Get On The City Bus: The Future of The American Suburb and Her Automobiles

by Samuel Rosenberg November 11 2008, 12:15

I.  Introduction

Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book, the Life and Death of Great American Cities revolutionized the way Americans viewed the streets that stretched beyond their front door.  In critiquing the programs of her era’s urban planners, Jacobs held up the sentimental and somewhat physically cramped city neighborhood as the pinnacle of communal living. [1]  Regardless of Jacobs’ warnings, urbanism rolled on, and in so doing, the suburb was born. Despite Americans’ preference towards the suburb in the later half of the twentieth century, our nation is currently poised to regret the very expansionist zest that drew them away from the urban core.  With the fluctuating price of gas and the limited public transportation alternatives, suburban Americans are forced to devote an ever-growing portion of their income and time to surviving their daily commutes. [2] Reducing the price of gas may be a legitimate means of combating the immediate crisis, but even if successful, would not decrease our nation’s dependence upon the automobile or curtail an expansionary suburban existence.   The issue confronting policymakers today is whether to realign current residential settlement patterns or to vastly improve public transportation within suburbs.  This article discusses some of the possible means available for accomplishing the latter.

II. Where we are

Until the 1950s, most Americans lived in either large cities or rural communities; today; a majority of Americans live in the suburbs. [3] Located beyond the boundaries of a large city, these suburbs are located within a metropolitan area, and initially shared many characteristics of a small town.  As Eric Oliver points out, suburbs are often very singular in their social composition and land use, containing nothing but homes, nothing but white people, or nothing but the affluent. [4] Such segregation and extensive compartmentalization of society was initially trumpeted as an escape for the problems of urban life, but today stands to be the impetus behind long commutes, a social distance from one’s work and local community, and more generally, an over-reliance upon the automobile. [5] The zoning that has allowed for districts of uniform character to arise in suburban locations has, ironically, removed proprietary freedom are those who were looking to take advantage of new spatial freedoms in the suburbs. [6]

Additionally, a suburb’s dependence on the larger metropolis used to be a central characteristic in distinguishing it from a rural town, but this relationship has begun to wane. Modern-day suburbs now exist in physically expansive, and often exclusively suburban environments that lack the political diversity of the city and its level of political involvement. [7]  Despite their goal of exiting the dilemmas of the cities, suburbanites have done themselves a great disservice by being physically and politically removed from the significant decision-making processes regarding the nation’s transportation ills. Ironically, they have the highest potential be the ones directly helped by alterations in public transportation.  By examining the current political trends in public transportation, and the legal action that is developing around the increase in traffic, it is possible to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what is possible if America can conquer their dependence upon the automobile. 

To strive for an America that is free of cars is unreasonable and essentially un-American.  Our love affair with the automobile is something that cannot be ignored, but it also cannot afford to be exacerbated.  The increasing tendency of urban planning to place automotive requirements over human needs provides an excellent case-in-point for this argument.  Parking lots have only recently become subject to landscape ordinances, an attempt to fight the urban head island affect created by vast expanses of black, petroleum-based asphalt. [8] [9] Additionally, zoning codes largely require a certain number of parking spaces per determined square footage, thereby ingraining in urban planning the need to accommodate cars. [10] Americans dependence on automobiles is evidenced by the statistics: only two percent of urban trips are made by public transit, and less than five percent of trips to work are made using public transit. [11] Despite this low use level, there is still convincing evidence that the public values public transportation and believes it to be an important part of the social fabric. [12]

For Americans to act upon this sentiment, their pocketbooks must be drawn away from automobile use and put towards public transit.  Though reducing America’s dependence upon the automobile and increasing its reliance on public transportation may be intelligent in theory, it certainly will not happen overnight.  Deregulation that allows for private enterprise to become involved with public transportation would fill the time gap following a shift in public funding.  These private enterprises will also be the impetus for the efficiency within the government’s own endeavors.   

III. Where we need to be going

In order for the common American to feel the monetary benefit of utilizing public transit, economic regulation must be refocused towards that end. As it currently stands, the federal tax system does not reflect the full economic cost of one’s transportation choices. [13] Lester Brown notes that the fiscal systems of the modern transportation industry are composed of subsidies and taxes which place the emphasis on economic growth instead of the efficient use of transportation resources. [14]  These standards, which foster an increased demand of single occupancy travel, must be amended.  Overall, the federal tax system must encourage the use and development of public transportation. Transportation fringe benefits, such as low tax, or tax-free parking, are a few such policies that encourage individuals to choose to drive rather than take public transportation, which heightens transportation problems.  One of the easiest and most effective ways to encourage public transpiration use is to reduce parking subsidies. [15]

Currently, the subsidies passed for public transit do not equal the subsidies for parking; therefore, the incentives are not equal in the minds of the American public. [16] Per George W. Bush’s recent budgets, American taxpayers received $2.62 billion in benefits from the employee transpiration fringe program in the previous year, with over eighty-five percent of that benefit going towards parking. [17] The remaining fifteen percent went to public transit and carpooling initiatives, surely an allocation worthy of an increase.  It is important to note that such a reallocation of the tax-benefits does nothing to increase the price of gas, but simply reduces funds for parking subsidies and places them towards public transportation improvements.  Most importantly, reallocations of resources, such as the one suggested, would simultaneously aide both the decrease in America’s dependence upon automobiles and increase its reliance upon public transportation.  Even if the supply of parking spaces is drastically reduced, a demand for transportation would still exist, requiring an immediate alternative to cars.  Privatized public transportation would be able to provide such an alternative.

