(No, not that One Percent)
There’s a new crop of one-percenter’s in our nation. Not the one percent who hold ninety percent of the wealth. Rather, a distinctly different group. The one percent who hazard to ride on public transportation. We represent a complete reverse from the turn of the last century, when ninety-nine percent of all travel was on public transit.
Public transit use has been in free-fall for the past 120 years, except for an uptick during World War II when Americans actually modified individual behavior for a perceived greater good. How quaint!
Once the war was over and the consumer economy developed full steam, public transit kept slip-sliding away. The reasons are legion: increased affluence, our love affair with the automobile, disinvestment in streetcars, increased investment in pavement, Madison Avenue’s persistent trumpet of autonomy, the Interstate Highway System, demolition of urban neighborhoods, fossil fuel subsidies, railroad decay.
For most of the 2000’s, public transit use hovered around two percent of all vehicle trips. Most American cities of any size had some sort of subway, streetcar, or bus system, though one-third of all public transit trips occurred in New York City alone. Virtually all systems lost money. Large, older, dense cities like Boston and Chicago, even D.C. and San Francisco, accepted these costs to counter-balance horrific car and truck congestion. And some growth cities, like Denver and Houston, added streetcar systems in the hope of curbing individual auto use. To little avail. Public transit might be charming in Europe, or essential in developing mega-cities like Sao Paulo and Wuhan, but it is an anachronism in most American lives.
Then the pandemic hit and all things communal went from merely annoying to potentially fatal. Public transit use plummeted. For months, the number 75 bus rumbled past my house in darkness; never a passenger regardless of day or time.
For almost a year I stayed off the buses and trains. Then last spring I started to ride again. Not often; there still aren’t many places to go. But occasionally I find reason to commuter rail out to Worcester or subway downtown. The stations are clean and empty. Ditto the trains.
This fall, with schools in full session and more businesses open in person, car traffic around Boston is tense as ever. Every evening news includes pulsing maps of thronged highways. But when I ride the train—sometimes the only person in the car—station after station of commuter lots sit empty.
Today, people abandoning public transportation has little to do with the pandemic: we crowd into restaurants, bars, and stadiums at much higher densities. The T is pretty inexpensive (a trip from Newtonville to Worcester costs me a whopping 11 cents per mile). And though the media loves to dwell on the derailments and delays that occur on our aging, undermaintained system, MBTA buses and trains run with remarkable regularity.
There will be some rebound in public transit use, as car traffic snarls to a halt or gasoline prices hike. But I doubt we’ll return even to the pathetic pre-pandemic two percent number. Once unfettered from patterns, we don’t return to those we never much liked. And Americans really don’t like public transportation.
Which, to me, is a shameful reflection of the worst elements of our society. The decline in our use of public transportation reflects our paramount aspirations: independence; isolation; a literal fear of being in each other’s presence. It’s also a potent example of how easily we abandon any pretense of sustainability. Our disdain of public transportation further normalizes a so-called society in which ninety-nine percent of us are too atomized, too privatized, too fast-moving, too self-absorbed and too self-important to actually interact as a society at all.