Investing in Infrastructure: The Case for Public Transportation

You see them everywhere: buses, subway trains, and elevated-rail lines now saturate the urban communities that we live in. In fact, ever since the omnibus public transit system was founded in Paris, France in 1662, public transportation has grown to become a fundamental part of urban infrastructure.

Recently though, much of the conversation regarding public transit in the U.S. has shifted towards developing superior public transit systems to match the rapidly developing transportation industries of other advanced nations. While alluring advancements such as the high-speed rail line and “rapid subway” might be beneficial to America’s long term progress in transportation, there still remains an imminent need to provide basic public transit resources to urban communities, especially in low-income, heavily minority areas. Not only has inadequate access to public transportation resulted in decreased job opportunities in urban areas, it has also been shown to create disadvantages in education and personal health in communities where it is absent.

The Chicago and Los Angeles public transit systems, the CTA and LAMTA respectively, have recently come under criticism for the comparatively lower amount of funding they have provided for public-transit buses, which are most heavily used by minorities, and also the districting of their transit stops, which have been disproportionately placed in high-income areas. In fact, as recent as 2010, a class-action racial-discrimination suit was filed against the major public transit outlets in Chicago. The suit was eventually dismissed, but public transit riders still protest that both the quantity of transit stops, as well as the quality of their commute, is inferior to other transit systems that serve majority-white, higher-income commuters.

Although inequalities in public transportation have not received significant attention in the media, many researchers claim that the economic and social impacts of these disparities can be severely damaging.  Researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago found that people living in areas that lack public transportation resources are at a higher risk of developing certain illnesses linked to air pollution. This is precisely because residents of these communities tend to use automobiles at higher rates than residents in areas with adequate public transit systems. The same study concluded that inadequate access to public transportation could pose a barrier to education, considering that the rise of charter schools has led to a significant lengthening of students’ commutes to school. Furthermore, a proposal written for the American Public Transportation Association in 2009 suggested that public transit systems stimulate business growth and worker productivity in areas where they are allocated, due to increased ease of access to various sectors of employment. Clearly, areas that lack public transportation will not gain such benefits.

While these findings are not new, a feasible solution has yet to be pursued to address them. In recent years, many public-transit firms have funded improvements to their existing transit infrastructures, while many more have expanded their resources to higher-income areas outside of traditional districting-lines. Discussion on a national level has been largely limited to creating more advanced transit systems, while the issue of public transit access in low-income communities has remained steadily unaddressed. Meanwhile, millions of low-income families suffer socially and economically from inadequate transit access, and the wealth gaps between high-income and low-income communities continue to widen. Public transportation access has been proven to curtail such disparities, and it is imperative for policymakers to both recognize the issue and make it a priority in their agenda-setting.

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Michael Lemm

Michael is currently a student at Cornell University studying Policy Analysis and Management with minors in Law and Regulation, and Business. He has previously worked as an editorial intern for Encyclopaedia Britannica and currently works as a Business Analyst for Cornell's Johnson School of Management. His interests are centered around income inequality, economic regulations, transportation infrastructure, and entrepreneurship.

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