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Inclusive Cities: How Public Transit Shapes Our Cities, Communities, and Environment

By Andrew Nicolais

July 28, 2023

People sitting in crowded NYC subway
People sitting in crowded NYC subway
People sitting in crowded NYC subway The widest highway in the world, the Katy Freeway in Houston, has a staggering 26 lanes across and sees an average of 297,000 vehicles per day. Conversely, the portion of the 6 line that travels just through Manhattan sees an average daily ridership of 410,912 people. For decades, we designed cities to maximize the number of cars we could move in and out with little to no regard for the impacts that would make. Since the beginning of the national highway system, neighborhoods were destroyed, communities divided, and funds funneled from public transit to highway authorities. We will be dealing with the repercussions of these decisions for decades, but there has never been a better time to reimagine what our cities look like and who they benefit. The good news is that we’re already well on our way, and recent announcements in New York, like congestion pricing, are going to have profound impacts on our cities. Safe, reliable, and robust public transit is one of the key aspects that make cities function well for everyone. The NYC subway system, for example, moves upwards of 4 million people of all social and economic classes daily. It serves as a great equalizer, allowing anyone to move freely throughout the city for only $2.75 ($2.90 come August). Yet not all transit systems are built with equity in mind. Consider how difficult it is to move between the outer boroughs without first traveling through Manhattan, or how someone taking the subway to commute still spends over $30 a week on transit, which is not an insignificant amount for most working-class New Yorkers. New York has addressed this last point with their Fair Fares Program, an initiative that offers half-price transit costs for anyone making less than $14,580 annually. With all this in mind, let’s discuss just a few of the many benefits that an expanded and strengthened public transit system can provide.
Environmental Sustainability
You’d be hard pressed to find a single person living in North America who has not been impacted by the wildfire smoke blanketing the US for months now. If this summer of smoke, heat, and sweat has taught us anything, it’s that climate change is here to stay. Dramatic shifts in the way we live and interact with the world need to happen as quickly as possible if we want to prevent the full impacts of climate change. One of our largest carbon sources is the transportation industry, which represents 24% of our total global CO2 emissions. The good news is that there’s a simple way to cut your carbon emissions in half. Living in dense, walkable communities with access to robust public transit results in carbon emissions nearly 50% lower than the national average. In fact, the MTA estimates that their operations result in a net negative of 17 million tons of CO2 annually– the equivalent of 3.7 million cars. Public transit produces just 5% of carbon monoxide and nearly half the amount of nitrous oxide, both very potent air pollutants, compared to cars. 
Reduced Car Dependency
This leads to how we reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, especially in densely packed urban environments like New York City. As the City prepares to implement its own congestion pricing, let’s look at the benefits other cities have seen as a result. London saw a 12% reduction in air pollutants and a 20% decrease in carbon emissions, while Stockholm saw upwards of a 14% CO2 reduction. Preliminary environmental studies in New York estimate a massive 20% reduction in traffic volume. Congestion pricing has also been shown to increase economic equity, with one study finding that when congestion fees are directed towards public transit improvements, they are primarily funded by high-income men and primarily benefit low-income individuals, especially women.  Finally, reduced car dependency also benefits working class families. In fact, a family with two cars spends nearly 16% of their income on their vehicles, and by replacing just one with daily public transit use, they can save over $10,000 a year. 
When we say public transit is good for accessibility, you might first think about the countless subway stations with little to no physical accessibility and stairs often being the only way in and out of the system. However, the MTA is currently spending $6 billion to upgrade over 70 stations to be truly accessible for all, and that is with the entire bus network already being wheelchair accessible. This is an ongoing challenge that requires years of construction, so next time your trains are delayed, or stations are temporarily closed, think of it as them bringing our transit network into the 21st century!
Economic Advantages:
The economic benefits of a robust public transit network are also clear. In fact, for every $1 billion invested, 36,000 jobs are created, and nearly $5.2 billion is generated as a result of new local businesses and income from the jobs that come with them. The first subway in New York City opened in 1904, and they had no idea the profound shift it would make in the economy and life of the city. For example, we built the 7 line on farmland, unaware that it would spur development throughout Queens.
Social Equity:
Perhaps the greatest benefit of a safe and robust public transit system is its ability to transcend class divides and provide all people with the transportation they need to thrive. NYC Fair Fares is a fantastic idea that has allowed millions of low-income New Yorkers to access such a vital need. However, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. In fact, NYC has one of the lowest maximum income requirements in the country, meaning someone making just above the cutoff can spend upwards of 12% of their income on public transit alone. Combined with unaffordable housing, inflation, and medical costs, it’s clear that the Fair Fares program needs to be expanded. The anticipated income from congestion pricing could act as a great source of subsidies for transit riders. Non-car owners already subsidize cars in the form of parking lots and garages taking up space that could be housing, parks, or bike lanes, so it only seems fair to expect reinvestment. In addition, NYC recently announced a pilot of several fare-free bus lines in every borough, a great step towards a more equitable transit network! It’s time to reconnect the communities divided by highways, and the most effective way of doing that is by strengthening and supporting our public transit infrastructure. So, here’s your call to action:  Find out what transit plans are in development in your community or city, attend planning meetings and voice your support, and call your representatives to let them know you want to see more transit options, lower fares, and more accessible neighborhoods. New York is one of the only cities in America with a truly robust transit network, and while there’s plenty to complain about, it remains a core identity for our great city and hopefully inspires other cities to follow suit. 

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