Saturday, 4 March 2017

Why we all need public transportation

Bus service on London streetcorner

This week, I and tens of thousands of other residents of rural Ireland wondered how they could handle the coming weeks, with the bus drivers going on strike. We all talked with our employers about missing work, to our children’s teachers about missing school, and to our neighbours and co-workers about carpooling or making some other arrangements. I and friends of mine e-mailed and called the Minister of Transport, urging him to force a solution and reminding him that he is an independent politician voted into office with Ireland’s unusual election last year, and that he can be voted out just as easily.

Thankfully, the strike was called off – I’m not saying because of our efforts, of course, but I’m sure the public pressure didn’t hurt -- and the company and the union went back to the negotiating table for the time being. Still, it reminded all of us how much we, and any healthy society, depend on public transportation.

The healthiest cities in the world have one thing in common; a network of trains, trolleys, trams, subways, buses, and other ways of getting around that don’t depend on everyone having a personal vehicle. Such services save everyone money, use less energy, generate less exhaust to pollute the air and less rubbish to pollute the water and soil. They tip the balance of power on roads, making them light with cars and bustling with humans -- walkers, bicyclists and sidewalk vendors. Cities with healthy bus and rail systems feel like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than rows of buildings built alongside highways.

We think of Ireland as having progressed in recent decades, but a hundred years ago trains covered much more of Ireland, with perhaps twice as many lines as there are now. A map of Dublin in the 1920s, likewise, would show a spaghetti-explosion of streetcar lines winding through the narrow streets, pulled by horses at first, and later powered by overhead lines. The recent construction of light rail systems like the Luas were promoted as a next great step forward in transportation, but like most Great Steps Forward, it was merely restoring a tiny piece of what we once had.   

Dublin's once-great streetcar service
The USA used to be the same; for more than a hundred years cities there were networked with a web of streetcars that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, as well as buses that filled in the gaps.  Streetcars and buses seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the Autobahn; compare them to a car in the city and they were often faster. One of the Dublin lines ran out to the suburb of Lucan a hundred years ago, and passed through town at 25 miles an hour -- a goodly speed in Lucan's daily traffic jams today.

Children could play in the street, for there were few cars. Streets in old photos appear clean and graffiti-free, not because people were necessarily more angelic in 1840 or 1940, but because thousands of people walked on them every day, so vandals had little privacy.

Passengers might be the most under-appreciated factor in how much fuel and money you waste. I remember reading headlines about multi-million-dollar plans to boost fuel efficiency by 25 percent, with the usual discussion of what this will mean for the economy and the climate. Any of us, however, can boost the efficiency of our cars by several hundred percent instantly, with no additional expense or technology, simply by getting more people in the car. Buses and trains can multiply such efficiency by thousands of percentile points. 

If you don’t live in an area serviced by trains or buses, life becomes more difficult – as it will for all of us if the strike begins again. Finding a job, getting clothes for an interview, getting to a temp assignment – all are extremely difficult without a car or any other way to get around. Car payments, insurance and petrol can take up a sizable chunk of one’s paycheque, locking many people into an unending cycle. All to have a private vehicle built for five people, which will be 80 per cent empty on most trips. 

Unfortunately, many countries now regard public transportation as expendable; it doesn’t make headlines or make money for elites, and it’s easy to let them go. If Ireland’s bus lines are allowed to erode to nothingness, then thousands of the nation’s elderly or vulnerable people will be isolated, and every little village will become an island again.

Streetcar to Howth, north of Dublin
I know that from experience, for I grew up in the USA, a nation that once had trolleys and streetcars in every major city and most minor ones. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. My grandmother and grandfather met on the St Louis trolley, the one Judy Garland sang an ode to in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and said most people she knew never needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined a pittance, long after the damage was done. Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Since most train lines were ripped up in the USA, Ireland and most other Western countries, many people must rely on buses. My native USA’s buses are less readily available than most other countries. In many cities I’ve been in, bus lines habitually run late or not at all, and can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty, or require people to wait in unsafe neighbourhoods.

