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ModeShift Episode 1: Transit on the brink

How did we get to a point where our transit system is under so much pressure — at a time when investment is needed most?

America’s transit system is struggling. How do we fix it?

A D minus. That’s what the American Society of Civil Engineers gives US transit infrastructure for a grade. There’s a $176 billion repair backlog across the country; nearly half of the population doesn’t have access to any transit; and only 5% of US workers use a train or bus to get to work.

Ridership on transit was already declining even before Covid hit. Today, it’s still not anywhere close to where it was before the pandemic. Meanwhile, Americans spend more and more on transportation.

In our first episode of ModeShift, co-hosts Andrei Greenawalt and Tiffany Chu talk with experts about the state of transit, exploring the history of transit’s decline, and the economic and environmental impact of car dependency.

Guests:

Listen to ModeShift on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to podcasts. 

Transcript.

Andrei Greenawalt:
So are we recording now or not?

Tiffany Chu:
Erm…

Andrei Greenawalt:
Not yet. Or-

Tiffany Chu:
We are recording, yep.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Okay. On a sweltering Friday afternoon in the middle of July, I took a trip on public transit from one side of Washington DC to the other with a producer in to. All right, I’m off to the Other Half brewery across town to meet a couple of my colleagues, Aparna and Tess, and have about probably a 10 to 15 minute walk to the Metro station. I live right in between two metro stations, we’re going to walk to the one that’s south of me, which is the Tenley Town Metro Station, because we’re headed south and then east to get to the Other Half brewery.
Now, riding City Transit isn’t new for me. I grew up in New York City and Transit was my ticket to teenage freedom and independence, and I’ve used transit in DC a bunch over the years, including sometimes on very hot summer days while wearing a dark suit and sweating, trying to get to my job in the Obama White House. This, on the other hand, was a comparatively low stakes trip from northwest DC to a brewery in northeast DC, located in a neighborhood called Ivy City. Which you cannot really get to by Subway or Metro, but we’re going to take that and then connect to a bus. So hopefully we’ll have a good trip. It is extremely hot in DC today, I just looked at the forecast. We’re in the low nineties on a very sunny day. The real feel is a round number of a hundred. So hopefully I will not melt in this journey across town.

Tiffany Chu:
A brewery, okay. So when you say low stakes trip, you are not kidding.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, right. I guess it depends a little bit on how much you value a cold IPA when it feels like it’s a hundred degrees out. But the trip really wasn’t about beer, it was about testing the transit system. So this brewery in Ivy City, it’s about seven miles across town from my house. And if I drove in a car, it would take me about 30 minutes, but I wanted to see what it would be like to make the trip by Metro and bus.

Tiffany Chu:
So DC, it’s one of the biggest cities in the US and taking the Metro and the bus sounds like it should be simple, but I’m guessing it wasn’t?

Andrei Greenawalt:
It was not.

Tiffany Chu:
Okay, go ahead.

Andrei Greenawalt:
All right, we’ve been waiting more than half an hour now for this bus, don’t see it coming down the road though. Trying to figure out whether to stick it out here or start an extremely long walk in the heat or find some other option for getting there.

I’m Andrei Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu:
And I’m Tiffany Chu, this is Mode Shift.

Andrei Greenawalt:
A podcast about the past, present, and future of how we get around.
We’ll get to the rest of my journey in a bit and what it tells us about why transit systems across America need so much help. But first, a bit about the two of us and what we’re going to cover over the next six episodes. Tiffany, we’re recording this fairly late at night, well after normal working hours. I take it your role as the Chief of Staff for the Mayor of Boston doesn’t allow for multi hour afternoon recording sessions?

Tiffany Chu:
That’s right. If you were to find me during the day, I’m typically running up and down the stairs at City Hall or chasing the Mayor down, trying to manage the 19,000 person organization that is the City of Boston. And simultaneously driving the Mayor’s agenda. Which some of you might know from her historic campaign, was built on climate, built on transportation, and built on equity. In a previous life, I was a designer and an urban planner and founded a transportation technology company in San Francisco called Remix, which was later acquired by Via. And how we met, I grew up into a Taiwanese immigrant family in a small New Jersey suburb, Bridgewater, where you honestly just can’t get around unless you have the resources to own a car. And that influenced my experience in the world deeply and led me through my career to where I am here today.

