Many see riding transit as a virtue. We are choosing to associate with people we have nothing in common with, and the more of us ride transit, the more efficient it becomes. Conversely, if no one rides transit, it is much less efficient than traffic. Transit vehicles are heavy, and they require a lot of energy to move. An unoccupied transit vehicle is a gas-guzzler indeed.
Many see driving bikes as a virtue. We are choosing to exercise and move in public. Our faces, travails, and slowness are open for all to see. The only way we will become fast biking is if we keep biking. Generally, the more people bike, the safer it becomes. Drivers in traffic know to look out for bikes where bikes are common. In a lot of America, rarely used bikes may as well be invisible. If a driver is not looking for something, they are more likely to hit it, making biking the second-most dangerous regular mode of transportation in America.
Many see walking as a virtue. Just strap on our shoes and go wherever we want. The problem is that walking defines slow. Throughout human history the 3 MPH walk has been the standard of transportation. There are people who can run long distances without considering it exercise and requiring recovery and recreation afterwards, but they are even rarer than bikers.
The appeal of any transportation system is where it can get you. The function of transportation is getting you there on time. This definition says nothing about the means that you use or the distance. Throughout the 20th century, we took that as license to place every”thing as far apart as it needed to be, and connect everything by roads A road can get you there, in congested or uncontested traffic, with a minimum of personal fuss.
The reason we drive so much is that roads go everywhere we need to be. Every place that is any place has a street address, not a bike path, sidewalk or bus stop.
Transit, even bus transit, is a privilege of the most developed cities and towns. Good transit, with headways so short that people don’t worry about waiting for a ride, is rarer still. The places where transit is great are some of the biggest and most livable cities in America, like New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Portland. Transit and quality of life is unevenly distributed, even within these cities. Poorer neighborhoods get poorer transit, even if their people need transit more than those that can afford a car. This is just good economic sense of the transit agency, after all.
Though transit gets a bad reputation for being expensive and subsidized, the cost of the road network dwarfs the cost of the transit network, and all of the really expensive infrastructure developments in transportation have been road projects. I have only used one of the top ten most-expensive public works projects in the US, while I have used six of the rail transit networks. Yes, rail transit costs over 20 times as much poet mile than road lanes, but it does at better job at synchronizing stations locations with origin and destinations. That is because the road network goes everywhere. The road network for the US cost around 25 trillion dollars. The rail transit installed base cost around 550 billion, about 2% of the cost of the road network. No American has used the majority of the road network, it is physically impossible. Some albatross.
People will not ride transit if it does not go where they want to go. People will not walk or bike if their destinations are too far and too difficult to get to on these slower modes. If we want people to use these more and traffic less, we should take care to bring more things closer to transit, and more things closer to each other.