how we get there
October 3, 2011, 5:30 pm
Filed under: betaCITY, Energy, Transit | Tags: , , , ,

Between 1981 and 1995 the spending on federal highways in the US grew from $9 to $19 billion whilst transit stayed at $4 billion.

Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy

In the current tax and fee payments to the government by motor-vehicle users fall short of government expenditures related to motor vehicle use by approximately 20 to 70 cents per gallon of all motor fuel.

-Aaron Naparstek, UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies

Everyone’s talking about rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure to put people back to work and to make us competitive for the new century.  I’ve heard much less about the specifics of where the money should be spent.  When you consider how inefficient our infrastructural and other development has been over the past 50 years, it could be prudent to get very specific about where exactly we want to put our money.  Here is a case for your consideration.

If the numbers stated in the first quotation above hold true today, public spending on transit as a ratio of spending on highways is somewhere in the order of 1:5.  Five times more money for roads than for rail in government subsidies.  That’s the reality of US infrastructure.

The numbers in the second quotation tell us that above and beyond infrastructure, the government also subsidizes gasoline use somewhere between 20 and 70 cents per gallon of gas.  Taking an average, that’s between five and 25% of American gas paid for by the government.

Now consider the chart below.  In the thirty years since 1960, car use has almost tripled, while public transit use has remained the same.  We’re actually walking less, mostly because our cities are built for cars, and not for people.  Walking and transit are more efficient systems of transport but we go on funding the least efficient ways in the name of consumption and business and who knows what.

It makes sense that we use cars more; who wouldn’t cash in on something that is incentivized as heavily as cars and roads?  Car life has been quite pleasant and comfortable for many of us.  But of course, anything that appears to be too good to be true, generally is too good to be true.   Lurking behind all the ease and affordability are some darker realities.  Two that come to mind are debt and increased carbon footprint, or per capita energy use.  Both are critical issues in current discussions of life in America; areas in which we have utterly failed in the way we have chosen to develop our environments.

Based on the evidence, resolutions should be simple:  to build systems that don’t contribute egregiously to debt; and to make environments that facilitate the efficient use of energy by using transit and walking.  As debt, energy use and pollution are reduced through new development models, the original American ideal of market towns with a vibrant and viable mix of business and housing connected by transit will supersede the debt based fantasy exurb.

Here is the chart showing increasing car use during the past 30 years:

Commuting in the United States: 2009, US Census Bureau


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