By Froma Harrop
I frequently ride one of those cheap buses connecting my small city with a big city. At first, I expected my fellow passengers to be largely poor and old — the folks who can’t afford to drive or are unable to.
I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Most are able-bodied, youngish adults taking the bus to save something more precious to them than money — their time. Like me, they spend the hours zoned out on their preferred media, thanks to mobile phones, tablets, laptops and the bus’s Wi-Fi (when it works). Earplugs cocoon our brains in customized sound.
The passengers are surrounded by so many wires and power cords that the scene resembles the intensive care unit in a hospital. (For obvious reasons, there’s always a jockeying for seats near the electrical outlets.)
When I drive, my Honda Accord provides primo telematics — streaming audio, hands-free phoning and a wealth of satellite radio channels. These things ease but don’t solve the big problems of driving: the crashing boredom and stress. And as wonderful as these media offerings can be, accessing them still distracts from the road. (We’re not talking about a radio with an on/off button.)
Time is the ultimate luxury in this age of constant communication, and driving can be a monstrous waste of it. The surge of suburb-raised adults into America’s walkable cities reflects, in large part, a growing aversion to captivity in traffic. Whether young and hip or old or poor, urbanites often don’t own a car. They need alternative means to go distances their feet won’t take them.
The trend is real. Vehicle-miles traveled by those ages 16 to 34 fell 23 percent from 2001 to 2009, according to the National Household Travel Survey. In the same period, these younger people increased passenger-miles on public transportation by 40 percent.
A study by the Frontier Group noted that mass transit is “more compatible with a lifestyle based on mobility and peer-to-peer connectivity” than is driving. Bus and train passengers can text, email, work and play games. Meanwhile, many states are banning use of mobile devices while driving, as, frankly, they should.
Other factors linking this group to mass transportation are apps making it a cinch to find routes and schedules — and to score reservations. They also alert travelers to delays in departures or arrivals, much as the airline apps do. When wheels are needed for special tasks, car-sharing services provide cheap access.
Urban planners have long observed that many suburbanites also want mass transit alternatives for getting into town. It was no surprise that as Dallas extended its light rail system into the open spaces, developers built housing around the stops.
Given the growing numbers of Americans seeking mass transit, you’d think moving more money its way would be enlightened policy. Not to our right-leaning friends muttering about a “war on cars.”
To quote the 2012 Republican Party platform: “In some States with elected officials dominated by the Democratic Party, a proportion of highway funds is diverted to other purposes. This must stop.”
True, my intercity bus was privately owned. True, it traveled on highways. But for most of its passengers, public mass transit was what got them to the bus and, at the other end of the trip, to their final destination. Very few city people can do all their business on foot.
Modern mass transit — key to the revival of American downtowns — serves all ages and income groups.
A final word to Washington politicians: Give your drivers a day off, and take public transportation. You’ll find a lot of new voters in those seats.
Froma Harrop at firstname.lastname@example.org.