Private transportation is one of the significant sources of carbon emissions, and emissions are rising yearly. The use of electricity-run public transit can reduce energy consumption as well as the heat-trapping GHG emission.
Car-dominated countries like the United States can reduce emissions when passengers shift to public transport like the rail system.
Public transportation should be part of the solution to ensure success in weaning our reliance on foreign oil and making progress in climate action.
Although public transport is widely known to curb emissions, the United States still lags behind other developed countries in public transport systems development.
The article “What killed public transport in the US?” explains why.
- Despite being the wealthiest economy, the United States public transport system suffers from underinvestment. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) annual report in 2021 scored public transit in the US at just D- and notes an investment backlog of $176bn, which it expects to grow to $270bn by 2029.
- Delays are also common when it comes to the completion of major railway projects. An example is Minnesota’s Southwest Corridor light-rail project. The project was initially approved in 2011 with a budget of $1.2 billion. But in 2022, the project is nine years behind schedule, and the cost has more than doubled to $2.7 billion due to cost overruns.
- How the United States ended up having a substandard public transit system hail back to its history of politics and planning. Its impact is seen in the current development of its infrastructure.
The country’s railways played a major role in its economic development, which started in the 19th century. The railway is responsible for the country’s industrial growth and a critical means of transporting goods and migrants to the west.
The legacy of this railway still lives on today. Spanning 225,000 kilometers, it supports the country’s $80 billion industry.
However, despite the US’s massive railway system, it is used mainly for freight, while passenger commute remains a niche activity. The number of rail passengers in the US remains behind other developed countries.
- The World Bank 2017 and 2018 data shows that China leads in rail passengers per kilometer at around 1.3 million passengers, followed by India at 1.2 million, Japan at 437 thousand, Russia at 129 thousand, and the US at a meager 31,963.
- Part of the US slow uptake of rail passengers is that the country has prioritized investment in interstate highways and road networks.
The US Interstate Highway System, which goes back to 1956, strengthened America’s car culture and increased the uptake of car ownership. Almost one in ten households in America owned at least one car, adding more than 100 million privately owned vehicles by the end of the 20th century. The interstate has also expanded its container trucking industry.
With trucking creating competition to transport goods, which today account for 40% of US long-distance freight volume, the railway for freight has started to decrease.
But will the US build a high-speed rail system like what Japan and France have? The article notes that despite the US having a vast rail network that connects all its major cities, this is mainly used for freight.
Plans to build a high-speed rail in the US date back to 1965, and despite being one of the world’s first countries to get a high-speed train – the Metroliner service in 1969 failed to spread in the country. Until today, the US has only one high-speed railway, the Acela Express, which connects New York and Washington DC, with its speed reaching 240 km per hour.
Young Americans expressed support for a high-speed cross-country network, but the fruition of this dream seems unlikely. The reasons behind it are the following, according to the article.
- First, with the growing pressure to shift to EV and electrification, investments are going here instead of spending taxpayers’ money on building railways.
- Second, urban areas, where high-speed railways are most feasible, are designed to support road rather than rail travel. Cities built around car use have underinvested in rapid transit systems attend to experience congestion problems.
- Third, there are political obstacles that exist. The separation of federal and state governments means the state has autonomy when deciding where federal funds go regarding infrastructure projects. Although the federal government funds major infrastructure projects like the US Interstate Highways, the individual states determine where the money should go, which also depends on local transport priorities.
- As a democratic country, local people have a say in the infrastructure developments giving rise to the ‘not in my backyard phenomenon from the 1960s onwards – a primary reason why building roads is such a complex undertaking in the US.
The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed in 2021 gives hope for improvements in the urban transit system.
However, of the total funding, only $66 billion is earmarked for rail infrastructure and $39 billion for public transit in the next eight years.
The uptake of public transit through high-speed rail will depend on its efficiency in getting people to their workplaces faster, particularly in denser cities where commuters face traffic jams daily. But this could be trickier in spread-out towns as people love the freedom driving their own car brings.