Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Inconvenient Truth About Public Transit

One of the benefits of being a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club is that it assuages the guilt I feel over owning a non-hybrid vehicle (frankly, our Honda Element verges on SUV, but we barely drive it, I swear, and it's a total lifesaver at IKEA). Another is Sierra magazine. It arrives every couple of months, which means that I have time to finish reading one issue before another shows up in my mailbox (New Yorker, I'm talking to you).

The current edition has a fascinating feature on ultralight backpacking for those crazy folks who like to hike thousand-mile trails, or blaze their own path from Maine to Washington. I'd totally love to join them on their trek if there were such a thing as indoor outdoors plumbing.

But what I found most intriguing were the results of a climate change poll that took a look at how well people walk the environmental talk. In other words, which potential conservation actions a person believes to be important vs. whether or not they engage in said behavior. For example, 93% of those surveyed thinks it's important to turn off unneeded lights, and 84% follow up by actually flipping off switches. Sixty-two percent believe in composting, only 14% do it.

The greatest discrepancy, not surprisingly, had to do with transportation. We all know Americans are profoundly attached to their cars (I cried when someone smashed in one of our Element's windows last year), here's how much: 73% believe public transit is important, only 10% ride it. Count me among that paltry latter group--I said I love my car, I didn't say I love to drive--but I'm not exactly out there beating the public transportation drum. Why not? Because it sucks.

I suspect a large number of, for lack of a better term, let's just call them hypocrites, eschew public transit for the sole reason that they don't have access to it. I grew up in suburban Ohio. There was no bus system, much less rail. We didn't even have a movie theater. If we wanted entertainment, we got drunk in the bowling alley parking lot. And we liked it that way. When I moved to Chicago (really, can you blame me?) I immediately started riding the bus to and from work and pretty much walking everywhere else. Later I graduated to the El system--once you go rail, you never go back to the bus. For the past 17 years, public transit has been my primary mode of transportation. So when I say that it sucks, I say that with a fair amount of authority.

Here's the trouble:
  • For starters, it's inconvenient. Sure, bus routes blanket the city, but to get from Point A to Point B might require any number of transfers from one route to another. If you think a connecting flight via airplane is a hassle, try waiting for that second plane in the rain or snow or blistering heat--for a half an hour. Rail lines are even less ubiquitous, leaving huge swaths of the city unserved. My personal solution has been to essentially live my life along the route of 1 or 2 train lines. And while I've managed just fine with this system, it's been limiting, to say the least, not just in terms of little things like where we dine out or where we shop for clothes, but major decisions like where I've looked for work. If I can't get there via the Brown or Red lines--or on foot--there's a pretty good chance I don't go there at all. I can understand why most people aren't willing to make that kind of sacrifice.
  • It's public. I know, that seems rather obvious. But if you're used to driving a car, it's quite shocking to suddenly share your ride with dozens of other people. Most of whom forget they're sharing their ride with you. They clip their toenails. (Yes, they do.) They listen to their headphones, really loudly. They argue with their boyfriends--either in person or on their cellphones. (Oh, don't get me started on cellphones.) They eat fried chicken--though food is specifically prohibited--and leave the scraps on the floor or their seat. They beg for money or run con games. If they're Cubs fans, they tend to vomit after 9 innings of beer consumption. If you don't have to subject yourself to this, why would you?
  • It's messy. This point is not to be confused with the chicken scraps or barf. It has to do with walking to and from a train station or bus stop--which are not, make no mistake, situated in your driveway--in any and all kinds of weather. And in Chicago, there is always weather. If it's raining, you get wet. If it's snowing, you get slush all over your pants. If it's windy, your hair is destroyed. If it's hot, you need a second shower before you reach the station. By the time you get to your destination, you look like trash. And all those people in their cars--fresh as a daisy.
  • It's expensive. A gallon of gas costs about $3 in Chicago. Even a relative guzzler like our Element can go 25 miles for that amount, or about 12 cents per mile. Now let's price transit: A one-way rail trip, regardless of distance, will set you back $2.25. Same for the return unless you can accomplish your business in two hours or less. So let's say I travel roughly 4 miles to see a movie. That's $4.50 in train fair vs. 48 cents in gas. Even factoring in parking, and Chicago's skyrocketing parking rates at that, driving is still a better deal. Just this past weekend, my parents were in town and we took them to the Green City Farmers Market near the Lincoln Park Zoo. To and fro, with a transfer in between, cost four of us $19 in train fare. Compare that with $12 to park at the zoo. We went out to brunch on Sunday, this time taking our car, and coughed up two bucks in quarters for the meter. Two bucks versus almost $20 for the train, with a sizable walk from the station tacked on at that. My parents are in their late 60s and my dad's sciatica had been acting up all weekend. I look at them and I see myself down the road; I try to picture myself on the train at that age and it's not pretty. Makes me want to move to Florida where the seniors tool around in tricked out golf carts.

