. Where’s the problem? Money.

Americans are finally beginning to embrace mass transit. 15 years ago in Denver, the state of Colorado passed the FASTRACKS funding program to create light rail service throughout the city. Denver has grown to be a “3rd coast” with continuous city stretching from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. The population has boomed and ridership rates have been high on both rail and bus service. However, the building out has had its problems. The Gold Line remains closed due to crossing signal problems and the new commuting rail to the airport has failed on a variety of occasions. In Seattle, new light rail lines are stretching around the city after Washington passed Sound Transit 3 which raised taxes to extend light rail farther around the growing city. Elsewhere in the country, transit has been expanded, buses have been added, and existing systems have worked on extension plans to do what should have been done 40 years ago: provide easy transit from the suburbs to the city center. However, these projects cost billions of dollars and invariably, the one thing voters complain about is the expense in taxes. Transit is something many see as a public good. It makes it easier to get around and reduces the need for a car. Especially for younger people who simply can’t afford cars, having another transit option is ideal.

However, every time a vote comes up for mass transit, many people complain about the cost and increase in taxes. Many people vote against it because they simply don’t want to pay for something that they won’t use regularly or doesn’t serve them. Getting buy-in from more people will mean making transit serve as many people as possible. That can be made easier if we change how we live.

Leaving the Suburbs

If America really wants to reduce its carbon footprint and change how we use energy then we’re going to need to densify and that means we quit subsidizing the suburbs and bring people towards the cities where transit makes sense. One of the biggest problems we have with mass transit is the sheer distances that must be covered by transit. The US is a large country. Whether you think about traversing it by ground or by air, there are long distances that must be covered in order to get people from place to place. This is also what plagues cities. Thanks to the suburbs, cities spread out over vast stretches of land which makes operating busses and trains costly.

If there is one area where we can make transit more efficient and less costly for the average person, it’s in how we live. Rather than spreading out in land around cities and building ever-more roads for ever-more cars, we need to build with the land we already have and create the conditions where people and live, work, and move around in small areas. The suburbs may have made sense in a world of the car, but they don’t make sense now.

By infilling cities and making things denser, we can have people live in slightly less space meaning that transit will have to cover less distance. Costs go down and service can increase. There will be fewer cars and those cars that are still on the road will emit less smog. Electric and hydrogen-powered cars will be more viable as there will be less distance to travel. Local business can thrive too. A denser America would ultimately be a better America.

However, the transit problem isn’t just reduced to buses and trains in cities getting people to work and shopping. Mass transit policy also needs to focus on the bigger picture.

America and Long-Distance Trains

Long-distance train travel is one of the best ways to move many people per pound of fuel, however, the speed of the airplane killed off long-distance train travel. By the 1970s, passenger train service was no longer practical and long-distance trains were nationalized into what we now called AMTRAK. Since then, train travel has continually gotten worse. The cars are old, the trains never run on time and the routes are fairly limited. Taking a train from coast to coast will take days as compared to the 5 hours by air. For all it’s lack of speed and age, it’s not even cheap. A coast to coast ticket on Amtrak will set you back almost $1,000. Average airfare for a coach ticket will set you back far less.

It seems odd considering Europe and Asia both sport fast and efficient bullet trains that whisk passengers around quickly and inexpensively. Europe is similarly sized to the United States and has highspeed rail. China is a massive country with 2 times the people of the US. Why can’t the United States master long-distance, high speed train travel?

The first problem has to do with the physical tracks. Unlike Europe, most freight in the United States travels by rail. The rails are owned by the rail freight companies meaning they get priority. Although Congress recently passed a law giving passenger trains way, it has not spurred train travel. In the limited area where high-speed rail has been developed, the Acela corridor between Boston and Washington D.C. the train speeds lag behind Europe, Japan and China.

What Would High-Speed Rail Look Like?

Per pound of fuel, trains are far more efficient than cars and more efficient than planes. Planes often carry only hundreds of passengers and the amount of fuel airplanes take to move people is not only bad for the planet but inefficient as well. For most regional travel, where even large airlines have trouble making money, rail is cheaper and more efficient.

America: Mass Transit Nation

The American emphasis on cars has hurt our country. At one time, it made sense; car companies wanted to sell cars. Building houses apart from the cramped cities made a certain amount of sense. Getting people out into the country and giving them a chance to own some land and their own house created tons of jobs. However, the population has grown and the needs of the country have changed. Now, we need to get around easily and cheaply. The American Dream has to change to accomodate our modern reality and a big part of that reality must include cheap, efficient, mass transit.