Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not necessarily parallel to the views of Bellarmine College Preparatory.
written by our collaborators at the Bellarmine Political Review
by Tom Vosganian
On the eleventh of March 2022, around four dozen students in the San Francisco Bay Area across 25 miles of land from Burlingame to Sunnyvale get up in the morning between 6:30 and 7:50. They make their way to their local Caltrain station and wait for the locomotive to take them to their high school, Bellarmine College Preparatory. Some take the train because they cannot drive, their parents are unable to drive them, or they want some semblance of independence when travelling. They periodically check the electronic schedule or listen to the audio announcements. “Expect delays of up to five minutes.” “Expect delays of up to eight minutes.” “Expect delays of up to twenty minutes.” After a twenty-two-minute delay, the train finally comes. One sophomore gets on the train at San Antonio station, near Los Altos. After listening to a few Pop Smoke songs, a junior tells him that the train will not be stopping at College Park station, near Bellarmine. All the students on the train get off at Santa Clara station and walk the remaining two miles to the nearest bus station. They take the bus to the station two blocks from their school and run to the dean’s office to get late slips. While a few students being late for their classes is not breaking news, it is worth asking why the train was so late that day. What caused system-wide delays and drastic failures? The morning before, on March tenth, one of Caltrain’s commuter trains collided with a truck doing track maintenance, injuring 13 people (ABC7). An American rail service experienced a preventable collision, took days to fix it, and ultimately, threw off its entire schedule. Along with these students were many employed adults. Caltrain’s website estimated roughly 65,000 riders every weekday prior to the pandemic, while the San Mateo-based Daily Journal estimates current ridership is around 11,000 per weekday as of March 2022. These workers heard the announced delay too. Many are essential workers or low-income citizens who rely on public transportation to get to work. This issue extends beyond Caltrain, including Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART. Amid the pandemic, use of public transit fell across income brackets and commercial lines. BART in particular saw noticeable changes in its operating quality. Wait times doubled, services decreased, all during one of the greatest socioeconomic shocks in recent history (San Francisco Chronicle). California is not renowned for its public transportation and the United States broadly has subpar mass transit. Only the nation’s biggest cities are credited with having “good” public transportation, and even then, they pale in comparison to European transit networks. To put it simply, American public transportation is abysmal. The United States has historically been on the cutting edge of railroad transportation and services and still has the most miles of rail out of any country today. Why is it not used effectively?
Railroad was not originally designed to be a public service. The first modern railroad to be invented in Great Britain would only be used to transport raw material from one industrial center to another. As the Library of Congress explains, the technology came to the United States in the 1760s to transport military equipment. The United States’ first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, would be established in 1827, after a survey done by Baltimore financiers found it would provide an efficient route to transport goods from the Mid-Atlantic coast to the Midwest. At the time, this event was celebrated as an economic and technological marvel. The West Virginia Newspaper, the Wheeling Intelligencer, described the tracks passing through their town as “important in its bearing upon the great Commercial interests of the entire Union” (Ohio County Public Library). To them, the creation of this railroad signaled a new interstate unity, calling it the birth of an “intimate connection.” This would prove to be a common theme as nations industrialized. When Canada built their first railroad system, it was referred to as a “ribbon of steel” (University of Alberta) that tied the nation together. The United States rapidly increased its production of railroad in tandem with its expansion to the west, reaching its zenith of 254,000 miles by 1916 (AAR). At this point in time, the locomotive’s use as public transportation was versatile commonplace. Street cars had already been established in cities like New Orleans and Boston, and by 1868, the first elevated cable-powered line would be established in New York (FTA). Around the turn of the century, cities began to finance public transportation, providing efficient commutes to all citizens. In San Francisco, the first cable car system was invented in 1873, a massive development in the growth of the city. Powered by simple physics, it was able to move dozens of people up and down the steep terrain. It was such a beloved institution, that investors in the streetcar would invest in the surrounding lands, driving economic development. Author Gary Kamiya argues the invention of the cable car “altered the sociological, economic character of the city” (PBS). Early public transit was far from utopian, as derailments were not unheard of, especially on new lines but overall, cities saw tangible improvements as they built public transportation. As Jonathan Mahler of New York Times Magazine explains, the subway was a cornerstone that held up New York as it grew to be a cosmopolitan economic powerhouse; it provided reliable transportation to all economic classes, taking bankers to Wall Street and laborers to their factories. The subway would never be segregated and would always be operational. He poetically observes, “It brings people together, but it also spreads people out.” Contrary to this development, a new technological innovation came into being during the twentieth century: the automobile. Advertised as a revolutionary invention responsible for more Americans being able to see more of the country, Henry Ford’s Model T shifted how Americans view transportation from convenience to freedom. The Los Angeles Times describes it as creating a new “freedom of movement”. Despite the fact that the prevalence of cars has led to Americans focusing their income on gas, spending 54 hours a year in traffic (CNN), and have increased carbon emissions (Through both their use and manufacture), the automobile still persists as the ultimate symbol of freedom. While most would nod along in agreement with the idea that cars bring freedom, this view is completely misguided and has unfortunately led to public transportation’s increasing decline.
