One of the "solutions" that I have heard thrown around to combat the high cost of transportation is either building or improving an existing mass transit system. This all sounds well and good, but there are a few caveats.
From the technological standpoint, there are several mass transit systems already in existence that prove that this is technically feasible. I have ridden on trains in Japan, New York, and currently in Germany. One thing they all share is a huge infrastructure. Let’s take Germany since my memories of the other two are somewhat dated.
The mass transit system in Germany consists of buses and trains. Buses are local, usually traveling through various neighborhoods along main streets, and will deliver passengers to the local train station. The local train is the U-Bahn, similar to the subway or El systems in New York and Chicago. Longer range trains are the S-Bahn, and are usually in the larger cities like Stuttgart, Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, and so on. The next step up are the Regional Bahn & Intercity trains, which travel between towns and cities with the Intercity trains usually traveling only between major cities. The fastest of these are the Intercity Express (ICE) trains which can reach speeds of up to 300 kph (186 mph).
Traveling from my hotel to work usually takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on when I can catch the connecting trains. My journey begins by walking to and taking a bus from my hotel in Stuttgart to the train station. From the train station, I take a train to the main station, and there catch a connecting train to Ludwigsburg. There is a 10 minute walk from the station to the plant. The trains and buses are not always on time – they can be late or early. But if I were to drive, the times would be slightly shorter – the traffic here is pretty bad.
So in this case, mass transit works, providing you are willing to walk and give up the flexibility of a personal vehicle. So this is the first caveat.
How many of the readers out there use public transportation on a regular basis? How about once in your life? I’m willing to bet (and I’m not a gambler) that most of you have not. And one of the reasons that you don’t is convenience.
I will admit that it is extremely convenient of having a vehicle to run those little errands and trips to the store. Driving to the supermarket and loading up the trunk with bags of groceries is extremely appealing and time efficient. And many of us just cannot bear the thought of being inconvenienced.
The second caveat is cost. Quite frankly, it is a real steal for me to use the system. For the average citizen, it is personally expensive. Why? Because this system is subsidized through the government. Yes, in addition to the costs of the tickets one must purchase, the German citizen pays their taxes to subsidize the mass transit system whether they use it or not. [And by the way, they pay around 50% of their gross income through sales taxes (19%), income taxes, tariffs, and so on to support transportation, health care, and so on.]
And so would be the case for any large-scale system in the United States. If I remember correctly, to drive a car across the bridges in Manhattan, there is a fee which goes to help fund the mass transit system (and also used to encourage the use of the system). There will be subsidies to support the system. Why? Refer to the first caveat listed above – there must be participation to offset the cost, and the preference is to use individual methods of transportation (cars). The less participation, the greater the subsidy.
Which brings us to the third caveat – Government. I’ve stated this before in posts and comments – when has government done anything on time and on budget. Answer – never!
I know for a fact that Detroit was offered $100 Million by the Federal Government to help implement a mass transit system – specifically, light rail. The Detroit government officials stalled, bickered, and tried to get their buddies in on this apparent windfall for so long the Federal Government withdrew the funds. I also look at other large scale projects such as the disastrous Big Dig in Boston, and I know that government is not equipped in any way, shape, or form to handle a project like this. Perhaps in the past this was not the case, but present day? Pfffft!!
The last would be our attitudes. We are too wedded to our cars – this is a characteristic of our culture. The car represents freedom in our psyche – what teenager doesn’t lust for his driver’s license (and what parent doesn’t dread it)? There would need to be a massive shift in attitudes before the majority of the population would switch from the liberty that a personal vehicle represents to the restrictive schedule that would be a transit system.
And attitudes are probably the most difficult things to change.