Save our Cities, Towns (and Jobs) with Public Transit

During the warmer months I bike the 10-mile roundtrip to work, and often play a morning game of tag with my neighbor who, coincidentally, works across the street from E here in Norwalk, Connecticut. Joe usually passes me in his car shortly after I leave home—but then I pass him as he sits caught up in the traffic of commuters heading to the New York-bound train. He"ll overtake me again on my steep ride up Treadwell Avenue, but then I"ll again zip by him in the 7 a.m. tie-up near the high school as students arrive for the day. Joe usually beats me, but not by much.

My wife Deborah worries when I head out on my bike here in traffic-intensive southern Connecticut where, other than the MetroNorth commuter line in and out of New York, there is virtually no public transit and people spend a lot of time sitting in traffic in their mobile phone booths.

We’ve become slaves to our automobiles and it has reached crisis proportions, determining the layout of our cities and towns, mandating endless miles of concrete jungle, polluting our air and water and creating stress for those who have no choice but to creep along to work in single-digit speeds during rush hours.

Surveys show that people would take public transit if it were in place and efficient. Much of the resistance to public transit can be traced to oil politics, although that gets obscured from the public by auto companies whose ads perpetuate the "cool" image of the private automobile—and by politicians and car-ad dependent media who treat transit as a frivolous indulgence that is bad for jobs.

But according to the National Business Coalition for Rapid Transit (NBCRT), every $1 billion invested in public transit projects generates 30,000 jobs, and the same amount invested in transit operations generates twice that. Public transit also provides access to jobs, making it possible for poorer citizens to get to work without a car. It keeps downtowns thriving by enabling people to get there, work there or live there without a car, and it cuts congestion and improves productivity, too, by eliminating the fatigue of commuting in traffic—all the while reducing energy usage and cleaning the air.

Efficient transit also brings the customers—not just the workers—to businesses" doors. And with Europe leading the way (see this issue’s cover story), even big business is starting to understand that transit benefits the bottom line. The Partnership for New York City, which represents some of the city’s top companies, is calling for New York to emulate London in imposing a "congestion tax" on commuters who drive into the city—with the proceeds benefiting MetroNorth. British drivers pay 5, about $9.

We retool each year just to change the design of cars
surely we can do the same, albeit on a grander scale, to shift more commuters to public transit. That’s exactly what they’ve done in Europe, where sustainable master plans are in place from England to Scandinavia. In Copenhagen, for instance, 32 percent of commuters bike to work. If we could only follow that blueprint, I’d have lots of company when I get on my 10-speed in the morning.