Getting From Here to There…and Back

The age of driverless cars and trucks is rapidly approaching. Literally millions of Americans make their livings driving vehicles–trucks, Ubers, taxis, school buses…the list is long, and the consequences of those massive job losses will be severe and unprecedented.

I have no policy prescriptions to offer that might mitigate that job loss disaster. But I do have a response to those transit skeptics who oppose improving city public transportation systems because they claim self-driving cars will make those systems unnecessary.They don’t seem to understand that whether or not someone actually has to drive their car is utterly irrelevant.

What is relevant is that good, reliable public transportation–whether driven by a human or a computer–makes automobile ownership less necessary, and automobiles take a huge chunk out of most household budgets.

A recent article in Resilience, written by an American now living in Ireland, makes an effective case for public transportation.

The healthiest cities in the world have one thing in common; a network of trains, trolleys, trams, subways, buses, and other ways of getting around that don’t depend on everyone having a personal vehicle. Such services save everyone money, use less energy, generate less exhaust to pollute the air and less rubbish to pollute the water and soil. They tip the balance of power on roads, making them light with cars and bustling with humans — walkers, bicyclists and sidewalk vendors. Cities with healthy bus and rail systems feel like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than rows of buildings built alongside highways.

We think of Ireland as having progressed in recent decades, but a hundred years ago trains covered much more of Ireland, with perhaps twice as many lines as there are now. A map of Dublin in the 1920s, likewise, would show a spaghetti-explosion of streetcar lines winding through the narrow streets, pulled by horses at first, and later powered by overhead lines. The recent construction of light rail systems like the Luas were promoted as a next great step forward in transportation, but like most Great Steps Forward, it was merely restoring a tiny piece of what we once had.

The USA used to be the same; for more than a hundred years cities there were networked with a web of streetcars that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, as well as buses that filled in the gaps.  Streetcars and buses seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the Autobahn; compare them to a car in the city and they were often faster.

The author notes, with regret, that many cities have begun to regard public transportation as expendable, since it doesn’t make headlines or make money for elites. The people most dependent upon public transit don’t hire lobbyists or make “meaningful” political contributions, and in an era where “tax” is a dirty word and municipalities are starving for income, that lack of political clout makes it easy to defund transit.  When that happens, it not only inconveniences middle-income people who depend upon transit, it also isolates and strands thousands of poor, elderly and vulnerable people.

And it privileges automobiles in ways that we now recognize are both costly and unhealthy.

I know that from experience, for I grew up in the USA, a nation that once had trolleys and streetcars in every major city and most minor ones. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. My grandmother and grandfather met on the St Louis trolley, the one Judy Garland sang an ode to in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and said most people never needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined a pittance, long after the damage was done. Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Since most train lines were ripped up in the USA, Ireland and most other Western countries, many people must rely on buses. My native USA’s buses are less readily available than most other countries. In many cities I’ve been in, bus lines habitually run late or not at all, and can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty, or require people to wait in unsafe neighbourhoods.

Taking public transportation to the job is an amenity that bolsters our sense of being part of a public, unlike commuting (usually alone and at substantial cost) in one’s own car. The author’s final point is worth emphasizing:

Critics of public transportation accuse such systems of not making money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.


  1. But why didn’t you mention the recent bill/referendum/City Council resolution to improve public transportation here in Indy, and the recently completed Julia Carson Transit Center? It’s not as much as it ultimately needs to be, but it’s a very hopeful step in the right direction.

  2. Indiana had an inter-urban system once. Think of why the roads called Stop-11 and Stop-10 on the South Side of Indianapolis were named that way. My wife, who grew up in Southern Indiana and then in Indianapolis, remembers those systems.

    In the 1960s, in college in Boston, I regularly used trolleys (which were part of an inter-urban line), the subway system, buses, and trackless trolleys (buses which were powered by overhead electric lines). For 40 cents and a transfer ticket, I could go to nearly any part of the city.

  3. Indianapolis has a population density of 3000 people per square mile. The donut counties are probably not 300 per square mile. None of the cities with cost effective mass transit are near as sparsely populated (NYC is nine times as densely populated). This metro area will never make mass transit viable.

