Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Bumpy Ride Ahead towards Mass Transit

This morning I read a fascinating article which discusses both the impact of high gasoline costs and in particular its massive impact upon mass transit services. The column serves as a gentle cautionary tale to those of us who have been pushing if not outright chiding our fellow citizens to give up their love affair with the automobile. I recognize now that doing so, for many people, will resemble a bad divorce rather than a clean break with the past.

It's downright fashionable in progressive circles to ride a bike to work, take the bus or subway rather than drive, and to strongly advocate both while looking down one's nose as those so barbaric not to see the world in the same way. So count me as among those who have always thought SUVs, Hummers, and pickup trucks are, were, and will always be vulgar accessories which perpetuate image at the expense of the great harm they cause to the environment.

At the moment I do not bemoan four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. I know that something this drastic and draining upon the pocketbook and the individual consumer would be the only way we'd see some change in the direction of conservation. Neither am I so naive as to assume that the transition would be wholly smooth.

The economy of this country, particularly after the post-World War II boom was designed around the automobile. While some cities, mostly in the northeast established excellent mass transit system at the turn of the last century, whole cities, Atlanta being the most notable example I can think of off-hand, were designed in the era of disposable income and booming finances--they were modeled completely on the mobility and the rugged individualist credo many think are somehow owed to us on the basis of being Americans. Public transportation and urban sprawl simply do not compute.

In this society where we expect every problem to be minor, short-lasting, and quickly reconciled, we are going to see some major kinks in the system. So many people drove to work, school, or just about everywhere else that cities never put the money into public transportation. City systems catered only to the lowest of the low income residents and, chronically underfunded, often ran deficits and were constantly on the verge of bankruptcy. One glance at the monstrosity of inefficiency known as Amtrak will reveal the need for massive reform and the money to put these changes into effect.

The article further emphasizes that with less drivers on the road, so too will decreased tax revenue result. An immensely ingrained habit as personal automobile transit has been incorporated into almost every walk of life and has been this way at least since the mid to late 1920s, when Henry Ford's Model T put the car in an affordable price range for almost every American.

We aren't just fighting against simple economics when we denigrate the traditional role the automobile has had for the last ninety years or so, we're fighting against historical precedent and economic structure, and these are not addictions we put aside easily.

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