Thursday, December 14, 2017

Step Back and Think About Transportation

Free public schools and free public libraries were two of the greatest things ever done in America. Arguably, they are what made the aspirational idea of “America” as a democracy possible.

By the early 20th century, though, when transit systems were being built in our major cities, no one seems to have realized they also should have been free to their users.

And so streetcars, subways, and buses cost money to their users, and as horses went out of favor (for good reasons) and the personal car came into production, there were good economic reasons for people to buy one instead of using transit. That this also benefited the companies that made cars, and that over the years grew into giant, powerful corporations, is not a coincidence.

The increasing importance of personal vehicles led to three (probably unforeseen) but ominous outcomes:

  • Huge numbers of people killed and injured every year, unnecessarily (40,000 deaths a year, currently, about 1,600 of them children)
  • Immediate pollution, with its health effects, and long-term greenhouse gas emissions, leading to climate change (and everything that will mean for human civilization)
  • The deforming of cities from human scale to places unusable by people without a personal two-ton metal box on wheels to get us from parking place to parking place.
This recent post on Strong Towns, called What have we sacrificed for transportation independence?, hit me kind of hard. One choice quote from it:
We are quick as a society to call out the poor man walking down the street who has a cell phone, or the woman who buys potato chips with food stamps… yet every day we climb into our cars and drive on a road infrastructure we cannot afford to maintain. But of course it’s not “our fault;” it’s someone else’s misuse of resources, right? Well, probably partially, but the point is that everyone is guilty of enjoying a luxury we cannot afford: our ability to go where want want, when we want.
The Strong Towns post also ties our car-obsession with civic atomization and abandonment of the commons:
We as Americans are willing to support an infrastructure we cannot afford, to purchase a vehicle that costs a quarter of our household budget, to waste an average of an hour each day of our lives, and to risk the safety of ourselves and our loved ones, all for a simple reason that nobody wants to talk about… we don’t like being around people we don’t know, and we will go to ungodly lengths to ensure we don’t have to.

The car is our escape… not just from the rigors of work and family, but from the fear most of us hate to admit we have when we board public transit, or walk down a busy street. It allows those of us who are fortunate enough to afford a vehicle the choice to escape our urban centers where people might not look, talk or think like us. We not only have bubbles for homes, we have bubbles to get us there, solidifying our desire to avoid any situations that might be uncomfortable or unknot our neatly tied bow of a life.
What if the newly built transit systems of the early 20th century had been free? Would the car have become so central to the American way of life?

What if public transit was free now?

Just think of the public library, think of the public schools. What would we be like if transit was free like they are?

No comments: