Good public transportation is amazing for more than just the environment

In the first week of classes, I was talking to one of my friends about the bus system here at the University of Michigan. The conversation went something like this:

“Man, the bus system has been pretty bad. I hope they get this fixed soon,” I said.

“Right?? Taking the bus sucks. I can’t wait to get my own car,” they said.

Of course… because more cars on the road is exactly what we need. The solution to poor public transit infrastructure is in fact, not more cars. More broadly, the solution to everyday transportation in general is not more cars. You may not realize it yet, but good public transportation is what we all actually want. It turns out that good public transportation not only benefits the environment, but also benefits everyone living in that city. In fact, the only people who might not benefit from good public transportation are probably the extremely wealthy. But even the extremely wealthy could benefit if they occasionally use public transportation, which is great for everyone else.

I have seen this first hand in my hometown, Hanoi, Vietnam, which suffers from a motorcycle problem. Our public transportation is being improved, but it is very difficult to get around without a personal vehicle.

Motorcycles in Vietnam. Photo by Padmanaba01 via Flickr.

While we do have a functioning bus system, a sure sign that tells us that it isn’t very efficient is the fact that very few people commute to work by bus. As you can see in the picture above, there’s no way you would be on time. This means that you’re expected to own a motorcycle if you want to get around the city (sound familiar?). 

But what about getting around the city for purposes other than work? Up until I was 16, I lived in an apartment complex in a relatively densely populated area of Hanoi. This meant that I walked to school, cycled to my friends’ houses, and even took the bus occasionally to get around. I moved to a house in an area that was inspired by US suburban planning. Suddenly, it was much more difficult to get anywhere. A grocery trip became a 20 minute trip rather than a 5 minute trip. Making plans with friends required days in advance so my parents could drop me off, rather than just spontaneously cycling to where we wanted to meet. I felt locked away from the things I used to be able to access so easily. It wasn’t until I got my own motorcycle that I felt like I had access to the city again. Now imagine if the area I moved to wasn’t built solely with personal vehicles in mind. Imagine if everything was built to the human scale, with easy to access public transportation and pedestrian and bicycle friendliness. I never would have needed a motorcycle, and I would have been able to continue getting around the same way I did all on my own as a kid.

Cities like Amsterdam and Singapore have brought this imagination into reality. They have created incredible infrastructure to support getting around without a car, such as two-lane bike paths (Amsterdam) and the Mass Rapid Transit system (Singapore). This way, cars can be limited from the city center, but everyone can still get to where they need to go.

On the other hand, most US cities have been built to be very car-centric. Like Hanoi, most US cities have a personal vehicle problem. According to Fast Company, about one-third of land in US cities is currently being used for parking. An article from Smart Cities Dive states that the US ranked extremely low on a National Geographic ranking of transit use and walking in different countries. One of the reasons is because of the existence of entire suburban areas in which sidewalks don’t exist so vehicle-pedestrian accidents are significantly more likely to occur. I don’t blame anyone for thinking that getting a car is necessary. Because of the way that many US cities are built, it absolutely is necessary. It’s ingrained in our systems and ingrained in our culture too: according to Scientific American, cars have become a symbol of freedom, independence, adulthood, success, and more. But cities like Amsterdam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, London, or even New York show us that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to build a city for people, not cars.

Think about it, 3000 pounds of steel and hundreds of gallons of gas every year to move a single person around to places they need to go daily. Multiply that by 130 million Americans who commute to and from work by car every day (not even including those who get around for purposes other than work) and you get an incredibly inefficient transportation system. According to The Conversation, passenger rail in the US is around 3 times more efficient than automobile travel on a passenger-mile basis. This is even factoring overall lower occupancy levels for passenger rail in the US, which means that in countries where passenger rail is more prevalent, the disparity would be even greater. In fact, many people don’t realize that with the current occupancy levels of most cars in the US (around 1.5 persons per car), the energy intensity of automobile travel is almost equivalent to that of air travel based on passenger-miles. And yet, US cities often continue to invest in more highways with more lanes and more car-based infrastructure. Which is unfortunate because after all, all you get from adding more lanes is more cars to use those lanes.

And it’s not just about efficiency. A city built around personal vehicles is often less liveable overall. I’ve already touched on pedestrian friendliness, but there’s also the question of particulate matter pollution, noise pollution, green space, land use efficiency, bicycle friendliness, commute times, traffic congestion, and more. And I would say freedom is also an important factor to consider when talking about liveability. Well here’s a hot take: cars don’t make us more free, they take away our freedom. The freedom to cycle, walk, or take public transit is taken away in a city that is designed solely for the car.

The purpose of this article is not to be an attack on cars. I am criticizing car-dependent city infrastructure, not cars themselves. I love cars, and I am not asking for cars to be banned. Cars are absolutely awesome for long-distance trips, especially when you’re riding with friends and family. And car-lovers would probably enjoy driving even more if there were fewer cars on the road! If everyone wasn’t forced to drive, I think driving in general would be a much more enjoyable experience.

Amsterdam 1971 vs 2020. Photo from @schlijper via Twitter.

And before you say that US cities were just built for cars so there’s nothing we can do about it, I present to you the picture above. That’s right, Amsterdam, the global capital of bicycles, used to be a car dependent city as well. So what’s stopping the US from transforming its cities?

The answer is the automobile industry and the lack of a demonstrated need for city reforms. There’s not much we can do about the former, but for the latter, we can urge our city councils to invest more into public transportation. It could be something small, such as making bus stops more accessible.

I wrote this from the perspective of how public transportation can benefit people. I haven’t even touched on the numerous benefits public transportation can bring to the environment, in terms of carbon emissions, manufacturing, waste production, and more, nor the reduced vehicle-related fatalities and accidents in a more pedestrian friendly city. Furthermore, a truly successful transportation system would be accessible to all those who are not physically able to drive. 

I highly recommend learning more about urban planning and public transportation. A good starting place would be the YouTube channel Not Just Bikes, which talks a lot about Dutch city planning. Also check out the Agora Journal, the Taubman Urban Planning and Design Journal and explore other resources from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
The City of Ann Arbor has also recently published a new transportation plan and a carbon neutrality plan. Stay up to date on the accommodation of pedestrian and cycling transportation and the public transportation plans for Ann Arbor by subscribing to email updates from those pages!

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