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Why Is The Train So Late… America’s Failing Public Transit System

The Problem

Public transit is an essential part of every developed nation. It provides transportation for tons of people worldwide on a daily basis, many of whom have no other transit alternative. Many countries have invested heavily in its development and maintenance, and citizens of these countries utilize public transit to its fullest extent. However, the United States is no longer one of these countries, and that fact is clearly evident when looking at the state of our nation’s transit systems. Our subway systems are literally falling apart and the buses used in our bus systems are decrepit and decades old. When compared to other cities around the world, many of our subway systems are appalling in terms of reliability, with the New York City’s subway being one of the worst offenders (Garfield). The drawbacks of a poor and unreliable public transit are evident in the fabric of our society. Gridlock, which is avoidable through a good subway system, plagues our nations highways and makes commuting a nightmare. Additionally, lower-class individuals are often forced to settle for jobs that might not pay as well, as they can’t afford a car and there are no transit systems within reasonable distances of their homes or jobs. The problem of bad public transit is a societal problem which if fixed, will change our lifestyles for the better.

A graph showing the reliability of cities with large public transit systems internationally

Background

Mass transit that we know today has been in existence since the early 20th century. In the beginning, public transit thrived. Cars were not yet popularized and the most efficient and convenient method to travel was via public transit. Public transit was widely used, and in America, public transit was viewed as an integral part of our society. It was developed and maintained to be top of the line, and was even believed, by some, to be one of the best in the world. (English). However, this all changed in the early to mid-21st century. During this time, one, single, key invention was popularized. The introduction and popularization of this new invention, drastically altered the field of transit for America and the rest of the world. This invention was the automobile. With the popularization of the automobile, the American government began to divert its focus away from the maintenance of our train and bus systems and instead concentrated its attention and resources on developing roads for this new American icon. With the creation of the first highways in the 1950s, the public desire and obsession with the automobile was cemented. Consequently, this shift resulted in decades of extensive funding for roads and subsequently, severe under funding for the public transit systems.

A picture of the New York Subway system during peak hours

Present Day

In the present day, the United States is finally beginning to comprehend some of the repercussions of neglecting our public transit system for so long. Due to the prolonged under funding, public transit systems today are extremely out of date and are consequently, frequently breaking down. A prime example is the subway systems. There have been numerous subways in cities across the nation where track fires cause frequent delays for commuters on a daily basis. According to one article, there were almost 1000 track fires involving the New York City Subway over a twelve-month period (Furfaro). Additionally, in the New York City’s subway, only “58.1 percent of all weekday trains arriv[e] at stations on time” which is an abysmal statistic for any country (Hu). Additionally, most bus systems nationwide are comprised of bus fleets that are decades old. Because the buses are so old, they are not able to utilize the most updated technology, which not only affects their on-time reliability but can also have harmful affects on air quality and the environment.

Who is Affected

Now when contemplating the issue of our failing public transit, we have to consider who is most affected. Middle to upper-class Americans do not rely on public transit as often due to their financial stability which allows for the use of their own private transportation. However, in the lower classes of our society, public transit is a necessity. Public transit is an indispensable part of peoples’ lives, one which allows them to commute to work and participate in society. Public transit is what gets their kids get to school, what parents rely on it to commute to their jobs, and what transports families to their community and social gatherings.

Who is Helping

Even though it seems that there has been little to no progress addressing the decline of America’s deteriorating transit system, there are a number of groups that have been campaigning and affecting change little by little on the local level. These groups, usually based in large metropolitan areas, push for improvements. They campaign for increased bus coverage as well as funds for renovations and the replacement of new buses and train cars. These groups are crucial to the improvement of our transit systems as well as raising local awareness over this issue.

What YOU can do to Help

No matter how large the problem may appear to be, there are always ways that an individual can contribute. If we were to take a step back and look at the transit crisis, we can see that the lack of funding is at the heart of the problem. Decades of under funding and inattention have led to numerous systems starving for maintenance and upgrades. While donations are much appreciated, the most effective and reliable funds are determined by the budgets of our local and state governments. By contacting your state and local politicians, writing letters, rallying and pressuring them about public transit systems, budgets can be changed and hopefully one day in the future the public transit system can be renovated, updated and returned to its original glory. Another action that you could take to improve the nation’s public transit systems is to volunteer to help clean up the stations. When it comes to the first time user of public transit, two factors are key: reliability and aesthetics. While reliability is a complicated issue requiring coordination and significant funding to fix, aesthetics is more easily addressed. All it would require is a weekend with a couple of friends and approval from the station’s manager, who would probably be grateful for the assistance. Improving station aesthetics would not only rectify the public’s opinion of public transit as a whole but convince others to use the systems. Additionally, increasing public awareness would draw more attention to other issues such as reliability and the need for renovation.

