America needs reliable public transportationBy Nathan Campbell | 01/19/2017 12:02am
CW / Kylie Cowden
Our system of roadways has unquestionably become the lifeblood of the nation. We view driving, especially in our youth, as one of our most important symbols of freedom; getting our driver’s license is a milestone that some view as more important than any birthday. The sprawling, isolated suburbs that many of us hail from are linked by highways, like beads on a string. Interstates are the basis for the “road trip” trope that has manifested itself throughout American culture, from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to Chevy Chase’s Vacation. We have utilized and romanticized every last mile of the American highway system.
Yet, this criss-crossing web of highways and roads is strangling our nation. The millions of cars trapped in constant congestion pollute the air we breathe with particulate matter, carbon monoxide and any number of toxic gases. Time is wasted each day in traffic congestion and painfully long commutes. Interstates slice through neighborhoods, especially poorer neighborhoods, compromising the visual appeal as well as the health of the residents. And the endless miles of asphalt trap heat, forcing urban temperatures higher and creating “heat islands.”
American cities are plagued by sprawl. We have torn cities apart, transplanting the vital wealth and residents to distant suburbs and filling in the gaps with more and more asphalt. What has resulted is a hellscape of highways, interrupted only temporarily by fast food drive-thrus and uninspiring strip malls. We have taken the vastness of our country and paved every inch we can get our hands on.
The United States lacks something that virtually every other highly- developed nation possesses: a reliable public transportation system.
During the summer after my freshman year, I studied abroad in Innsbruck, Austria. Among the many things that captured my awe during the trip, I was most taken aback by my ability to get around the bulk of the city and of Europe itself without a car. I had never taken a train in my life. Trains were just something I had seen in movies or TV shows; they had not made it to my part of the United States. But I loved being able to take a two-hour train ride to Germany or Switzerland or Italy. That was true freedom.
The United States needs a clean, reliable high-speed rail system, connecting our otherwise isolated cities. Imagine with me for a minute the possibilities of a high-speed rail system. Imagine being able to buy a $30 ticket to Atlanta or Nashville or Memphis, sitting back and relaxing in a comfortable, air-conditioned compartment with your friends. Imagine being able to cross the vast expanse of this beautiful nation, from New York City to Los Angeles, in one-third of the time of a car. Plus, you don’t have to stop and fill up every hundred miles or so.
Aside from relieving traffic congestion and reducing carbon emissions, central train stations can be hubs for economic development and tourism. The big advantage of trains over planes and cars is their ability for the traveler to arrive immediately in the city center, as opposed to a distant airport or city periphery. These transit hubs can be the basis for retail, business development and housing. When I visited cities across Europe, these central train stations put me within walking distance of anywhere I wanted to visit. Businesses and cities are willing to build around central train stations.
But it won’t be enough to simply lay down tracks from city to city. For high-speed rail to be successful, it must be the centerpiece of a low-carbon society. Dense cities, complete with bike-friendly streets and reliable intra-city public transportation systems, must be the ultimate goal. Suburbs, the manifestation of urban sprawl, must be connected to cities by regional trains. Travelers must be able to arrive in the city center and immediately have access to subways, buses, bike-sharing and ride-sharing services in order to reach their final destination. Moreover, this reliable public transportation system must be accessible to all, no matter if the users come from affluent areas or impoverished areas. Some cities are excelling in developing these transit systems, but a national effort needs to be undertaken.
I despise most of the platform that Donald Trump ran on. I’m not going to hide that fact. But he has spoken on the need for investment in infrastructure. While I have my reservations about what his plans might entail, I can get behind the need for infrastructure investment, as long as public transportation is included in that plan.
Nathan Campbell is a junior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly.