Tuesday, September 9, 2008

New American Freedom

Image: Montage with train image from www.freefoto.com

The average American car owner has recently figured out that we have a transportation crisis in this country. However, the price of gasoline is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges of transporting the people of our nation.

To begin with, 80% of our federal transportation dollars fund a single mode of transportation – roads and highways for automobiles. According to the Brookings Institution, “the overwhelming majority of system mileage built in this country in recent years came in the form of public roads.”

Not only are we putting all of our eggs in one multi-lane, concrete basket, but this infrastructure is in pretty bad shape. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, over 15% of major U.S. roads are in “unacceptable” condition, while an additional 41.5% are in “fair” condition. In Pennsylvania, according to IssuesPA, “more than 27% of the state’s roads still are considered to be in poor or mediocre condition. … Nearly one-quarter of the state-owned bridges are considered ‘structurally deficient,’ and another 18% are considered to be ‘functionally obsolete.’”

The situation reaches crisis proportions because, according to Brookings, “transportation is now the second largest expense for most American households, consuming on average 20 cents out of every dollar.” The bottom line is that we cannot afford our transportation infrastructure, and the problem is growing worse by the day.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider one root of this problem. When we as a nation allow vast housing development on empty land, far removed from our developed towns, cities, and older suburbs, we are also necessitating the construction of new roadways, and the widening and extension of nearby highways. Suburban sprawl is not just a problem for those who live in these communities and have to commute to far-away jobs. Sprawl has an impact on all of us, and most Americans help pay for this massive road network – this sprawling infrastructure that is already falling apart, that we already cannot afford.

Americans like to have choices – in where we live, where we shop, in what toothpaste we use. Why do we not demand the same choice in our transportation? A diverse transportation infrastructure – with provisions for cars, trains, buses, bikes, and walking – gives us multiple ways of getting from here to there, choice and flexibility. More to the point, walking, biking and mass transit infrastructure is significantly more cost-effective and fuel efficient than an auto-only infrastructure.

Not to mention, for the sub-sector of American households living in central cities, the percentage of income spent on transportation is significantly less than for the rest of the country. Needless to say, these are areas that have a diverse, less auto-oriented transportation infrastructure. The majority of Americans already live in metropolitan areas, within proximity to urban centers. However, many of these areas still lack the mass transit infrastructure to give people alternatives to automobile travel.

Within the Philadelphia region, SEPTA has reported over a 10% increase in ridership, recently. Nationally, transit ridership has increased by 5%. The private housing market has shown that more and more Americans already desire a lifestyle with transportation options. A report by Reconnecting America projects that over the next 25 years at least one quarter of new American households will desire to live in transit-accessible areas.

With 80% of our federal transportation dollars still funding roads and highways, in light of these statistics, we are clearly not responding to changing trends in our nation. We are not maximizing our tax dollars and responding to the needs of the American people. It is time for us to get away from the auto-only paradigm, and start diversifying America’s transportation network.

Neither the Obama nor McCain campaign websites include extending rail transit, and/or reducing auto dependency as part of their respective platforms. The entire dialogue about transportation in the U.S. focuses on the cost of gasoline, the necessity of reducing dependence on foreign oil, and developing alternative fuels. While these solutions focus on easing the burden of the car owner at the gasoline pump, they do not reduce that same car owner’s ever-increasing tax burden to support our sprawling transportation infrastructure. They do not address the real problem.

The solution to our nation’s transportation crisis will require shifting our federal funding priorities, along with a significant change in how we live, and how we get around. Of course, this is not a politically popular opinion in most of the U.S. More Americans will have to live within closer proximity to towns and cities, to the places where they shop, and the places where they work. For many, this scenario will appear to be an all-out assault on the American dream, and the freedom of the automobile.

However, with a crumbling infrastructure, rising tax-payer costs, rising cost of gas at the pump, increasing congestion on our roads, and zero transportation choice for much of the country, does the automobile still truly represent freedom?

Just imagine if we were to invest in an extensive mass transit network the way we currently invest in our highway network? What if more Americans could take transit or walk a few minutes to the grocery store, to school, to work, or to the park? What if the trains ran frequently enough, say every ten minutes, that mass transit was in fact faster and more convenient than driving and parking?

A mode of travel only represents freedom if it is cheap and convenient. Perhaps it is time to consider a new definition of American freedom. We and our government have the ability to shift our priorities and our tax dollars to build a transportation network that works for America, a network that we can afford, and a network that truly represents freedom for the future of our nation.


Patricia L. Kirk, “Riding on the Future.” Urban Land. March 2008.

Brookings Institution, “A Bridge to Somewhere: Rethinking American Transportation for the 21st Century.” 2008.

IssuesPA, “Transportation Infrastructure: How do Pennsylvania's Roads and Bridges Compare?” 2006. http://www.issuespa.net/articles/17908

Reconnecting America’s Center for Transit-Oriented Development. “Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit.” Reprint With Technical Corrections. April 2005. 7.


Philip said...

I am a big proponent of reinvesting in public transportation. More funding means, better stations, better security and easier commuting. With continual reinvestment we may even have the unique opportunity to see the construction of a new subway line for the first time in Philadelphia in at least 40 years. Ideally I see a unified city with the completion of a subway or light rail surface train line which would connect the northeast and the thousands of people who live there with the rest of the city.

terry said...

I couldn't agree more, however Philadelphia has the unique problem that there is now more office space in the surrounding counties than in the city itself. Only when business find it advantageous to return to center city (hint, less business taxes) will people find moving back to an urban setting desirable.