  4. The cities with high percentage of mass transit users have geographic obstacles (rivers, oceans, lakes, or mountains) which made building the cities vertically more cost effective than building out. Cities like Jacksonville Florida, Dallas Texas, with no such obstacles have mass transit usage similar to Indy. Without the population density, it is a pipe dream. I’ll take our parking problem over those high density city traffic jams and real estate costs any day.

  5. The disastrous development patterns and sprawl were a direct result of unreliable and inadequate public transit. We got subdivisions not extensions. We got the 100 foot setback, the cul-de-sac and suburban sprawl that is wasteful and unsustainable.

  6. In the US there is also the effect of development that always casts an eye toward the next green field site and ignores the possibility of salvaging existing structures already in the center of town or downtown, creating the need for either expanded public transportation in less densely populated areas or a car for everyone. Europe has developed and invested differently (perhaps they lacked the lobbyists?); Portland OR has focused on eliminating sprawl and has a workable public transportation. We’re 70 years into the car-dominated society; how long can it last?

  7. Interesting about the Inter-urban and the names of roads. I never thought about that, but my dad tells me about it, how it went through their little town in north central Indiana. He’ll recall how his mother walked a block to the stop, got on in the morning, got off in downtown Indianapolis to shop, have lunch at Ayres Tea Room, then be back home in time to fix dinner! How’s that for a truly liberated woman?! But really, what a great deal!

  8. Ken ignores history. Indianapolis had a reliable system. It was intentionally destroyed as stated. The inter urban (does between cities and towns ring a bell – a trolley bell) meant one could travel within a multi county distance quickly and on the cheap. But I’m beating a dead horse.

  9. Ken,

    “Cities like Jacksonville Florida, Dallas Texas, with no such obstacles have mass transit usage similar to Indy.”

    Terrific observation. Having spent 2/3rds of my life in Jacksonville and 1/3rd in Dallas, you’re absolutely right. When I’m not commenting on this blog, I spend my time on the bus. It stops right in front of my condo.

    I take the bus for lunch at the Senior Center in the the center of the city, shopping, going to the beach, to Home Depot. Since I’m a few years older than 62, I ride the bus FREE.. I’ve even had a date or two using the bus.

    Despite the preceding sermon, it really is a lousy system, probably much like Indy’s, for the reason you pointed out.

    By the way, at one time Jacksonville was touted as the world’s largest city [ that is in total land mass].

  10. That dead horse was killed by good old General Motors. They bought the Indianapolis Transit System, bled it dry, sold themselves a bunch of brand new buses, then declared bankruptcy (not GM. just the transit company). After being found guilty of anti-trust violations, GM was ordered to pay the magnificent sum of $1.00 to the four cities that sued. Turns out, in the long run, what was good for General Motors was terrible for the country.

  11. Sorry but; I can think of more reasons NOT to promote “driverless cars and trucks” than to move forward with those plans. Not ready for the Jetson Age but am far beyond wanting the Flintstone Era to return.

    My family didn’t have a car till I was 11 – 12 years old. My father took two buses to get to his job daily. Bus service was city-wide at that time; shopping downtown was simple because all buses traveled to and from outlying areas to downtown. Even during the early to mid-1950’s, bus service was great, the old trolleys on tracks ended in 1952 but provided great transportation till the end. Urban sprawl began in the 1960’s; much of it “white flight”, leaving urban and suburban areas to gradually deteriorate, public transportation deteriorated with the neighborhoods.

    Those housing developments and sub-divisions Bob Kennedy referred to cannot be easily reached or are impossible to access by public transportation and most people do have cars. Except in those deteriorated inner city areas which are spreading outward…where public transportation is most needed. I used public transportation when I lived 3-4 blocks from bus stops rather than drive and park downtown. Would parking areas with reasonable rates and bus service from them to downtown or other business areas be of help to some? On the east side, the old Eastgate Shopping Center parking lot could be one. IMPD and the Prosecutor’s Office have satellite offices there; it remains trashy, unclean and unsafe looking (shame on the city). Washington Square Mall is in its dying throes; that huge parking area is another possible site for those on the far east side. Lessening the expensive downtown parking problem would also ease rush hour traffic. Just askin’

  12. Humanity is caught in a bind. At a time when massive fundamental collective change is necessary we are bogged down in an every person for themselves culture. Our unprecedented population demands action while the advertising industry is stuck on as many products and brands as possible individualism.

