• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Drive to Improve Mass Transit

Air Date: Week of

The United States is a car-based society but more people, in rising numbers, are turning to public transportation. In his special series “Passengers, producer David Freudberg shines the spotlight on the factors that are driving change in American’s travelling habits and how communities across the nation are trying to find sustainable transportation solutions.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

CURWOOD: And I'm Steve Curwood. There’s more pain at the gas pump. Nationally, the price of regular is about three dollars and 60 cents a gallon, and in California, it’s already soared past four bucks.

The last time gas was so high was in 2008. Back then, many drivers found the cost of commuting by car was just too much. So they pulled over, parked their cars, and public transportation ridership reached a five-decade high. Producer David Freudberg investigated the switch for his series "Humankind." In his upcoming documentary “Passengers,” he found finances are just one reason people choose public transportation.

FREUDBERG: The forty-two million Americans who ride public transit daily, or on a regular basis, represent a broad cross-section of income levels. According to a nationwide survey, over a third of these passengers earn more than fifty thousand dollars a year. But for some lower-income populations, unable to afford a car, mass transit can be a lifeline.


In Boston, a MBTA Bus Rapid Transit vehicle.

FREUDBERG: This is Dudley Square, a historic inner city neighborhood in Boston. A large outdoor bus depot here is operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known to everyone as the T. For some passengers, it’s their only way of getting to work.

MAN: I live check by check, day by day, and, you know, and I depend on the public transportation. I depend on this to get me to where I’m going. But yet still, I have to leave my house earlier and earlier every day so I can get to work on time, because - for the simple fact: the buses are always late, always late. Four thirty comes early in the morning, and if I don’t catch that first bus to go to work, I’m late.

FREUDBERG: Have you ever driven?

WOMAN: Yes I have.

FREUDBERG: But you don’t have a car now?

WOMAN: No, I just had surgery on my eyes and it didn’t come out too good, so I don’t drive anymore.

FREUDBERG: And how often do you use the buses or the T?

WOMAN: Every day.

FREUDBERG: Do you go to work?

WOMAN: Yeah.

FREUDBERG: May I ask what you do?

WOMAN: I’m a cashier at Stop and Shop.

WOMAN 2: A lot of people have to get where they’re going. You know, otherwise it would be impossible for them to get where they’re going. I think it really helps a lot because don’t everybody drives a car.

FREUDBERG: May I ask, do you have a car?

WOMAN 2: No I don’t.

FREUDBERG: So you’re relying exclusively on public transportation.

WOMAN 2: I rely on public transportation. Yes I do.

FREUDBERG: Most mass transit passengers - seven in ten - do have access to a car, but they opt to use buses and trains anyway. At rush hour in particular, the majority of transit passengers have made this choice.

CERVERO: During other times of the day, public transit largely is serving a lot of captive users who have no choice. They don't own cars, they're too old, too young, too poor, too infirm to drive, which is not inconsequential. That's roughly one-third of American travelers in most metropolitan areas.

“Humankind” Executive Producer David Freudberg.

FREUDBERG: Robert Cervero is one of America’s leading scholars on transportation. He directs the University of California Transportation Center in Berkeley, where he is also a professor of city planning.

CERVERO: When you have a car-based society, a auto-centric landscape, where the settlement patterns of cities - everything's spread out, distances are so far apart you have to have motorized transport to get to housing, to get to offices, theaters, restaurants, or whatever.

As we have created auto-oriented cities, roughly a third of the American population is left out. They don't have the full level of access to those opportunities that the rest of us do. And as we get an increasingly aged society, eyesight-challenged motorists, we're going to probably find even larger shares of folks who are going to be more and more dependent on public transit.

FREUDBERG: But the people who do have a choice - why do those people, in significant numbers, rising numbers, decide that they want to use trains or buses?

CERVERO: Because it either saves time, or is comparable in the amount of time to get to your destination, or it's cheaper, particularly as it relates to avoiding parking costs. So those are the two overriding factors. How much time does it take to drive, versus taking public transit? And door-to-door, how much am I going to pay using a car, versus public transit?

FREUDBERG: So comparing the two modes: a car typically driven by a single occupant, versus public transit use - which is more expensive for the person?

CERVERO: Well, the car is going to be a lot more expensive. You know, it depends what year it is, and model, and so forth, but AAA numbers are now in the area of like 65, 70 cents per mile of using a car. The full cost of purchasing the car, depreciation on the car, insurance, maintenance, operations, gasoline, all of that on a per mile basis, typically 12 to 15 thousand miles driven in a year, it comes out to kind of 65, 70 cents a mile. You know, so for a ten-mile trip, it's $6.50. Typically, bus fares are flat fares so you might pay a couple dollars.

FREUDBERG: As with most public agencies in this tough economy, transit systems are under heavy financial pressure. Some have had to increase fares and to cut services at the same time. And yet, in many communities, public transportation is seen as a vital engine of economic growth. Businesses, along with local governments, are often ardent defenders of transit, because it reduces costly traffic congestion.


FREUDBERG: One community that has embraced the economy-boosting potential of public transit is here in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a metro-area population of nearly two million. America’s 18th largest city, Charlotte is headquarters for Bank of America, the nation’s biggest bank, and is also home to the auto-racing company, NASCAR. Population here has grown nearly a fourth in the last decade.

OLIVE: We have lots and lots of folks moving in here. Lots and lots of people driving cars. And we need to see if we can’t get some of those automobiles off the highways and get folks into public transit, where it’s better environmentally.

FREUDBERG: Chatham Olive is a long-time environmentalist in the Charlotte area and a former local staff member at the Sierra Club. While he sees benefits to air quality and to the planet from greater use of mass transit, others focus on a different kind of green.

ENGLISH: You can look at almost any transportation project, and you can point to development that happened because of that.

FREUDBERG: Natalie English is Senior Vice President of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

ENGLISH: For example, along our south rail line, it was a corridor that was deteriorating, that basically all you did was drive down it - you didn’t stop very often. One point three billion dollars in investment was announced prior to the opening of the line in November of 2007. A lot of that has already been constructed - slowed down a bit because of the economy, but you know that hard infrastructure results in some sort of development.

Tina Votaw is a "transit-oriented development specialist" at the Charlotte Area Transit System.

VOTAW: People have been moving in for jobs and those people need a place to live.

FREUDBERG: Tina Votaw specializes in Transit-Oriented Development for the Charlotte Area Transit System.

VOTAW: And for people who either couldn’t afford to buy, didn’t want to buy - didn’t necessarily have to be downtown, and couldn’t afford necessarily to be, but wanted proximity - and so in the South End, which is the neighborhood right outside of downtown that our transit line runs through, that is primarily where the new apartment construction has occurred.

FREUDBERG: Thousands of new housing units and some commercial properties have sprung up near the ten-mile-long south corridor light-rail line because people like to live and work close to public transportation.

Installing the line cost nearly 460 million dollars. About half came from federal funds, a fourth from the state of North Carolina, and the remainder from local residents who approved a half-cent sales tax to support the project. Some real estate developers have gained handsomely, but the city of Charlotte also benefits.

VOTAW: Those property taxes will be there every year. They don’t go away.


DAVID: Nor does a half-penny sales tax to support the public transit system, first approved by voters in 1999 and re-affirmed in a 2007 referendum - the year the Charlotte light-rail line began operation.

GELLERMAN: That report on public transit is part of David Freudberg’s “Humankind” series. “Passengers” airs this spring on many public radio stations.



To find out more about the “Passengers” documentary project, go to the Humankind website


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth