Only a few American cities sport a metro system worth writing home about. Any outsider who has ridden the train to get around Chicago, Boston or Washington, D.C. will attest that the experience is charming, somehow evocative of both a rustic yesteryear before cars and a soon-attainable urban future. Many leave wondering when their hometowns will get to enjoy the simple pleasures of mass transit.
From countering climate change to lowering barriers for low-income people, the benefits of having modernized, convenient and comprehensive mass transit systems are well-known. Despite the United States’ longstanding car culture, 77% of Americans agree that the country would benefit from expanded public transit systems. Even when voters learn that their taxes may increase, 57% still agree that it’s time to expand transit options.
Given the well-understood benefits and broad support for public transit, why have we failed as a country to build efficient and quality mass transit in every American city? Dysfunctional legislatures, austerity politics and corporate lobbying may be accomplices, but the true culprits are even more widespread in the United States: cars. To get transit rolling, we must get drivers off the roads.
Once upon a time, any American city worth its salt had a streetcar mass transit system, running in public rights-of-way (designated public property for transportation) and crisscrossing neighborhoods at street level. Without cars, these urban railroad systems were the primary force that shaped patterns of living in the metropolis. Only the busiest cities, where streets were clogged by pedestrians and carriages, developed true, grade-separated metro systems — that is, subways and elevated rail. In the years to come, only those systems would survive.
When they were first introduced in the late 1800s, cars were novelties for the super rich, replacing horse-drawn carriages but by no means revolutionizing urban transportation. It was not until 1908 that the Ford Model T was introduced at a low-enough price point to entice middle-income commuters. Almost instantly, America’s early streetcar transit systems began to decay. Gradually, driving became more popular, sucking up potential streetcar riders and demanding ever-more-ample space to combat ever-more-headache-inducing car traffic.
The building of the Interstate Highway System was the final nail in the coffin for early American public transit. With the system’s completion, the car became so indispensable that we had to rebuild our communities to accommodate them: Suburbs sprouted up off expressways and parking lots popped up off turnpikes. Cars were soon everyday essentials, required for most basic chores. Streetcar tracks were ripped up or paved over, and it seemed the United States had turned its back on mass transit in favor of the seemingly utopian family roadster. Meanwhile, drivers became key political stakeholders, advancing their interests at the local and state level.
Fast forward half a century, and cities are still paying the price of the loss of streetcars. Put bluntly, we killed American mass transit in favor of polluting liabilities on wheels, but the bleeding didn’t stop there. Politicians also happily traded away control of streets to a new, uncompromising constituency: drivers. Today, as cities search for space and money to expand transit options, unyielding motorists with decades of car culture at their backs regularly stonewall these efforts. They often force cities to scrap, or at the very least radically alter, common-sense transit solutions to maintain cars’ dominance.
Transportation is a zero-sum game — every trip can only be taken once. For this reason, developing a functional transportation system cannot just be about encouraging public transit, but it must also be about discouraging driving. When we exclusively focus our efforts on building transit that avoids inconveniencing drivers, we are not actually shifting rides toward transit, but just putting a band-aid on a broken system. A better future for transit is possible, and the first step is to make driving harder. Once driving is sufficiently difficult, people will demand new options and migrate to transit in droves.
To expand mass transit, cities have recently attempted to neutralize the political threat drivers pose by building around them. Rather than putting transit back on the streets like the days of yore, planners have opted to avoid removing car lanes, instead buying expensive right-of-way elsewhere, frequently far from where people actually live. When transit authorities do develop in established corridors, they are often forced to bridge over or tunnel under streets at high expense, budgeting for a few expensive projects over many cheap ones. Insisting on expensive new corridors or grade separations limites options and ultimately misses the point: Transit thrives when driving is miserable, so planners should commit little energy to protecting drivers.
This dynamic is visible in the United States today if you know where to look. Cities with notoriously awful driving commutes, like Washington D.C. and New York, have the nation’s most developed transit systems. That said, most American cities do not enjoy the natural density that makes driving a chore and grade separation feasible. To support great transit systems, cities must move to actively worsen conditions for drivers to push them onto transit. American transit will not succeed so long as driving is the easy default.
Getting started will not be hard. After decades of car dominance, most aspects of our lives depends on car travel, so there are plenty of small steps we can take to make driving harder. Small things, like banning new drive-thrus and gas stations near transit corridors, as well as repealing ordinances that mandate minimum parking allotments for new developments, are smart first steps. Urban-minded cities nationwide, like Minneapolis and San Francisco, have already taken these baby steps and demonstrated their effectiveness.
Another trick would be to make driving more expensive through taxation and then funnel the revenues to transit expansion. It may seem punitive to tax cars and gas to fund transit, but the current transportation system is already heavily biased in favor of driving. We spend nearly $200 billion on roads annually just to make driving possible. On top of that, cars cost us billions in climate and health impacts every year. Increasing gas and vehicle taxes would actually balance these costs and push people toward healthier and more sustainable transit systems. Taxing new vehicles, enforcing tolls, charging for street parking and increasing the gas tax are all options in this vein.
Another strategy, freeway removal, has already seen exceptional domestic success. Amid the freeway frenzies of preceding decades, miles of unnecessary and later-underutilized urban highways were constructed, cutting up large communities for the convenience of comparatively few commuters. Cities like Milwaukee and Rochester have already realized their mistakes and chosen to dig up highways. Plenty more, seeing their successes, are preparing to follow suit.
Cities should also take steps to return their streets to transit and pedestrians. Instead of trying to avoid removing parking or driving lanes, transit planners should prioritize reducing vehicle capacity while planning projects and in turn, ensure their projects succeed. Planners should narrow streets with more than two lanes in either direction and add sidewalks and bike lanes.
It’s time for political leaders to start building for the transportation system we need, not planning around the broken system we have. Americans broadly agree it is time to pivot toward a system that expands transit, and that requires not only building new infrastructure, but also unbuilding car-centric infrastructure. Once leaders accept the zero-sum reality of transportation, we will begin the transition to the mass transit systems we deserve.
Jackson McGough ’23 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.