A System of the Past for the Future?

August 29, 2016 10:11AM

 The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority invested $9 billion in new light rail and subway lines, yet lost more than 10% of its passengers from 2006-2015. Orange County lost 30% of its bus ridership over the last seven years with 36 straight months of decline, and California is not the only place experiencing a drop in public transportation. Major cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. have also experienced a downturn in public transit in recent years.

A 2014 report by the American Public Transportation Association discovered that 74% of people supported public transportation, while only 5% of commuters actually used it. This is true both on paper and in practice. An analysis of 21 cities that approved tax increases for public transportation found that though these ballots passed with an average of 63% of the vote, a decade later the share of commuters driving alone fell by only 2%.

So basically voters support public transportation for other people. The reasons for this are quite obvious to anyone who has ever ridden public transportation: delays, long waits at transfer points, overcrowding, cleanliness, safety, and convenience are all issues that come to mind.

Nashville’s latest public transportation proposal, which arrived last week, addresses none of these issues. The proposal includes light rail and bus rapid transit among many other usual suspects and will cost $6 billion over a 25-year period. It’s been met with general support thus far.

It seems few have stopped to consider how long of a time-period 25 years is, or just how silly spending $6 billion on a system that has consistently lost money in other cities sounds, especially in the technology age.

I’ve barely been around 25 years myself, and over that time period the world has been turned on its head. No one could have imagined the technological advances that our society made over that time period. Few could have fathomed Uber or Lyft merely 5 years ago. Things are moving quickly, and it is impossible to state exactly where technology will move in the field of transportation

Ridesharing, the rise in the gig economy, employees’ ability to work remotely, and the smartphone have already transformed the way, reasons, and methods by which people travel. The idea of people gathering in a central location, standing in line to purchase tickets, and boarding a bus or train according to a schedule set by someone other than themselves is dated. With the rate that technology is advancing it’s hard to picture anyone doing it much further in the future.

Uber has already introduced new models that are disrupting public transit in other cities. Their Uber Pool option allows commuters to rideshare with others going in the same direction and split the fare, essentially building a more efficient bus-line based on real-time supply and demand needs.

Additionally, Uber recently partnered with a suburb of Tampa to run two bus lines for $40,000-a quarter of what the city was spending on those services previously-an arrangement that several other cities are considering replicating. And, not to be forgotten, is the promise of the autonomous car, which Uber is also launching in select cities.

Thinking of the opportunities these advances already in existence offer is enthralling-less need for parking garages, fewer fatalities on the road, traffic lights that match patterns of supply and demand. To think about what the world will look like 25 years down the road is mind-boggling. The free market stands to address all of the issues public transit has failed to and then some, and all without billing the taxpayers. With all of Nashville’s growth and expansion, why would we build a system of the past for the future?