America must shift from highway-based transportation to rapid transit

drew frenz

America builds roads. Ever since Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act smashed through our cities to ease commutes from newly born suburbs, America has built an elaborate auto-centric transportation system relying almost exclusively on a single element: the limited-access highway. In America, we love our highways, but what if the highway was not the most efficient transportation system available? The truth is, it’s not; rail-based rapid transit is.

While a lane on a freeway operating at peak capacity can transport up to 3,500 cars per hour, a single rapid transit line can move 30,000 people per hour. In a nation where over $21 billion is lost annually due to congestion, our transportation system needs this extra capacity. Not only does rapid transit have a higher capacity, it’s cheaper too: it costs between $5,000 and $9,750 annually to own and drive a car, whereas it costs between $500 and $2,000 to use public transit. Transit doesn’t only benefit those riding, those still in their cars save time as well: the average light-rail line decreases road traffic so much that non-transit riders, those still guzzling gas, save a total of over 4,000 hours a day due to reduced congestion.

Rapid transit is not only cheaper for commuters, it also saves both businesses and governments money. Downtown Minneapolis, for example, contains over 650,000 parking spaces that have cost a grand total of $9.75 billion, parking spaces that would be for the most part irrelevant if we had a functional mass transit system rather than a sprawling highway grid. Additionally, every downtown block that has a parking ramp built on it costs the city a 70% loss in property tax revenue for the block.

Transit is also more beneficial to the economy. For every $1 billion invested in transit, there are 47,500 jobs created and a total return of over $6 billion in economic growth related to the line, while for every $1 billion invested in the highway system, there are 29,000 jobs created with $4 billion in economic growth.

Why is it then that over $5 billion is spent annually on highways in Minnesota, while less than $100 million is spent on mass transit?