Mobility Is Not Optional: Why The Losses Hitting Mass Transit Should Concern Us All

People have always needed to get from here to there whether by foot, by horse, by ship, by train, by car, by bus or by plane. Civilization DEPENDS on the mobility of humans and the produce they cultivate and extract from the earth. Without mobility everything would grind to a halt. Human mobility—like drinkable water, waste disposal, roads, grain storage and buildings (for government, religion, and commerce)—is a prerequisite to human civilization.

Human mobility may be aided by businesses which manufacture vehicles, motorized and not; supply concrete and asphalt for roadways, sidewalks and tarmacs; supply fuel; and build facilities that are part of the mobility infrastructure. But this is all in service to something essential to civilization, something that is the glue of civilization. Airplanes are optional to civilization. They create a certain kind of civilization. But civilization has been around, of course, for a very long time before airplanes arrived.

Governments typically organize transportation systems and then build the necessary infrastructure and purchase the vehicles or license the purchase of vehicles by others. This is how it is done because mobility is NOT optional for civilization.

Mass transit—the kind of transit in deep trouble right now because of the pandemic—is a product of cities' dense accumulations of people. Though we identify mass transit with the modern industrial city, it has been around for as long as cities themselves. Any locale where there has been a rickshaw, livery horse or carriage for hire has mass transit—by which I mean a system of vehicles that is SHARED by unrelated persons.

You can easily find stories today about the deepening financial distress of mass transit systems in New York City and Washington, D.C. In my experience, the Washington Metro, the tri-state light rail system, isn't entirely empty as depicted in the linked story. But it is very far from the packed-to-gills, standing-room-only affair it used to be during rush hour. Ridership is reported to be down 80 percent. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the BART light rail system in down 90 percent.

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Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular ...

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