Andrei Greenawalt:
My experience was so different. I grew up in New York City as a kid and we took public transit everywhere. And as I got older, I followed the path of everyone else in my family. I went to law school, but I was always interested in policy and politics. And so after I clerked for a couple of federal judges, I jumped onto President Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2007 instead of going to the big law firm. And after he won, I worked in the White House for five and a half years in a bunch of different roles, including in the Chief of Staff’s office. Then spent a year in Tokyo at a think tank and teaching a college class on the American presidency before coming back to the US and joining Via as its Head of Public Policy about six years ago. I’ve got a wife and two little kiddos, a five year old and a three year old who are thankfully sound asleep upstairs right now. And I am praying to the podcast Gods that it stays that way while we record.

Tiffany Chu:
Well, we’re very thankful for your well-behaved kids.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, they are definitely well behaved when they are sleeping. So over the last couple of months I’ve been talking to wide range of transportation experts and in the coming episodes in this series, we’re going to walk through a bunch of the different forces that are holding our transit system and mobility back in America, as well as those forces that could help unleash it’s promise. Tiffany’s going to be here to help me analyze all of these forces. And so to kick things off, wanted to play you a quote and get your reaction, Tiffany.

Daniel Ramot:
We could dramatically reduce the number of cars driving around New York City if instead of driving by yourself or taking an Uber or taking a taxi, which by the way I think of as, and I like to say this so please hate me, is basically the same as walking into a kindergarten and lighting up a cigarette and smoking. This is what you’re doing when you choose to drive by yourself. You’re inflicting secondhand smoke on all these poor people. I think if you instead of that shared your ride or took a bus or took a subway, we could reduce congestion and emissions dramatically across the city. Now we can’t ask you to do that today because for a lot of trips there’s no great solution. But what if there was a great solution? I think that’s a vision for the city of the future.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s my boss, the CEO of VIA speaking at a Bloomberg Summit in 2020. Single occupancy vehicles during rush hour, like smoking in a kindergarten. What is that evoke for you, Tiffany?

Tiffany Chu:
It evokes for me this philosophy that doing something like driving in your own car, in your own vehicle by yourself, is basically a disservice to everyone around you in a way that you don’t really realize until later because there’s so many unintended consequences. Whether it’s climate, whether it’s taking up space that could be better put to use like housing, et cetera. And it is just a very powerful metaphor.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I feel like it’s tough though, right? Because for a lot of people driving is really the only good way to get around. So it’s hard to blame a lot of people for driving instead of taking transit, when transit’s not available or wildly inconvenient.

Tiffany Chu:
And this is definitely my advocate voice coming out and definitely something that I think about and grapple with, especially as a city where there’s many places in Boston that are transit deserts and don’t have good public transit. So how do we expect those people to get around, get to their jobs, see their families? So it’s a very real struggle and real tension that folks across the entire country face and deal with. But I think we have some solutions to fix it.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I wanted to start by playing this clip because it gets to the heart of this series. There’s so many factors that are converging now to make us rethink mobility and transportation. We’ve got aging infrastructure, outdated planning, challenges with access to jobs and opportunities. Technology is changing things, too many people can’t reach their jobs. And then on top of all of that, we got the climate crisis and an overheating planet.

Tiffany Chu:
Yeah, it does really feel like people are waking up to the harms of the current system and realizing that there are much better ways to plan and build transportation and increase freedom of movement and decrease the cost to society.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And that’s what we’re going to unpack over these next six episodes. We’re going to hear from experts, practitioners, elected officials and riders about how we can change the paradigm for transit.

Beth Osborne:
We have created a society where your access to fresh foods, your access to educational opportunity, your access to jobs, is all contingent on whether or not you can purchase the golden ticket into the economy, which is the ownership of a car.

Jerome Horne:
It really comes down to elected officials that understand the intersectionality between good transportation and health and access to opportunity and the economy as a whole.

Cornelia Dinca:
We’ve just gone so far in this direction of car dependence, the only way to get back to a more balanced equilibrium is to be a little bit extreme about reclaiming these cities.