As cars became more popular to American consumers, the railroad industry’s best days had been placed firmly behind them. Numerous corporations went bankrupt once trucking became the primary means for transporting goods and resources across the nation. On top of this development, as American neighborhoods were being constructed, they were built upon the isolating foundation of suburbs. Amid the “white flight” of the 1950s and 60s, American suburbs catered to wealthy white families who could afford cars. They had no need for public transportation and as such, it saw next to no development in suburban areas. This presents American transit with one of its biggest problems: suburban sprawl. Suburbs are by design an isolating force in American culture.
This isolating force is a direct product of American zoning laws. As the FTA describes, many cities’ zoning laws simply prohibit the development of public transit in the area. This has further severed suburbs from commercial centers, as housing developments are mandated to occupy different zones than workplaces, grocery stores, and government buildings. Previously, Americans lived in what would now be called “mixed-zoning” areas. Houses were near shops, office buildings, and public transit, giving Americans a true sense of community. Now, if a suburban citizen wants to go anywhere in an efficient amount of time, they need a car to drive to a strip mall on the outskirts of their neighborhood or drive down a highway to get to a city. This problem is almost exclusive to America. European cities have the benefit of being older and denser, and therefore, better at accommodating public transportation, while Chinese and Japanese cities wisely invested in railroad as they developed in the postwar era. European cities flipped the equation that guided American urban development. In Europe, cities were built around transportation, while in the United States, transportation was built around cities. Bloomberg descries this contrasting the infamous Levittown with the Swedish town of Vällingby. While Levittown was built with highway access in mind, catering to upper-class families, Vällingby was sited around the metro station. While European nations did build highways in the 20th century, most notably, the autobahn, they also built railroad in tandem. In the United States however, one mode of transportation was traded for another. To be clear, the United States does have Amtrak, the official national passenger rail corporation. Established in 1971, it was created to prevent commuter rail from going extinct, as more people relied on cars and most rail operators turned to freight for business. From the start, Amtrak was plagued with poor maintenance, low rail ownership, and lack of a consumer base. As Vox reports, the United States only accounts for 3.7 billion passenger commutes worldwide, Europe accounts for ten billion and Asia sees 26 billion annual trips. There is no reason for this to be the case. The United States is an enormous, technologically advanced nation with highly populated urban centers spread across its territory. The nation should not be struggling to connect its population.
