Why Mass Transit Matters

I live in LA which is perhaps the car mecca of the United States if not the world. A good friend of mine once told me that LA “is like a playground where the price of admission is a car.” I think this is a fairly apt description, not only of Los Angeles, but the United States as a whole. Cars are fun and driving them can be a thrill (and no I do not mean racing.) I love going for a nighttime drive on Venice Blvd or through Downtown LA when there is not a soul to cut me off or give me the finger. But then reality hits: 30 minutes to drive 2 miles, gridlock on the 405 and 101 highways, tress over other drivers, missing the exit because getting over 5 lanes in LA traffic should be considered an Olympic sport. The massive insurance premiums, car loans, and medical bills if god forbid that you get into an accident. Automobile accidents, on average claim the lives of 35000 Americans each year. If that’s not enough the total cost of these collisions can total up to $166.7 billion per year.1 And on top of that, the hours driving in search of parking in a 15 block area of Los Angeles can cause up to 950,000 miles wastes 47,000 gallons of gas and produces 730 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.2 Add that number up for hundreds of other areas within Los Angeles and then figure the cost among other big metropolises in the United States, that figure is startling.


Look, I love driving, sailing, biking and just generally moving around. Cars will be a necessity in the modern world for years to come but the time to change their role has come. Almost every major European metropolitan area invests heavily in its mass transit infrastructure. London’s underground network, Berlin’s U-Bahn and S-Bahn train systems, the Paris metro, anyway you get the picture. Some people may argue that these government sponsored services are a manifestation of the nanny state and that if mass transit were a viable alternative to individual automobile travel the private sector would provide it.


Indeed we are seeing new services such as Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar that are attempting to make ride sharing affordable and most importantly convenient. Perhaps this revolution in taxi services will wake people up to the need for affordable transportation without having to make the larger investment in a car. These companies have a lot of potential but they are still in their early stages and do nothing to change the way that we plan our towns, places of work and lifestyle.


Unless you live in New York, San Francisco, Chicago or Boston, it is pretty hard to live in the United States without a car. Cities like Detroit and Los Angeles had their golden age in the time of the automobile. Detroit may seem like a cheap shot as its problems are far beyond its lackluster mass transit system, but it has been shown that Mass Transit systems actually create upward mobility.3 Mobility here is both abstract and concrete. In American society we often artificially separate these two notions of mobility, which makes sense if you are already working in a particular sector. However, Mass Transit allows young workers to get to their jobs affordably and safely. With professional drivers and conductors, the likelihood of getting into a fatal car collision approaches zero.


The allure of cars over the years has given us the Interstate Highway system, which allows almost anyone in the country with a car to go anywhere in the country. We all know, however that owning a car costs thousands of dollars annually on insurance and gas never mind the cost of upkeep, parking, and the car itself. It is time for a change in the way we think about mobility, and perhaps the first step is to think of the social and physical aspects as intimately connected.