This piece was cross-posted from NRDC’s Switchboard. Peter Lehner is executive director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
On average, Americans spend more than 100 hours commuting to work every year. That means we spend more time on the road, trying to get to work, than we do on a standard two-week (80-hour) vacation. And when gas prices approach $4 a gallon, as they seem to do on a regular basis, those hours spent on the road, idling in traffic, become even more painful.
A new bipartisan poll released Wednesday [Sept. 12] makes it clear that Americans hate traffic, and are looking to transit as a solution to end our traffic woes. Nearly three out of four Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, say that poor transportation options force them to drive more than they would like. Two out of three people support government investment in expanding and improving public transportation; twice as many people, in fact, preferred a transit solution over building new roads.
Congress managed to pass a long-delayed transportation bill this summer, but it focused on highway construction while giving short shrift to the solutions people are looking for: better public transportation, bike lanes, and the development of more walkable communities. Americans want to get where they need to go, but if Congress continues to focus on building new highways, often where they are not needed, we’ll all be stuck in traffic instead.
Investing in public transit not only gives people more ways to get around—it’s also one of the best investments a government can make. That’s why the White House convened a special forum, which I attended yesterday, along with transportation policy experts, labor leaders, and economists, on how transit investment creates jobs and builds better communities.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke to the group, which included United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard and Blue-Green Alliance president Dave Foster. The hot topic? Implementation of the transit provisions of the new national transportation law, which could help repair aging rail lines as well as finance the construction of new, cost-effective transit projects such as bus rapid transit.
Having a clean, fast, reliable public transit system reduces traffic gridlock, which makes it easier for people and goods to get around. When a company—say, a florist—can cut the travel time it needs to make a delivery, it not only saves gas and money, but opens up the possibility to grow its business, delivering more flowers to more customers. A solid transportation network is a boon to any economy, just as a gridlocked, crumbling system can be a stumbling block to growth.
Investing in public transit is also a proven job creator, generating twice as many jobs per billion as new highway construction. This is not just in local work, but has ripple effects across the country. When New York City needs subway cars, for example, production ramps up at the plant in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they’re made.
For communities, with the right zoning in place, transit stops become magnets for commercial and residential development, creating neighborhoods where people have easy access to stores, school, and work without having to drive. And when we choose to develop around transit, we can curtail the development of far-flung suburbs that not only add to our traffic woes, but take up valuable open land that serves as wildlife habitat or a filter for rainwater, which would otherwise run off paved roads and parking lots and pollute water supplies.
And of course public transportation delivers even more environmental benefits when you factor in the carbon pollution and oil savings. An aggressive expansion of public transit in cities and suburbs could save 4 million gallons of oil each day by 2030. Land-use reforms, combined with investments in public transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure could reduce carbon pollution by as much as 15 percent, according to a 2009 report.
Investing in public transit means building better communities, a stronger economy, and a healthier environment. It means more choice and more freedom for commuters, and less power to the oil monopoly. It is what Americans demand, and it is what we deserve--and it is time for Congress to deliver.