That's an abbreviated look public transportation--believe me, I could go on for pages and pages--and all the ways that it fails miserably as an alternative to cars. What I didn't mention is that there's no traffic, at least not on the train, and it's a great place to read a magazine if you can shut out all the distractions. That's pretty much the extent of the positives. For 90 percent of the people, they don't outweigh the negatives. Until they do, I don't see how we're going to move more people onto buses and trains. Sadly, I don't thinking anybody, at the local or federal level, is seriously trying to change that equation.


Blogger Matthew Wetli said...

I would like to offer a rebuttal. I would argue that it's the environment that is enabled by transit (i.e., walkability, mixed-use, schools close to where people live) and the freedom of choice regarding how to get from one place to another that is transit's true advantage.

Still, I will focus primarily on the economic argument made in your blog.

Comparing the cost of gas to the cost of a transit ticket does not take into account the true cost of driving. For instance, what does it cost to own a car ($300/month)? Two? Three, if you have children? What does auto insurance cost ($100 per person, per month)? What do auto repairs, oil changes, etc cost?

The real cost of driving is somewhere around $500, per person, per month. Compare that to the cost of a monthly transit pass ($68 in St. Louis, $100-ish, in Chicago), and trains come out way ahead.

Still, that only gets at the costs are most readily understood. Let's dig a little deeper. Many assume highway expansion--those road widening projects that facilitate sprawl in places like Schaumberg--are financed solely by federal and state gas taxes. The fact is, money for highway expansion comes out of all of our pockets, in the form of taxes (more on that in a moment). Yes, you Chicago Resident X, are helping to subsidize all those folks that work in the city or some nondescript office park and live in Schaumberg. I suspect most folks in Schaumberg would not so willingly finance the transportation of city-dwellers, whether the stated reason be the creation of construction jobs or facilitating many people’s more urban version of the American Dream.

This relationship is not unique to Chicago. The fact is, those folks aren't paying the true cost of their transportation. If their financing structure were similar to that of transit, they'd be paying tolls each and every day to get to and from work, and it wouldn't be cheap.

We are not currently paying to maintain the infrastructure that we have. The gas tax—set at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993—has not been raised, not even to keep up with inflation. As a result, the federal Highway Trust Fund is teetering on bankruptcy. Congress therefore has to pull infrastructure money from other places. Other programs, actually. Ones funded by our income taxes and so forth. It is in this way that we all pay for highways, regardless of how much we pay at the pump.

Infrastructure spending, by the way, has been on the decrease since the 1970’s, as a percent of GDP, and is substantially lower than most developed countries. The result has been slow and insidious, but engineers give many of our roads and bridges failing or near-failing grades. Think this is alarmism? I submit to you the failed levees of New Orleans and the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis. The price we pay today for our transportation is not adequate to continue maintain the level of service we receive today. It isn’t sustainable. So we’re deferring expenses to some date in the future.

But is doesn’t end there. If you believe, as I do, that our recent wars in the Middle East are largely about oil, then you have to add the cost of those wars--several hundred billion, annually--to the real cost of gas. Put a price tag on the cost of the spill in the Gulf. Tack that on. Global warming--that thing about us destroying the planet--that has a real cost on GDP growth (don’t believe me, believe some really smart economists), at some point in the future. Again, we’re deferring payments on transportation today. Add these costs to the price of oil today, and the $8-$10 per gallon people pay in the Netherlands begins to look like the true cost of gas.

Consider these factors, and that trip to the market, taken by train, is far less costly.

3:24 PM

Blogger Matthew Wetli said...

Okay, so I posted an economic rebuttal. But I would also offer this about “taking the train”.
I am proud to take transit, and damn glad my community provides it as an option. When I’m slogging through the rain, on my way to work, I try to think of how I’m reducing my carbon footprint, how if more people were willing to alter their lifestyle a bit, Americans could dramatically reduce carbon emissions, dependence on foreign oil, the likelihood of environmental disasters through increasingly risky offshore oil drilling. I try to focus on the liberating feeling that comes from walking out my front door, and not having to hop in a car and experience the stress of sitting in traffic, or being cut off by some sociopath traveling at 70 miles per hour. I think of the exercise I’m getting—that if everybody walked two miles per day, obesity rates would likely be lower.

When speaking to friends, I don’t mention those items though, because they can seem a bit self-righteous (even though they’re 100 percent true). There are other benefits. I think of all the money I’m saving. I think of the great mix of uses that the combination of transit and density affords— as I walk past a concert hall, a grocery store, a café, and a flower shop—and how I would have to get in my car and make four separate trips to those places if I lived the way most Americans do. When I speak to a friend who drives to work each day, my thought is now how I envy them, but how they don’t know what they’re missing.

I hope transit will be available in my senior years. Rather than becoming a shut-in when I lose the ability to drive, I could still maintain a certain level of independence as I go to the grocery store or pharmacy. For that matter, this country has been slow to recognize the driving aptitude of seniors. We allow them to drive past an acceptable age because we know, in this country, that taking away one’s privilege to drive is akin to taking away one’s ability to function. That’s how auto-dependent we are. People may associate driving with freedom, but that is not always the case. In fact, our auto-oriented way of life can be quite constraining.

3:36 PM


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