Photo: Sharat Ganapati via Flickr

But how long will they wait for infrastructure improvements?

One year ago, as America prepared for the traditional summer-driving crush, op-ed pages nationwide fretted over a disturbing trend. Only a decade earlier, oil had plumbed depths near $10 per barrel, and dirt-cheap gas had allowed us to roll over the nation’s blacktop in vehicles of monster-truck proportions. But now something odd was happening: In just nine short years, real oil prices had quadrupled. The steady upward march threatened all that we held dear, like Chevy Tahoes, the open road, and driving alone. How, the nation’s pundits wondered in 2007, could America cope with oil at $60 per barrel?

With grim determination, as it turned out. Locked into habits formed over decades of pro-auto policy, motorists doggedly faced down rising prices. Oil has since doubled in price again, and for the most part, the American public continues to motor away. Having busied ourselves building horizontal cities and eight-cylinder engines for decades, we are now woefully unprepared to do otherwise. Better to swallow hard, fill the tank, and hope the whole mess goes away.

But behind our car addiction lies hopeful news. Americans drove 11 billion miles less this March than last March — a 4.3 percent drop, and the steepest one-year reduction since 1942. In 2008, gasoline consumption is on pace to decline for the first time in nearly two decades. And transit ridership is up. Yes, in America.

In 2007, U.S. riders took 10.3 billion trips on transit systems. That marked the highest level in 50 years — since before the Eisenhower interstate system, since a time when streetcars rattled down the boulevards of many American cities. Usage this year is up 3.3 percent nationally over last year’s highs. The largest gains have come, somewhat surprisingly, in predominantly automobile-oriented places like Denver, Dallas, and Charlotte, N.C.

Americans, it seems, are not constitutionally opposed to mass transit. An American public enthralled by automobiles has seen the enemy and begun to look for solutions — to congestion and fuel prices, and to climate change. But those looking have discovered that a half-century of neglect has made travel by transit a challenge.

Seeking options, the nation has found them wanting. The ceaseless climb of oil prices, the growing financial toll of congestion, and the looming cataclysm of global climate change have not yet shaken the men and women entrusted with the care of our infrastructure to act — or moved politicians, the press, and the public to demand action. Why can we not bring ourselves to speak of the need for better transit?

A Token of Our Affection

This failure to speak, to act, represents a huge missed opportunity. Overall, the transportation sector, including cars, is responsible for roughly a third of the nation’s energy use and carbon emissions. Department of Energy statistics show that, per passenger-mile, rail transit is substantially greener and less energy-hungry than an automobile — and as transit use increases, systems grow ever more efficient.

Provided that oil markets or government policies continue to pressure drivers, transit demand will grow, and transportation emissions will fall. It’s happening already; the shift away from cars slashed emissions by 9 million metric tons in the first three months of 2008.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, American transit use reached its all-time high in 1946, when a population less than half the current size took over 23 billion trips. In the postwar years, riders abandoned transportation systems as government policies fueled suburban growth and a highway boom, and the country’s public-transit network fell prey to neglect. The massive migration to sprawl drove ridership downward to a low in 1972 of just 6.5 billion trips.

Today, many commuters cannot easily avoid cranking up the car each morning. Because Americans rely heavily on their cars, reductions in driving have been modest compared to the increase in driving costs. Where transit, walking, or biking aren’t options, families must move, change vehicles, or stay home to slow spending — costly and unattractive options for most. Otherwise, higher gas expenditures mean less disposable income.

But energy experts say it’s high time for that to change. “Clearly [federal and local governments will] have to make a large new investment in transit and rail,” says Joseph Romm, senior fellow at American Progress, calling such investments “inevitable” in response to growing ridership.

Of course, it’s important to be realistic: just under 5 percent of commuters took public transit to work in 2005, and the number likely remains modest despite recent gains. A more comprehensive transit network would be but one small part of a broader package of climate policies. Many transit vehicles continue to use petroleum, leading to a 44 percent increase in transit fuel costs from last year to this year. Electric vehicles are largely spared this pain, but are also only as clean as the fuels generating the power. To truly make transit work, new capacity should be coupled with a cleaner electrical grid.

It’s a major undertaking, to be sure. Yet this shouldn’t dim our enthusiasm for supporting new transit investments. Today’s meager transit funding means that even small budgetary increases could deliver significant results. Annual federal spending on new transit projects is just $1.6 billion — 4 percent of the nearly $37 billion allocated to highways.

America can expect to add 150 million people to its population over the next 50 years. This growth will place unprecedented pressure on a transportation network stressed to the breaking point. New high-capacity rail transit within and between cities is necessary to handle this pressure. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which regularly and harshly grades America’s crumbling infrastructure, points out that railway investments can be made for “substantially less than the cost of adding equivalent highway capacity,” moving more people faster over less mileage. It makes little sense to waste money on low-capacity highways that cater to dirty vehicles in a world where gasoline prices are making driving less attractive by the day.

