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Public Transportation and the Suburbs

New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman is currently visiting Germany, where the automobiles are more fuel-efficient and the public transportation systems are much more deeply rooted in the landscape.

Krugman’s column “Stranded in Suburbia” concludes, as I did in Artvoice last week, that far too many Americans are stuck with gas-guzzling SUVs and few alternatives but to keep driving them.

Why? Because there’s no federal transportation policy except the one that subsidizes sprawl and leaves this country addicted to oil-guzzling personal transportation.

The map proves it: Sprawl means stranding. Just look at the Buffalo area: 61% of Erie County’s population lives outside the 42 square miles of Buffalo (the rapid transit begins and ends well within Buffalo’s limits). You may search the map in vain for the trolley line that connects downtown to the airport, or the light-rail network that uses existing rights of way to connect to the university, the hospitals, the suburban shopping centers and the schools.

But of course, if you have the time, you can take the bus in our relatively compact region.

My 14-year-old daughter went to the Walden Galleria Mall on Sunday afternoon. When she and her pals finished, they caught one of the last hourly buses, at 7:08pm. They reached downtown by 7:51, then spent 25 minutes walking home. Had they waited until 8:15pm for the Delaware Avenue bus connection, the one-way bus trip would have taken an hour and 25 minutes. Fetching the kids for the 20-mile round trip would have taken at most 40 minutes.

There’s not much mystery about where the median-income family will spend its $600 federal “economic stimulus” check. One expects that it won’t be on bus passes.

All the more reason, then, to challenge President Obama or President McCain—starting now—on a new commitment to a mass-transit policy for every urban region. If we start in 2008, maybe we’ll have some infrastructure in place by the end of the 44th president’s second term.

In Berlin and throughout Europe after World War II, there was no alternative to public transportation. Streetcars and subways are the norm. The ironic long-term consequence of poverty and devastation is that Europeans do not depend upon cars the way rich, sprawling, unravaged and now stranded America does.