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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

We Can Have a Public Transit Paradise

We can build effective mass transit. But this requires ending the dominance of the automobile, an inefficient and dangerous method of transit.

Elon Musk does not care for public transit. The main reason appears to be that it forces you to spend time around other people, and, to him, other people are disgusting:

“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time. It’s a pain in the ass. … That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

It should be no surprise that the world’s richest man does not like the idea of spending time near random strangers, and considers them all potential serial killers. There is nothing more discomforting to a rich man than having to spend time in the company of the plebs. Musk’s own transportation solutions—tunnels for Tesla cars to catch fire in, a hyperloop that’ll fling you across California at high speed—have been underwhelming, and his innovation has mostly been in making luxury electric cars cool through branding.

But some of what Musk points out here about American mass transit is true: a lot of it is painfully inefficient. It can take hours to get across a U.S. city on a bus, when driving would take a fraction of the time. Commutes on mass transit tend to take about twice as long as commutes by car. The overwhelming majority of Americans do not take public transit to work—76 percent of Americans commute by driving alone in a car (another 9 percent carpool), while only 5 percent use mass transit. Only 4 percent of workers live in households that don’t have a car.

The dominance of the personal automobile is unfortunate for a few reasons. Cars kill a lot of pedestrians and drivers, among myriad other harms, as George Monbiot explains:

Traffic mutes community, as the noise, danger and pollution in busy streets drive people indoors. The places in which children could play and adults could sit and talk are reserved instead for parking. Engine noise, a great but scarcely acknowledged cause of stress and illness, fills our lives. As we jostle to secure our road space, as we swear and shake our fists at other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, as we grumble about speed limits and traffic calming, cars change us, enhancing our sense of threat and competition, cutting us off from each other.”

Cars are also terrible for the climate. Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and while electric cars promise to help, when the electricity itself comes from fossil fuels, these cars are not as environmentally friendly as they seem. Because of the U.S. energy sector’s fossil fuel intensity, Carbon Brief reports that “when compared to the most efficient conventional [gas-powered] vehicle, the climate benefits of the EV [electric vehicles] were near-zero or negative in large parts of the country.” Powering EVs with renewable energy is critical to ensuring electric vehicles deliver on their promise, and differences in the energy sources mean that the same electric car can be much better for the environment if it is driven in France or Norway than if it is driven in Minnesota.

Cars do not have to be our future despite what the cynics might say about mass transit. Randall O’Toole, a libertarian urban planning scholar, argues that those advocating mass transit in the U.S. simply need to give up, because cars are this country’s past, present, and future:

“I have a message for these anti-auto activists: The war on the automobile is over. The automobile won. More accurately, auto drivers and users won. It is time for those engaged in this war to stop wasting their time, and everyone else’s, and start doing something productive. People concerned about the impacts of the automobile should give up trying to reduce driving, which has never worked, and instead encourage new automobiles and highways that are safer, cleaner, and more energy efficient.”

But the war on the automobile cannot have been “lost,” because it was never fought in the first place. Instead, the car waged war on the American city. The car triumphed only in part because of its inherent advantages; it also succeeded because the city was adapted to accommodate it, and car use was incentivized and subsidized. In today’s car-centric cities of the U.S., pedestrians are killed by automobiles at alarming rates compared to peer nations, and the law has been used to make places very unfriendly to pedestrians in terms of sidewalk and street crossing availability. A city with successful transit, on the other hand, has to be more pedestrian friendly. Since everyone has to walk to a stop or station, designers would necessarily have to create safe crossings and sidewalks. It’s impossible to make mass transit work in places where just getting around as a pedestrian requires crossing dangerous roads. It’s no wonder the car “won” in places where the law and development combined to make alternative modes of transportation like biking and walking the equivalent of taking your life in your hands.

Cars are popular in part because they grant their owners a sense of freedom. You don’t have to follow someone else’s schedule or route; you can just get in and go where you like. Those particular freedoms can never be equaled by mass transit, which by its nature involves serving the needs and desires of more than one person at a time. A bus is a compromise between different people’s preferences about where to go. But great transit can provide other kinds of freedom, like the freedom from the burden of having to own and insure a car. When I lived in the Boston area, having a car was a pain, because finding parking was a pain and getting stuck in traffic was a pain. Riding the subway was fantastic, because it was cheap, skipped the traffic, and usually got me pretty close to where I needed to be, fairly near to the time I needed to be there. I had a car, but it was burdensome rather than liberating.

Since the U.S. is a car country, electric vehicles are going to be a crucial part of reducing transportation sector emissions. But we are also seriously lagging behind when it comes to mass transit. Transit is staggeringly efficient; one New York City L train can carry as many commuters in a single hour as 2,000 cars. If the 2.4 million people who work in Manhattan all had to drive to work, the parking spots needed to accommodate all of their cars would take up more space than the island itself. From a climate perspective, the benefits of efficiently transporting large numbers of people in a small space can be huge. While a typical passenger car with one person gets 25 passenger miles per gallon, a conventional bus at capacity gets 163 passenger miles per gallon.