Caroline Rodriguez:
The way technology is supporting community transit now is the way of the future, and it is the way that community transit can fulfill the promise that we’ve made for the last 30 years, even in a rural area.

Aaron Bielenberg:
So I’m very optimistic that we can provide a multimodal set of solutions for really any particular environment.

Charles Brown:
A truly equitable transportation system or environment for me is one that sees people first. I have a word, freedom.

Tiffany Chu:
How did we get to a point where our transit system is under so much pressure at a time when investment is needed the most.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Now we’re both based in the US. Tiffany is in Boston. I’m in Washington DC, so while we’ll be borrowing from other countries and regions, we’re going to largely be focusing on the US and America is struggling. The American Society of Civil Engineers, they put out these grades on infrastructure pretty regularly. And the last report card it gave the US Transit system a D minus. A D minus. Tiffany, if you saw a D minus on your report card, how would you react?

Tiffany Chu:
Oh my God. Well, one, I would cry. Two, I would shove it into the bottom of my backpack, and then three, I would probably get grounded by my parents for a month.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Okay. Good to know. No, D minuses for Tiffany Chu.

Tiffany Chu:
But I mean, you can see how we got to a D minus. So ridership on transit was declining even before COVID hit, and today it’s still not anywhere close to where it was before the pandemic. Delays are increasing and systems are struggling. And so here are some stats. There’s a $176 billion repair backlog across the country. Nearly half of the population doesn’t have any access to transit, and only 5% of US workers use a train or bus to get to work.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Wow, God, only 5%. Those are not good stats. We also know transit is so important to so many people’s lives. So to kind of get at some of this, we’ve been asking a lot of other people to characterize the state of the system, and one of those people is Jerome Horne.

Jerome Horne:
It’s like, we know what we need to do, but we don’t have the financial means or political will to get it done.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Jerome is a very proud transit nerd. He’s a director of transit leadership at a major transit foundation and get this, he owns a collection of hundreds of transit signs and model trains and buses that he dubs the International Micro Museum of Transit. I want to check that out one day. And growing up, when many 10 year olds were writing letters to their favorite athletes or actors, Jerome was writing them to the head of a transit agency.

Jerome Horne:
I grew up in Baltimore, and Baltimore does have a subway, even though people who live there, the joke is nobody knows that Baltimore has a subway. It’s one line, very short, but it has what’s called a rail fan window. So at the front of the train, you can go sit in the first seat and you can see out the front. And as a kid, I always wanted that seat, and I was so excited when the train would transition from being elevated to underground in a tunnel, that was always a rush for me. And so much so that when I was 10 years old, I sent my first email and it was to the CEO of the transit system in Baltimore asking him, “Hey, how can I get your job when I grow up?”

Andrei Greenawalt:
Jerome is probably the biggest transit evangelist you can get, and whenever he jumps on a new rail system, he still gets that same feeling he got as a 10 year old watching the train go underground. But the chronic problems facing the system can make that magic feel a little less special.

Jerome Horne:
We’re seeing a lot of our older systems in this country falling apart. Trains are derailing, things are catching fire. Literally parts of tunnels are collapsing in certain places, and that’s just because transit has not been prioritized, or been giving the funding that it really needs to, one, bring it up to what we call a state of good repair to make sure it can just operate, let alone think about expanding and adding new lines.

I also think that one of the things we’ve gotten wrong in this country is we also look at transit. “Oh, we built a new light rail line,” but no one’s riding it. And a lot of it is planning and thinking about transit projects in isolation, rather than part of a network or system. I think those are sort of a number of things where it’s maintenance, political will and land use are probably some of the biggest things that we haven’t been doing well.

Andrei Greenawalt:
It wasn’t always like this. In the early 20th century, America had a very robust network of cable cars and early subway systems. But in those decades between 1920 and 1950, we saw the financial collapse of those systems, thanks to the Great Depression and the rise of cars is competition. And over time, transit became seen as more of a welfare system rather than a utility for the benefit of everyone.

