If you were to ask people who have nothing at stake, they would probably agree to spending money on making our cities more comfortable to live in. So many urban environments are being affected by smog. More people are finding it difficult to breathe freely. Surely everyone would benefit by diverting locally collected taxes to protecting the environment. Except nothing is ever that simple when many states have a budget deficit and the majority of taxpayers resist the idea of paying more, no matter how beneficial the outcome might be.
Politicians and the powerful tend to drive
The problem with many public transport systems like subways, buses, etc. is that they tend to be inconvenient. You have to walk to get the ride. There’s often waiting time involved and the final drop-off point is not always next to where you want to go. The result is that no matter how bad the congestion on the streets, it’s often more efficient to drive than use public transport. So when talking heads begin with messages about saving the world from climate change or the different ways in which we might all be persuaded to drive less, there’s not going to be a lot of traction among the audience. No matter how bad the atmosphere and the jams, the car remains the single most convenient way to move around. It also resonates with the dream people have about independent lifestyles. Rise above the crowd and experience the freedom of the open road. What makes this an interesting debate is that it breaks along political lines. The GOP has libertarian leanings. The Democrats want to socialize transport for the benefit of the community.
Are there problems with the car?
The US Department of Energy calculates the average consumption of a car as being 3,364 BTU per passenger mile whereas buses “only” consume 4,240 BTUs. Since most cars only carry four people this is a poor performance as against buses: a Greyhound has room for fifty-five passengers plus the driver which is dramatically more efficient in moving people around. So encouraging the use of fuel efficient buses saves a massive amount of energy and reduces congestion with all its pollution.
So what should city planners do?
The roads carrying the heaviest traffic loads should be widened and on- and off-ramps should be improved. There should be policies encouraging car-sharing and pooling. Building a network of charging stations for electric vehicles will encourage their use. And states could offer tax incentives or grants to guide people into buying more environmentally friendly vehicles. But at the heart of all policies, there should be affordable public transport options with dedicated lanes to allow passengers to move more rapidly at peak hours. Just talking about the problems is never going to solve them. Only when states and cities commit themselves to positive action can we expect to see any change in public opinion and driver behavior.