Note, though, that this is a bus at capacity. Running an empty bus is a huge waste of energy. Building public transit infrastructure is not going to help anyone unless people actually use it. And there we run into some of the problems outlined in Musk’s rant: mass transit is not always a very good way to get you where you need to go. It is often the transportation of last resort, used by people who cannot afford cars. In dense cities like New York City and Boston, riding public transit may actually be preferable to driving. But in many parts of the country, those who ride the bus have to ride the bus, and buses have a negative public image in part because they are seen as being for those who can’t afford cars. This has not been helped by decades of automaker branding that has painted car ownership as a sign of being successful in life, and mass transit’s image will have to be reversed if we are ever going to alter its downward ridership trends (which had begun even before COVID-19 badly damaged transit ridership).

The main problem, though, is not bad branding but bad service. People don’t take public transit because it’s not giving them what they want. Some of this is because of a decades-long history of bad American land use policies which have encouraged the development of places that require a car to get around. Undoing car-centric sprawl is a very long-term project, but well-designed, well-run transit can be successful even in places seemingly ill-suited for it. Houston, for instance, redesigned its bus routes with a focus on giving people frequent, reliable service and saw a substantial increase in ridership. Charlotte’s light rail system has seen healthy ridership numbers and boosted development. The U.S. is not automatically doomed to have unreliable public transit that serves as the “locomotion of last resort.” As Bloomberg notes,

“There are good, viable models of transit systems that … are successful both at attracting riders and at being financially viable, from places that have more in common with American cities than one might expect…. [Yet] all too often, transit planners—and even advocates—find themselves resigned to fatalism about the prospect of transit in American suburbs. They’re convinced that these spread-out and car-centric spaces are fundamentally irreconcilable with public transportation.”

Christof Spieler’s fascinating book Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit profiles the transit systems of dozens of U.S. cities, showing how some places are succeeding where others are failing, and demonstrating the principles that make for quality transit that attracts riders.

Some of those principles are straightforward. Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives lists seven demands that potential public transit riders have, which will determine whether they decide to actually use the system:

  • It takes me where I want to go.
  • It takes me when I want to go.
  • It is a good use of my time.
  • It is a good use of my money.
  • It respects me in the level of safety, comfort, and amenity it provides.
  • I can trust it.
  • It gives me freedom to change my plans.

Seems straightforward, but plenty of cities lack transit systems that meet the criteria. For instance, here in New Orleans, the average person can reach 89 percent of the jobs in the area with a 30-minute commute via car. They can only reach 12 percent of area jobs with a 30-minute commute on public transit. This means that those who can’t afford cars are severely limited in the work they can accept. Transit is not taking them where they want to go.

A lot of transit systems are disappointing because they’re not built around reaching these intuitively obvious basic goals. But when public transit delivers great service at a low cost, people will use it. Plenty of improvements can occur without redesigning entire cities, and Walker argues that cities often measure the wrong things, seeing expanding transit in terms of adding more miles of rail or making sure the entire city is covered by bus routes. Such approaches may appear successful because they make lots of impressive lines on a map (and allow for mayoral ribbon-cutting ceremonies), but cities can end up spending a lot of money to serve areas with few riders.

Some improvements that attract new riders are decidedly unromantic. Increasing the frequency that buses arrive, for instance, makes it much easier to incorporate bus travel into one’s day, which is why part of Houston’s bus system overhaul focused on frequency. (“Frequency is freedom,” Walker says.) Dedicated bus lanes and stoplights that give buses priority will keep buses from getting stuck in traffic. Making sure the routes, fares, and schedule are all easy to understand will make transit less of a headache, and thus make people more likely to consider it. It should be obvious: the more public transit is an attractive alternative to driving, the more people are likely to consider it. In general, research shows that the thing people want most is for the transit system to get them places efficiently; they don’t care nearly as much about whether they’re riding a beautiful, comfortable train or a janky old bus (so long as that bus is reliable).

Musk, then, is right that the central measure of public transit’s success is whether it gets you where you want to go, but he’s wrong in thinking that cars will always and everywhere beat public transit on this measure. We can have a public transit paradise, but we have to keep the goals in mind. Public transit should not just serve as a form of unsatisfactory transportation welfare for the carless. It should be able to liberate all of us from dreadful, environmentally harmful commutes in vehicles. We need to be committed to mass transit that truly serves the people, that people do not take because they have to, but take because they want to. It can be done, but getting world-class mass transit in the U.S. will require taking on the Koch brothers and steadily redesigning cities, in ways both small and large, to be for people rather than their cars. 

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