Let's get serious about public transit

Robert Reich


Kai Ryssdal: Honk if the ride to work's getting a little bit easier.

Record gas prices have pushed more commuters than ever onto buses and trains. Believe it or not, it's even happening here in car-crazy California. Transit officials in San Francisco have actually taken seats out of their light rail trains to make room for more passengers.

All good, right? Less demand for oil, fewer cars spewing out greenhouse gases, healthier overall for cities.

Commentator Robert Reich says the answer should be a resounding "Yeah, it's good"... if only our transit systems were prepared for the crush.

Robert Reich: For years, policy makers have wondered just how high gas prices would have to go before drivers switch to public transportation. Now we know: it's around $4 a gallon, because millions of Americans are switching to buses, trains and subways to go to work.

Rather than bemoaning the spike in gas prices, we should be celebrating. Public transit not only reduces congestion but also reduces the nation's energy needs and cuts carbon emissions that bring on global warming.

Problem is, we don't have nearly enough public transportation. Even more absurdly, right now when they're needed the most, public transportation systems across the land are cutting back on services. Why? Because their costs are rising -- their budgets are strained by the same sky-high fuel prices that are forcing people out of their cars -- and because their revenues are dropping. Public transit systems are financed largely through sales tax revenues, which are declining as consumers spend less.

This is crazy. If public transit officials need more to cover extra fuel costs and declining revenues, they could raise ticket prices a bit. But they should do far more. Expand whole systems -- more buses, more trains, more light rail. If they can't finance this by floating bonds, they should go to Congress and make public transit a key part of the next stimulus package.

Look, fuel costs aren't going down. Global demand is increasing faster than supplies. This is the perfect time to expand and modernize public transit systems.

America hasn't been really serious about public transit for almost a century. Most of New York City's subway system was built over 100 years ago. Los Angeles ripped out its trams long ago. Boston's Big Dig, the most costly infrastructure project in memory, is entirely for cars. In recent years, only a few farsighted and ambitious cities, like Portland, Oregon, have invested in light rail.

What better way to get the economy going and save energy and the environment in years to come, than to create a modern, efficient system of public transportation in America?

Ryssdal: Robert Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.


I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...

Sustainability Coverage

  • The Kendeda Fund
  • Wealth & Poverty Coverage

  • The Ford Foundation