Time To Get Back On The Rails

Elected officials in the United States can wait no longer to invest public transport. 

I hate walking places. Truly. And biking is even worse. Here in Reims, I call my precarious dance on the rustic cobblestones my cobble-wobble, and I am seconds away from a cobble-wobble-topple leading to a faceful of rock at any given moment, which I blame on a genetic predisposition towards extreme incoordination. So that silent, glistening, silver bullet that the Remois call the Citura tram is my saving grace. But that tram represents so much more than a means of transportation for someone chronically lazy and clumsy, like me. It represents an opportunity of physical mobility that translates to economic mobility—and an improvement that the United States fails to consider as a step towards halting the ever-widening wealth gap. 

The Benefits of Public Transporrt 

International trade and business rely on the import and export of goods, which rely on trains and cargo ships and simply put, big engines for big things. According to the United States Census Bureau, the U.S. exported $3,118.5 million of goods and imported $4,721.8 million of goods to France alone in June 2019. But what about the people? That is where public transportation comes into play. From big CEO’s in meetings to manual laborers on construction sites, the trade of people and cultures, languages and ideas, is just as important as that of material goods and currencies. International business cannot truly spread without the people behind those businesses being able to communicate. That physical handshake marking the beginning of a new business venture does not exist without the mobility of both people to the same place. And that mobility is aided by, if not reliant on, the existence of public transportation options all across the world. 

Additionally, public means of transportation substantially decrease Co2 emissions. By moving more people with fewer vehicles, public transportation options produce 76% lower greenhouse gas emissions per passenger per mile than single occupancy vehicles, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Creating business connections with less harm to the environment is only the beginning of the support public transportation provides for economies worldwide. 

Destination Equal Nation 

The motor engines behind public transit propel people across all kinds of borders: national, intellectual, cultural, and economic. By providing the opportunity to live in a different place than you work, public transportation opens the door to economic mobility. Finding employment and education opportunities to lift oneself economically requires the ability to travel outside of one’s immediate neighborhood, especially if that immediate neighborhood is plagued by poverty. Unfortunately, low income neighborhoods often exist in economically stagnant areas and low-performing school districts, especially in the United States. According to a Brookings report on housing costs, zoning, and schools, housing near high scoring public schools costs 2.4 times as much as housing near low scoring schools. This means that high-opportunity neighborhoods are out of reach for families living in affordable housing. And in the United States, one other factor marks the division between rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods: race. Racial disparities within affordable housing are shown in the table above. Even within affordable housing programs, a higher percentage of black and hispanic households are living in high poverty than white households. Viable, reliable public transportation is one way to minimize this challenge of equal opportunity, but an option that the United States has failed to explore properly. 

To presume that the United States’ public transportation options satisfy the commuting needs of poor neighborhoods is a gross overestimation of American infrastructure. For all the electoral talk around lifting these socially, economically, politically segregated neighborhoods out of poverty, one main step has yet to be made: the physical, tangible bridge between poor neighborhoods and wealthy neighborhoods and cities. The very people who need economic mobility the most are the ones who are contained the most, because they are the same ones who cannot afford to buy a car, which is the only reliable transit method in the United States. 

“To presume that the United States’ public transportation options satisfy the commuting needs of poor neighborhoods is a gross overestimation of American infrastructure.” 

It is inaccurate to claim that the United States’ public transit options fail completely. Growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, I truly believed that the public transportation was adequate, albeit unreliable at times. Commuter rails and buses provided a degree of mobility that I could get around on. Only when I moved to Europe did I realize just how laughable transit is in the United States. Trams that reach every part of town, timely and cheap buses, and graceful high-speed trains put the rackety American train cars to shame. 

On June 11, 2019, during peak commuting time, the Redline derailed in Boston. The Redline is a subway train that connects Boston with many neighborhoods, reaching all the way to Mattapan, ⅓ of whose residents live below the national poverty line. 

So when a train car careened off the tracks and smashed a signal center to pieces, every single person commuting on the Redline was late to work, and continued to be late to work as repairs took place over the summer. For me, a young, white, summer intern, these delays had no major consequences. But for people commuting to their precarious minimum-wage earning jobs, who have no other way to get there than public transportation, repeated tardiness is often justification for getting laid off. 

“Elected officials need to seriously start addressing this problem, and see it as a benefit to their campaigns.” 

So, what the U.S.A. should consider is to simply invest more in public transportation. Even if you are not amongst the public transit-reliant riders, and have the option of driving, it is still in your best interest to support investment towards public transit. For, as congestion and traffic increase on ever-decaying American highways, commuting time grows exponentially. According to Brookings, only 5% of all commuters regularly use public transportation. With an improvement in the quality of this option, commuters will likely choose to travel on train or bus, thereby clearing and decongesting highways. Until the decision to improve transportation is made, however, both public and private means of transportation will remain immensely frustrating and economically restricting. 

Elected officials need to seriously start addressing this problem, and see it as a benefit to their campaigns. While implementing new taxes is always a painful procedure for elected officials, most of the benefits of these taxes are intangible in the immediate sense, and often felt by only specific sectors of society. Taxes used to pay public school teachers, for example, provide benefits to one school sector at a time, not nationwide. Improvements made to public transit, however, even if achieved through an increase in taxes, would be a directly tangible benefit felt by everyone, society-wide, rider or non rider. The sorely needed improvement to public transportation would be more than enough motivation for re-election. 

In a time when the United States ranks tenth in the world in infrastructure, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, improving public transit would be the first step towards putting America on equal infrastructural footing with Europe. On average, European countries spend the equivalent of 5 percent of their GDPs on building and maintaining their infrastructure, while the United States spends 2.4 percent. The maintenance of these transit projects themselves would provide massive amounts of employment and economic stimulus in the United States. Arguably, the last time the United States truly invested deeply in infrastructure was under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Programs like the Overseas Highway under the Works Progress Administration provided massive amounts of jobs, which is exactly what the United States needed during the Great Depression. So if improving public transportation can help pull a nation out of deep unemployment, it can certainly also get you to work on time.


Branch, F. (2019). Foreign Trade – U.S. Trade with France. [online] Census. gov. Available at: https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c4279.html? 

Federal Transit Administration. (2019). Transit’s Role in Environmental Sustainability. [online] Available at: https://www.transit.dot.gov/regulations-and-guidance/environmental-programs/ transit-environmental-sustainability/transit-role 

Rothwell, J. (2012). Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools. [online] Brookings. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/ research/housing-costs-zoning-and-access-to-high-scoring-schools/ 

Datausa.io. (2019). Mattapan & Roxbury PUMA, MA | Data USA. [online] Available at: https://datausa.io/profile/geo/mattapan-%26-roxbury-puma-ma 

Downs, A. (2004). Traffic: Why It’s Getting Worse, What Government Can Do. [online] Brookings. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/traffic-why-its-getting-worse-what-government-can-do/ 

Council on Foreign Relations. (2018). The State of U.S. Infrastructure. [online] Available at: https:// www.cfr.org/backgrounder/state-us-infrastructure 

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