Despite the best of intentions, public transportation in the United States remains a pale shadow of what it could be -- and what it currently is in many places, including developing countries. Is mass transit in America underfunded because we hate it? Or do we hate public transit because it's so underdeveloped here?
There's more than one reason that mass transportation isn't what it should be, and I would argue that one side of the transit coin (it's underfunded) feeds the other side (that's why we don't like it). While there are exceptions, like the New York City subway system, most Americans only use public transportation when there are no other options. After reading this, share your reasons for hating public transportation.
1. Public Transportation Takes Time
Like most Americans, any trip you take probably begins when you leave your house and head out in a car. Running errands or commuting to work might require a 30-minute drive -- but on public transportation, that same trip could take up to twice as long, assuming you even have access to a bus or train. In today's hurry-up environment -- where everything was needed yesterday -- each minute counts, and riding a bus becomes a leisure-class luxury that many workers simply can't afford.
One obvious solution is for mass transit operators to run more buses and schedule more express-service trains. But that takes money, and now that America's motto seems to be "Can't We Have Anything Nice?," it's unlikely that public transit will get the money it needs to serve more people better.
2. Individualism and the Car
The automobile is perhaps the only invention that is at once phallic and womb-like. As columnist George Will once remarked, "the real reason for progressives' passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism." While his comments are laughable for a number of reasons -- collectivism as a goal (or even a word) smells of Cold War-era mildew -- Will does hit on one truism: Humans love cars to an irrational degree.
Will continues: "Automobiles encourage people to think they -- unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted -- are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make." It's precisely this delusion of power and mastery -- even on a publicly funded highway -- that makes us prefer cars to buses.
3. Public Transit Means People
Building on the message above, public transit means people -- lots and lots of people whom you don't know and, if we're honest, probably won't like. Given the breakdown in civility, etiquette and simple consideration that seems epidemic these days, you can hardly fault someone who hesitates to plunge into a busload of people wearing cheap cologne, yammering on cell phones, throwing garbage on the floor, slopping food and drink on your seat ... need I go on?
The flip side, of course, is that not all people are lazy slobs, and countless friendships -- and even romances -- have started on trains and buses (ask any New Yorker). But while an overwhelming majority of people are still pleasant and respectful, it only takes one deranged psycho to ruin a commute (again, ask any New Yorker).
4. Running, or Running Late
There are times when you absolutely, positively have to be on time. Public transportation can help with that, since trains and subways don't get caught in rush-hour traffic or delays caused by auto accidents. (One flat tire -- even on someone else's car -- can ruin your whole day.)
But buses, of course, travel on the same roads as cars. Millions and millions of cars. And if you happen to miss a train, you may need to wait an hour or longer for the next one. So it's a toss-up: Show up at the train station early, or risk not showing up on time at all.
5. Late Night?
Much of mass transit is designed and scheduled for the needs of the 9-to-5 office worker who leaves home early in the morning and comes home late in the afternoon. As a result, if you do anything after work -- go to the gym, socialize with friends, shop for groceries or see a movie -- public transportation quickly becomes an unattractive option.
And for people who go out on weekends, mass transit is often absurdly inconvenient, since many buses and trains have a light weekend schedule, if they run at all. The result? We drive. (I often wonder how many drunk-driving accidents could be avoided if people had the option of taking public transit after drinking.)
6. Public Transportation Doesn't Go ThereConsider a large regional or international airport -- an important transportation hub, to be sure. But for reasons that defy logic, even the most sophisticated public transit networks in America rarely, if ever, go directly to an airport terminal. In most cases, you can take a bus or train to get near an airport, but then you must transfer to another shuttle or an "airtrain" to get you to your gate. For passengers rushing to make a flight, or carrying lots of luggage, mass transportation quickly becomes a sad joke.
7. Mass Transit Ain't Cheap
One of the most compelling arguments in favor of public transit is its affordability. When compared to the costs of car ownership -- gas, oil, tires, parking tickets, insurance, tolls, repairs and maintenance, plus the cost of the car itself -- mass transit quickly becomes a great, affordable option.
But it still ain't cheap. Consider, for example, the cost of a monthly pass on New York City's Metro North train system, a safe, clean and reliable transit network. Currently, it costs over $400 a month, making it an option only for people who draw a substantial salary. And the cost goes up every year or two. Given this fact, plus the other hassles involved in public transportation (see above), it's no wonder so many people continue to choke urban freeways with single-rider cars.
And, if you're not frustrated enough already, take a look at this compelling article about why U.S. mass transit costs so much. Apparently, contractor costs are out of control in America, while other countries have much better project management and tighter cost controls. Sigh...