When was the last time you rode a bus?
Maybe you took the bus to save money, or for environmental reasons. In a few instances here in the US, you might have taken the bus because it’s more convenient than driving. But the important thing to recognize is that you probably had a choice. And those choices might make life more miserable for those who don’t.
In some cities, up to half of the people riding public transportation are transit-dependent Americans who rely exclusively on that system to get around. And when that system breaks down—as they have an awful lot lately—the people who are transit-dependent suffer the most.
There’s plenty of talk about how housing has become dramatically less affordable in the US, but hardly anyone talks about the transportation crisis, which is the direct result of failing to build enough places for people to live. Because cities have become too expensive, the transit-dependent have been forced to move further and further away. These are the Americans without a smartphone in their hands, who don’t have a car at home, who might live below the poverty line. These are the people who are riding those buses for hours a day to get to their jobs or their school. These are people who would kill for a car that could finally give them some stability in their lives.
When DC’s Metro shut down for an system-wide electrical inspection the other day, the news was what a big day Uber had. But when you don’t own a smartphone to summon that car, or the 1.7x surge pricing is more than your entire weekly transportation budget, you’re screwed. When public transit doesn’t work, there are no other options for the most vulnerable residents of our country.
The solution is not to buy everyone cars—it’s to design our cities so no one has to shoulder the economic burden of owning a vehicle if they don’t choose to. This is where policymakers have failed.
It’s easy to point to rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft—and their eventual autonomous iterations—as a replacement for poor public transit service. But a study out this week by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and Shared-Use Mobility Center (SUMC) shows people who use services like Uber and Lyft also heavily rely on public transit, as well as other ways to get around like car share and bike share. In fact, a group of Americans the study named “supersharers” who dabbled in multimodal transportation options are most likely to use public transit.
I’m one of those supersharers. But I can see how I’m part of the problem. I’ve certainly swapped a few more bus rides for Lyft rides over the last year because it’s faster and easier. The Lyft argument is actually one theory behind a recent report that ridership on Los Angeles’s Metro system had declined last year after years of growth. I don’t blame other people who do this—of course we shouldn’t choose transit modes that don’t work for us—but I worry about this because declining ridership hurts a transit system. And because even when I take Lyft, that’s one more car on the road, mucking it up for everyone else.
Yes, of course, we need billions and billions more dollars poured into our transit infrastructure, as BART’s real-talk Twitter hero explained to San Francisco the other day. But part of the success of a transit system—the way it adds additional service and makes necessary improvements—is determined by ridership. We absolutely have to get more people on buses and trains that go where we need to go when we need to go there. There’s no downside: More people on transit means more economic opportunities, reduced emissions, healthier residents, and, most importantly, it gets more vehicles off the street—so the transit can run on-time, improving service for all.
I’m optimistic about innovative funding models like the Smart City Challenge, which will give $40 million to a city to build the transportation system of the future, or a data-based approach like the Alphabet-backed Flow, that will help cities make better decisions in real-time. But I’m worried that these initiatives will only serve a handful of urban centers, leaving behind those who have already been pushed to the margins of a city that let them down.
Transit is as much about reducing traffic as it is about building equity. And as a country, we’re failing at it.