    And instead of our culture serving us we are enslaved by it because it’s become a product of business instead of a result of our collective adaptation.

    Perhaps this is how too many each consuming too much gets resolved.

  13. I don’t remember Indianapolis ever having a great transportation system. But I’m only 90, so what do I know?

    I do remember reading about the early street car routes being built so that they would end up at the city’s various parks. There were places to go other than home. The city planners and savvy retailers might make this work again if there were more listening and less talking.

  14. Collusion might have hurried up the process of deconstructing America’s public transit infrastructure from the 40’s-60’s but the automobile was one of the most disruptive technologies in human history, The fact is that Americans fell in love with it and directed the markets to cater to its every need – more roads, wider roads, parking lots, suburban residential and commercial development, commuting longer distances to work. And lest we forget – a method of escape for millions and millions of women away from the confines of the kitchen. So now after 100 years it’s all gotten too expensive, it’s too hard on the environment, and most of all, and for the first time, a generation is questioning its value in their lives. Driverless technology will also likely be a very disruptive technology but it should not be viewed necessarily as distinct and separate from public transportation, which has long been very capital-intensive and typically requires massive subsidies to both build and operate. One form of subsidy is that states and counties with less dense populations pay gas and other taxes which are then redistributed to more densely populated urban centers. This has been going on for decades. So until major innovations comes along that can change the cost structure to build and operate our future transportation systems, we cannot escape the same old question: Who’s going to pay for it? But if you are one of the 2 million Americans who drive a car, truck, bus or train for a living, you’d better take stock of what happened to the millions of former middle-class factory workers who are now working two minimum-wage jobs to get by while robots do their former jobs. Driverless transportation systems are simply an application of robotics technology which has been proven to work with nearly flawless results and far lower costs in the manufacturing and distribution sectors.

  15. Also, you have to consider it works so well in some of Europe’s countries because they prioritize public transportation over vehicles. For example, trams have priority over buses, buses over bikes, bikes over vehicles and pedestrians and then flipping to pedestrians over vehicles depending on the area. There were round abouts everywhere and priority always went to the publicly funded transportation, not vehicles. And I never saw 5 mile long freight trains that tied up traffic at intersections, every train/vehicle crossing has a bridge or tunnel.

    As expected, parking a vehicle is a premium price and not always available (full lots). In fact, it did cause some anxiety to drive in Europe at first because there were so many distractions like motor bikes and pedestrians to watch out for in addition to other drivers. The only way for that to happen in the states is that oil runs out or becomes prohibitively expensive. Gas in Switzerland is running about 6 bucks a gallon when I left there earlier in the month.

    Buying a vehicle is expensive, road tax and licensing and insurance is, as well. Even if you take public transportation, you have to prepare for all types of weather, rain, fog, snow etc and some Americans (outside of the city) just aren’t prepared to do that. I walked about 6 blocks to the tram/bus stop from our apartment and there were sidewalks everywhere. They also had walking paths from one end of Germany, Switzerland and France that wouldn’t work here because most land in America is privately owned. These walking paths were maintained by the local canton and what we greatly miss around here.

    Not only can we save the environment with public transportation but imagine the health benefits from walking that far every day. Oh, and the kids rode the trams without parental supervision after about age 8. The only drop off parking lot for elementary school age kids I saw was for those fearful American parents. It was 4 blocks from the school. We have to totally rethink transportation before anything changes here.

  16. We need a transportation policy that is inclusive of all age and socio-economic levels. Auto ownership comes at a tremendous cost to the consumer and the public.

    The current debt levels on auto loans are truly staggering and by themselves could impact our overall economic growth or decline. Now exceeding $1 trillion they are another potential economic trouble spot for our economy and getting dicier by the day.

    People who are sold on our Car-centric culture naively believe fuel and usage taxes cover road cost. This is incorrect as our roads are subsidized to a huge extent by funding other than gas and usage taxes.

    Public transit is really about access. Do all people truly matter? Should all citizens have an opportunity to work and be gainfully employed? Should they have access to groceries and pharmacies? What about transportation for medical and other needs. We have subsidized the wealthiest and blamed the poorest for the failures of our system.

    Most of our systemic failures are self-inflicted and are the direct result of a lack of understanding of the problems and implications of our current out of control economic system.

