All Aboard: Public Transit Deserves a Big Chunk of Stimulus

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 31, 2009

The share of President Obama's more than $800 billion economic stimulus package aimed at public transportation seems marginal, and that's a shortsighted approach to spending.

Most of the money in the transportation portion is to stimulate work on roads and bridges. Relatively little is aimed at enhancing existing transit or launching new transit projects.

Of course, billions must be spent quickly to create jobs associated with fixing deteriorating bridges and roads, thereby ensuring safety and mobility. We also must improve pedestrian-unfriendly streets to accommodate walking and biking.

But let's not widen highways or build new roads just because voters, and thus their Capitol Hill representatives, want easier commutes. Not every shovel-ready project should be funded, especially if it means not having money for worthy transit projects.

In fact, in light of energy constraints and environmental sustainability aspirations, sometimes we should decide not to spend to relieve roadway congestion or speed up traffic. Congestion is an incentive, a catalyst indispensable to constructively changing American behavior.

Congestion motivates people to think differently about how to travel and where to live. It induces carpooling, transit riding, walking and biking. And it can prompt people to live in transit-accessible, pedestrian-friendly locations.

If making America greener is indeed a high-priority goal of the new administration, then transportation spending should include generous amounts for municipal bus and tram systems, as well as for regional and interstate rail.

This seems especially timely as America's urban population, after decades of decrease, is on the rise. More than half of all American households are not traditional families with children, but rather retirees, empty nesters and singles, many of whom prefer urban environments served by public transit.

Transit does double duty, just like roads: It provides an optional mode of travel for areas served, but it also directs and supports growth in areas where communities want growth.

Indeed, land-use patterns are changing to reflect not only demographic shifts but also new thinking about sustainable real estate. In metropolitan areas like Washington, new development and redevelopment are increasingly transit-oriented. More and more, master plans call for higher densities, mixed uses, walkable street networks, better designed buildings and civic spaces, and greener development strategies.

Still, for most Americans, switching transportation thinking from cars to transit is unnatural, a habit hard to break. Many view transit, especially rail transit, as unnecessary, physically intrusive, noisy and dirty. Some see it as a threat, a means for undesirables to go where they are not wanted.

Contemplate the history of the Purple Line, which finally may be built. This light-rail line will run between Bethesda and New Carrollton. But it has entailed countless years of planning and controversy about alternative alignments, environmental impact, capital costs, operating costs and even whether a light-rail line is needed at all.

There is no doubt that the Purple Line will be intensely used. But why is it the only light-rail line actively on the drawing boards in this region? Surely additional tram lines would make sense.

The same arguments apply to other forms of transit. For example, the Metro system needs capital for equipment improvements as well as network expansion. How about some stimulation for Metro?

Cars aren't going away, especially with manageable gasoline prices and long-standing land-use patterns based on automobile use. A car is still a necessity in much of the nation because housing, employment, schools, shopping, recreation and other destinations are so widely dispersed.

Yet it would be a mistake to overspend on roads while targeting inadequate amounts on transit improvements. What's called for is long-term thinking and near-term action, the kind of action being spurred by today's economic imperatives. Transit investment can generate jobs, but it also can help shape the future. We just need to break some old habits.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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