How We can create Change

A new double-decker building that AC Transit added to its fleet in mid 2018

While we, as individuals can affect change slowly, change can happen much more quickly if done on the societal level. When trying to alleviate a problem in the most cost effective way, it is usually a good idea to fix what we already have instead of mounting a major overhaul and replacing everything. When it comes to the public transit problem, I believe we should begin by fixing our current systems rather than investing vast amounts of money into creating new systems. These new projects, while ambitious and attention grabbing, may not be successful, wasting valuable funds and resources that could have gone to creating noticeable change. One such notable example is the California Bullet Train Project. The California Bullet Train Project was shut down after years of construction, millions of wasted dollars and its only legacy was miles of unfinished and unusable track in the California’s Central Valley (Vartabedian). Instead, of reaching for the moon, we should be investing the money into new realistic projects and putting it towards improving our current systems. If we are able to acquire the funding needed to make significant changes to our public transit system, there are ways that we could go about spending this money that would be more effective. I believe that the most effective first step to alleviating our transit crisis would be to focus on our bus systems. Improvements to the bus system would be the most cost effective when compared to the alternatives. Unlike bullet trains, subways, or light rails, buses do not require the laying of new track to expand its coverage. Buses can simply utilize more of our already extensive road system to expand the range of its service. Systems like subways and trains on the other hand, would require extensive work to dig more tunnels, lay more track, as well as provide constant maintenance to the tracks just to stay in operation. Additionally, by investing money into our bus systems, we could prioritize bus lanes on highways as well as revitalize the bus fleet by buying new buses, replacing the decades old vehicles that are currently still in use.

Conclusion

Overall, the problem of the atrocious public transit system in the United States is a significant problem in America. It has widespread negative affects which need to be addressed in order to improve our society. When looking at the developed countries worldwide, many have public transit systems that connect people from all over. These transit systems are an essential part of these nation’s society’s, and their people benefit as a result. However, this isn’t the case in the United States, where transit systems are seen as substandard. This has led the public to turn away from a system which worldwide is seen as a necessity. By improving our public transit systems, we can fix our society’s opinion on a service that is crucial to billions worldwide. If we as a society were to focus on fixing the problem of our bad public transit systems, we would be able improve our daily lives, and eventually redefine our society.

Note: For more on each section, you can click on the headings of each subsection.

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COMMENTS: 5
  1. April 26, 2019 by Juliana.Shank Reply

    Hi, you point out an important issue! In Hawaii, we are working on building a rail, but the project has been a bit of a nightmare. How do you think we could encourage accountability so these kinds of projects don’t go over budget?

    • April 30, 2019 by Zachary Yu Reply

      Hi Juliana,
      I would say that the best way to encourage accountability is to reach out to the project directors and push for them to set and publish budget limits and deadlines. If you can convince them to make public how much that they plan to spend on each segment of the problem, it would allow for the public to get involved and hold the project leaders accountable. Additionally, I am not sure if this is happening in Hawaii as well, but I know that in California there are a number of projects where the workers are payed via time rather than completion. This can actually negatively impact the worker’s incentive to get the project done, as the end of the project means that they aren’t getting payed anymore. By setting deadlines this can help the project go along at a smooth pace, and not cause the project to end up unfinished. Of course there will always unforeseen events that may impact the budget and timeline, but at least this way there will be more accountability to get the project done.

  2. April 28, 2019 by Charles.Jones Reply

    Zac, this is a fantastic topic! I appreciated the insight that lower income families are disproportionately affected by inefficient public transportation. Specifically to the Bay Area, how do you think we should improve the BART system?

    • April 30, 2019 by Zachary Yu Reply

      Hey Charlie,
      I think that improving the on-time performance would a good first step in the right direction. As for on-time performance, BART actually wasn’t that bad until recent years. If you go to the BART website and check out its on-time performance chart, you can see that in recent years the on-time train percentage dropped around 8 percent. Additionally, if we can make the stations cleaner, this could boost the public’s opinion of the BART system and increase ridership numbers. This would allow for additional funding to make the stations even nicer and provide funding for other upgrades.

  3. April 30, 2019 by Leo.Abelson Reply

    Hi Zac, your project is very engaging and interactive. I like the survey you added at the end of your article. When I visited New York over the summer I saw that it lacked maintenance and funding compared to the transit system in Tokyo, where I live.

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