Transit Déjà Vu

Posted by Fred Jandt
Mass Transit magazine editor

Transit is in the media a lot lately — and not in a good way. With the Amtrak Hiawatha extension coming under fire here in Wisconsin, transit’s future looks pretty bleak. But I’ve got an odd feeling that I’ve seen this before.

One thing you hear if you’re in transit long enough is the argument that public transportation in the United States isn’t being used like it used to be and never will. That this is a “car culture” and transit just needs to accept that and get out of the way.

That is pretty interesting. If you live anywhere in the Midwest that really seems to be the case. To get anywhere you really need a car. I can’t get to the grocery store in my own hometown without a car.

But do we still have a car culture? That phrase is slung around a lot, but what does it mean? I know growing up a car meant something special. It meant freedom from the small corner of the world you were stuck in. It meant being able to escape from your family and hang out with your friends.

It was a status symbol.

The guy with the hottest car in school got fame (as limited as it was) and acceptance of his peers. Having a car meant you were cool.

For today’s youth, though, this may not be the case. I found this interesting article online this week. It points out that as technology grows, it is rapidly replacing the car in many respects. Want to connect with your friends? There’s Facebook. Want to see the world? There’s Google Earth. Even video games are connected via the Internet allowing teens to smack down and smack talk their friends without leaving their bedrooms.

I find it interesting the amount of vitriol that comes with a discussion of rail. It isn’t an argument of numbers against numbers in many cases, it’s numbers versus belief. I can show numbers of projected ridership gains until I am blue in the face and get a shrug and “I just don’t believe anyone will ride a train” in return.

You can’t fight belief.

But, I wonder where that belief came from. If today’s youth are having less interest in cars, then who is telling us that we’re still a car culture and transit is a waste of our money? How is it that projections on traffic increases are considered gospel, but ridership projections are just numbers on a sheet that you can’t “believe” in? I wonder who stands to gain the most from this situation?

I wonder.

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