American public transportation is an international punchline. While certain aspects of the United States’ development, such as the creation of highways, were not explicitly done to rebuff public transit, much of the United States’ transportation woes are attributable to capitalism’s pursuit of wealth. Due to the United States’ aversion to nationalization, private industry has swept American railroad, putting profit over passengers. 75% of railroad traveled by Amtrak trains is not owned by Amtrak. Amtrak pays these companies to use their railroads, however, these corporations ultimately have the final say over when the tracks are used for commuters. These tracks are largely owned by BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, freight haulers, not passenger carriers. The first and last concern of these corporations is money. Because of this, they regularly delay passenger service, contributing to public transportation’s perceived ineffectiveness and low ridership. Amtrak’s most prominent line, the Northeast Corridor, only sees an annual ridership of 4,408,825, (Amtrak) compared to the Paris-Lyon line in France, which sees an annual ridership almost ten times higher (SNCF). Despite the Northeast Corridor stretching from D.C. to Bostonm, an area of America that accounts for 17% of the nation’s population, improvements to Amtrak’s infrastructure have been stagnant (Chicago Tribune). Furthermore, Amtrak owns just three percent of the lines it travels, clearly showing the government’s crippled rail operability. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the federal government accounts for a sixth of all transport funding, with total spending being around 70 and 80 billion dollars. For reference, China spends roughly 160 billion dollars on their burgeoning transit system (Statista).
As the United States has been averse to spending on public transportation, hidden forces have been manipulating the way Americans commute for profit. While they gained fame (or infamy) by being Republican mega-donors, the Koch brothers made great strides in handicapping American public transportation. As the Hill reports, through their PAC, Americans for Prosperity, Charles and his deceased brother, David, defeated a Nashville ballot initiative to expand public transit as a means to reduce traffic congestion. AFP has blocked transport investments in Little Rock, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Floefrida, and more areas across the country. From a financial standpoint, it makes sense why they would advocate against public transportation. Koch Industries was built on investments in the fossil fuel industry and one of their constituent corporations is a major refiner of petroleum into gasoline. Koch Industries has a profit incentive to oppose fewer people driving gas cars on a daily basis. However, AFP cannot simply argue against these proposals on the basis that it would cut into their profits. They routinely frame these investments as out-of-control spending packages, referencing a nine-billion-dollar price tag to Nashville’s proposed system. AFP explains (citing themselves) that these plans are unwise investments that increase congestion by reducing the number of highway lanes. This argument, however, is immediately undercut by a basic sociological analysis of transportation.
The Katy Freeway in Texas is a joke of a highway, suffering routine traffic jams despite its 26-lane girth. The number of highway lanes has nothing to do with reducing traffic, as lanes will always be clogged whenever commuters see an opportunity to use them. Railroad on the other hand, holds substantially more passengers, does not have routine traffic built into its design, and importantly, only occupies one lane: a train track. Of course, there is no money to be made for private industry in government-funded railroad, so AFP proposed that American cities abandon trains in favor of rideshare services. They cite the example of Arlington, Texas, which partnered with a rideshare company for a program that yielded a 97% percent approval rating among citizens. While this astounding approval rating may give the illusion that the program was for the benefit of the people, once again, this program is reliant on automobiles and fossil fuels, two industries that Koch Industries heavily invests in. The Kochs have been joined in this endeavor by Uber. This makes sense, as the company is reliant on a lack of public transportation and their incentive to keep commuters in cars has paid dividends. Writing for Jacobin, Jeremy Mohler explains how these ride share companies stay afloat: “The company continues to heavily subsidize per-ride costs to inflate its value to investors and undercut existing options, despite bleeding billions of dollars.” Mohler further explains that in 2016, Uber and Lyft employed more lobbyists than Amazon, Microsoft, and Walmart put together. By manipulating the government for their benefit, America’s largest corporations have diverted commuters from a public good to their commodities. Their influence has grown their profits while funding for public transportation has floundered simply because of their branding of the private sector as a superior source of transportation.
The idea that trains are inefficient and costly is simply ludicrous. The American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit coalition of public and private sector rail organizations, finds that spending on public transit is a long-term community investment. They note that passengers save $6,202 every year when taking public transportation compared to the automobile. This is not just an economic phenomenon; expansion of rail services has broad social impacts as well. The greater movement of people attracts new business activity to population centers. As Politico notes, for every dollar invested in public transportation, four dollars in economic output are produced. When people have freedom of movement, not bound by gas prices or traffic, they produce more for society as a whole. America has a limited perception of public transportation. The nation that first pioneered the railroad is failing to realize its utility. The fundamental problem with the United States’ public transportation is the capitalistic view of it as a commodity, rather than a public service. Commuter railroad is not supposed to make money. It is supposed to get passengers from one place to another as efficiently as possible. When railroad is viewed as a commodity, powerful corporations cut service to less profitable stops and raise costs. The key distinction between a corporate good and a government service is the fact that the government is potentially accountable to the people. Politicians can be elected to advocate for and implement better rail services. Corporations, on the other hand, only consider their bottom line. If service to one community makes a rail corporation less money, the corporation is inclined to stop serving that community. The government has no financial incentive to cut services anywhere because taxes provide the government a constant stream of revenue regardless of the services it provides.
