California Forum

Public transit needs more investment

The central premise of the opinion piece, “Invest tax dollars in roads, not public transportation” (Viewpoints, Feb. 14), is that Californians have given up on public transit and we need to invest more in roads instead. The truth is that public transit provides a critical service, demand for which is near record highs – though investments have largely been drowned out by over-investment in roads.

In the latest transportation bill, the FAST Act, Congress authorized $305 billion in federal transportation spending. Of that, nearly 80 percent was designated for roads. Our roads do need attention, but it is because states have been on a highway-building spree, not because we are investing too much in transit.

Over-reliance on single-occupancy vehicle travel backed by perpetual road expansion is harmful to public health, environmentally unsustainable and out of touch with changing travel behavior. A recent study by MIT found that air pollution linked to the transportation sector accounts for as many as 53,000 premature deaths each a year. And greenhouse gas emissions from driving account for nearly 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, and 5 percent of global emissions.

Nationwide, public transit use is near all-time highs. In 2014, there were 10.8 billion transit trips taken, the highest in 58 years. And millennials, as a group, are driving 23 percent less than previous generations – the result of taking fewer trips, shorter trips and more trips by modes other than driving.

In fact, from 2004 to 2014, Americans drove less each year than the year before, decreasing driving an average of 0.8 percent a year, all while transit ridership increased 0.3 percent a year during the same span.

Across the country, people aren’t abandoning transit, though in some places, transit is abandoning them. Service cuts, fare increases, poor reliability and the lack of designated bus lanes lead to ridership declines in local markets that defy national trends. Case in point, Orange County, which was cited in the previous article for a 30 percent decrease in ridership the last seven years. During that time, the number of buses operating at peak hours decreased 21 percent, while fares increased 33 percent.

We need to invest less in roads, particularly road expansion, and instead develop a true multimodal transportation system that also prioritizes public transit, biking and pedestrian options that people increasingly want and need.

Emily Rusch is the executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group, CALPIRG.