Public transportation in the United States leaves a lot to be desired. Whether you love public transport or hate it, its near-uselessness is one thing almost all U.S. residents can agree upon.
At the same time, American transport’s nightmarish status doesn’t mean it’s unpopular. According to the American Public Transportation Association, ridership grew 21% between 1997 and 2018 (the population only grew 19% during this period) and Americans swiped their metro cards and flashed their bus passes 9.9 billion times in 2018 alone.
What’s more, there’s a myth that American governments starve public transport. The opposite is true: U.S. public transit enjoys much more in public tax subsidies than other countries. America’s problem isn’t that it doesn’t love transport or that it doesn’t have money for it — as reporters at Vox explain, the issue is that Americans pay far more and get way less.
A century ago, the U.S. had a public transport system that was virtually unrivaled. So, what’s the real problem with transportation in America today? Is it the vast, rural landscape? Is it American car culture? Is it something else entirely? You can learn a lot by looking outside the nation’s borders — and you don’t have to go as far as you think.
Canada is the Public Transport Myth Buster
Americans like to blame the sorry state of public transport on a lot of things. First, they say the U.S. is a new country with sprawling metropolises and a suburb system that came of age in the era of the automobile. That’s why public transit investment just doesn’t make sense in the United States.
All you need to debunk that myth is cross the border to Canada. No one can deny the vast expanse of Canada’s provinces nor the dramatic weather changes or tough terrain. Yet, Canadian cities see much higher public transit use (and have more transit to use) than the United States. These aren’t just cities like Toronto and Vancouver, either. Winnipeg, a city of just under 750,000 and a few hours north of the Minnesota border, enjoys a thriving public transit system despite being the Canadian equivalent of Des Moines.
Canada isn’t bribing transit riders with candy or offering free bus journeys. It’s not “demand-responsive,” either. Canadian cities have more transit per capita than American cities. There are just more buses, metro stops, and trains, and so people are more likely to ride them. To understand how that happened, it’s important to understand that the philosophy of public transport is different: Canadians (and others) see it as a public good.
Why Canadians, Europeans, and Asians Get Public Transport Right
Policymakers can wax lyrical about increasing ridership, being demand-responsive, and the benefits of ridesharing services. They can complain that driverless cars are about to upend transport, anyway. However, the one thing American public transportation policymakers need to learn isn’t how to beat technology or unlearn bad habits — it’s the basic philosophy that makes public transport tick elsewhere.
American policymakers and politicians treat public transportation as a social welfare program; it’s for people who can’t afford cars and driving. Canadians, Europeans, and Asians with stellar transport systems see it as a public utility. They fund it for everyone to use, whether those people are rich or poor, drivers or non-drivers, or locals or visitors.
The Federal Highway Administration doesn’t consider the national transport system to be a utility (something to be used by the public). It’s not in the code. By failing to treat it as an essential need, public transport falls by the wayside and becomes the victim of lobbyists and political philosophies that would lose out if there was a functioning transit system that worked.
The U.S. Needs More Buses and Trains and a Change of Heart
So why is the wealthiest nation on earth, not to mention the nation that pioneered public transport in the 19th century, now the home of a crumbling system of transport? What’s worse, the American transport system isn’t just crumbling from neglect: the infrastructure and those who operate it are also overextended, which has led to a huge number of public transport accidents. MTA buses in New York City were involved in 21,000 collisions in only three years.
The failure to provide a way for the masses to get around hasn’t occurred because policy makers are waiting around for the right hydrogen-powered bus or wind-powered train. Both of these already exist. To improve public transport, U.S. policymakers at the local, state, and federal level need innovation and leadership not only in technology but in its way of thinking.
To understand public transport as a public good is to understand that it is a vital part of society. Public transport is just as vital as other feats like environmental engineering helping to alleviate the smog in cities choked by preventable pollution. It will also be one of the keys to allowing communities to plan for a future in the face of climate change. Cities don’t even need the latest tech: studies show that even older buses lower pollution caused by traffic. If those old buses can get an upgrade, it’s even better.
If Americans want better public transport, they need more of it. And to get more of it, they need to change the way they and their elected officials see it. Until public transport becomes a public good worthy of public ownership, American streets will remain choked by cars.