Jerome Horne:
It wasn’t always that way, and a lot of the great transit that exists in this country was built by private companies a long, long time ago. At a certain point, transit agencies became government entities, or authorities, or districts, and a lot of that sort of happened at the time, during and after white flight. After World War II, a lot of people were returning from war, and the GI Bill helped a lot of people move into new homes out in the first generation suburbs, particularly a lot of white people, and they were able to build that generational wealth as families, and those opportunities weren’t quite afforded to low income families and black and brown people in particular.

And once people moved out into the suburbs, you saw this erosion of existing transit in inner cities. And also thinking about, once again, planning of some of those more modern systems like BART in California or MARTA in Atlanta, the metro rail in DC. The thinking really changed to, okay, we’re going to build these systems that are hybrid subway, sort of in the inner city, but also hybrid commuter rail much further out into the suburbs. And during that time, we saw a lot of disconnection from the bus, and the bus was sort of othered, because once people stopped riding bus, the bus infrastructure and the amount of service that was being run sort of began to deteriorate over time.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The bus.

Tiffany Chu:
Workhorse of our transit system and the piece that’s most often neglected.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The bus is where I ran into problems on my trip to Ivy City. It’s what made the length of it totally unreasonable. My journey in the metro was pretty straightforward, fast, smooth, aside from some broken escalators.

So we’re approaching Tenleytown Metro here, and there is a lot of construction over the first set of escalators. And looking at a sign here, it says that there’s an escalator that’s going to be out of service for approximately 22 months.

Tiffany Chu:
Oh my God, 22 months.

Andrei Greenawalt:
22 months. Isn’t that crazy? Anyway, we walked past that broken escalator and we went to go wait on the platform.

So we just came down to the platform and looks like according to the digital board here, we have about an eight minute wait, not too bad to take the metro in the direction that we need to go in.

Recorded Metro announcment:
Door opening, step back to allow customers to exit.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The time from leaving my house to getting off the train, eight stops away was about 35 minutes. We then left Union Station and we walked another 10 minutes or so to get to the bus stop.

See, it’s not exactly a bus stop, but it’s a place, it has a sign on the sidewalk. And is this… Yes, the D4…

There wasn’t much. There were no benches or anywhere to sit. There was just a curb and a tree box behind us and it was so hot.

And then we’ll see how much longer we have to wait for this bus here, but I think as we consult our apps, which I’m not sure are a 100% reliable here, it seems like we might have a bit of a wait on our hands. And this kind of last leg of our journey, I fear, is going to prove the most problematic.

After about 15 minutes, I looked at my phone just to see what else was available.

If you look at the other options that is Google suggesting, they’re suggesting that you could also take some scooters or a Lyft, but obviously a Lyft is going to cost us some extra money, and it looks like even the scooters are going to be quite a bit more expensive than taking the bus ride.

Tiffany Chu:
Okay, so wait, at this point, how far from the brewery are you?

Andrei Greenawalt:
A couple miles.

Tiffany Chu:
And did you consider the free option, walking?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I could have walked, but I got to remember, it felt like a hundred degrees outside and I wanted to use the option that was most useful to the most people. Of course, there’s also lots of rider who can’t walk that distance in the heat, because of their age, or maybe they have kids with them, or they have a disability. And so we stood there taking in the exhaust from passing cars and trucks.

You definitely have the experience even in DC, which has compared to many other American cities, very good public transit, just how dominated our system is by automobiles. As we stand here, we haven’t seen a single bus go by in either direction. All we’ve seen are lots of cars, some motorcycles, some delivery trucks, and we’ve seen a couple of bikes, some bikes and a few scooters, but very much the dominant thing we are seeing our cars, most of them being driven by people by themselves.

I kept looking down at my phone to see what time it was, and the producer and I had been there for well over 35 minutes breathing in the hot sticky air as cars whizz past us. And I got admit, I almost abandoned the operation, but right when it seemed like just totally unbearable, the wait thankfully ended.

Just stepped out on the street and I see a bus couple blocks away, so fingers crossed. This is our bus, D4. It’s got Ivy City flashing in the front. All right.

And finally we were on that bus cooling down.

