The new transportation bill, currently working its way through Congress, will provide more than $52 billion for mass transit. Mass transit is a wonderful thing, all right-thinking people agree. It stops pollution "in its tracks" (a little ecology-conscious light-rail advocacy joke). Mass transit doesn't burn climate-warming, Iraq-war-causing hydrocarbons. Mass transit can operate with nonpolluting sustainable energy sources such as electricity. Electricity can be produced by solar panels, and geothermal generators. Electricity can be produced by right-thinking people themselves, if they talk about it enough near wind farms.
Mass transit helps preserve nature in places like Yellowstone Park, the Everglades and the Arctic wilderness, because mass transit doesn't go there. Mass transit curtails urban sprawl. When you get to the end of the trolley tracks, you may want to move farther out into the suburbs, but you're going to need a lot of rails and ties and Irishmen with pickaxes. Plus there's something romantic about mass transit. Think Tony Bennett singing "Where little cable cars / Climb halfway to the stars." (And people say mass transit doesn't provide flexibility in travel plans!) Or the Kingston Trio and their impassioned protest of the five-cent Boston "T" fare increase, "The Man Who Never Returned." No doubt some lovely songs will be written about the Washington County, Ore., Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail line to be funded by the new transportation bill.
There are just two problems with mass transit. Nobody uses it, and it costs like hell. Only 4% of Americans take public transportation to work. Even in cities they don't do it. Less than 25% of commuters in the New York metropolitan area use public transportation. Elsewhere it's far less--9.5% in San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, 1.8% in Dallas-Fort Worth. As for total travel in urban parts of America--all the comings and goings for work, school, shopping, etc.--1.7 % of those trips are made on mass transit. Continue here [Opinion Journal, 16 March 2005]