Nothing to Lose but Our Cars

While libertopians dream of staying in their cars, public transit moves to integrate micro-transportation.

As long as we are working within the spatial and technological limits we have now, mass transit is a threshold issue for egalitarian thinking. This is especially frustrating considering we have developed the ability to almost instantaneously connect with each other across vast distances — as well as connect organizations, businesses and campaigns to their supporters and customers through processes like email append. And yet, developments in American mass transit have been minimal. 

Climate & Capitalism lists mass transportation as a key demand for a more sustainable and fair system. Elon Musk’s promise to overcome those limits was an explicit acknowledgment of them. It was accompanied by (and, some might say, necessitated by) his distaste for being around other people. Musk called public transit “painful” and offended many MT advocates. 

There may be other reasons why people less class-privileged than Musk may not want to ride around with a lot of people near them. Social anxiety, PTSD, or even just a preference for not being spatially near others (while perhaps staying in communicative proximity with others via technology). As one blog points out: “We’ve all been in the scenario of rushing for a bus, just catching it, and then fumbling in our bag, purse or pocket for the right change. We can feel the eyes of other passengers watching us, and the impatience of the driver. When you have a mental health condition, it can be difficult to just shrug off experiences like this, and they can discourage you from traveling again.” We need public transit, but need to respect people’s preference for a security bubble around them — and we need to do that without collapsing back into the “lone driver” icon of American “freedom.” 


This is why I’m happy to see that the discussion about the integration and mutual beneficiality of mass-and-micro-transit is being heard by more people. Superpedestrian, a micro-mobility firm, and the Cities Today Institute peer-to-peer group just released a report on the integration of e-scooters and public transportation networks. So while we’ve all been complaining about all the e-scooters lying around blocking pedestrian traffic, researchers examining Seattle, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Madrid considered challenges and solutions including fare integration, e-scooters filling gaps in evening and overnight transportation, and the integration of “multimodal trips.” The very fact that people are having this conversation is encouraging at a time when nations are struggling to convince their elected officials to do anything about infrastructure. After all, as one advocate told the researchers, “even if e-scooters replace one kilometre that would have otherwise been a car trip, that definitely feels like a win.” 3,000 people per month in the United States die from car accidents, and we’re a long way away from environmentally neutral fleets of cars being the norm.

How far we’ve come, how much we’ve lost that we don’t know about, and how far we have to go: over 100 years ago the entire “transportation system” abruptly transformed into a corporate, private sector construct where cars took over the roads and the individualization of automobile transport made it harder to organize than railroads had. Jaywalking was a capitalist-inspired offense, manufactured by the carmakers after citizens started to circulate mass petitions to limit cars’ speeds to 25 miles an hour. “Local car firms got boy scouts to hand out cards to pedestrians explaining jaywalking,” the BBC explained, quoting one historian who says the cards informed pedestrians that walking on the roads was “dangerous and old fashioned.” Not too much later, corporations criminally conspired to kill mass transit, buying up transit systems in 25 cities and shutting down electric rail. 

Now, the video for Red Barchetta (to be fair, a decent song) playing perpetually in his head, Elon tries to save the car and driver, the hallmark of individualism. Instead, let’s integrate and socialize people’s spatial needs in a larger system that includes scooters, smart cars, trains, buses, and boats. There are plenty of opportunities to make things better, including the paradox where, on the one hand, cities like Seattle field many complaints (70 in Seattle’s case) every month, while on the other hand, the drive for more cops and metal detectors on buses and subway terminals, whatever the justification, will offset some of the coming increase in ridership (cops make some folks uncomfortable, surprise surprise) and more instances of negative encounters between the people and the police. We need to continue to search for alternatives to over-policing in public spaces. And we’ll need to address worker shortages (we’re down 55,000 transit workers in the U.S.), and the need for people to comfortably socially distance. 

Ridership on L.A. Metro dropped substantially during the pandemic, but it’s going back up, and the pandemic actually gave innovators and policymakers an opportunity to re-design and re-integrate transit systems inside and out. The modest infrastructure spending Congress actually did approve will make many of these improvements possible. What will really make a difference in the next two decades, however, is that more and more young people, comfortable with transit and with less savings to buy cars and trucks of their own, will start voting for candidates who will turn the current political exile of mass transportation on its head. 

Ultimately, the social and ethical case for mass transportation and, in a more foundational sense, public transportation, rests on the hard evidence that scaling, cooperating, and sharing in our transportation solutions is cheaper, better for the planet, and more accessible to everyone than ridership as individual property. But in order to truly test that proposition, we need communities and leaders with the political will to build the best systems we have to offer.