The United States needs an effective national railroad service. It is time for transportation to be viewed as a basic necessity in an industrialized country, and not a privilege to those who have enough time and money. The key problem to solve is wait times. Of course, the government cannot simply nationalize BNSF and Union Pacific’s railroads to prioritize commuters; that would simply trade one inefficiency for another. The federal government must enact large scale investments in railroad to create a system rivaling the interstate highways. Every state in the lower 48 must be connected in this network. From Cheyenne, Wyoming to New York City, all of America should be accessible to all Americans. Currently, the Interstate Highway System is shaped like a 161,000 mile-long spiderweb, weaving from the dense Northeast Megalopolis out to the west. A national rail system would be similarly shaped. There will be more lines in between Chicago and New York compared to the area between St. Louis and Las Vegas. Currently, the technological trend is to build high-speed rail systems. China, Japan, and numerous European countries have made great investments in the technology. Amazingly, Japan’s high-speed rail is entirely powered by renewable energy in the forms of geothermal, solar, and hydropower (PBS). As CNN reports, China in particular is leagues ahead of the rest of the world, with fares costing as little as $13 and 75% of Chinese cities with populations exceeding 500,000 being linked by rail. Granted, China is an autocracy, which has contributed to a lack of gridlock in these developments, however, with an economy comparable to that of the United States, their high-speed rail program shows that such an idea is not only beneficial, but doable. These projects were not radically expensive, either, with lines costing billions of dollars individually. The Zhengzou East-Wangzhou line costed $13.5 billion, and the Chengdu-Tibetan line proposed in 2020 was projected to cost $48 billion. Since the United States is a democracy, however, the federal government must take on the responsibility of maintaining public confidence in the plan. Notoriously, California failed its high-speed rail project due to the ever-present plagues of conflicts of interest and political maneuvering. As the New York Times explains, Mike Antonovich, a powerful County Board of Supervisors member, diverted the plan’s original path towards his district. This would have increased costs for the plan by 16%. The rail authority chairman opposed the diversion, citing increased costs and travel times. As the plan continued to develop, more diversions were made in the name of serving more communities, however, they failed to account for increased passenger numbers causing more delays. Of course, this is a natural feature of serving more population centers, but the people of California did not care. They were promised a two hour and 40-minute route from San Francisco to Los Angeles and a handful of local politicians going back on that promise tanked public confidence in the plan. Today, Californians driving through Fresno can play “I spy” with a lonesome slab of concrete in the middle of the Central Valley, only providing them with an example of their government’s incompetence.
If the United States is to build a national high-speed railroad, the federal government must stay true to its promises. They cannot propose one plan and attempt to enact another. Additionally, the plan must start in highly developed areas and not in between them. Areas already capable of supporting rail infrastructure, such as New York and San Francisco, must be the starting points as the railroad moves inward to connect the rest of the nation. In in an interview with Vox, Paul Lewis, the vice president for policy at the Eno center for transportation said, “A lot of the [processes] that we use here in the United States are too slow or too cumbersome and outdated. We need to make it easier to build more and better transit projects.” Currently, new projects involve a myriad of government agencies, independent contractors, and regulations to go through. For a high-speed rail plan, a more streamlined system will be needed. If the federal government is to take on this task, they must follow regulations on environmental protection and labor rights. As the Department of Transportation funds the program, they will follow the rules of the Department of the Interior, the EPA, the NLRB, the Department of Labor, and other related agencies. These locomotives must also be powered by efficient renewable energy, similar to Japan’s Tokyu trains. As geothermal energy can be produced across the western states (AGI) and solar and hydropower are practically abundant, fuel source should be a much less pressing concern for the government. The only room for politicians will be in passing the plan. There cannot be any opportunity for Los Angeles-style backroom deals to derail the original goals of the project. Once passed, the Department of Transportation will have to administer the national service, commanding maintenance, scheduling, and routes. The department will oversee the contractors building the lines, providing them with funding and a clear timetable. As for the price tag of such an undertaking, it will initially seem daunting. On average, the United States spends about $550 million per kilometer of railroad (Vox), however, the Chinese model has shown that effective high-speed rail can be built at a fraction of the cost. Regardless of the cost, public transportation has been shown time and again to be much more of an investment than an expenditure.
