Making Transit Better Isn’t Enough. Driving Needs to Be Worse.

So transit ridership is up. Everybody knows that. It’s at its highest point since 1956. Right?

That's more like it. Photo: ## Suite##
That’s more like it. Photo: ## Suite##

Well, ridership per capita is still less than half its 1956 point. And by 1956, transit ridership was already at a 40-year low. But with transit growing faster than car travel, at a rate that outpaces population growth, there is still cause for optimism.

But even that cautious optimism took a bit of a beating in the Washington Post’s opinion section this morning, as three prominent urban planning professors declared the transit bump fictitious. “In fact, use of mass transportation has remained remarkably steady, and low, since about 1970,” they go on. “There is nothing exceptional about last year’s numbers; they represent a depressing norm.” They even hint that federal funding for transit is too high.

Way too far down in the column, the professors — David King of Columbia University, Michael Manville of Cornell University, and Michael Smart of Rutgers — shift focus from the problem with transit to the problem with driving.

The nut of their argument is as follows: “Resting our hopes on a transit comeback distracts from our real transportation problem, which can be summarized in four words: Driving is too cheap.”

Emily Badger made this point in Atlantic Cities two weeks ago (and Jeff Wood and I made it on the Talking Headways podcast last week). It’s not enough to spruce up sustainable modes if we as a nation are still giving enormous amounts of subsidies and space to the private automobile.

If driving continues to be the fastest and most convenient way of getting almost everywhere, people will continue to drive. It’s like telling business owners they’re welcome to hire union workers at a living wage, but they’re also totally free to use child labor if they’d rather. Nine times out of 10, people will pick the cheaper option.

Not that driving is cheaper than biking or taking transit, of course. Owning a car is quite expensive, in fact — about $9,150 a year, according to AAA. But it’s not nearly expensive enough.

Here’s what King, Manville and Smart say:

Drivers impose costs on society — in delay, in pollution, in carbon, in wear and tear on our roads — that they don’t pay for. As a result, many of us drive more than we otherwise would. Ending this underpriced driving — through higher fuel taxes, parking and congestion charges and insurance premiums based on miles driven — is a central challenge for local, state and federal transportation officials.

If only transportation officials saw that as their central challenge! Instead, many fail to recognize the ways in which Americans are signaling that they are ready to use other modes and continue planning for an auto-centric future.

The op-ed continues:

Charging the right price for driving would give drivers a better-performing system, both by reducing congestion and raising revenue to help repair roads. It would help communities and the planet by reducing pollution. And, not least, it would help public transportation by leveling the playing field between transit and private vehicles. Increased subsidies for public transportation have neither reduced driving nor increased transit use. But ending subsidies to driving probably would do both.

Ending these subsidies will be hard work, politically. Yet we will have no incentive to do this work if Americans continue to believe that transit is making a comeback on its own. It isn’t. Transit, like the rest of our transportation system, is in trouble. We need to act quickly to save it.

The authors are absolutely right. The U.S. has spent the last 60 years making sure motorists could endanger everything from public health and safety to public transportation budgets and not feel a thing. Every time the idea comes up that drivers should feel be responsible for a little more of the damage they cause society, accusations of “social engineering” and “Agenda 21” start flying.

So instead, the U.S. continues to incentivize the worst behavior and inconvenience the best. No wonder transit ridership still isn’t what it should be.

  • Casey

    What’s up with the graphic? The highest octane choice is $0.01 more expensive than the mid grade.

    Also, my fantasy sign would have Diesel around the price of regular so all the actual interesting high MPG cars wouldn’t be Europe only.

  • joshie

    The problem is, more people drive than don’t. Disincentivizing driving may be the right thing to do (I think it is), but it’s political suicide. Look at the difficulty in making any sort of reasonable gun control reform. While cars may not create the irrational fervor that guns do, there are a lot more people that depend on cars. You’d be hard pressed to get anyone outside of major metropolitan areas to support this. Which is unfortunate.

    If diesel cost as much as in that image it would be a disaster. Everything you you buy would be more expensive. Shipping mom her birthday gift would cost $40.

