Public transit could be key to future

By Matt Watson

America is the land of cars and highways. Henry Ford may not have invented the automobile, but he perfected the assembly-line production model that enabled every American to own one. Thanks to this, urban sprawl has become etched into our national landscape, destroying corn fields and wilderness to make space for new cookie-cutter subdivisions. Yet the rising cost of owning a car may change the way Americans get from place to place.

A study recently released by the non-partisan New America Foundation, called “Energy Trap,” found that Americans now spend nearly a fifth of their income on driving. The total cost of gas, insurance, tolls, parking, car payments and repairs exceeds the amount most people pay for health care or taxes. This may sound startling considering how much vitriol is injected into any debate on the last two subjects, but it’s probably because Americans are married to their enormous Ford Expeditions.

Europeans who vacation in the U.S. are always surprised at Americans’ reliance on automobiles. European cities are compact and dense with excellent public transportation systems. Gas is far more expensive across the pond, mostly because governments don’t subsidize petroleum. Not only does this model save commuters money, but it creates a greener environment. Cars are one of the major sources of greenhouse gases, as anyone who’s witnessed Los Angeles’ thick blanket of smog will attest.

For varying reasons, proposing anything “European” is an automatic death sentence these days, which is sad because our trans-Atlantic cousins have got this one right. Politicians on both sides of the aisle cry for a need to end our reliance on foreign oil—yet domestic drilling will not solve our problem. We need to end our reliance on our beloved automobiles. It would not only make America the world leader in curbing carbon emissions, but it could very well save our economy.

Conservatives frequently cite high taxes as a major reason the U.S. economy is still in the tank. They claim if people had more take-home income, they would spend more on other goods. That may be true, but if we pay more for cars than we do taxes, what is the real problem?

Normally, people scale back on buying things as they get more expensive. But people need gas so badly, they’re willing to pay anything for it. At the height of the gas crisis in 2008, when prices reached more than $4 per gallon, demand only dropped 3 percent, according to “Energy Trap.” Americans adjusted to higher gas prices by spending less on going out to eat, purchasing new TVs and going on shopping sprees. It’s very likely that the state of the economy and lower consumer demand is the direct result of high gas prices.

The answer is easy—America needs to completely revamp its public transportation on a scale that ensued in the 1950s with the interstate system. That initiative, which cost billions, spurred economic growth for decades and created the infrastructure our economy relies on today.

The implementation won’t be as easy, though. It’ll take drastic public spending programs that are currently unpopular and a change in the culture of American transportation. Chicago and New York City have the only 24-hour heavy rail service in the nation. This city has long been a leader in public transit, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has continued that tradition with congestion fees and higher parking prices for commuters in his 2012 budget.

Other cities need to catch up. It’s time for every American metropolis to build rail systems that bring people

from where they live to where they work and shop. The high-speed rail bill that the president touted in the Stimulus Package didn’t go far enough. It was watered down, like too many Democratic proposals, due to a public that’s too squeamish to invest in public transit. Get over it. There’s no more time for half-baked ideas.

End tax breaks for Big Oil and use the savings as a down payment on new infrastructure.

This issue needs to be brought front and center in the political debate. In one fell swoop our economy could be put back on track by putting thousands back to work building the infrastructure and ending our need to buy expensive gas. Greenhouse emissions would decrease more than any cap-and-trade bill could prompt. And America would also be less dependent on oppressive Middle Eastern regimes for their liquid gold. It’s like killing a flock of birds with one stone.