“This article is part of a three-part series on streetcars and economic development. Read the articles by David Levinson and Yonah Freemark. The opinion expressed here is that of the author and does not represent the Urban Land Institute nor its membership as a whole.
In early 2009, when President Obama took office and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Washington, a sea change was in progress in transportation policy and priorities. The focus during the previous administration had been less on urban needs and more on suburban and exurban priorities, road and bridge building, and “level of service” of the nation’s roadways.
I started as director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation on the Monday after the inauguration. So, also being new, it took me a few months to grasp the significance of the shift. I knew that cities had been battling states for control over their transportation destinies, that urban priorities were often at odds with suburban and rural interests, and that the country had an antiquated one-size-fits-all design standard for streets, whether in cities or suburbs.
What I learned, though, is that other than those living in a few dense cities, Americans had all but forgotten the historical importance and economic significance of rail systems. This is part of a larger flaw in the nation’s psychology and the resulting American thinking about transportation: we tend to only focus on what we know—what we have seen in our lifetimes, typically post–World War II. The median age in the United States is 37, putting birth at 1977, during the energy crisis.
Adding to the average American’s lack of knowledge of high-quality rail is the fact that while the number of people holding a passport is rising, they still account for less than half the population. In Middle America, the number of passport holders is far lower than that in states with larger urban populations, where foreign travel is much more prevalent. In a nutshell: many Americans misunderstand how the U.S. transportation system ended up the way it is today or know about the massive, rapid changes brought about by the U.S. government in favor of the automobile—in direct contrast with the way many European cities never lost their link to their rail heritage.
Americans have also been conditioned to think that large roads and highways are such a transportation priority that they are considered a sunk cost, along with the automobile itself. Therefore the debt payments on capital expenditures as well as the cost for operations and maintenance of both roadways and the cars that drive on them are foregone conclusions (never mind the massive amount of storage in the form of parking). This has led to a mind-set that “driving is free” and “transit is subsidized,” which can lead to feelings that transit is unnecessarily expensive and a waste of money.”
Klein, Gabe. Urban Land 12 June 2015.