The Baltimore Sun

Transit missteps leave us trapped

Douglas E. Morris - September 29, 2005


As images from Rita and Katrina showed, American cities are strategically vulnerable to evacuation in times of crisis. Residents get stuck in traffic and run out of gas, grinding any mass departure to a standstill.


What makes this situation so ironic is that the interstate system that Congress bought in the late 1950s was intended to enhance the evacuation potential of American cities during the threat of nuclear attack in the Cold War. This boondoggle of one-dimensional transportation was sold to Congress by a cartel of oil, automobile, bus, road construction and finance companies. But since the end of the 1950s, transportation officials have pointed out that without alternate forms of transport, not only would emergency evacuation plans be stymied but so would all forms of mobility as well. Which is just what has happened.


All over America, driving times are increasing, road congestion is getting worse and our lives are suffering as a result. Cars might have initially made life easier, but now automobiles are prisons and the sentences we serve in them keep getting longer and longer - with no chance of parole unless drastic changes are made throughout society.


According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average American household drives 40 percent more now than in 1970. A Department of Housing and Urban Development study estimates that Americans spend over two hours each day in their cars. reports that we lose, on average, the equivalent of 31 days to commuting each year. Studies by the Sierra Club indicate that commuting times have doubled since 1995.


The statistics may vary, but the reality is that without viable transportation options other than the automobile, Americans are forced to spend more time in their cars. With no overall urban transportation plan, houses continue to be built farther away from one another and urban centers and the functions of life continue to be zoned apart, reducing public transportation's effectiveness and perpetuating our overdependence on automobiles.


Trapped in traffic to get anywhere, we have less time for taking part in civic engagements, pursuing hobbies and spending time with friends and family. Our interpersonal relationships have been relegated to rushed phone conversations and quick e-mail messages. We carry the BlackBerry, cell phone and laptop as badges of multitasking honor. We bristle with bandwidth and satellite access online, hooked up and cyber-savvy. But we still don't know our neighbors and we don't have time for our friends.


If our physical landscape had been planned properly, we could spend quality time with friends and family instead of being trapped behind the wheels of our automobiles.


People would be able to meet face to face rather than bumper to bumper in traffic or byte to byte on their cell phones.


It was well known in the 1950s, and is true today, that highway travel is wasteful and expensive. A single-lane of highway, with cars carrying the national average of 1.1 people, accommodates fewer than 5,000 people an hour. A railway car moves 50,000 passengers in the same hour. Automobiles are 10 times less efficient than railways. But this reality did not stop the government, with some not-so-subtle encouragement by special interests, from supporting roads over rail.


Up until the end of World War II, there were still bucolic small towns outside of every American city, connected to the city center by extensive rail transport. But after 1945, in 15 short years, our country changed completely. While our standard of living was increasing, our small towns were being paved over, our trolley lines were being torn up and our passenger rail system was being dismantled.


Not only has this reduced our quality of life and sense of connection to others, but it has made our country strategically vulnerable to crises. Instead of being able to quickly and easily evacuate our cities with a multiplicity of transportation options, Americans are instead stuck in traffic, running out of gas, getting nowhere.


Rita and Katrina are America's wake-up calls. They are illuminating the nightmare of our one-sided transportation system.


Let's stop myopically imagining that we know everything and take the time to create our own European-style multidimensional transportation systems that include extensive high-speed rail, local and commuter rail, intra-city trolleys as well as air travel, roads and highways.


Our lives depend on it.


Douglas E. Morris is the author of It's a Sprawl World After All ( He lives in Washington DC.