The recent visioning exercises that various industry bodies have undertaken to help them prepare for the next transportation legislation, due to be enacted by the end of 2009, has identified several megatrends that are shaping both the world in which we will live and the public transportation that will be part of it. The fact is, these big trends are already at work — shaping the politics of the current election campaign. Dealing with these issues now will put the industry in the best possible position. Failure to do so may mean more than a missed opportunity; ignoring them could imperil the fate of U.S. public transportation as we know it.
The future is now
Two study commissions charged with looking at how federal transportation programs are financed and governed are merely the tip of the big iceberg in front of public transportation’s way forward. While the final reports of both commissions were not yet made public at press time, we know enough about their development to know neither will recommend significant consensus about public transportation’s future financial or policy strategies.
However, three other trends are driving the politics of public transportation policy far more than how to pay for a growing appetite for transit investment with insufficient gas tax revenues.
First, climate change is not an issue for the future; it is here, now, shaping the election debate this year. Abroad, it could provide a stimulus to the industry as carbon credit trading exchanges that work like typical commodity or stock exchanges are being formed, with savvy public transport companies and agencies looking to get in on the newfound money. Because they are international, U.S. industry could also be eligible.
Second, the growing insecurity and scarcity of the world’s petroleum supplies coupled with dramatically accelerating improvements in alternative supplies and efficiencies are producing a historic shift toward alternative propulsion and travel options. In this environment, transit could become sellers of energy. .
Reacting hastily, politicians elected in this environment could ignore transit and instead invest unnecessarily in less-proven technologies and programs that require much longer payback than transit and smart growth. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank, makes this very point: Why invest in new energy sources when it is so much cheaper and more profitable to invest in energy savings?
Public transportation is a well-demonstrated energy-efficienct solution. Every transit rider consumes half the petroleum needed for the same journey by car. If one commuter of a household switches from driving alone to work every day to using public transportation he or she can reduce his or her household’s carbon footprint by 10 percent.
Third, the aging and growth of America’s population are creating concerns about the livability of cities in ways that will favor public transportation solutions faster than how we have dealt with these issues thus far. As Portland’s Pearl or Seattle’s South Lake Union Districts are proving, more and more, people want to live in places where getting around does not require a car.
What must we do now?
Transit leaders must not dither, waiting to be affected by these mega-challenges. Business-as-usual could turn the general public away from the industry’s demonstrated potential to address these challenges. .
What is needed is a national policy, not a “federal” one, that fits into an international context: how other nations are approaching these issues together, with public transport as an important tool in the toolbox of solutions. Relying on a “reauthorization” of existing policies will squander opportunities to inject real additional financial resources and change the demand for transit services in ways that a decade from now may make the recent policy controversies seem minor and esoteric.