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December 22, 2005

Universal Public Transportation

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about the possibility about transportation and emissions. The topic of a universal public transportation system came up as a way to solve the issues of pollution and the perceived threat of greenhouse gases. Though the recent transit strike in New York City provides a good argument against eliminating automobiles altogether, this is but one problem with such a proposition.

First, the painfully obvious. It is impractical. In a city like New York or Chicago, it is doable. In Charlottesville, it could be done with greater numbers of pedestrians. However, the vast majority of the country would be unable to start such a program. Take Northern Virginia; outside of a city, it can still be quite dense in some areas, and already uses public transportation through buses in Fairfax and Loudoun, and the Metro. With traffic at levels beaten only in areas such as the Los Angeles-metropolitan area, getting more cars off the road would make such trips faster. That is, if it were not for the problem that a bus or train would have to make frequent stops. Even if people were willing to walk as much as half a mile from a stop, one would presume a near-grid pattern with stops seperated by a mile or less. Each road would require at least a couple such buses running at once, and people would need to make some transfers in many cases. The busing system would have to run 24-7, so people could get whereever they need at any time, and one would presume that one bus would need anywhere from three to six drivers per day. Assuming an area near a thousand square miles, Northern Virginia would require hundreds, if not thousands, of drivers. This would require an impossibly large amount of money (even considering the savings of no individual vehicles and no individual gas purchases), and the amount of time to get anywhere would only increase from the long commutes that occur today. This would become an issue when emergencies arised and people had no way to get where they need to be.

Now, imagine extending this out to the rest of the country (for simplicity sake, let's eliminate Alaska and Hawaii). Northern Virginia is the exception, as the rest of the country is generally more rural. This means that stops seperated by only a mile can greatly lengthen the time in a trip, particularly when trying to take a longer trip. Yet, the half-mile walk still holds. How to resolve this? Even if an exception were to be made in particularly rural areas allowing for individual vehicles, gas prices would likely soar, as would the costs to buy and maintain vehicles. And while jobs in busing and trains would increase, there would also be huge layoffs in the oil and automobile companies. I suggest not even pondering the tax hikes that would be required to support such a program.

Local transportation programs are a great idea (though allowing a union may be counterproductive as proven this past week), but it cannot be extended beyond that. For the time being, it would be more practical to search out new forms of transportation and fuel (and do not suggest hydrogen cells as (1) the hydrogen being made produces emissions of its own and (2) water, like carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas and the main by-product of hydrogen cells, but this is another discussion). Maybe in fifty years, we will be able to fly around like the Jetsons, but for now, we will just have to deal with automobiles.