  • thegreengrass

    While I personally hate driving in traffic and thus have made the switch to taking transit for every single ride I can including for my job every day, there’re always going to be drivers. If nothing else, if the goal can’t be to “make everyone pay a lot for driving so they take transit instead”, I wish we at least charged enough fees to help undo the decades of damage we’ve done to America’s cities, towns, and even Main Streets that have suffered because of a development policy over-obsessed by suburban sprawl.

    I’ve seen a lot of this country, and everywhere has suffered. Cities have spent decades trying to accommodate car traffic, obliterating buildings for parking garages and entire neighborhoods for ill-planned interstates. Small cities have emptied out as we fetishized huge houses on a huge plot of land as our default building model. And if you really drive around the country, you’ll see that “Main Street America”, i.e. “real America”, is suffering even worse than cities. There are thousands of tiny towns whose downtowns have been decimated by the building of big box stores in far, distant plazas on the outskirts of towns.

    Quite honestly, in my mind, we’ve interrupted and destroyed our historical ways of living all for the automobile. And if everybody wanted that, maybe that would be ok, but the fact is there was money to be made and power to be had in making this all so appealing. Meanwhile, so many people were left to suffer in disinvested places without a thought by the deserters. And we’ve actually taken away that thing Americans are supposed to have: choice. We’ve made it so you pretty much have to live in a car-dependent suburban environment, at least until very recently.

    So really, I just want to repair the damage. Bury all the highways that run through cities, if they have to run through them at all. Increase gasoline taxes and car fees to help not only fund automobile-centric infrastructure (which even drivers apparently do not want to do), but the whole transit network, like trains and busses. Raise parking fees in cities ( good article on doing this in Philadelphia: ) to disincentive wasting space in cities providing spots for people to park their metal boxes on wheels. Give us our places back.

  • Joe Linton

    “More people drive than don’t” – This isn’t true in a lot of urban places – including Koreatown Los Angeles where I live – and we still suffer from these one-size-fits-all car-centric investments and policies.

  • David D.

    Amusing graphic but misleading. Not shown is the resulting wreakage of the American economy, or the $15 bus fares, if gas prices actually cost that much anytime in the next decade or two.

  • baklazhan

    Why $15 bus fares? Most of the cost of running a bus is the driver, not the gas.

  • David D.

    Yes, labor is the most expensive part of running public transit service, but any additional cost in fuel would have to be passed along to the rider because there is not enough subsidy money to cover the increased expense. Example: A typical bus gets around 5 mpg, and if an express bus route that is 20 miles long has 20 riders, a $5/gallon increase in diesel prices would result in a price increase of $1/passenger. So while it isn’t $15 per se, it’s nothing to sneeze at.

  • oooBooo

    The arrogant enlightenment of central planners.

    Again the drivers of private passenger automobiles not only pay for driving but subsidize heavy trucking and transit and more. Only a very selective look at the numbers shows anything else. At the end of the day it’s the road funds entirely funded by motoring that are raided for other purposes. It’s the general funds that are filled by preying upon motorists’ wallets.

    And the global warming fraud. Whatever it takes so the descendents of robber barons can achieve the society that their great grandfathers couldn’t.

  • Alex

    But if more people rely on that bus, it’s operational efficiency goes up and up. It becomes exponentially more economical for 40 people to take the bus rather than each of them ride in their own car when gas is that expensive.

  • oooBooo

    Just can’t keep people on the farm like in the old days.

  • davistrain

    Here in Southern Calif. most of the large transit buses run on natural gas, not diesel fuel. And regarding the payroll cost for bus drivers, an observer pointed out some of the advantages of automobiles: the drivers are nearly all unpaid owner-operators, and they never have to worry about a transit strike bringing all the buses and trains to a halt. Here in my area, I remember the excitement when the Gold Line rail service from LA to Pasadena opened in July 2003. Then the LA Metro workers went on strike about ten weeks later and it took months for ridership to recover.

  • jd_x

    So you just showed that your $15 bus fare was a massive over-estimate to make your argument more dramatic.

