America’s Hidden (and very costly) Mass Transit System…

Welcome to America's Mass Transit System
Welcome to America’s Mass Transit System

We all know, deep down, that there is value to travel. Seeing not just the sights and eating strange new foods…but watching how people live. That’s the real “gold” that’s out there, waiting to be found. Sometimes, we don’t even know we’ve found it until we return home.

“Did you rent a car?”

That simple and all-too-American question caught me entirely off guard. “Oh, God. No!” My surprise was reflected in the raised eyebrow of my casual interviewer. “Who would want to rent a car in Denmark?” The incredulous words fanned a spark of an idea into a flickering flame, as they left my lips.

That was the moment when I saw, for the first time, that America has a HUGE mass transit system. Only, it’s not made up of multiple-passenger vehicles (trains, light rail, metro lines and buses). No, the American mass transit system (which may be the largest in the world) is almost entirely made up of individually owned vehicles.

Most people casually define a mass transit system as: “A system of tax & user-fee funded vehicles running on a pre-described route on a regularly timed schedule with a driver to passenger ratio that is quite high (1 to 30 per bus, 1 to 300 for a metro line, maybe 1 to 1,000 for a train), etc.”

I propose, for the sake of conversation, that we reframe our concept of a “mass transit system” to “that system which moves humans about.”

The need to move humans from here to there is, perhaps, one of the most important issues of our time. Yet, in America, the conversation about how best to do this has become stymied by multiple variables. Not the least of which is the profitability of the current system.

Where there is money to be made, there are minds to change, ideas to cultivate, emotions to manipulate, fears to feed and beliefs to plant. Basically, our purchasing choices are being hunted, and for over a century, corporations have employed the combined efforts of sociologists, psychologists and advertising specialists to do that and more. Their ultimate goal is to also control the political landscape, and, in this, they have succeeded. 

The result? Americans are actually paying more money for what can quantifiably be defined as the worst transportation system of any “advanced” society on Earth, and they’re happy about it.

Across America, the individually owned vehicle is perceived (and presented) as a symbol of freedom, status and independence. Ridiculous car commercials showing beautiful, healthy and calm drivers traversing upscale city streets devoid of any other forms of life (animal, human or vehicular) ricochet across our television screens with mind-numbing frequency. The result? We buy into the fantasy. Hook, line and sinker or…as may be more appropriate…gas bill, insurance bill and maintenance bill.

And what do we get in return? Not nearly as much as we are promised. Comparatively, a mass transit system made up of individually owned vehicles is less safe, economically less efficient, environmentally more polluting, entails greater travel time (not less), must be replaced more often (is less resilient as an infrastructure), is actually much less convenient, and generally results is a lower quality of life for the people that use it. The only reason this strategy hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaurs is that it’s the only option we have. By gutting our political will to support publicly-funded systems of transportation (trains, metro, light rail and significant bus routes), the impossible has been made possible: Americans actually prefer the worse option.

In Denmark, they have the better option. Since the 1970’s, three generations of Danes have said, “Yes, Yes, Yes!” to a tax-funded system of trains, metro, light rail and buses. The results? You would NEVER want to rent a car, when visiting Denmark and, if you’re lucky enough to live there, your family might own one car…maybe…but two? Highly unlikely. In fact, a significant portion of the country prefers a carless existence.

Based upon my calculations, the average American contributes $5,000 a year to the “commuter car mass transit system.” The average Dane appears to pay about $925 more (in taxes and user fees) per year, for the pleasure of a wide-flung, reliable and extremely frequent system of trains, metro, light rail and buses. Yet, most Danes celebrate their good fortune. After all, who wouldn’t pay $925, to get back 200-300 hours spent in relentless rush hour traffic…every year?

In short, America’s system of “mass transportation via individually owned vehicles” is:
More expensive
More accident-prone
Less healthy
More stressful
Doubles or triples commute times
Reduces overall happiness
And consumes huge swaths of land, devoted to freeways which (during rush hours) better resemble a parking lot.

Over the past year, as Americans have toyed with the idea of “doing things better,” I have often been the first to say, “There is no such thing as free lunch, free education, free medical care, or free anything!” Everything costs. Including all forms of transportation. The question we need to answer is: “How much does it cost, and which system gives us the most for our hard-earned buck?”

When Americans say “less taxes,” they often forget to follow that up with, “more individual out-of-pocket expenses.” America’s mass transit system (comprised of individual vehicles) may not raise our taxes, but it drains us of funds, health and energy on a daily basis. The sooner we accept the fact that some systems are better off being funded by taxes, the sooner we can begin the important work of evaluating (with a clear head) which is which. One way or another, everything is getting paid for and I’d like to believe that Americans are capable of choosing the more fiscally sound & environmentally sustainable option…whatever it might be.

Why do we appear to be stuck in an endless argument that leads to no new solutions? I suppose it might have something to do with (1) discouragement of citizen involvement, (2) well-funded lobbyists, (3) lack of campaign finance reform, (4) an increasingly under-educated population, and (5) the financial interests of those who profit from the current system.
All of which are reasons to read up on Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Platform and to get involved. Right now. Today. Change is always hard. But, in 2016, not changing is the choice that will hurt the most.


