Yesterday I mentioned sewer systems as an indispensable part of urban infrastructure, and today I want to focus on the more visible issue of transportation. The efficiency with which people and goods move into and within cities has a huge impact on both energy use and air quality. And the availability of non-driving modes of transportation can improve people’s lives in a lot of ways.

I read a few blogs that address transportation issues (Greater Greater Washington is indispensible for DC-area transportation nerds), and I’d like to address an assumption that I see a lot of commenters making: Just because I advocate for public transportation doesn’t mean I want to take anyone’s car away. Personal vehicles make sense in a lot of situations. My husband and I don’t own a car, but we rent one – usually on an hourly basis through Zipcar – when we’re planning a big shopping trip or going to visit friends out in the suburbs. If I have to go anywhere that would require waiting for two infrequent buses, I’ll usually hail a cab instead. And I appreciate the fact that riding a bus as a lone adult is far, far easier than boarding one with multiple small children and a stroller that has to be folded up.

In other words, there are plenty of times when driving a personal vehicle is an understandable choice. The problem is, when too many people drive at once, we get traffic jams, which increase pollution and frustration levels. If some of the people currently driving could use a different mode of transportation instead, the remaining drivers – and the bus riders – could spend less time stuck in traffic.

Cities that invest in non-driving forms of transportation can also help reduce inequality. There are many people who can’t drive for a variety of reasons:

  • Cost: Owning and maintaining a car is expensive: According to AAA’s latest estimate, it costs an average of between $6,496 (for a small sedan) and $11,085 (for an SUV) per year to own a car and drive it 15,000 total miles annually. The small sedan figure is the equivalent of 83 DC bus rides ($1.50 each) or 55 New York subway rides ($2.25 each) per week – and the bus system won’t ask you to shell out $500 unexpectedly because there’s a sudden need for transmission repairs.
  • Age: Kids and young teens can’t legally drive, and since teens ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash (per mile driven), it’s in everyone’s interest to give them non-driving options for getting around. At the other end of the age spectrum, many people have to drive less as they age because of declining vision, reaction times, and strength. If we want people at every age to remain engaged in their communities and able to get where they need to go (school, work, doctor’s appointments, etc.), we need public transportation.
  • Temporary Reductions in Driving Ability: Driving safely requires paying constant attention to one’s surroundings and being able to react quickly. Fatigue, alcohol, and cell phone use all impair people’s driving ability. I’d rather have a drunk person sitting next to me on the bus (and I do know what that’s like) than driving a car.

Laying tracks for transit can also drive economic development. Portland’s streetcar line, which opened in 2001, is credited with transforming a “dicey warehouse area” into a lively neighborhood boasting a mix of residences, restaurants, and retail. A 2008 city-funded study found that the streetcar system had generated $3.5 billion in investments and driven more than 10,000 housing units to be built within two blocks of the line. Here in DC, the city has embarked on a new streetcar system, and the first two lines will be in high-poverty parts of the city that have been underserved by public transportation.

I’m particularly glad to see DC investing in streetcars because they’ll run on electricity. Given that oil’s a finite resource and the global rate of oil extraction will inevitably slow, we can expect to see oil prices climb. (See Sharon Astyk’s Peak Oil 101 for more on this.) Having a transportation system that uses non-oil sources of energy will make cities better able to weather oil price increases and scarcity. Ideally, the electricity will be generated by renewable forms of energy rather than fossil fuels. (Dan Malouff offers more reasons why streetcars are better than buses in places where high ridership volume is expected.)

There are places where the population density just isn’t sufficient to support a good network of bus lines or a light-rail system. Even in those places, there are some lower-cost improvements that can make it easier for people to get around without a car. Walking and biking are both great options for shorter trips – and even if people aren’t commuting by foot or bike, these are good forms of exercise to encourage for health reasons. Departments of Transportation should include sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike paths in their transportation planning. Other improvements that can improve pedestrian and cyclist safety include signage to remind drivers to yield to pedestrians and share the road with cyclists, “lead pedestrian intervals” at signalized intersections, and timing traffic signals so pedestrians have enough time to cross streets safely. These may not be the kinds of things that first spring to mind when discussing transportation infrastructure, but they can make a difference in how safely and conveniently people can get where they’re going.