    The reality is, a bus is inherently more efficient than a car. That is, assuming the same cost of gas and assuming both are full, the cost of fuel per person per mile will *always* be less on a bus. Now, the bus isn’t always full, but neither is the car (the average occupancy rate in cars is ~1.4 people/car). And the expectation is that, as car ownership/usage goes down (as a result of increased gas prices but also congestion tolls, higher insurance premiums, and taxes on car sales), the bus occupancy will go up. There is just no way to argue that a more efficient vehicle (the bus) doesn’t (or does not have the potential) to cost less than a less efficient vehicle (the car) due to fuel prices. It’s all about designing our transit system to nudge people into public transit, walking, and bicycling rather than into the private car.

  • jd_x

    As @joelinton:disqus pointed out, not in many cities. And also, we don’t decide policy by popularity contests for then nothing would ever change (since, by definition, all new ideas have to start out being in the minority). You evaluate a new idea on its own merit, not because the majority of people already do something else because it is the status quo. Example: there was a time when the vast majority of people had slaves or thought it was okay to own them, but that has changed, an idea that started with a minority.

  • Alex

    I don’t like the headline of this piece. It fuels the “War on Cars/Agenda 21” crowd like oooBooo below. The piece itself is good but the message needs to be that shifting our nation’s focus away from driving as THE primary means of transportation is wise politically, economically, environmentally, and socially. In truth, yes, driving does need to be “worse”. But that shouldn’t be the lede.

    Reiterating how vastly subsidized driving is and proving it with the cold, hard facts is important. Also demonstrating that all that subsidy was what necessitated transit to be subsidized in the first place is very important. Finally, acknowledging that banishing driving from the face of the earth is not the goal is hugely important. Driving will be part of our world for our lifetimes and beyond. But it shouldn’t be the only option as it is for many people in the US today. Ultimately, the goal is for equitable transportation policy that first gives people choice in mobility and second funds the various modes based on all of their costs (negative externalities included) is what we need to strive for.

  • baklazhan

    Well, it’s a weird bus line that’s twenty miles long and has only twenty passengers. Even so, you would expect there to be more passengers if the price of gas goes up. If the fare is $2, ten more passengers would cover the $20 cost of gas without any fare increase.

  • Jame

    You would think freedom of choice, the supposed American ideal, would be reflected in both our transportation and housing options. We have socially engineered the choice and options out.

  • Alex

    And it was deeply racially motivated at its onset. It was about getting “us” away from “them”. Very disturbing stuff, all backed by the government. Worst of all, it worked extremely well.

  • oooBooo

    Let me give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are only referring to those instances where the political process was used to take private property to build roads and other automobile infrastructure.

    Let’s say that the private passenger automobile was never invented. The right of ways that were carved out of private property by the political process would have still needed to be carved out somewhere, someway. The 20th century population would need more than the 19th century infrastructure. Now we can have conjecture of what forms of transport there may have been instead, but the right of ways to move people and goods would still have been needed. Homes and buildings would have still been taken by the political processes to achieve whatever it is. Just like the high density agenda 21 future aims to do.

    Let’s say only the government and military had motor vehicles. We would still have interstates. Imposed on us by the military industrial complex. Which is why the interstate system won’t be going away. The ruling class won’t be sitting next to us on the train nor will it want the hassles of private rail cars of FDR’s day and before.

    It’s about the political process and those who have power imposing on those who do not. That’s really the apparent root of your complaint, and changing what they impose from roads to rail to hovercraft travel lanes doesn’t change it or eliminate negative effects to be pointed to. Rail still needs switching yards and other large hunks of land carved out for their operation. Buses still need expensive roads. All you achieve is some displacement. Six of this, half a dozen of that.

    Don’t believe me? Look at how much prime Chicago real estate was dedicated to trains in the 19th century. Now a large amount of it has been reclaimed or hidden since, so look at old photos. A later 20th century population level if it weren’t using private automobiles would have needed another big trench of rail and the yards to go with it. In other words we would have still seen a great number of homes plowed under, neighborhoods darkened by overhead trains, or whatever. Developers would instead of building parking would want the trains to come their door.

    Now if you are complaining about someone who decided that repairing a century old building was not as economically beneficial as tearing it down and operating a parking lot/garage, well then that only is your desire to impose your preferences of the way things should be on others.