    It is a complex issue. Few citizens seem to be willing to suspend their preconceived reality of our current situation and look at it with an open and receptive state of mind.

    We can begin to make rational responses now to a system that is always a step behind reality or wait till the system implodes at which time our rational response options will be extremely limited. For a listing of rational responses see

    Pay for transit now or pay even more when you can’t afford the cost of your own transportation. There are numerous clouds on our horizon in terms of personal debt and income. How much has the price of a new car went up in 20 years and how does that compare to your income growth over the same period? Where does that put you in 20 tears if this trend continues?

  17. The interstate system, plus the relocation of shopping and jobs to the suburbs hastened the end or caused a decline in public transportation if you could build out like Indianapolis. Another factor was marketing by the automobile manufacturers. The automobile became the portable status symbol. Two cars became in even greater status symbol.

    Our streets, roads, highways and public transportation have suffered from the Grover Norquist Syndrome. Starve the government which includes our transportation system. Elected officials are terrified of asking for a tax increase to fund our streets, roads and highways. We see the results of that here in Indianapolis, pot holed and broken up streets.

    Planning for the future never seemed to be strong point for Marion County, there are very few streets that bisect the county north to south or east to west.

  18. Automation is upon us big time and, like the Luddites and their hated looms, we may react by yearning for the good old days of the industrial era before we were so uncerimoniously dumped into the information age, an age which, as I have blogged, takes us to transitional economics kicking and screaming as we yearn for what we thought were the economics of certainty. There was a time when innovations (see robotry) supplanted human labor and we were told that the new order would give birth to new uses for human labor in ancillary areas thus soaking up such displacements, but now such ancillary areas are themselves subject to automation with the probable result that our economy (as thus transformed) will result in massive unemployment of the human workforce with old skills which are not germane to today’s economic realities, just as buggy whips went their way with invention of the motorcar.

    Sheila is into transportation in her blog today, but that is only one of many such areas that are either in or on the cusp of radical transition. I have even read that Silicon Valley is teaching “emotional intelligence” to robots, so psychiatrists beware! We may be able to push the right buttons and have robots do our couch time, drones to deliver Amazon goodies etc.

    As for transportation in isolated context, I vividly recall reading a piece by an urban geographer years ago where he posited that he thought cities were experimental and that they may fail as a means of providing shelter for the masses and their needs. Sheila’s piece suggests that his view may have some validity since we have exhausted both suburbia and exurbia while the urban move is now back into the lofts of central cities – and how long will that phenomenon last? Driverless vehicles won’t help employment numbers, so what’s next – driverless airplanes? Robotic air controllers? Don’t laugh. We laughed at Dick Treacy’s “two-way” wrist radios – remember?

    What will a new economy that can accommodate radical change look like? I as an amateur economic historian have no clue, mostly for the reasons that the change is so speedy and that change as a concept is itself changing at warp speed. We are in uncharted waters and will have to fashion new social, political and economic values that rapidly morph into mores and folkways in order to keep humanity in control of our own destiny, whatever that may be, and formation of such new values is beyond my pay grade. Einstein I am not. . . .

  19. Always wonder what Ike would think of the changes his National Defense Highway System brought to the US.

  20. Indianapolis has a bus system. Most people don’t use it, and that’s not because the bus doesn’t run every 10 minutes. It’s because people don’t prefer riding a bus. There’s nothing wrong with preferring to drive one’s own car, as opposed to trudging to and from a bus stop, schlepping children, groceries, etc.. Spending millions tearing up College Avenue and Meridian Street to put medians and bus stations in the middle of the street isn’t going to change this or create desire for a bus system.

    The real reason for the Red Line, in particular, is to qualify developers for free government handouts in the form of “transit oriented development” and other grants to pay the cost to construct tall apartment buildings on College Avenue, to create demand that currently isn’t there. IndyGo could simply make a trial run of more frequent service on College and Meridian to gauge interest, but it refuses to do so because they already know the demand will never materialize. The average IndyGo bus carries 5 passengers. That’s average. I live on College. Other than rush hour, most buses are empty. We the taxpayers pay to run these empty buses. Running buses every 10 minutes isn’t going to create demand that simply doesn’t exist.

