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Calling on Fans of Transit: Get in the Game

Rob Perks is the transportation advocacy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As someone who commutes to work on the Metro, I'm a big fan of public transportation. Earlier this week, as I was persusing the sports section of the Washington Post, I read a great story about a super fan. His name is Joel Reyerson, and for over 30 years this government mail clerk has been the most ardent supporter of the University of Maryland's athletics program. He's no well-heeled booster, just a regular guy who loves Terrapins sports teams so much that he makes it to not just every home football game but to every single practice.

It's a feel-good story about a true Terps fanatic, but here's the nugget that really stood out for me: Mr. Ryerson relies on public transportation to get to campus every day. As the Post reports:

He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. each weekday and catches a 5:45 a.m. bus to work. At 3:45 p.m., he gets off and takes two buses to College Park, which usually amounts to an hour-long commute. The busy afternoons encompass his two passions: the Terps and public transportation.

The article goes on to note how Joel spends his evening watching recorded county government meetings on television, so he can closely follow transit issues. In his spare time, he even attends public meetings and lobbies local lawmakers to advocate for transit. His passion for sports is noteworthy, but his dedication to better transportation is exceptional. We need more people like Joel Ryerson, especially our fellow transit riders, to make our voices heard on the need to invest in more and better alternatives to driving.

As NRDC's recent nationwide public opinion poll found, three out of four Americans are frustrated with the lack of transportation options that forces them to drive more than they would prefer. According to the poll results, two out of three support government investment in to expand and improve public transportation and twice as many people favor new transit – buses, trains and light rail – rather than new highways as the best way to solve America’s traffic woes.

According to our poll, most Americans want more transportation options – and rank improved public transportation and better planning as some of the best ways to get them.

    • 59 percent would like more transportation options so they have the freedom to travel other than by driving
    • 63 percent (more than three in five Americans) would rather address traffic by improving public transportation (42 percent) or developing communities where people do not have to drive as much (21 percent) – as opposed to building new roads, an approach preferred by only one in five Americans (20 percent)
    • 64 percent say their community would benefit from an expanded and improved public transportation system, such as rail and buses

In short: Americans hate traffic and love transit. This is true for a majority of people, whether or not they themselves regularly ride public transportation. Simply put, they understand that investing in public transportation eases congestion. But for too long most federal funding has limited people’s choices, leaving them sitting in traffic. While it may be true that many Americans are still in love with their cars, most are frustrated with the lack of options for adequate, reliable public transit service. Now is the time to invest in expanding and improving transit. After all, combined bus and rail ridership in the U.S. is on the rise, surpassing levels not seen since the 1950s.

Fortunately, more and more cities are getting on board with transit as a way to ease congestion and boost their economies. Charlotte, North Carolina, has a popular light rail line and plans to extend the system to better serve city residents and suburban commuters. Just this week local officials announced that new federal funds will cover half the construction costs for a $1.16 billion light-rail extension that will connect downtown (or "uptown" as its called there) to UNC Charlotte, with 11 stations over the nine-mile route. A columnist at the Charlotte Observer praised the project, wisely noting that the so-called Lynx Line should be viewed not as a cost, but an investment:

Until the recession clobbered us, Charlotte was in a frenzied era of growth. Developers were building on the edges as quick as bulldozers could scrape the clay. Roads couldn’t keep up with the demand (and still can’t). When the first Lynx line opened in 2007 it instantly exceeded ridership expectations. It tied the center city to the southern suburbs, chopped time and expense for commuters and spurred a land-rush of infill development on the South End.

It wasn’t cheap, but it began resculpting the landscape. Quick and reliable transportation is the lifeblood of modern cities and Lynx can be expected to do what commuter rail has done elsewhere – attract people and business to its arteries. With the next leg, Lynx will tie UNC Charlotte and burgeoning University City with uptown. It will bring a renaissance to sketchy neighborhoods to the north. It will create a spine of easy transport whose impact should be felt for decades in tangible benefits.

Those aghast at the price tag aren’t crazy. It’s a huge sum to spend at a time when the region is still on the financial ropes. No, it won’t pay for itself in ticket sales. Transportation rarely does. I-77 doesn’t pay for itself either...You have to take the long view, the 156-year view, to see a benefit. Imagine New York without the subway or Washington without the Metro. Both cities would quit working.

Not only are transit riders all over America saving time by avoiding highway gridlock, they're saving money too. Because of public transportation over 100 billion fewer miles are traveled by car annually, which saves 340 million gallons of fuel due to less congestion. Less driving means fewer fill-ups, which saves consumers money at the pump. Moreover, there are several other ways in which less driving means more saving.

More transit also means saving more oil. Consider the data published last week by my colleague Deron Lovaas showing gasoline use across the country. The analysis specifically compares counties to one another to determine which are sponging up most gasoline and therefore literally driving our oil addiction. It's no surprise that much of the high gasoline use is happenig in places where people have fewer transportation options other than traveling by car. In that sense, transit should be viewed as part of the solution to our country's dangerous dependence on oil. In fact, a new report, "Energy Independence and Security: A Reality Check," argues that U.S. energy policy should focus on supply security with a focus on fuel savings in the transportation sector.

"Americans want a high level of security," said Branko Terzic, author and executive director of the Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions. "We don't like to tolerate the lights going out, we don't like to tolerate not being able to cook, and we certainly don't like having an empty tank and not being able to fill it. So security is always number one."

As the report makes clear, the real challenge to energy security comes from the transportation sector, which remains heavily dependent on imports of crude oil. Petroleum makes up about 36 percent of the United States' energy portfolio. Discounting imports from friendly neighbors Canada and Mexico, the United States faces a 10 to 15 percent gap in meeting its security needs. Among other recommendations, the report argues for government policies that continue to encourage greater vehicle fuel efficiency through ride sharing, expansion of the electric fleet, and public transportation.

America's 20th Century transportation system was built in the days of cheap, easy oil. We need to update and modernized the system to better meet the needs of the 21st Century. Investing in public transportation is a smart way to create more and better ways for all of us to get around, and a great way to save us time, money and oil. All of us who enjoy the benefits of transit need to lend our voices to persuade policy makers to provide us with more transportation choices.

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