(Much) more of the same

Thanks mostly to high gas prices, public transportation ridership has been growing steadily of late–in Seattle and across the country…even in L.A.. But, according to this Ryan Avent piece in Grist, that hasn’t changed our approach to transportation.

Americans, it seems, are not constitutionally opposed to mass transit. An American public enthralled by automobiles has seen the enemy and begun to look for solutions — to congestion and fuel prices, and to climate change. But those looking have discovered that a half-century of neglect has made travel by transit a challenge.

Seeking options, the nation has found them wanting. The ceaseless climb of oil prices, the growing financial toll of congestion, and the looming cataclysm of global climate change have not yet shaken the men and women entrusted with the care of our infrastructure to act — or moved politicians, the press, and the public to demand action. Why can we not bring ourselves to speak of the need for better transit?

That’s what I’d like to know. In all the hype over the presidential election (yes, I’ve been caught up, too)–with all the talk about global warming and gas taxes and green jobs and “clean” coal, I have yet to hear a candidate mention public transportation as part of the solution. Here in Washington, we’re still charging car-sharing members a tourist tax (in case you didn’t know, HB 2880 failed), and a major gubernatorial candidate still believes that the answer to climate change is to expand our freeways. Avent has some thoughts about why.

So why are greens and political leaders reluctant to embrace transit as an energy and climate fix? Perception may be a problem. Transit systems are widely seen as dirty, slow, unreliable, and inconvenient relative to automobiles. Romm suggested to me that transit is seen as “not sexy.” When folks imagine a greener future, visions of electric cars and solar panels abound. No one thinks of a humble subway car rumbling through dark, century-old tracks beneath Manhattan.

Maybe I’m the only one, but I see cars as dirty, slow (Been near 520 lately?), and unreliable. And though I’d love to see cleaner energy solutions in the very near future, I’d like to see an equal focus on figuring out the best ways to move more than one person at a time. Because here’s the thing: Even the cleanest, most efficient car can’t relieve congestion–or control sprawl–or encourage walking–or promote community. A good transit system can.

I’m not sure what ridership numbers we’ll have to reach before transit moves to the forefront of our collective consciousness. But, with the help of $4+ per gallon gas, here’s hoping we get there soon.