The Future of Transportation Isn’t an Electric Car — It’s a Bus

By Patrick Parents

From the billions in transportation funding beginning to flow from the federal infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act, to California’s historic decision to entirely phase out the sale of gas-powered cars, the U.S. is finally taking steps to shift to clean transportation. It’s long overdue: transportation is our biggest source of climate pollution and a major source of air pollution in communities like mine.

Credit: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann via Flickr

But the current approach to clean transportation risks perpetuating injustices if we keep building our infrastructure around cars. Even without fossil fuels, our reliance on cars has torn apart communities for highway expansions that don’t even alleviate traffic. Our culture thinks about cars as symbols of independence. But for many of us, car dependency is a burden. What independence really means is getting where you need, when you need, without breaking the bank.

Cars make transportation the second largest expense for American households, leaving Americans with seven times more auto debt than medical debt because we have no alternative way to get around. Car dependency limits independence for all non-drivers. And if that’s not enough, our addiction to cars kills tens of thousands of our neighbors every year.

Meanwhile, our best alternative is in disarray. Mass transit has been in crisis for years, and those who rely on it are suffering from these decades of disinvestment. No one should have to wake up hours earlier and get home hours later just to get where they need to be. But for millions of Americans without a car, it’s either that or dip into already-strained budgets for an Uber.

The shift to electric vehicles is important, but it has to come with new thinking about how we move. The energy transition is an opportunity to rethink our transportation systems to ensure that mobility is a right, not a privilege for the wealthy. That starts with rebuilding mass transit.

I’ve seen firsthand why transit is vital. As a bus driver, transit was my path out of poverty into the middle class. As a rider, transit has been a lifeline to opportunity when I had no other way to get around. I’ve seen the benefits of good transit access: it keeps transportation affordable, creates good jobs, strengthens economies, keeps air cleaner, and saves energy. It’s a core thread in the fabric that knits our communities together. Our transit systems can be powerful forces for good, but they need investment to realize their promise.

When I talk to bus operators, they tell me about the pride they have in serving their communities — they just lack the resources to do as much as they could. That’s why I started my consulting group, Transit-U, to work with transit agencies to improve our systems and better support the people that help us move. Even small efforts, like exercise classes to help operators cope with the shocks our bodies absorb on the road or food supplies that operators can give to riders in need, can go a long way. The way to solve problems is to invest in people — and when we give a little, our communities can get incredible returns on our investments.

The good news is that the time for investment has never been better. The infrastructure law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and ambitious EV policies show that cities, states, and federal agencies are finally getting serious about transportation policy. We need to make sure we get it right. And we have lots of tools to work with.

Instead of widening highways, cities and states can use flexible federal funding for transit. As we consult our communities about electric vehicle charging, we can also work to understand their transit needs and better connect transit systems with riders. By shifting to electric buses, we can give more reason for communities to embrace transit infrastructure and improve service. And by collaborating with operators and transit workers, we can maintain an important pathway to the middle class and explore new ways to better serve our communities.

Our car-dependent transportation policies have created broken systems that leave communities overburdened and isolated. The energy transition is a historic opportunity to find a better way. We must not let it go to waste.

Patrick Parents is a former bus operator and scheduler with a decade of experience at the Maryland Transit Administration, and the founder of Transit-U, a career development and consulting service for bus operators.

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