According to the American Public Transportation Association, Americans are using public transportation more today than at any other time since 1956. Public transit provided 10.7 billion individual rides last year, a 1.1 percent increase over 2012 and the latest uptick for an industry that has seen a 37.2 percent increase in ridership since 1995. This is something to crow about.
More than most places—the grocery store, shopping center, basketball arena—public transit has long provided an arena for social change in the United States. Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx reflected,
“I can’t help but think of the historic connection between transportation and the civil rights movement. Literally or figuratively, transportation has played a role throughout the history of our nation’s progress toward civil rights. And it still does.
“When escaped slaves sought their freedom, they traveled on the Underground Railroad.
“In the mid-1950s, a young woman who sat down and refused to get up—she did it on a transit bus. And the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system resulted in changes that spread across the South.
“The Civil Rights Movement was about all Americans having access to the same opportunities. And our transportation system connects people to those opportunities.”
Remarkable words from a cabinet member who recognizes that his purview extends far beyond roads, rails, and runways. Secretary Foxx gets that how we move—the mode of transportation we choose, the route we take, and the fellow travelers we encounter along the way—carries far-reaching implications, especially for our economy, environment, and foreign policy. Here are three:
Public transportation helps combat climate change. A private auto produces 0.96 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile, while public transit (averaged out among bus, heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, and van pools) yields 0.45 pounds per passenger-mile. The EPA estimates that public transport saves America 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year—this is equivalent to the emissions resulting from the electricity generated from 4.9 million households, or every household in Washington, D.C., New York City, Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles combined. And public transportation saves the U.S. 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline every year, more than triple the amount of gas we refine from oil imported from Kuwait.
Public transportation creates jobs and promotes economic growth. Every $1 billion invested in the U.S. transportation infrastructure supports and creates some 47,500 jobs. That billion-dollar investment also leads to a net gain in GDP of $3.5 billion. Businesses located near public transportation services see improved productivity through better employee reliability and less absenteeism and turnover. Since public transport allows more people more access to more jobs, employers have larger, more diverse labor pools from which to draw workers, which leads to yet another improvement in community efficiency and prosperity.