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"Fare-less" public transit

                    The city is no place for cars!

February 2005

To make our cities liveable, we need to replace car trips with public transit. The best way is to fully fund public transit and make the ride free. Getting cars out of the city will go a long way toward humanizing our cities, and perhaps toward rehumanizing and resocializing ourselves.
Stuck in traffic? Wheezing from the smog? Feeling isolated?

Why are we putting up with traffic gridlock and smog in our cities?  Why are we isolating ourselves in our noisy, costly, dangerous and polluting 3000 pound steel cocoons to get about in the city?  It doesn't have to be that way; there are solutions that merely require a bit of political initiative and will. Here's a contribution toward solving these problems in many U.S. cities.

We have fought against the environmental impacts of the automobile for sixty years using the same tool – more freeway lanes. In a word:  it hasn't worked. The increased capacity has quickly been overwhelmed with additional traffic, and the greater the traffic, the greater the smog, and the more disastrous are traffic incidents. We know what the result has been:  traffic is getting worse and worse, with little hope of improvement, while "improvement" in air quality has generally been a matter of slight emission reductions locally to a level where the prevailing wind will remove it to the next community downwind. In other words, cities are passing their pollution on to their less populous neighbors, who – not surprisingly – have less political clout.

At the same time, we have witnessed, over the last couple of decades, a growth in anti-social behavior that has been associated with personal isolation. I won't lay this at the door of the automobile industry, but the first great reduction in the sense of neighborhood certainly came with the development of suburbia and automotive commuting in the mid-twentieth century. The later development of in-home electronic entertainment, and most recently the internet and "social media" have further contributed to individual isolation. A byproduct has been the disappearance of common courtesy, as can be seen daily in the often hateful postings that pass for communication on the social media.

But back to the traffic picture. It's time to face up to it:  We can't build enough freeways to solve our traffic and air quality problem. The only way to get everyone to work and back in a reasonable time in our large cities, while actually improving our air, is to create attractive and convenient free – yes, free! – public transit.

"Public Transit." (PT)  Yuk!  What is it about that phrase that turns off the American commuter?  Why don't we ride the bus?  A number of reasons:  For some it's PT's record and reputation. In many large cities it's plain inconvenient and unreliable, and as often it's uncomfortable. At times it's a hazard to your health. Many are unfamiliar with the routes or the procedures. They don't know the fare, don't have exact change, or don't know whether they need exact change. They don't know if they can get a transfer, how long the transfer is good for, or where they catch the next bus. There are enough rules and confusing routes to discourage any potential rider.

But nevertheless, that's where the future of commuting lies. But the PT we have now won't cut the mustard. If we're going to solve the gridlock and smog problems we must invest big in PT in our cities, and design new grids, cleaner and lighter-weight vehicles, denser schedules, better convenience and connections, and an entirely new idea about riding. We must aim for the revolutionary idea that the car should have a very limited role in city transportation.

And here's the key to successful PT:  In order to make PT the transport of choice for commuters and other city dwellers, it must be free to the rider, that is, paid through general fees or taxes. Think how much more you would use the bus, light rail, or subway if there were no place to put in a token. If you simply walk aboard and sit down.  (OK, stand up.)  My guess is that if the public are already paying for PT through their taxes, they will want to use it. Ridership would likely double in many cities under such a policy.

But there's no free lunch, and the cost of such a program will be considerable. But once the program is stable, I believe the city will find the cost well worth it. Commuters today spend large sums getting to and from work; for many commuters and city residents the program outlined here would obviate the need for a second car, with substantial savings. In European cities with good public transportation systems, a considerable proportion of inhabitants don't feel they need a car; they would find this an unnecessary expense and bother. I believe that in a largely car-free city, business opportunities would abound for low-cost delivery and car rentals, but the greatest benefit would come from the city, which over the last century has become choked by automobile traffic, becoming freed of this grotesque menace and growing more humane. City-dwellers, who have been more and more isolated in their cars, will see more of one another, and may actually get to know one another.

I'm not one who readily calls for new taxes, and I won't do so here, until we take steps to reduce the criminal wastage of our tax monies at both the State and  (especially)  the Federal levels.   I will hazard the guess – drawing on my 35 years of state and federal government service, much of it administering federal grant funds – that no more than 25%  of our tax contributions is fruitfully spent on what we need;  the remaining hundreds of billions annually are piddled away in military schemes and adventures, foolish and uncontrolled procurements, politicians' pork-barrel projects, sexy but costly PR boondoggles like sending astronauts to Mars, give-aways to "fast operators" both here and abroad, or just wasted in the immense and unnecessary governmental bureaucracies, where a vast staff manage all the unneeded projects. But that's another rant.   Taking a deep breath, we get back on topic:  When the time comes that such government waste is halted by a courageous president and other public administrators, we will in fact be able to divert our tax monies from waste to useful local needs, perhaps without any increase in overall taxes. And one of the most useful of such local needs, is providing an excellent and free public transit system to take city residents and commuters wherever they need to go in and out of the city.

In summary: The city is no place for cars. New and innovative public transit will become the solution to auto congestion and pollution, and even benefit our sense of community, when it's "fare-less".  It won't work unless it is. But then it will work.

(The author, who retired from the California Environmental Protection Agency as Senior Environmental Scientist, worked for several years as operator of city buses, street cars, subways and commuter rail both in Chicago and in Oslo, the capital city of Norway. The problem described interests him equally from environmental, transportation, and socio-psychological perspectives.)
© 2005, 2015 H. Paul Lillebo

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