While many may believe that the future of public transportation lies solely in government programs, the increasing demand to bypass congestion-filled expressways will surely produce a market for private transportation options. Recent discussion has largely centered upon private firms taking over the control and maintenance of roadways and airports, and expanding such initiatives can lead to more effective service for the general populous.  Estimates place major investment banks collections at nearly 250 billion dollars invested in public infrastructure. [18] While the recent tumult of the market has yet to completely shake out, it has been the instability of the market that has lead private firms to consider public infrastructure. [19] As government capital funding drops off precipitously and the municipal bond market continues to fluctuate, the private ownership and operation of infrastructure becomes increasingly attractive.  [20]  Large international firms, such as Macquarie and Cintra, have been in the business for years, yet have only recently made their presence known in the Unites States. [21] The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the United States needs to invest at least $1.6 trillion over the next five years to maintain and expand its infrastructure. [22] Last year, the Federal Highway Administration deemed 72,000 bridges, or more than twelve percent of the country’s total, “structurally deficient.” While the immediate need exists in the physical infrastructure, the investments from large corporations such as Macquarie and Cintra should be additionally opened to mass transit. [23]

To counter the argument for privatized mass transit, a significant amount of academic research suggests that such a process would fail.  The main hurdle presented in these papers refers to initial investment; critics argue that the initial capital investment required to establish private mass transit is simply too high. [24] If a private entity were to gain the right to run a particular system, the capital investment would either deter multiple groups from bidding on the project or limit the public’s ability to remove the operator in response to subpar service. [25] While regulated monopolies do allow for single operators to take responsibility for the whole system (thereby giving upset passengers an avenue to express their grievances), smaller operators could still successfully exist. Such alternatives could include suburb-specific bus lines that are directly tailored towards the needs and timing of each neighborhood.  Many of the scenarios applied to privatization use rail systems as their starting point. [26] Using these scenarios as representations for all mass transit, however, sets such a system up for failure because of the extremely high cost of rail lines and trains, in addition to competing timetables.  While a single transit system may be more adept at handling peak time transportation, it is conceivable that deregulation of the process will more adequately serve specific populations in need.  Using rail transit as the basis for conversation allows critics to write off options worthy of further discourse.

Public Private Partnerships have become highly popular as of late, yet the need for government initiation of these projects has stood in the way of their expansion.  In response to this bureaucratic roadblock, many states have begun to permit private parties to submit unsolicited proposals for such projects. [27] Policies allowing the private market to devise its own solutions to the regulatory boondoggle are both responsible and only one of the many ways in which the government can establish a more efficient allocation of resources with regards to mass transit.   

IV. Conclusion

By decreasing America’s reliance on the automobile via an increase in public transportation, the nation may be able to counter a wide variety of the ills that are currently plague a large segment of the nation.  While the potential ramifications may be as small as decreasing our nation’s dependence upon foreign oil, they may also be as large as combating the obesity epidemic sweeping our country.  The improvement in public transportation may even reduce the vast amount of political disenfranchisement that exists within suburban communities.  Regardless of the outcome, improvements in public transportation will decrease America’s dependence upon the automobile and foreign oil.  While it is unreasonable to assume that Americans will eventually ditch their cars, a more efficient and adept public transportation system will allow American boys to spend less money on gas and save up for that shiny new Corvette instead. 

[1] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (Vintage Books, 1992) (1961).

[2] Eric Oliver, Democracy in Suburbia, 83 (Princeton University Press, 2001).

[3] Id. at 1.

[4] Id at 140.

[5] Id at 83.

[6] Andrew P. Morriss & Roger E. Meiners, The Destructive Role of Land Use Planning, 14 TUL. ENVTL. L.J. 95, 109 (2000); Stephen J. Dubner, What is the Future of Suburbia? A Freakonomics Quorum, N.Y. Times, Aug. 12, 2008, http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/12/what-is-the-future-of-suburbia-a-freakonomics-quorum/ .

[7] Oliver, supra note 2, at 83.

[8] This scientific phenomenon has been known to increase the temperature of a given geographic area due to the extensive amount of black surface area in that location.  For more information please see http://www.epa.gov/hiri/index.htm.

[9] Theodore Taub, Redevelopment Round Table: Hot Topics Facing Government and Developers at  the Land Use Institute: Planning, Regulation, Litigation, Eminent Domain, and Compensation ALI-ABA Course of Study (Aug. 26-28, 2004).

[10] Id.

[11] Roberta F. Mann, On the Road Again: How Tax Policy Drives Transportation Choice, 24 VA. TAX REV. 587, 613 (Winter 2005)..Id.

[12] Id at 588.

[13] Id at 620.

[14] Id at 652.

[15] Eran Feitelson et al., From Policy Measures to Policy Packages: A Specially, Temporally and Institutionally Differentiated Approach, in Transport and Environment: In Search of Sustainable Solutions 47 (Eran Feitelson & Erik T. Verhoef eds., Edward Elgar Publishing 2001)

[16] Mann, supra note 11, at 641.

[17] Id.

[18] Jenny Anderson, Cities Debate Privatizing Public Infrastructure, N.Y. Times, Aug. 26, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/27/business/27fund.html .

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America, OTA-ETI-643, 213 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, Sept. 1995).

[22] Anderson, supra note 18.

[23] Id.

[24] Mark Reutter, Economist Examines Hurdles to Privatization of Urban Mass Transit, News Bureau for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2003).

[25] Anderson, supra note 18.

[26] Id.

[27] D. Joseph Darr, Current Trends In Public-Private Partnership Laws, 28-SUM Construction Law. 53, 53 (2008).

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