  • Alex

    Absolutely right. Really, cars themselves aren’t THE problem. It’s their status as the preferred mode of transportation in the US across the board. Cars actually make sense in sparsely populated, rural areas. But they are horrible in cities. Interstate highways between cities is not so much a problem as interstate (and other limited access highways) within cities. Same with parking. No problem when you have a 50 acre farm, anyway. But when you want to accommodate a lot of people. Of course, that is what gave rise to suburbs designed specifically for cars at the expense of all other forms of transportation, walking included. Then we tried to shoehorn that into the cities. It’s like trying to use a circular saw to carve a detailed piece of woodwork.

  • David D.

    My example is fairly typical for express bus service, so I’m not sure why you think it’s weird. Local bus service is much more dynamic, so the math is not as easy to demonstrate in a Disqus comment thread.

  • David D.

    A bus’s operational efficiency is limited by capacity. If a bus can carry 50 people, increasing demand to 51 results in the need for an additional bus. Suddenly the operational efficiency is cut in half, not to mention the public transit agency is saddled with the high fixed cost of additional equipment and labor.

    The transit agency I work for suffered through this scenario in 2008, during the rise in gas prices and just before the recession hit our metro area, and system performance and reliability suffered greatly. Like any transit agency, we did not have the resources to invest in the fixed costs of additional service, nor did we have the flexiblity to do anything in a timely manner.

    Consider the FTA’s new Title VI requirements, which took effect in late 2012, and transit agencies have been boxed into a corner with even less ability to react to changes in service demand in a timely manner. Increased demand for public transit service is not a win-win for transit agencies unless significant structural changes occur in the American political landscape, and that seems unlikely.

  • Jake Wegmann

    The arrogant enlightenment of central planners.

    Again people who are not drivers of private passenger automobiles not only pay for driving for others but subsidize heavy trucking in addition to transit and more. Only a deliberately misleading look at the numbers shows anything else. At the end of the day it’s the road funds that are nowhere close to being entirely funded by motoring that are belatedly and haltingly being allocated for other purposes. It’s the general funds that are filled by preying upon non-drivers’ wallets.

    And the global warming denialism fraud. Whatever it takes so the descendents of oil industry robber barons can achieve the society that their great grandfathers couldn’t.

  • oooBooo

    LOL.Such a simplistic, almost pre-programmed way of responding.

    You might want to look deeper into streetsblog’s funding. Oil industry robber barons indeed.

  • oooBooo

    Streetsblog uses Agenda 21 buzzwords and terms. It is openly anti-car. Even it’s support of bicycling and transit seems to prioritize harming driving.

    Before I found this website when it was linked to from another transportation site I follow I didn’t bother much with Agenda 21. But this place uses so many of the buzzwords and terms I can’t help but point it out. Listen to a Rosa Koire talk then read streetsblog articles.

    Driving is a cash cow for all levels of government and their close friends. If it wasn’t, if people didn’t pay money hand over fist to government to drive, accept every new imposition of cost, we’d still have roads built by bicycling clubs.

  • djconnel

    The keys: 1. internalize externalized costs, 2. slow down cars in populated areas, starting with automated speed enforcement against commercial vehicles. Demand will then drive up the supply for mass transit, transit-friendly housing, and alternative transportation options (don’t assume markets are inflexible).

  • A. James

    It’s mainly about the free market versus government coercion. The bottom line is driving more than pays for itself whereas everything else must be subsidized by the driver.

    Some people are just uncomfortable with the freedom that the car gives to the common man and want to rob him of this by forcing him on to a toy for children or on to dirty public transportation.

    Car travel gives flexibility. Bikes and public transit make you a slave to geography or the government. It’s about control.

    To a lesser degree, there’s also the unfounded “global warming” issue and environmental lunacy at play.

  • GC

    The Agenda 21 concept comes from urbanist ideas.

    Streetsblog uses the language of urbanism, so it would follow that it’s full of the same buzzwords and terms.

    The conspiracy theory relies on some pretty wacky interpretations of the UN, urbanism, reality, etc.

  • GC

    “The bottom line is driving more than pays for itself…”

    “…there’s also the unfounded “global warming” issue…”
    And nope.