I’m just looking at what Google estimates the drive would’ve been. It would’ve taken us eight minutes to get there, if we were driving or in a car. So we have the eight minute option, and then what I experienced, which was waiting for more than 35 minutes. We are in the middle of what’s probably going to be a 15 or 20 minute ride here on the bus, so just huge, huge time difference. I’m also extremely hungry right now, so it’s…

This is the brewery… seeing a sign. Walking up some steps. This looks familiar. Definitely approached this a different way I came last time. I think I drove and piled a lot of beers into my trunk last time I came here.

Tiffany Chu:
So you made it and the batteries hadn’t totally run out in the recorder. So how long did it actually take you?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Actually first, the batteries did run out multiple times, but fortunately our producer was well prepared with some backups. But to answer your question, it took more than an hour and a half to go those seven miles.

Tiffany Chu:
An hour and a half for seven miles?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah. That’s not a short trip.

Tiffany Chu:
Oh my God. Well, this also begs the question, how did your ride compare to the colleagues that you were meeting?

Andrei Greenawalt:
It did not compare well in terms of time. I think it took me more than three times longer to get there than my colleagues who took cars to get to the brewery.

I’m sorry I’m so late. I’m so late.

Tess Gebretensai:
How are you?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Good to see you guys. How are you?

Tess Gebretensai:
It’s good to see you.

Andrei Greenawalt:
How did you guys get here?

Tess Gebretensai:
I drove from Alexandria.

Andrei Greenawalt:
You drove? Okay. And how long did that take?

Tess Gebretensai:
A little over 30 minutes. Yeah. I looked at the Metro times, I looked at the ride share prices from my area and I said better hit the car. Yeah.

Aparna Paladugu:
I took a Lyft because it would’ve been a 50 minute bus ride on two or three buses, depending on the route. It’s just so hot today. I was like, I’m going to melt. I’m only a couple miles away, I’m in Navy Yard. So this was probably a 12 minute Lyft ride. So felt like the balance of that much time and being hot on the bus was probably not worth it.

Tiffany Chu:
So they decided to light up a cigarette in a kindergarten class.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Right, Exactly. I was hot and very late, but at least I had my moral code intact. But I don’t know, I do have to say, can you really blame them or anyone else who drives when transit isn’t super convenient to where you need to go? If I have to do that trip again, I’ll probably take a car. The stakes of my trip were low, but the consequences of unreliable transit are really high for lots of people across America who need to get to school or work or medical appointments. So I don’t know, why do we have this system that makes that so much more attractive to take a car, even when only going a handful of miles in a big city like Washington, DC? So to get some additional context on this, I turned to a guy named Peter Norton.

Peter Norton:
I’m a historian and I think it’s pretty obvious, if you think about it, that everything we deal with in our lives out in the public world is the product of a long and convoluted and sometimes troubling history. I don’t think we can either perceive what we’re looking at accurately or make it better until we recognize the history that formed it.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Peter’s an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, where he teaches the history of technology among other things. He’s written multiple books on America’s car dependency, including the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

Peter Norton:
One way that can really help to reveal this perspective is to look at a satellite view like on Google of an American city or a suburb or even a small town. As you zoom in, you start to notice that buildings are there and streets are there, but it’s just lots and lots of pavement, big roads, lots of parking. From that point of view, we have towns that actually look more like car storage zones than communities.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Can you talk a little bit about the decline of public transit? So as cars boom, at some point we see a decline in kind of streetcar and bus lines. Obviously there was the Great Depression, other factors potentially at play. I’m curious, with cars booming, was the decline of transit something that happened organically or very much not organically?

Peter Norton:
Such an important question. You could plot those curves against each other, and yes, you would see that as car ownership rises, transit ridership flattens, and then slowly declines. Now, from that coincidence of curves, you’ll often see people say that this shows that people preferred the car to transit. I think that’s a misleading oversimplification because even when large majorities of people were still either riding the street car or riding the bus, or very often both, you see transit ridership already suffering because the service that the street railways and the bus lines could offer was affected by the number of cars, even when it was a small minority driving.

