Putting the Masses Behind Mass Transit

Wed Mar 30, 2011 11:25am EDT

It's no secret that Americans are in love with the automobile. Yet, this heavy reliance on autos is taking a toll on the country's flawed transportation system. Fluctuating gas prices, rising everyday living costs, environmental concerns and an aging infrastructure further tax our transportation system and suggest that it's time to reconsider this long-standing love affair with cars.

We're reaching the limits of our capacity and density regarding transportation. Anyone who commutes to work via automobile is likely well-versed in the frustrations caused by traffic, highway degradation and other problems. Yet across the nation we see a real resistance to mass transit.

From New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's decision last fall not to build a second commuter rail line into Manhattan, to the current debate whether to connect Tampa and Orlando, Fla., via high speed rail, mass transit projects often struggle to gain a foothold in the U.S.

Negative associations with massive infrastructural changes, such as Alaska's much-maligned "Bridge to Nowhere" or the extra $12 billion cost to construct the "Big Dig" in Boston, have impacted government funding and public support for mass transit projects. Yet, imagine an America with 50 percent fewer vehicles on the road, where most people commute for work and pleasure by train, where parking garages sit empty because of the popularity of buses as a main source of transportation. As it stands today, this kind of future is hard to imagine.

That's why the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is encouraged by recent remarks from the current administration that improving infrastructure, particularly mass transit, is a priority in the coming years. Past fits and starts aside, this chatter is the first positive step in the resurrection of mass transit, as well as potential real improvement of an aging and ailing system.

Our last true step forward occurred in 2009 when Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - an act which included bold initiatives capable of spurring the design, construction and renovation of sustainable buildings in an effort to create a more green-built environment. The hope was that the Act would signal a change in attitude about infrastructure and show real intent to transform it for the better.

However, in 2010, efforts petered out as the economy, job creation and health reform captured the attention and efforts of the administration and Congress. Granted, we did see significant support to small businesses - another area the AIA heavily supports due to its crucial role in the health and vitality of communities. However, the infrastructure conversation largely went quiet.

But our communities and our economy can't afford to be stuck in this figurative traffic jam for much longer. Rising energy prices, environmental pressures and population growth are taxing our current infrastructure to its limit. Devastating malfunctions, such as the New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina and the Minnesota bridge collapse, are a few of the tragic fallouts of less-than-stellar maintenance. And this doesn't include the dozens of small-town stories that will never reach the eyes and ears of the nation, such as major potholes in roads or broken neighborhood dams. Without change, we can surely expect more occurrences like these. Additionally, according to a study commissioned yearly by the Texas Transportation Institute called the Urban Mobility Report (bit.ly/dJl62), traffic congestion caused by problems on our roadways costs our economy an estimated $80 billion per year. This number, along with the aforementioned collapses, will only continue to grow until we fix what's broken.

Now, we understand that the road to this transportation utopia is not as simple as investment in projects. We also need a sea change in the way people think about mass transit - particularly those in less populated areas where the use of mass transit is a foreign concept in terms of commuting to/from work or for leisure or business travel.

We do, however, see a beginning hunger to get these types of projects off the ground. As previously mentioned, in Florida, the public is keeping a high speed rail project alive despite setbacks from the state government. A proposal to build a high-speed rail line connecting the beaches of Tampa to the tourist haven and theme parks of Orlando (and ultimately include an extension to Miami) was in the works throughout 2010 until Governor Rick Scott rejected a proposal for $2.4 billion in federal funding for the project. Now the leadership of Tampa, with the support of its citizens, is working to draft a proposal to privatize the rail to keep it off the chopping block. (Although it would be great to see state government eventually reinsert itself into the initiative and help bring it to fruition.) A first-of-its-kind rail connecting two major metropolitan areas would signal a big change for the southeastern U.S.

Another example is in my hometown of San Francisco, where we've successfully reduced traffic and congestion within the city by making mass transit a better, faster option for connecting its various parts. It's actually faster for a San Francisco resident to get to San Francisco International Airport via the BART system rather than car. This is an incredible incentive for our residents, who then become ambassadors for the public transit efforts when they travel outside the community.

The road - no pun intended - is long and there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. We must continue to show why mass transit is worthwhile for all communities, ask the current administration to keep this issue at the forefront and continue to take the steps to make this a reality. It's a road worth traveling.

Photo by foolish adler/flickr/Creative Commons

Bill Worthen is the resource architect for sustainability at the American Institute of Architects.