  • A. James

    That’s what government schools do to people. I just don’t get statists. People claim to love their freedom, but what they really want is the freedom to pick their neighbors’ pockets to pay for their eccentric lifestyles choices. Much like Obamacare steals from the productive and gives to the indigent.

    If people wanted to live in Agenda 21-style human filing cabinets in inner cities and bike to work or the corner market the free market would provide. Since it doesn’t, we can only assume those who want to live that way are a *tiny minority* compared the typical American who prefers the low-density, auto-oriented suburbs with their quietness, greenery, low crime levels, and self-reliant spirit of their residents.

  • A. James

    The ‘burbs and cars gave us the freedom to flee from those who would pick our pockets with confiscatory taxes. Statists don’t like that.

  • GC

    You’re giving the market far too much credit.

    State & local transportation spending, land use decisions, federal subsidies on loans, tax deductions, etc. are a few things on a long list of government interventions in the market that favor automobile suburbs.

  • Mcass777

    I LOVE the caption under the photo…. Especially when we pay 10 bucks for a gallon of milk. So much more like it! Just blame Bush.

  • oooBooo

    Agenda 21 predates the new urbanism, urbanists, etc.

    Agenda 21 was formalized in 1992 at the UN. That means it predates the birth of many of the urbanists let alone what they think is their movement. I haven’t studied its history extensively, but applying how long it takes before things surface as formalities I’d say it’s a good 10 to 20 years older than that. Also I understand the science fiction that points to the future elites desired in the early 20th century, which puts agenda 21’s ideas firmly in the 1930s. For example, see HG Wells’ “Things to Come”. Although it’s hard to gather the full meaning from just the film (due to cutting the story for length) so if you can find Leon Stover’s book on it, that would be helpful.

    There’s no “conspiracy”. The people who want to shape society put their money, political influence, media, NGOs, foundations, and marketing into action. Then people come to believe it, they are supported and nourished. The ideas grow. Then other people conjure it into existence as public policy. It’s far from a perfect process, but it works. Attempts to beat people over the head with ideas like Fordlandia or Pullman failed, but the goals did not.

    You’re not looking at some movement created from the minds of 20 somethings. It’s progression towards a future someone probably had in mind a century ago.

  • oooBooo

    Indeed. Most of the damage done to society by roads are because society allows government to impose its ideas of how roads should be and where they should be. That same government will drive the new transit rail line through a neighborhood or a mountain in the exact same manner.

  • R.A. Stewart

    The trouble is, having built a society around car dependency, when and if we start withdrawing the incentives for driving, it will hit the most vulnerable people hardest, especially if we do it as we inevitably will–without providing sufficient options.

    Even in Chicago we’re seeing this all stick, no carrot approach. Driving here gets more hellish, and owning a car more of a hassle and financial burden, practically by the day. But what’s the alternative? “Transit-oriented and bike friendly” neighborhoods are few; for most of us, neighborhood transit is a couple of slow, unreliable bus lines with fifteen-minute headways at best, and we’re lucky if the CTA decides to let us keep what we have for another year instead of taking the ax to our line. Most of us drive because when we need to get groceries or take a kid to the doctor, two or three hours waiting for and riding on the bus is more of our day than we can spare; or because we need to get someplace on Sunday and the bus that goes there only runs on weekdays; or because, if we’re lucky enough to have a job, it’s in the suburbs.

    And, again, that’s Chicago, which would probably still squeak into the top five cities in the U.S. for transit. Most Americans live in places where the transit situation is far more dire–like, zero. What are they going to do when gas tops five or six or eight bucks a gallon? Hop on the light rail that that extra gas tax paid for? Well–I wish–but I don’t expect, let’s put it that way.

    In principle, I agree substantially with what the author is saying; it’s just that I know that even if the U.S. stops incentivizing the worst behavior, we will continue to inconvenience–or, in much of the country, continue to make flatly impossible–the best,

  • GC

    Even the new urbanism goes back to the 80s. Lewis Mumford, who wasn’t the first to look at it, started writing in the 1920s. The old urbanism.

    But I wouldn’t dismiss an idea just because it’s old. Roads are still useful, and they’ve been around since the bronze age.

