Making Transit the Cornerstone of Urban Mobility 🧱🚆

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”. When I think about this quote by Gustavo Petro, President of Colombia, I can’t help but reflect on the role transit plays in our lives. In the United States, transit is often viewed as a social or public service catering to disadvantaged individuals. Even media, TV, and film reflect this idea by associating car ownership with happiness, success, and freedom, inadvertently juxtaposing characters who ride the bus as being down on their luck. Take this scene from Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness.

Will Smith’s character, Christopher Gardner, and his son on a train as they experience homelessness.

In our sustainable future, we need to embrace transit as a fundamental aspect of our mobility. This means instead of glorifying car culture or immediately dismissing transit culture, we embrace systems that benefit the public good.

The Gist 🎯

Cars have become the primary mode of transportation in the US, leading to urban sprawl, congestion, safety concerns, and emissions. Public transit systems address these issues directly!

A transit-based system revolves around public transportation as the core of mobility options and development patterns. This includes buses, subways, light rail, high-speed rail, cable cars, ferries, and water taxis – you name it; if it’s not a single occupancy vehicle, it’s public transit! Public transportation needs to play a bigger role in our sustainable future, not just because it’s good for the climate but also for our safety, our economies, and our communities.

Climate Reasons:

Transportation accounts for nearly one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US. Communities that invest in public transit can reduce the nation's carbon emissions by 63 million metric tons annually. What I’m saying here is that public transport is a climate solution!

Safety Reasons:

According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), taking public transit reduces the risk of accidents by over 90% compared to commuting by car. With tens of thousands of deaths resulting from car accidents each year (46,000 in 2021), prioritizing public transportation can save lives and prevent injuries.

Economic Benefits:

Public transportation saves the average US household 16 cents of every dollar spent on transportation. By avoiding costs associated with car ownership (purchase, maintenance, or even repairs from accidents), households can save nearly $10,000 annually. Moreover, investing in public transit creates job opportunities, contributing to the local economy.

Communities Benefits:

Public transportation, coupled with active transportation infrastructure (such as wide sidewalks or protected bike lanes), enables people to interact with their communities and neighbors, fostering social connections and building neighborhood resilience. By integrating public transit into community development plans, we can create vibrant and accessible urban environments.

How to Make Transit-Centered Systems a Reality🛤️

Implementing transit-centered systems requires action at both institutional and individual levels. Institutionally, we must invest in more transit options. While major transit projects may take years to complete, we can make improvements immediately with *drumroll* buses!

With some paint to create dedicated bus lanes to enhance efficiency and increase the number of buses to improve frequency, buses can use existing infrastructure to upgrade any existing transit system. See the graphic from the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI) showing how many more people we can move with various transit (+ bike) options.

With buses, we can double our existing capacities; with bike infrastructure, we can increase our capabilities by 6x! With all these options, not only can we make our mobility systems more efficient by moving more people, but we can also do so with lower emissions per mile per capita.

One major challenge to transit usage is that many Americans do not live near adequate transit options. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, ~45% lack transit access. To address this, we need to focus on "transit-oriented development" that builds destinations, downtowns, and homes near transit. This approach reduces the hurdles associated with using transit and discourages urban sprawl.

At an individual level, we need widespread buy-in! We need people to actively utilize transit options and provide feedback to local decision-makers. We need to elect politicians who understand the importance of public transportation, and we should expect them to use these systems themselves – demonstrating their own climate influence (for more on climate influence, listen or read this podcast with Andrea Learned for Fostering Our Earth)!

Finally, we need to demand that media representation of public transportation should shift away from glorifying cars and depict public transit as a viable and desirable choice. We need fewer car commercials that falsely promise freedom and happiness if only you buy the latest model (it won’t). No more depictions of poor folks using transit as a form of punishment or a reflection of their social status.

Questions You Should Be Asking 🙋🏾‍♂️

  • Am I actively using public transportation, and if not, what barriers or perceptions have held me back? How can I overcome these obstacles and incorporate public transit into my daily life?

  • How does my daily transportation choice impact the environment? Have I considered the carbon emissions and environmental consequences associated with my mode of transportation?

  • Next time you’re watching a TV series, a film, or even Superbowl commercials, pay attention to the difference between how cars and transit are portrayed!

Resources 📎

  • Streetsblog is a network of independent, non-profit news organizations that cover transportation, urban planning, and livable streets. They’re super awesome because they have local Streetsblogs for you to follow on transit and urban-related news!

  • The War on Cars Podcast is a podcast hosted by Doug Gordon, Sarah Goodyear, and Aaron Naparstek. They discuss the negative impacts of cars on cities and argue for a more sustainable transportation system. It is a fantastic podcast that reflects this movement against cars in our society!

  • Arrested Mobility Podcast is a podcast hosted by Charles T. Brown. He discusses the ways in which people of color have had their mobility arrested by transportation-related laws and policies. This podcast (and report by Dr. Brown), provide you with a clear yet nuanced look at some of the equities in our built environment.

If you’ve followed any of these, or know of others, feel free to share/comment below!

TL;DR + What’s Next? 🗺️

Transitioning to transit-centered systems requires effort and commitment. However, by driving less frequently, redesigning cities with good mass transit options, and reshaping public perception through media representation, we can work towards meeting our climate goals and creating a sustainable future. Embracing public transportation benefits everyone, fostering economic prosperity, reducing emissions, enhancing safety, and building stronger, interconnected communities. Let's prioritize transit and make it a cornerstone of our mobility systems.

Sustainable Urban Mobility Systems for All (Artwork by Ben Tomimatsu)

If you’ve missed it, Fostering Our Earth now has a podcast! Each month, I’ll post a conversation with a practitioner to break down how we can get to this sustainable future! The first two episodes are up, and you can listen to them here!

As always, if you have any questions or comments, submit them here or below!

Join the conversation

or to participate.