In addition to this Interstate Highway-esque rail network, American cities must begin to improve their internal public transit. Being able to travel quickly from Houston to Austin is an infrastructural achievement but being able to travel to and from work within Louisville would be life changing. American cities must repopulate their roads with street cars. Cities like Boston, San Francisco, and New York have street cars and subway systems that are routinely ranked among the best in the nation (AllTransit). They operate through neighborhoods and commercial areas, providing accessibility to all citizens. As has been shown throughout history, street cars provide a reliable source of transport for short trips and drive economic development. While the United States’ zoning laws present a strong roadblock to these developments truly connecting Amercian communities, simply repealing them would be a good start to gradually building less atomized neighborhoods. As commercial and public organizations become able to build in and around residential areas, American cities will increase their efficiency, and importantly, become more closely-knit. Houston, for example, rejected zoning twice with resounding ballot measure results and they build housing at 14 times the rate of comparable cities while avoiding suburban sprawl (The Atlantic). The new system must also ensure affordability for riders. In California, the Valley Transportation Authority usually charges $2.50 for fares. Chicago also charges $2.50 (CTA) and the New York Subway costs riders $2.75 (MTA). If a resident of any of these cities or a city that adopts similar prices works 22 days a month, they would be spending between $55 and $60.50 on trips to and from work. As CNBC reports, American households currently spend $5000 a year on gas, or roughly $416 each month. Clearly, public transportation is not only an investment for the American city but also the American worker.
The final aspect to this solution is not only economic or political, but also social. The United States must destigmatize public transportation. Currently, mass transit is seen as low-class and dirty and not as the important utility that it is. This view is largely informed by dilapidated infrastructure. The New York Times Magazine notes that New York politicians ignoring the subway has led to renovation projects reaching the billions in their price tags. Cities must invest in upkeep on their public transportation to maintain the confidence of the people. Much of the appeal of the automobile has been in its glamor. People tie the state of their car to the state of themselves. Nobody boasts their 15-year-old Camry’s torn seats and french fry miasma. If American cities were to invest in public transportation as much as they did in their police departments, citizens would see it as an attractive and efficient way to commute. When public confidence in mass transit as an institution is renewed, its full power will be displayed as a source for economic development and community integration.
America is changing. It has become more diverse, both in its population and economy. A cosmopolitan rebirth has been unfolding with new generations. Amid this change, it can be tempting to utilize faux-futurist creations such as self-driving cars or the straddling bus, but in reality, the problem of the present can be solved with the solutions of the past. As the nation has struggled with division over the course of its existence and as wealth inequality has become more pronounced than ever, a unifying force is sorely needed. Public transportation is that force. A network of rail acting as the veins of our cities and the bones of the nation will cater to all Americans in their day-to-day lives. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, poor, rich, male, female, young, and old can all see the utility in this undertaking. Public transportation is opportunity. With just over two dollars, it can help Americans find a job in the city or easily take their child to and from school. Public transportation is unity. Without the isolating force of car culture, Americans can be socially conscious in having a shared place to spend their commutes regardless of background. This shared mode of transit, connecting all on a daily basis, will fulfill the United States’ national motto, “E pluribus unum.” Public transportation is freedom. America’s most cherished value will be enhanced with the ability to cheaply travel to their desired location. As mass transit drives economic development, the dollar will no longer serve as an impediment to American movement, but as a reward. With a train track moving down the horizon, the possibilities for America will be limitless.
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