This comes from a number of things. One is from the automobiles themselves, which could drive on the tracks, they could block the path of the electric street car. The cost of operating a street railway rose steep deeply in the twenties after World War I, because of inflation, the coal to generate the electricity to operate the street railways rose steep deeply in price. Labor costs rose, when the labor costs weren’t met, there were strikes. When there were strikes, people had to find other ways to get to work. A lot of street railways had to make ends meet by skimping on maintenance, cutting corners in other ways. These things all were impediments to public transit and helped to start it on a gradual downturn. Of course, the Great Depression contributed that to that as well. And then after World War II, it accelerated.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The economic shifts that hurt public transit and helped cars were also fueled by a public relations stroke of brilliance. America was one of the first countries with a large auto industry, and that industry was incredibly good at influencing the narrative at the right time.

Peter Norton:
And that large automobile industry figured out early that it needs to tell stories about the car that are attractive to enlist popular support behind them.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Can you talk a little bit about the role that the automobile industry or other industry players played in that decline in public transit over time, after World War II perhaps?

Peter Norton:
Yes. Well, even before World War II, the automobile interest groups were very interested in finding a way to encourage people to drive more. That led to things like efforts to cast out on the legitimacy of walking in city streets and sometimes even outlawing it as jaywalking, that also included trying to raise the speed limit, trying to shift the blame in the event that a motorist collided with a pedestrian, trying to shift the blame toward the pedestrian.
Now after World War ii, yes, this trend certainly accelerated and this had to do with a complex combination of factors, which I’m going to try to simplify as an effort to redefine the accessibility of a destination as its accessibility by car. It was supposed to be a city’s obligation and a state obligation to ensure that you as a driver could get where you want to go via car. That includes having a parking place available for you when you arrived at your destination. This was to be a public responsibility, born at public expense.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And as Peter explained, after World War II, this led to a whole host of policy and planning decisions that led to the construction of roads throughout our cities, as well as huge amounts of parking, as cities competed to be attractive to car travel. At the expensive transit and other ways to get around, the car began to own the road.

Peter Norton:
These public policy measures alone, apart from transit, helped to explain transit’s decline because they show a massive commitment to supporting driving that took resources that could have been committed, at least in part, to making transit work well too.

Tiffany Chu:
Wow. I think many people assume that once the car became a mass produced and affordable option, it then became the only way that people wanted to travel. But so much effort and government investment went into making it attractive and convenient to drive a car.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Absolutely. Meanwhile, there are these huge costs to the environment, public health, and economic mobility. If you thought power plants were the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions in America, you’d be wrong. It’s actually transportation. Transportation is the number one contributor to the climate crisis in America today. So many families across the country are forced into spending huge chunks of their hard earned money on transportation. According to AAA, the cost of car ownership has jumped to an average of almost $10,000 a year, $10,000. 25 years ago when Beth Osborne first started her career, she quickly realized those costs.

Beth Osborne:
I realized that from a very young age it had been truly impacting the extent to which I had access to opportunity. When I was in college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I needed to find a job and most of the jobs that were available required you to drive to get to them. But I couldn’t afford a car because I didn’t have a job, but I couldn’t get a job because I couldn’t afford a car. What a terrible economic system that requires that.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Beth is the Director of Transportation for America, a major transportation policy organization based in DC. She previously served in senior policy roles at the US Department of Transportation. Beth has been advocating for solutions to our transportation crisis for more than two decades. And so I asked her to describe the economic cost of our dependency on cars.

Beth Osborne:
Well, just in terms of numbers, it’s the second largest household expenditure. And it’s an expenditure that is deeply tied to housing cost because as people go further and further from the things they need to get a cheaper home, a home that is cheaper because it is far from the things you need. Your transportation costs go up and often they go up beyond the savings that you are getting from that house being further from the things you need. Also, transportation costs are sunk costs. You don’t earn money on buying a car, you lose money the second you sign the papers on owning that car. And a lot of the costs are dynamic and unpredictable. You don’t know when your car’s going to stop working or break down. You don’t know when gas prices are going to go up out of nowhere and stay up. You don’t know when they’re going to be low.