  • Bolwerk

    The demand-supply equilibrium for a busy stretch of roadway right now is the congestion point. Using a price signal would be much more efficient, economically and for drivers who actually value their own time.

    I ain’t no carhead, but “worse” is better for drivers too.

  • oooBooo

    I am not dismissing anything, just pointing out that things are much older than people realize. I’m fine with dense walkable neighborhoods. I think they have their place. And at one time (before it was cool) I preferred living that way. However, like everything else, I believe it should be voluntary, free market, and rooted in property rights.

    But since you accept the necessity of roads, then you also should realize that drivers should only be responsible for the cost of roads with regards to the special needs of private passenger automobile use.

  • C Monroe

    Especially Detroit.

  • RR

    Driving will get worse, but saying that it needs to will not help our side alleviate the pain in getting there.

  • RR

    Driving doesn’t need to be worse, but realistically it will be.
    We need to emphasize that other transportation modes make
    driving better. It’s win-win, not war.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Good points, Alex. The whole War on Cars thing reminds me of that sign that was in the news a while ago: “They only call it class war when we fight back.”

  • Jame

    Well in my city, ok let’s be real, the whole region, there are possibly a dozen neighborhoods that offer what I want in terms of transit access and walkability. The homes sell pretty quickly in all of these. I am priced out of 10 of them and the other 2 are at the every top of my budget. I make above average income. That looks like a supply problem to me.

  • R.A. Stewart

    “Also, my fantasy sign would have Diesel around the price of regular so
    all the actual interesting high MPG cars wouldn’t be Europe only.”

    Well, you know we can’t have that. Washington’s troops shivered at Valley Forge, Jim Bowie died at the Alamo, and Lincoln fought the Civil War just so Americans could drive big ugly SUVs and nothing else.

  • NoeValleyJim

    No, they should pay the cost of externalities as well. All the carbon they dump in the atmosphere, all the lives cut short by traffic violence and respiratory illness, all the congestion costs to transit users. The real cost of “free parking”. The increased burden of cardiovascular and other diseases caused by the car-centric lifestyle. All of it.

    I have personally been a New Urbanist since before 1992, so you are a bit confused about your timeline as well.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Gasoline will cost $10 a gallon no matter what. We are running out of it, it is only a matter of time. People who foolishly decided to structure their lives around an era of cheap and readily available energy will be having a tough time of it.

  • jeff wegerson

    Urbanism see 1950’s-60s Jane Jacobs

  • Oregon Mamacita

    RA, thank you for a well thought out discussion of the unintended economic consequences of discouraging driving. We need cleaner, cheaper smaller cars so that working class folks can get to their shift work. In the meantime, people need to open their eyes to the accidental inequality that has occurred thanks to TOD. TOD is Portland is very expensive and hard for families (2000 k for a small studio in a city with low wages(?)). We can’t progress without considering all the facts.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Will making driving a car more expensive, make it better for everyone?

    I just happen to think it will make it more costly for everyone. Example, the suburbs becomes more expensive to live in due to the cost of auto ownership, which causes people to move back into urban areas for transit, the demand and cost of urban housing will increase. The city will be required to build or expand schools, hospitals, expand transit in areas that are poorly served adding to the tax burden. More fire, police and public greenspace will be needed adding more taxes. Cost of Goods Sold will also increase. How much will people pay for standard commodities like bread, meat, veg if the cost of transportation increases?

    Will this new urban housing be affordable for young families? [Consider some are also paying off enormous college debt.] Will the urban public schools get better. Otherwise the additional debt of private schools. Will the neighborhood people live in have enough day care, medical care, shopping?

    Will the businesses also located in suburban areas move back to the city too? Some may just move to lower costs states or overseas.

    In the meantime, you may not have to expand suburban roads and highways, but these roads will still need to be maintained. Someone has to pay for it.

    At some point in the future the costs of fuel may no longer be on the table as electric/battery powered cars get better and cheaper. This may again cause people to move out of the city and back to the suburbs. How do you prevent that from happening?

    There is a huge economic cost in remaking the world into the way some people want it. Are taxpayers willing to shoulder this burden?

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    And, if you already don’t own a car and live in an urban area with transit options, you will still be paying the costs in terms of housing and taxes too.


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