Why We Need Transit and What’s Needed to Make It Work

See also our Why trains? page

Public Health

The average American walks about 300 yards per day. – Sierra Magazine, Jan/Feb 2007, P. 25.

Caltrain riders who volunteered to wear pedometers for five weeks averaged 10,499 daily steps doing their normal walk-plus-transit to get to work, nearly double the number of steps they took when they did something different such as get a ride, carpool or drive.

Getting medical care — people who are unable to drive due to low income, physical or mental disability, often have difficulty getting access to preventative health care and routine care to treat chronic diseases. These conditions, such as a child’s asthma, left untreated or poorly-managed, can result in a need for costly emergency care or else abuse of 911 and emergency transportation services to access routine care. A Transportation Research Board study found that providing non-emergency medical transportation leads to a reduction in health care costs. For some health conditions, savings in health care costs exceed the increase in transportation costs; for others, they are a cost-effective way of improving life expectancy and quality of life.

Our kids need it.

Over the past thirty years, we’ve designed our streets and developments more for cars than for people. A focus on making automobile travel as fast and convenient as possible has created streets where people have become afraid to walk and to bike, and they’re afraid to let their kids walk and bike. This has made many kids virtual prisoners of their houses, dependent on adults to chauffeur them to every outside activity, and affects their socialization — such as that of the children involved in the shootings in Littleton, Colorado at Columbine High School .

Partly as a result of a huge decline in kids walking and biking to school, childhood obesity has increased so much that the U.S. National Institutes of Health warns that this generation will not live as long as as their parents will unless aggressive efforts are made to reduce obesity. Air pollution from automobile use increases asthma and cancer rates and shortens children’s lives. Our society’s infrastructure choices are making people’s lives shorter, not longer.

Our habits are starting to produce cataclysmic climate change that may soon be impossible to reverse.

We have a moral imperative to change our development patterns to reduce our greenhouse emissions and to support long, healthy, high-quality lives for our children.

And so do we.

As baby boomers age, a much larger percentage of our society will become unable to drive.  In San Mateo County, for example, the 65+ year-old population will double and the 85-plus population will jump 50 percent within two decades.

Almost all of us will become unable to drive during the last three years of our life if we are fortunate to live to old age.

When that time comes for us, what kind of quality of life will we enjoy? How will we get to our health care appointments?

Studies show that seniors who have access to good public transit get out of the house more and are several times more likely to make it to medical appointments instead of staying house-bound.

Not just because our population is growing.

Rates of car ownership and the total number of miles those cars are driven each year have been growing faster than our population has been growing.

The 100 millionth American arrived in 1915 into a country with 2.5 million cars; the 200 millionth was born 52 years later, in 1967, when there were 98.9 million cars; now, 39 years later, the 300 millionth person will have the opportunity to breathe in tailpipe emissions from 237.2 million cars. (source, Grist Magazine Online, October 17, 2006)

Transit helps build efficient economies.

Cities with good public transit spend less money on road maintenance, and have more money available to meet other needs. These urban areas build wealth. Good public transit provides a vital economic service. Rail transit is about four times more energy efficient than the automobile.

What Transit Needs to Succeed

Public transit needs many people living and working close together to use the service.  When you don’t have a lot of people who need to ride the transit service at any given moment, buses or trains would be mostly empty, a situation that no agency can financially sustain.

An acre of land provides surface parking for less than 120 cars. Parking lots consume so much land that they force destinations to be spread out and make walking less pleasant and convenient, encouraging auto use. By consuming large amounts of land, parking increases the cost of doing business and is never “free”. Transit is most successful when zoning by transit stations encourages more housing and development to be built nearby, with design that encourages people to walk or bike in a pleasant environment for transport rather than drive. The presence of transit alone is insufficient to get people to give up the car. Land use, thoughtful urban design, and population density is critical to the success of transit.

In less dense suburban areas, an agency might run a bus or train once an hour or less in order to lose less money, but this is not convenient for anyone. A service may operate only during rush hour, and cease by 7 pm. Such inconvenient service is mainly patronized by people who have no other option for getting around, or highly environmentally- conscious people who are willing to plan their lives around the limited service. Most will stick to driving.

Infrequent service is less of a barrier for riders who must travel great distances of 50 miles or more, or who use it for a regular commute. Those travelers are more willing to plan their lives around the infrequent schedule to enjoy the benefits of not having to drive. We see this with air travelers. They’re resigned to the fact that they need to spend hours traveling, and a half-hour difference in the scheduled departure, say, from 10 AM to 10:30 AM, won’t make them decide to not fly. They simply plan around it.

For most daily living, however, infrequent transit service is a deal breaker. A transit agency can go into a downward spiral of not attracting riders and having to cut service even more, and develops a poor reputation.

This is why public transit is hard to sustain in rural areas; operates less frequently in suburban areas, and operates most frequently in urban areas. It’s partly a chicken-or-egg problem, but population density matters when it comes to transit use.

Those of us who use public transit, like for it to be frequent and of high quality. We enjoy many of the cultural and social resources of urban life like good restaurants, the arts, and work opportunities that are only available when lots of industrious people live close to each other. Good transit makes it possible to free up land that would otherwise be used for cars and car parking (which generally otherwise takes up 30% of the land) and use it to build housing, a restaurant, or a public park instead. But it doesn’t do this automatically; very intentional zoning and policy changes have to be made to change the suburban development pattern.