I recently saw my old white bike in the corner of the garage. I almost never use it anymore. I thought about giving it away before I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. Not long ago that bike was my primary vehicle. My bike and I traveled a minimum of eight miles a day around downtown Tokyo with children, backpacks and groceries in tow. Waking up in the morning, I would get on my bike and go out into the day, participating in the hustle and bustle of the town. I would wave and exchange brief greetings with neighbors and friends. I’d smile at other similarly laden travelers while taking care not to run over or get run over by anyone else.
In the United States, bikes aren’t serious modes of travel. One reason is that bikes often go hand in hand with other forms of mass transportation. If one form of transport falls through, there are numerous other options. If a storm suddenly creeps up, for example, you can attach your bike to the front of a bus and ride home. You aren’t stuck with no options.
In the US, even a car in poor condition is taken more seriously than a bike. It is one of the last pieces of property people are willing to let go of even in the roughest times. This is not necessarily indicative of love for automobile culture. According to the American Public Transportation Association, a full 45% of the population of the United States do not have access to public transit. The car is often the last line of defense against complete homelessness. The car is a fixture in American life, and this is not a bad thing. There are only so many kids under the age of 5 you can strap to a bike or control on a bus. While public transit is fantastic for many disabled people, some disabled people rely on cars or other specialty transportation. The question is not how to replace the automobile but how to create more transit options for our communities.
Our over reliance on cars limits our opportunities. Too many Americans do not know the joy of living in a place where you can step out of your house and keep walking, where you don’t need to immediately get in a car every morning. The dominance of car culture strains both the social life and the finances of families. Tweens and teens must rely on adults to ferry them to every activity. Because street design in many places have been optimized for cars with numerous lanes and high speed limits, bikers and walkers often cannot safely access shopping districts. Families struggle to add cars to their possessions so that each member is able to get where they need to go.
The average household can save $10,000 a year by living with one less car. Several years of this kind of savings allows the family to have a down payment for a house. Houses themselves have higher value near public transit, up to 24% higher than houses not near public transportation. Moreover, traveling by public transportation is ten times safer per mile than traveling by car.
For mass transit to be useful, it must be expansive, frequent, safe, reliable and relatively inexpensive. Some suggest that transit should be reliant on the free market and government subsidies should be eliminated. Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, insists that there are “no significant environmental or social benefits” of public transit and suggests letting private companies try to make public transport profitable.
His suggestion has some merit, especially for the most populated areas. In some of the densest cities in the world, there are examples of successful privatized mass transit systems. For example, Japan privatized the Japanese National Railway in 1987. Only trams and inner-city metros were excluded.
However, even in Japan, rural communities depend on public transit that is heavily subsidized or entirely paid for by the government. Few of our population centers rival Tokyo with a (pre-pandemic) daily metro ridership of 8.7 million people. The only city that comes close to matching these numbers is New York City with a daily ridership of 5 million. Most of America is far less dense. Hence while privatized mass transit may work in some areas of the United States, it is reasonable to expect that in the vast majority of areas, it will need to be heavily subsidized in order to be successful.
The question is: how much do Americans value public transit? Are they willing to pay increased taxes to improve transit options? Recent ballot initiatives across the country show that Americans are interested in enhancing public transportation and that they are willing to pay for it. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, in 2020, there were 52 public transit ballot measures, and 47 were approved.
Mass transit is often seen as an environmental or economic issue. However, research conducted for the 2020 ballot initiatives found that for many people, the social impacts of these initiatives were more significant to them. Campaigns for these initiatives often focused on racial equity and social justice for underserved populations.
These recent campaigns show that Americans understand that public transit has social value. The movement of people throughout the day determines the kinds of conversations that take place. In a car, a person can talk on the phone to a friend or coworker anywhere in the world. Public transportation allows for interactions not only between friends and coworkers but between strangers as well. A rich man and a poor man are at least afforded the opportunity to be in each other’s presence. An immigrant can be sitting next to a woman whose ancestors have been local to the area for millennia. People of different political parties, races, ethnicities, and religions can find themselves on the same journey from one place to another. There is, at least, the possibility of conversation. In a car, no such opportunity exists.
During my first pregnancy I was living in Oxford, England. At 6 months of pregnancy I walked to the hospital three miles away for an appointment. Along the way I met a friend headed in a similar direction, and she walked with me for a mile as we chatted. On my way back home, I got tired and ended up taking the bus. Throughout my journey to the hospital and back I chatted with about a dozen people.
Ten years and several pregnancies later, I was in Prattville, Alabama, which is just about one of the friendliest places you’ll find. Still, it is not easy to talk to people. In that little town of Prattville, sidewalks were rare. The doctor was miles away, and there was no way to get there except by car. On my way to and from appointments, I didn’t talk to anyone face to face.
Increasing mass transit options in our communities is not just an issue of decreasing carbon emissions. Social life changes in subtle and not-so-subtle ways when mass transit is available. People can make choices that enhance their financial situations. Many people gain access to places they would otherwise be excluded from. Participation in mass transit is inherently more social than driving a car. People living next to each other can share part of their daily journeys with each other.
Laura Evans Serna is a philosophy graduate student with a background in mathematical modeling. As a military spouse she has lived and worked in three states as well as the UK and Japan. She currently lives in DC with her husband and four beautiful daughters. She blogs at laura-evans-serna.com.