The U.S.: Left In the Dust by European and Asian Transit

© Andy Singer -

Very few Americans use trains for their transportation needs. It’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because rail travel isn’t a viable means of travel in the U.S. There are few routes and not many destinations, thus train travel takes longer than cars and airplanes, and is usually not a way to save money. Sadly, both cars and airplanes are substantially more harmful to the environment; see this Carbusters’ article for a chart that demonstrates the effects of all three forms of transportation on the environment.

Why the U.S.’s Transit Options are Lacking

The United States was on its way to having a viable public transportation system in the early 1900s. According to Global Competitiveness in the Rail and Transit Industry, “By the 1950s… the federal government shifted its infrastructure spending decisively to highways and airports. Public transportation systems atrophied, and America’s technological leadership in the manufacture of everything from subway cars to trams to high-speed trains passed to companies in Japan, France, Germany and a few other European countries. By the 1970s and 1980s, the domestically owned passenger rail manufacturing industry had vanished. Today, the U.S. passenger rail industry remains underdeveloped, with significant gaps in the supply chain for passenger rail equipment.”

Europe and parts of Asia, on the other hand, have thriving and comprehensive transit industries today. Suburban, inter-city and international trains are available, affordable and convenient to citizens: Germany and Japan in particular have enormous rail manufacturing sectors, while Switzerland has an overall public transport modal share of 24% of passenger km. All three countries continue to see expansion of their rail networks.

The U.S.’s Transit Future

With the relatively recent realization that the U.S. needs a comprehensive public transit system, it looks as though one might be on the horizon. According to the aforementioned report (Global Competitiveness in the Rail and Transit Industry), “In the face of challenges such as high gasoline prices, traffic congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions, public transportation offers a range of benefits over private automobile travel. Indeed, rising urban rail and bus ridership, as well as plans for high-speed rail corridors, suggest a rekindling of U.S. interest in these alternative forms.” At the beginning of 2011, U.S.’s President Barack Obama revealed his plan to build a high-speed rail system in the U.S. His plan includes the investment of 8 billion dollars and will conceptually provide a high-speed rail system accessible to 80 % of American citizens. In May 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation also announced that it would invest 2 billion dollars in the project. (Congress has since cut off most of the funding for high speed rail)

A project of this size will take years to implement. It will improve the U.S. on several fronts; it will create jobs, reduce the dependence on oil imports, stimulate travel and thus boost the economy. Perhaps most imperative in the long run is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions - if there is significant modal shift from road and air travel.

Further reading: UK High Speed Rail: Going very fast in the wrong direction

— by Gina Williams

Gina Williams is a guest post and article writer bringing to us information on the past, present and future transit system in the U.S.

Gina also writes about those involved in motorcycle accidents

One Comment

  1. Joern Pachl
    Posted 30 January, 2012 at 16:27 | Permalink

    One of the best textbooks on the subject of how and why public transportation was destroyed in the USA after WWII:

    Goddard, S. B.: Getting There - The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century. Univ of Chicago Pr; 2nd Edition, ISBN 978-0226300436

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