    Instead of attempting to improve interest, IndyGo is going to tear up these two streets and install a median an bus stations, instead of curbside pickup. When asked why, a member of the MDC admitted that the reason is to prevent IndyGo from abandoning Red Line on College and diverting the expensive buses to other routes when the ridership numbers don’t materialize. This is to protect the investments of developers.

    Before the referendum, IndyGo repeated lied about many things, including the proximity of Butler University to College Avenue (they said 3/4 mile–more like 1.2 miles minimum), the proximity of IUPUI (way more than 1/2 mile), plus the alleged benefits of a bus every 10 minutes–double residential and triple business property values.

    Bus service in Indianapolis can be improved without Red Line, and should be for those areas that are transit-dependent, which isn’t Meridian-Kessler or Broad Ripple, which happen to be places where developers own parcels they want to qualify for government grants. You might ask yourself why IndyGo isn’t focusing on improving service in areas where people are bus-dependent, instead of making Red Line its first priority. You might also ask yourself why the question of general improvement in bus service was combined with Red Line for the referendum, and why the package was sold to the religious community as “social justice”. How is placing an expensive bus line in an area where it isn’t needed “social justice”? You might also ask yourself how the CC Council could vote to increase everyone’s income taxes when IndyGo represented that Red Line funding was “a done deal”–another lie. Now the taxpayers will be forced to foot the whole bill–a proposal that was never presented, much less voted on.

    Indianapolis will never be like New York or San Francisco in regard to transportation. The community is simply too spread out, and the desire to ride a bus or trolley isn’t there, either. Also, studies show that electric buses generate more pollution and cost more per passenger mile than passenger cars.

    As to the most prudent use of taxpayer money, in a city that has roads that are similar to dry creek beds and failing public schools, what should be the priority for taxpayer spending? Even if you think a bus rapid transit system is a good idea, why not start with curbside pickup instead of tearing up 2 busy streets, removing an entire lane of traffic, and taking away parking needed by customers of businesses? That is, what parking is left after Blue Indy took key spots without even the Council having an opportunity to vote on granting Bollore an exclusive franchise. Also: after Indianapolis has the highest taxes in the State, how many people with good-paying jobs are going to leave Marion County for the donut counties that have lower taxes and quality public schools?

    The trolley that used to run on College Avenue failed and went out of business in 1938. That’s because people no longer wanted to ride a trolley, preferring to drive their own cars. That hasn’t changed. A public transportation should focus on the areas of greatest need, but that isn’t IndyGo’s priority.

  21. are you sure the College line died in 1938? seems to me much later. I’ll have to dig up my Jerry Marlette book. I have seen many comments on the College line being destroyed by people who don’t ride but prefer to direct. I remember asking a guest speaker (touting mass transport) which bus he took. (The answer was that he was too busy to take the bus, although quite suitable for people of ordinary rank). Can’t remember if the instructor in that class was Carlyn Johnson or Sheila Kennedy. I think I took classes from both, my mother from only one. That was years ago, of course. But if you remember that the majority of public transit in the US exists to provide jobs for government and quasi government people who want an easy job, the real explanation comes up. Remember also that most existing public transit systems are in a very poor state of maintenance, and no money seems to exist to fix them, so we are adding NEW transit systems that, in a few years, will be dilapidated and add to the list of can’t afford to fix. Look at the pumps in NYC that were put in circa 1900 to prevent flooding and shut down in the 1950’s? Now the salt water from recent hurricanes has destroyed much of the infrastructure – and we want to spend the money on a city “transportation center” in Indy? So much waste, so little competence, so little value.

  22. At the height of the Indy bus service era during the mid- twentieth century, those bus routes serving he north side of the city carried not residents, but the maids and servants who made sure the pampered white folk were kept in the style they were use to. With the onslaught of “white flight to Hamilton County” and the necessity of women having to enter the work force that need for maids and servants came to an end.

    Just for the record, when I bought my house here on the east side, I placed as a high priority its proximity to the bus line. I use the bus whenever I need to go downtown and have found the buses to be well maintained, clean, and economical to use.

  23. Professor Kennedy:

    “I have no policy prescriptions to offer that might mitigate that job loss disaster.”

    This, I know, is not to your point, but it brings to my mind FDR and the New Deal programs that arguably turned around dismal unemployment data. I remember the CCC and the WPA as examples.

Comments are closed.