And in a nation where $78 billion is lost annually to wasted time and fuel as drivers sit on congested roadways, transit offers help. A plug-in automobile in traffic isn’t polluting like its internal-combustion neighbors, but it’s also not helping its owner get to work faster. Transit can.

In fact, it’s striking how many solutions public transit promises. Construction of transit in growing cities like D.C., Denver, and Dallas has facilitated shifts in land-use patterns and increased density. The Brookings Institution’s Chris Leinberger argues that rent and home price data suggest substantial interest in walkable urban neighborhoods near transit — places more amenable to reduced driving and energy efficiency than low-density housing. Leinberger estimates that such areas could attract some 30 percent of all new housing demand, slowing exurban sprawl and the resulting “extreme” commutes.

And in a period of economic uncertainty, the idea of employing thousands of Americans to build and operate a new generation of transportation investments should be welcome. The Surface Transportation Policy Project estimates that investments in transit projects generate about 19 percent more jobs than equivalent investments in highway infrastructure. Transit-oriented development has also proved both green and lucrative for many cities: Metro in Washington, D.C., has helped to attract at least $15 billion in new development. Dallas’s younger DART system has so far brought in more than $1 billion in private investments. Other cities have experienced similar successes.

So … Why the Silence?

So why are greens and political leaders reluctant to embrace transit as an energy and climate fix? Perception may be a problem. Transit systems are widely seen as dirty, slow, unreliable, and inconvenient relative to automobiles. Romm suggested to me that transit is seen as “not sexy.” When folks imagine a greener future, visions of electric cars and solar panels abound. No one thinks of a humble subway car rumbling through dark, century-old tracks beneath Manhattan.

Transit is also widely, and correctly, regarded as disproportionately benefiting the residents of large urban areas and lower income households, and political mathematics are seldom friendly to proposals seen as “urban.” Highway money is welcomed anywhere, but transit is considered a highly localized solution. Within metropolitan areas, transit funding often remains controversial, as exurban and highway-dependent jurisdictions feud with leaders from denser areas over the viability of new transit investments.

These conflicts often discourage potential transit champions. As Matthew Yglesias, associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly and a frequent commenter on transit and politics, told me in an email, “The biggest obstacle, probably, is that a lot of politicians who should be on the right side of this aren’t.” He cites Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who “ought to be leading the charge in the Senate, but instead he’s big on opportunistic attacks on the Bush administration for gasoline being too expensive,” and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who “represents Chicago but doesn’t show much leadership on this.” As Yglesias puts it, “A lot of politicians from smaller cities or suburbs must be looking at guys like that and saying, ‘If they don’t want to take this on, then I’d really better stay away.’”

And as part of the broader political conversation, transit lingers in relative obscurity. My informal polling of several environmental journalists in Washington suggested that discomfort with available information on transit and emissions reduced their willingness to write on the subject. As such, transit struggles to join the political conversation — and since it’s not part of the conversation, writers have little incentive to learn about it. On the cycle goes.

Fortunately, this is changing as interest in climate change grows. New efforts to measure metropolitan carbon footprints illustrate the value of transit as a green technology. A report [PDF] from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, published in March by economists Ed Glaeser and Matthew Kahn, notes that even where transit use is highest, “emissions from public transport are a small fraction of per household emissions from private driving. For example, in Chicago and Washington, per household emissions from private cars are more than 10 times the emissions from public transport.”

And a new study from the Brookings Institution argues that, “Federal transportation decisions have historically limited the viability of transit and transit-oriented development, which represents an important tool for shrinking carbon footprints by reducing vehicle travel and associated fuel use.”

But for all those seeking change, the biggest obstacle to better transit policy has been economic. America enthusiastically built roads and sprawling suburbs for half a century, and for most of that period, gasoline prices dutifully played along. As recently as 1998, as the United States prepared to embark upon a substantial acceleration in its exurban land rush, The Economist famously speculated that oil prices might fall from $10 to $2. There was every reason to believe that a life built around driving might be economically sustainable for the foreseeable future.

But of course, the global economy did not cooperate. Exurban sprawl in America led to steady increases in driving and fuel consumption. More important, large nations around the world grew rapidly out of poverty. As their citizens rose from penury, their energy demand increased, placing pressure on an oil supply neglected during the era of cheap oil. The combination of growing demand and stagnating supply did its work. The price of gas is now approaching $4 per gallon nationally, and the economics have changed. It’s time for our national conversation to change along with it.