Bus Cuts Drive Americans Back to Cars

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Bus Cuts Drive Americans Back to Cars

The BP oil spill may make people reconsider their dependency on cars – but budget cuts are limiting public transport options

by
Sasha Abramsky

Just at the moment when the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill has generated two months of non-stop headlines about the dangers of oil dependency and the federal government in America finally has something of a platform to call for Americans to wean themselves off oil dependency, cities, counties and states across the US are decimating their public transit systems and forcing people, willy-nilly, to return to their cars.

In most countries, one might expect fiscal collapse to lead to more people taking public transport. After all, while buses, trams, light rail, and underground systems are less convenient than private vehicle usage, and while using such systems oftentimes involves sharing one's environs with too many people and too many competing body odours, at least it's cheaper than filling up one's car with gas and driving miles each day. Utilising public transport is a sensible, relatively painless way to penny pinch.

But, in America, at least in part because public transport has not, in recent years, won the hearts and minds of the politically influential classes in many regions of the country, these systems are peculiarly vulnerable to cuts during the down-times. In fact, a poll released in early April by the Economist indicated that, faced with declining government revenues, more than twice as many Americans would want federal public transit subsidies cut versus reductions to highways expenditures. At a local level, too, many Americans' relationship to public transit systems is tendentious at best. And hence the tragic irony: as local governments continue to haemorrhage revenues, and thus have to look for evermore ways to tighten their belts, so public transit systems suffer.

Take Sacramento, California's capital city, for example. For three years now, aid to public transit systems across the state has been slashed by legislators. Now the dollar reductions are hitting home in a big way. In Sacramento, huge service cuts, designed to save the local transit system $12m, are now in effect. Twenty-six weekday bus routes have been entirely eliminated, along with many weekend routes. Late night light rail service has been ended, and earlier evening services slashed. From the peak of the boom times to now, Sacramento's public transit system has shrunk by about a third. The result? A major metropolitan area with no functional public transportation system for workers needing to get to and from jobs late at night or in the dawn hours of the morning.

On the other side of the country, New Jersey recently cut more than 30 trains for commuters. Cleveland cuts services by 12%. And the list goes on.

In the Denver region, where a succession of mayors have been promoting sustainable growth models in recent years that rely heavily on an expanded public transit system being able to bring commuters in from the suburbs, cutbacks are putting the new model at risk. Free shuttle busses are becoming a thing of the past in some 'burbs. Elsewhere, routes are being reduced.

Even cities such as New York, Chicago, DC and Boston – all places where the middle classes use public transportation systems almost as regularly as do their less affluent neighbours, and where mass transit ridership has soared in recent years – are seeing vast cuts to services. Free rides for students were cut last December in New York, where the Metropolitan Transit Authority is facing a stunning $800m shortfall, and the system is laying off large numbers of employees.

Getting serious about America's energy crunch means finding ways to keep public transport systems attractive to users even during the harsh economic years we are currently living through. Bad systems that cover cities inadequately during the daytime and not at all at night simply scare riders back into their cars. And once that relationship of consumers to public transit systems is broken it may well prove impossible to rebuild – even when the economy rebounds.

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Demos. His next book, Inside Obama's Brain, will be published by Penguin's Portfolio imprint in December 2009

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