March Elizabeth Twisdale

March Twisdale and her family live on Vashon Island, near Seattle, where freakishly-hot, California weather is drying out the rainforests of Washington State. An activist since her teens, March Twisdale's life revolves around Betterment Projects. She is especially proud to be the producer and host of Prose, Poetry & Purpose, where guest authors share their hope to inspire positive social reader, and one listener, at a time. Listen locally on 101.9 FM KVSH or catch PP&P on-line at: Previous projects include her month-long Occupy Montage Exhibit, Teens In The Fields (a youth-run business), and Community Conversations (a monthly column that dives deeply into complicated issues). Then, in May of 2015, Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy! After a year of living, breathing, drinking, and participating in our Political (R)Evolution, it is more clear than ever that WE MUST BE THE MEDIA. Therefore, March is headed to Philadelphia! Watch here for her "on the ground" daily reports from the Democratic National Convention! Why? Because we cannot fail to secure the Democratic Presidential Nomination for Bernie Sanders. We must succeed. It's that simple. #2016Matters

15 thoughts on “America’s Hidden (and very costly) Mass Transit System…

  • July 2, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    Simply desire to say your article is as surprising.
    The clarity in your put up is just spectacular and i can suppose you’re an expert in this subject.

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    • July 3, 2016 at 1:38 am

      My pleasure! I’m not a “trained” expert, but I’ve seen my fair share of traffic and after spending 16 days in Denmark, well…I could put 2 and 2 together! I also do love digging up details and thinking through problems.

      • July 3, 2016 at 10:45 pm

        Great article March

  • July 3, 2016 at 9:47 am

    We suffer from a cultural of such individualism that even carpooling is often a problem. We lack the respect for each other and give and take involved. I believe that if we had modern mass transit, in the sense of high speed passenger rail and a lot more light rail and better bus schedules, a lot more people would be willing to leave the car at home. It is the lack of political will and, frankly, the misuse of the taxes we have paid, that result in us not having those options available. When the railroad tracks are owned by the coal companies, well, need I say more? I see old trolley tracks in towns like one sweet old town near the town I grew up in. They’re fossils. Who killed them? Who killed the electric car? It all goes back to the fossil fuel and automobile industries. Does that mean we shouldn’t get involved and turn our transportation situation around? Absolutely not! We have to. When the people lead, the leaders will follow. And we have to stop driving so many dinosaur (internal combustion engine) vehicles if we are to realistically deal with climate change. That starts with mindfully cutting back on trips, combining trips, carpooling whenever possible. Having recently been stuck in traffic for four hours en route to Tacoma from Anacortes, WA, I can attest to the desperate need for more mass transit. (I was carpooling, btw.)

    • July 3, 2016 at 9:54 am

      I should add that I do believe our taxes need to pay for infrastructure and mass transit. Perhaps, and I can’t guarantee this since people have developed a knee-jerk negative reaction to taxes, if we knew that the taxes we paid would be used for life-affirming, quality-of-life things like infrastructure repair and good quality public transportation, and good quality public education (which our taxes are supposed to pay for), then people would be more willing to pay taxes. Here in Washington State, it’s ridiculous. We have this regressive sales tax which hurts people that have the least disposable income more than anyone, and people don’t seem to appreciate that services require revenue. Our state parks are suffering as well as our national parks. We need a serious conversation about what we value in this country, and we’ve needed it for a long time.

  • July 3, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    Well you spent a whole 16 days in Denmark, but I lived there for a while with a Danish man–they do have a great public transit system, as does most of Western and Central Europe. But I did not live in Copenhagen, and everyone in Jutland had a car. About a third of people in Copenhagen own a car, and most people who live outside of Copenhagen do own and need cars. Young people will get their drivers license at 18. Cars are expensive, and so is gasoline, but they are not as rare as you are making them sound. And this goes for other areas of Europe. People in the heart of larger cities may not own cars at the same percentage as Americans do, because transport is much better (and in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and other cities, biking is very popular and much safer than here)—but outside of large cities it is similar to the US. Sort of like living in NYC–people in Manhattan may not own a car, but those living in the other boroughs often do (had a car growing up in Brooklyn).

    I think we can do a lot better in our cities, where people live more densely, but I couldn’t imagine not having a car where I live. Could you do without a car on Vashon?

    • July 4, 2016 at 3:45 am

      Hi Roxanne,

      First of all, I agree with you. City and rural living are different. However, young people do NOT all get their drivers license at eighteen. I had a lovely conversation with a young man (mid-20’s) who had recently bought an old car with two other friends. He was planning to get his driver’s license (for the first time ever) and it costs over $1,000 to do so. He has used his bike his whole life (or mass transit) and he lives in Helsingor (a much smaller town than Copenhagen – about 35,000 people). They have mass transit, but not like Copenhagen and still…cars were not the norm. In fact, even the mail is delivered by a person riding a bicycle!

      With regard to your question about me not having a car on Vashon, the answer is…”I would love to be out of my car!” If there was a public bus that drove by my house every 30 minutes (even every hour), I’d probably stop driving by about 80%. Instead, we have a public bus system that only hits the spine of our island masses AND it doesn’t run on Sundays. As if people who rely on the bus are magically uninterested in going anywhere on Sundays?

      If, in American cities alone, we could replace our “individual car” system with a “true mass transit” system…wouldn’t that be good for Global Warming? (A Bernie Sanders Platform Issue) And, if we invested ourselves in building this system…wouldn’t that create solid, long-term, well-paying jobs for millions of Americans? (Another Bernie Sanders Platform Issue) And, if we paid for this infrastructure project with taxes collected from corporations, businesses and the extremely wealthy who were required to stop using tax shelters…wouldn’t that help to reduce the income gap in America? (Yet one more Bernie Sanders Platform Issue)

      I expect that you agree with me on much of this, and yes…I believe we need a new system for moving people from here to there.

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