Where I live in Connecticut, our highways are “parking lots” many times a day

Where I live in Connecticut, our highways are “parking lots” many times a day. Isn’t this an ideal situation for public transit? Why isn’t it happening?

—John Moulton, Stamford, CT

An increasing number of public transit options are coming online throughout North America, but those of you idling alone bumper-to-bumper in your cars might not know it. Indeed, lack of knowledge about public transportation options may be the largest impediment to widespread acceptance of more efficient ways of getting around. Driving your own car back and forth to work every day is not as convenient as it once was, and public transit options are now faster and undoubtedly generate less stress and pollution.

In Connecticut, the state-owned CTTRANSIT moves 27 million people a year on well-appointed local and express buses serving all metro areas. And two full-service commuter rail lines, Metro-North and Shore Line East, routinely take riders longer distances. Similar services are available in many urban and suburban areas across the U.S. Municipal websites are the best place to find transit options, routes and schedules.

The best thing to happen to encourage public transit usage has been high gas prices. Over the last year the average price of regular unleaded rose in the U.S. by 76 cents, with prices now $3.00 or more almost everywhere. And transit agencies report a correlation between high gas prices and increased ridership. The Utah Transit Authority says ridership is up 50 percent from last year on a 19-mile light-rail system in Salt Lake City. And Washington, DC’s Metrorail has seen some of its busiest days ever during the last few months. In Canada, ridership has risen as much as 10 percent in cities like Vancouver and Winnipeg in step with rising gas prices, though cars remain the travel option of choice in the country’s eastern cities.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, 14 million Americans use one or another form of public transportation every weekday, while about 17 million people drive their cars instead. The organization estimates that public transit ridership has grown by as much as 22 percent—faster than highway or air travel—since 1995. And a recently conducted Harris Poll concluded that the American public would like to see rail-based public transit “have an increasing share of passenger transportation.”

Meanwhile, Canadians have embraced public transit even more than their neighbors to the south. An estimated 12 million Canadians—including more than a fifth of all commuters in Toronto—use some form of public transit. Transportation analyst Paul Schimek found that public transit use is almost twice as high per capita in Canada as in the U.S. Also, car use in Canada is almost 20 percent lower per capita. Schimek attributes the differences to traditionally higher gas prices as well as more compact urban development than in the U.S.

Analysts point to the strength of the American “highway lobby” as the reason why Americans have been slow to embrace public transit. It has worked directly with lawmakers over the years to encourage road building and private automobile use to achieve, in the words of a General Motors ad of days gone by, the “American dream of freedom on wheels.” Back in Connecticut, some urban planners have been pushing the idea of turning crowded Interstate 95 into a double-decker highway in places to ease congestion.

CONTACTS: American Public Transportation Association, www.apta.com ; Canadian Urban Transit Association, www.cutaactu.ca .