Dr. John Pucher’s Lecture on Improving the U.S. Transportation System

The following is a summary of a lecture on improving U.S. transportation given by John Pucher of Rutger’s University, held at the Community and Regional Planning School at the University of Texas forwarded by a reader. We regret that we don’t know the author of the summary, who was identified only by the name “Makela.”

Dr Pucher began by asking two main questions which we should ponder. Do we want to live in compact, clustered cities or in cities sprawled out? Do we want to continue to rely on cars to get around or can we provide safe, sensible alernatives? In short, where do we want to live and how do we want to get around?

He outlined six major transportation problems we need to deal with:

  1. Accidents, deaths and injuries. In the U.S. (in 1997 I think) there were 6.6 million accidents, 34 million injuries, and 42,000 deaths related to the automobile.
  2. Air, noise and Water Pollution from cars
  3. Mobility problems for poor, elderly and disabled – isolation from work, health care, education.
  4. Congestion. Hours of travel delay due to congestion has doubled in US cities over the last 15 years.
  5. There is no choice. It’s either the car or nothing for many.
  6. Financing. There are huge subsidies for highways and transit – $20 billion per year for transit subsidies, $100 billion per year for free parking subsidies, and $96 billion for automobile infrastructure.

US Transportation system has a lot to learn from European counterpartsHe then compared modes of transportation used in different countries as compared to the United States. In the US, 89% of all trips are made in the car, 2% on public transit, 1% on bikes, 6% walking, and 3% other. In Canada those numbers are 76%, 10%, 2%, 10% and 2% respectively. The Netherlands has 45%, 7% 28%, 18% and 2% respectively.

One tangential – The British Medical Society recently studied the effects of walking and bicycling and determined that for every hour spent doing these activities, a person could prolong their life by an hour. For every hour spent driving in congestion, an hour is reduced from someone’s life, on average.

He really stressed walking and bicycling as under-used transportation alternatives. They’re cheap and relatively easy to implement. And very healthy.

He also looked at transportation mode choice as populations age in Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. In the former two countries, car dependency goes down and bike riding and walking increase. In the U.S. the opposite is true. Incidentally, the average life expectancy in the Netherlands is four years longer than in the U.S.

In Germany and elsewhere, transit use, walking and bicycling are encouraged in the following ways:

  1. Vast improvements to public transit systems – coordinated and attractive systems.
  2. Continual improvements of pedestrian and bicycle facilities. Extensive auto-free pedestrain zones which are strictly enforced. Never resting on their laurels.
  3. Sharp restrictions on auto use in central cities.
  4. Land use policies that discourage suburban sprawl. Canada artifically restricts land to raise land prices to discourage cavalier use of land.

Developers cannot develop subdivisions unless they can prove that every house in that development is within 500′ of a transit stop.

Next, Dr. Pucher outlined policies to encourage transit ridership. These include:

  • Marketing! Call transit tickets “Environmental Tickets”
  • Combine transit tickets with mass events, so you automatically get free ridership to and from major concerts, UT football games, etc.
  • Offer a wide range of types of tickets – monthly, weekly etc.
  • Make them transferable and multiple-use
  • Give special discounts for off-peak use.
  • When fares must increase, place burden of increase on occasional users and build loyal ridership by keeping regular users prices low.
  • Coordinate bus service with metro service with light rail service with bike and pedestrian facilities! (Stressed this one quite a bit)
  • Spatial and temporal coordination of transit modes. Coordinated schedules, parking adjacent to bus stops and metro lines.
  • Modernize rail vehicles, busses, stops.
  • Create reserved bus lanes and give traffic signal priority to commuter busses.
  • Improve information systems for transit riders. Provide not only schedules of when the bus is supposed to be there, but provide real-time digital updates of when it actualy will come.

These are carrot approaches. He thinks a combination of carrots and sticks will be most effective so the stick approach is also needed: Increase taxes on gas prices. Prices in Western Europe and Japan are 4-5 times higher than in the U.S. and this is due predominantly to higher taxes. Also increase taxes on auto ownership. In Denmark, a car with a small motor pays a 105% tax, those with a large motor pay a 180% tax.

Overall recommendations:

  • Restrictions on auto use during the highest use conditions in the form of taxes or tolls.
  • Discourage new roadway facilities.
  • Raise cost of gas, sales tax on cars
  • Use proceeds in a way that public can visibily see the direct benefits to be gained from these taxes. Get public approval.
  • Careful cost effectiveness studies on proposed transit alternatives to avoid the Red Line of L.A. problems.
  • Improve walking and biking facilites. Bike parking at bus stops and covered bike parking will encourage more people to choose this mode of tranportation.

Public transportation solutions need to be a coordinated, integrated package of policies that utilizes all modes of transportation.

“The main reason urban transport policy has not been very effective in the United States is that it has been far too piecemeal. For transport policy to be effective, it must be a coordinated package of mutually supportive policies to restrict auto use, control parking supply, facilitate bicycling and walking, and integrate transit services and fares. Discouraging low-density sprawl through land-use regulations is also crucial for enabling walking, bicycling, and transit to provide feasible alternatives to the car.” – Dr. Pucher