For years, policymakers have wondered just how high gas prices would have to go before drivers switch to public transportation. The answer has been assumed to be very high, because Americans supposedly are in love with our cars. Yet now we know there's a tipping point, and it's not quite as high as policymakers have guessed. It's around $4 a gallon. We know that's the tipping point because suddenly millions of Americans are switching to buses, trains and subways to go to work.
Rather than bemoaning this remarkable turnaround we should be celebrating it. Public transit not only reduces congestion but also reduces the nation's energy needs and cuts carbon emissions that bring on global warming.
Problem is, the nation doesn't have nearly enough public transportation to handle the new demand. Even more absurdly, right now when it's needed the most, public transportation across the land is being cut back. This is because transit costs are soaring by the same skyrocketing fuel prices that are forcing people out of their cars, at the same time transit revenues are shrinking because most transit systems depend largely on sales taxes, now dwindling as consumer purchases decline in this recession. A survey of the nation's public transit agencies released last Friday showed 21 percent of rail operators -- and 19 percent of bus operators -- now cutting back.
Even though it's 100 times more efficient for each of us to stop driving and use trains and buses, there's not enough money in the public kitty for us to do so.
This is nuts. If officials need more money to cover the extra fuel costs of public transit, they can raise ticket prices a bit without reducing demand; most of us would still find public transit cheaper than driving our cars. But officials shouldn't stop there. They should add services and expand whole systems -- more buses, more trains, more light rail. If they can't finance this by floating bonds, they should go to Congress and ensure that public transportation is a major part of the next stimulus package.
Public transit has always been the poor stepchild of infrastructure development. America's usual answer to traffic congestion has been to add more lanes on highways, or more highways, or more bridges and tunnels for more cars. America hasn't been really serious about public transit for almost a century. Most of New York City's subway system was built over a hundred years ago. Los Angeles ripped out its trams long ago. Boston's Big Dig, one of the biggest infrastructure projects in modern American history, was designed entirely for cars. In recent years, only a few farsighted and ambitious cities, like Portland, Ore., have invested in light rail.
But now that gas is more than $4 a gallon, all this may change. And what better way to get the economy going, and save energy and the environment in years to come, than to create a modern, efficient system of public transportation in America?
Reprinted from Marketplace, June 4, 2008.
Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, is a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley and the author of "Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America" (Knopf, 2004).