Some Thoughts on Transportation Education I

Waiting on the subway platform in the first hours of the morning, I usually experience some kind of infrastructure euphoria. Even the rats, who at this time, are so bold as to come right up to your feet, are a part of my utopian vision for a more collective MTA consciousness.

It might be a flawed, bankrupt, and crumbling system, getting more expensive and less functional, but it gets me where I need to go 24 hours a day seven days a week. It goes over bridges and under water. When I put my face to its translucent, scratched windows, the intestinal track of the city is revealed.

While I realize most people will not share my unabashed infatuation with the New York City subway system, I’m pretty sure more people should. Or, at the very least, take a moment and think about all our subway allows us to do, everywhere it gets us. Recognizing what it can do will allow us to better critique all it does not do–but should. Certainly, this is a position many car owners take; they know the ratio of miles to the gallon, the cost of an oil change and when to get it. They are aware of the distance traveled each month and whether or not their car is efficient in achieving this distance. In other words, they know if their personal motor vehicle is operating at its expected standard of performance.

Does this level of awareness come only with ownership? Can we feel responsible for a system we cannot own?

During the Festival of Ideas (May4-8), Anthony Townsend drew attention to the increasingly dichotomous situation regarding public services. Cooperation vs. offloading is a hot topic, particularly in Britain right now where the government’s championing of ‘Big Society‘ comes at the time of tremendous budget cuts.

New Yorkers who rely on the subway for their daily needs have been hit the hardest over the past three years. In early 2008, a monthly pass rose from $76 to $89 and on January 1st of 2011, from $89 to $104. This 17% increase (or 65% over the past twelve years) far exceeds inflation, New Yorkers find themselves paying more for less.

Although $104 a month is cheaper than owning a car, it is still too expensive for many residents, particularly in the boroughs. 2008 Census data found 22% of Brooklyn and 27% of the Bronx living below the poverty line. In 2000, the average commute time in both boroughs was 45 minutes. With frequency of services decreasing and travel costs rising, one can only assume that travel times will not improve.

For the two catch words of the day (i.e. sustainability and cooperation) to have any sort of teeth, they must offer options accessible to everyone. Yes, a subway is more energy efficient when compared to a car, but not if the nearest stop is a mile a way, a physical disability prevents you from accessing the system, or, if the service is simply too expensive.

We cannot move forward until we recognize these limitations, however, neither can we move forward until we realize what we have and what our transportation network is capable of achieving. So while the MTA and all of us relying on it are in fairly dire straits, our rage is not the fleeting type –and here I’m thinking of the kind associated with people in cars, on the freeway. It’s not directed at fellow passengers but toward inefficiencies at the state level; those determining decisions they themselves are far removed from.

The network of the subway is different to that of a freeway. There is a better sense of collective experience, be it exasperation due to delays or elation for an arriving train. If Adopt-A-Highway schemes can work in America, certainly New Yorkers can take measures to better adopt their transit system and improve upon its ability to connect us not only to jobs and services but also to each other.

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