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posted 24th March 2010
If you live in New York City, you are likely to be, like myself-- utterly dependent on mass transit. I walk a great deal, but I still need to take a bus or subway at least five days a week to visit friends and attend cultural events. Riding the subway today is vastly different from traveling on the refuse-laden nightmare subway cars of the city's financial crisis years of the 70s and 80s. The subway then felt dominated by roving feral teenagers, menacing panhandlers, and scrofulous homeless people who settled with their tattered overflowing bags and rusty supermarket carts of possessions in stations, tunnels, and sometimes in the cars themselves.
When a large sum of money was committed to capital improvements in the 80s, the subway began to turn around. And after mass transit crime rate declined in the nineties, and the ubiquitous visually aggressive graffiti was removed, with only a less visible, scratched glass graffiti replacing it, traveling by subway became a more secure experience. (The subway is not only the quickest way to get anywhere in Manhattan, but one can now also usually sit in peace, thinking one's own thoughts, without being wary that something untoward will occur.) And though the city's buses still may make us wait for unconscionable lengths of time, and then exasperate us by seemingly maliciously arriving in bunches, the service they provide has generally become faster, cleaner, and safer, and the drivers more sensitive to the needs of riders.
However, the city's mass transit always remains in danger of breaking down. The number of riders on New York City's buses and subways declined last year for the first time in six years, apparently a victim of the economic recession. But the real danger to the transit system is the service cuts that the MTA is weighing, as it struggles with a budget shortfall of about $400 million. The MTA is planning to cut a number of workers, including 600 change clerks (whose presence lessens the threat of crime, a peril augmented by the fact that nearly half the subway's security cameras don't work). It is also eliminating bus routes, reducing train runs, and, of course, raising fares. One proposed cut by the state's legislature was to ax funds for free student Metro Cards. That politically tone-deaf plan aroused protests and rallies from affected students and their parents, and is now off the table.
Public transportation is not only the lifeblood of New York, but also a vital part of national life. However, we are an auto and highway-loving country (Washington spends 80 percent of transportation dollars building roads) lacking the political will to develop the kind of effective transportation policies that are in operation in most Western European countries. A new documentary on PBS's Blueprint America series, Aaron Woolf' s Beyond the Motor City, deals with plans to begin the revitalization of the desolate (40% of Detroit has turned into abandoned lots of weeds, and even small forests), economically derelict Detroit by reconstructing its bare bones public transportation system. Detroit was once America's booming auto capital, but few of the city's auto factories are functioning today. It's now so crime-ridden, impoverished, and its population so dispersed, that it's doubtful a renewal of mass transit (through a light rail system) would do anything more than make the downtown a bit more workable. Still, it's heartening to see in the film that there are people like the Motor City Blight Busters - volunteers who remove and repair blighted buildings and help install gardens and art in their place - who have not given up all hope of saving Detroit.
What's most interesting about the film is its look at
Spain's high-speed (150-185 miles per hour) national rail AVE system, which in
less than 20 years has linked the country from north to south and advanced
economic development in the cities it serves. The system is green and so
efficient one can live without a car, and Spain has been willing to increase
taxes and its national debt to pay for it.
The Obama's administration's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has proposed a policy shift, with major transit projects to be based on livability issues such as economic development opportunities and environmental benefit. But given the Republican opposition to every other Obama government initiative, it's hard to be optimistic about our transit future.