So we’re forcing people to put a ton of money into this area that takes money from them and doesn’t return it in order to be able to buy something that should build wealth. And often blocks them from being able to make that purchase and build wealth. We have created a society where your access to fresh foods, your access to educational opportunity, your access to jobs is all contingent on whether or not you can purchase the golden ticket into the economy, which is the ownership of a car.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And people needing that golden ticket as you put it. Has that, over the last couple of decades, do you think things have changed for the better, for the worse? Are we sort of exactly where we were 20 years ago on this question of car dependency in this country?

Beth Osborne:
It’s an interesting time. I mean, overall, most of our transportation trends are going in the wrong direction. We’re spending more money, we’re spending more time. People have to travel. Every human in the US has to travel about five miles more per day than they did when I got to Washington DC in order to accomplish the exact same things that they were accomplishing then. It’s just lower productivity, it’s more wasted time. What’s ironic, of course, is the benefits we use to justify this arrangement was a time savings benefit. The notion that if we built more space for cars, you’d save all this time. But in building all this space for cars, we shoved everything you needed so far away that you have to travel so much further, you’ve lost a ton of time.
And it’s just because we are progressing after the wrong things. So, so much of whether or not transportation functions or not and whether or not it functions efficiently is based on where we place things. And unfortunately, we have spent the last 30 to 40 years aggressively placing everything you need as far away from you as possible. It makes it hard to share rides, it makes it hard to travel outside of a car and every trip inside of a car is going to be inefficient because everybody’s crisscrossing paths and getting in each other’s way. And that’s why what we experience with transportation is inconvenient, frustrating, and expensive.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Inconvenient, frustrating, and expensive. But Tiffany, as you know, this show is also going to be about finding solutions, not just identifying the problem. So I’m curious, what do you think is going right for transit right now?

Tiffany Chu:
Well, I do think that transit, especially in dense metropolitan areas, is still more efficient and quicker to get from point A to point B. Probably in the top, maybe five cities in the US. It is still more competitive than the car in downtown cores. Other positives, I think there’s a really strong EV boom right now. People are really understanding the importance of electric vehicles. We just passed a historic climate bill at the federal level, unprecedented and also very 11th hour and surprising. And I think we’ve got some momentum, there’s something there.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I mean just to add to that, I think, yeah, you mentioned that climate law. We also have the infrastructure bill that passed last year that is pumping a bunch more money into public transit across America. I’m not sure that’s the impact of that has started to be seen yet, but I think it absolutely will. I feel like there’s a lot of great stuff happening at the local level and the work you’re doing and your mayor in Boston is exemplary of this. But I feel like there’s a lot of mayors now across the country and not just in big cities and smaller cities and even in kind of rural towns where we’re doing really creative interesting stuff on the mobility front. So you think we can break this paradigm?

Tiffany Chu:
I think there’s lots of highs and lots of lows in this transportation world. And the reason why you and I are both here is because we see the highs and we want to push forward. We think there’s hope and optimism and what we’ve heard today about all of our conversations around the importance of equity, the history of how we got to this point in America, our new climate policies, talking about technology. I think there’s so many reasons why this new decade coming up will be different than the past one.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I agree with you. I think despite the history and the very real challenges we have, I remain quite optimistic about the future. Both with all the investment that’s coming from government as well as I think innovation that the private sector is bringing to the table. I think we’ve got a path forward and I’ll just add that in this country that we live in that is quite polarized at the moment. I do think so many of the issues around access to jobs and improving and expanding transit are actually quite bipartisan and that also gives me hope.

Tiffany Chu:
So coming up this season, we are going even deeper on how to fix transit. From infusing equity and planning to integrating new technology to serving rural communities, to imagining the car free city. So stay with us.

Andrei Greenawalt:
ModeShift is produced by Via in partnership with Post Script Media. Via’s technology enables partners to create end-to-end transit systems from planning better networks and streets to operating efficient public transit. Learn more at ridewithvia.com. This show is hosted by me, Andrei Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu:
And me Tiffany Chu. If you like what you hear, please rate and review us in the app of your choice and send a link to the transit nerd in your life. The show is produced by Steven Lacey, Ann Bailey, Cecily Meza-Martinez and Dalvin Aboagye of Postscript Media. It’s also produced by Francis Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius and Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Markwan compose our theme song. Sean Markwan and Greg Bill Frank mix the show.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll stick around as we explore these topics more deeply in the coming episodes.

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