We’re grateful to have a double-decker bus roll across the Irish countryside, stop a few kilometres from our house every fifteen minutes or so in the morning, and take me to work in Dublin. We’re pleased to live in a country where four-to-six lane roads devote one lane each way to buses, so that we can zip past the traffic jams.

I don’t like having to spend three hours a day on a bus, but it’s better than four hours in a car – and sitting in the bus allows me to do my writing and home-schooling lessons, chat with my neighbours or read a book, all things I couldn’t do while driving. Many of my neighbours even sleep the entire trip, and on groggy mornings I envy them their talent for napping.

We give out about the buses all the time, of course – when the buses are packed to bursting with people, I’ve had to wait an hour or more in the rain to pick one up. When disrespectful teenagers leave rubbish on the seats, I clean it up for the sake of the other passengers, and many bus stops lack an overhanging shelter – a useful thing in a country where it rains much of the time. All these, however, are arguments for investing more in the bus system, not less.

Critics of public transportation accuse such systems of not making money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.

As the world’s resources run thin and former superpowers continue their decline into Third-World countries, more and more governments are cutting back even further on public transportation; I’ve talked to immigrants from India or Africa to Europe who say that the transport is better in their native countries than here. For years the Irish government has threatened to privatise some of the bus routes, turning them over to for-profit industries – which will mean that the least profitable routes will be cut, harming the elderly, working-class and least profitable people.

Dr. Seuss-drawn poster during World War II.
Knowing that this might keep happening, my neighbours and I have talked about forming carpools, which also used to be normal across the Western World. Sharing rides is one of the easiest ways of cutting your expenses, fuel and carbon footprint, and since most of us travel similar routes from clusters of houses to clusters of offices, carpools could serve many of us – and the more people participate, the easier it will be.  

According to the website, the average car in Ireland, driven 10,000 kilometers a year, will cost 1,750 euros in petrol. Divide that by four people, however, and you each save 1,300 a year. Carpooling could even pay for itself, if you propose to friends and co-workers that they pay you slightly more than the cost of fuel, as compensation for driving a little out of your way.
 If that happens, people can form carpools – and since people tend to live in population clusters, and work in many of the same places, so carpools can start regular routes. Some vans can seat up to ten people, and if everyone pays for their share the rides can become very cheap indeed.

Eventually, people could create a network of carpools, with phones that you can call to set you up with the next person coming through. Enough people doing this through the day creates a regular, dependable form of public transportation, one that does not require a government or corporation to function. 


John S said...

Brian -

Thanks for this post - your point about public transportation as part of general infrastructure is well taken; I will use that.

I live in Richmond, Virginia - I believe one of the cities in the 1951 lawsuit you mentioned. We had an extensive, rail based electric street car system until one of the car companies bought it and shut it down as you described. It may have been one of the first - it has some claim to fame, I don't remember what right now.

My neighborhood was built as a "trolley suburb" of Richmond - in fact the street car line to downtown was built by the developer. The streetcar ran in the middle of the main avenue and people from both sides would meet in the middle to head downtown.

When the streetcars were ripped out, the buses started running on the sides. Over time the avenue has become a high speed commuter corridor. It feels (and is) unsafe to cross it on foot so people drive across if they go across, and a sort of class divide mentality has arisen between the north side and the south side.

You can also see the ghosts of the businesses that once must have lined Semmes Avenue - pharmacies, grocers, laundries etc. The value of the properties on the Avenue has fallen as well - fine old houses have been converted to halfway houses or chopped into apartments. I have nothing against apartments or halfway houses in particular, but the developers of those uses are looking for low cost properties, and these were clearly some of the most valuable properties in the neighborhood.

Brian Kaller said...


Thank you for writing, and I know just what you mean - I hear the same stories from people all over, complete with the ghost businesses. I used to live near the Loop area in St. Louis, called that because that's where the trolley looped around. At some point I'd love to crunch the numbers and see how many people have been widowed or orphaned, killed or maimed, by the decision to make Americans car-dependent.