Three and a half years ago, University of Utah Professor Mark De-Saint Aubin sold his car and committed to use mass transit for all of his commuting needs. Since then, Mark has saved more than $4,000 per year on car payments, insurance, gas, taxes, registration fees, and maintenance, and has avoided countless hours of traffic frustration and tension by working, reading, or relaxing while someone else drives.
As he has traveled all over the city, Professor De-Saint Aubin has found that his greatest joy in using transit has been the people he meets and the friendships he has made by riding with people he would otherwise never have met. From African-Americans to Hispanics, and Finns to Somalis, Mark has made friends with people from all sorts of backgrounds, including one of his closest friends, a Kenyan whom he just happened to meet on the bus ride to work.
Professor De-Saint Aubin's story is not a one-of-a-kind fluke. The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported on "The Friendship Express." Describing a group of regular bus riders, writer Brandon Loomis noted, "The 48 West Jordan Express bus...isn't so much about mass transit as it is mass gossip, mass mirth and mass friendship." Loomis explained how a group of nearly a dozen strangers, ranging from their early twenties to their early eighties, who know each other only from the bus, are now planning a group vacation to New York.
These stories display the power of mass transit to bring people together and illustrate the reasoning behind naming your organization the Community Transportation Association of America: public transportation helps build community. Public transit brings equality to our transportation system, giving everyone opportunities for transportation freedom. Public transit connects communities, instead of constructing walls of asphalt between them. And public transit brings us face to face with other members of our community, building trust, cooperation, understanding, and friendship.
These community-friendly qualities, along with the benefits of mass transit to the economy and the environment, are being recognized by more and more of the American public. People, frustrated by hours wasted in traffic, stung by the exorbitant costs of auto-centered travel, and concerned about the future of their neighborhoods, are turning to mass transit as a solution. In fact, figures released by the transit industry last month show that while the number of miles Americans drove last year held steady at a staggering 2.7 trillion miles, transit ridership rose to the highest level since 1959, increasing by more than three and a half percent. A nationwide survey conducted for the US Conference of Mayors, released in January, shows that 80% of those surveyed expressed a desire for expanded commuter and light rail services to give them an alternative to driving in traffic, and 66% said that they do not think building new roads will help with congestion or their commute.
In Salt Lake City, we are experiencing these national trends first hand. Our first light rail line, which opened in December 1999, is now carrying some 20,000 trips per weekday, and more on Saturdays, removing 18,000 vehicle trips a day from our roads. Parked end to end, that's enough cars to stretch for 51 miles. Ridership on that line has exceeded the most optimistic projections by over 50%, and, now, we are only months away from opening our second light rail line, to the University of Utah.
All of these developments are positive trends, trends that are carrying us toward a turning point for quality of life in the United States. However, despite the growing frustration with clogged highways and sprawled cities, the future of transit is by no means guaranteed. Here in Utah, our legislature recently appropriated $451 million for the 12-mile sprawl-inducing Legacy Highway, while appropriating only $15 million for commuter rail. Just last week, the Bush Administration announced its energy plan, calling for more oil exploration and factory building, without even a mention of the energy savings that could result from expanded transit systems. And, around the nation, cities are ramping up for another cycle of road building and rebuilding that will once again compound our addiction to the automobile, put more cars on the road, and create complacency about the need for more public transit options.
Clearly, we are at a critical crossroads, and it will take a concerted effort to make sure we move in the right direction. We must do everything we can to influence the future friendliness of our transportation system.
Tonight, I suggest three fundamental keys to our success. First, we must break through our culture's automobile-only mentality, getting people to truly understand how our auto dependency impacts the quality of our lives, and severely limits our transportation freedom, especially for those who need mass transit the most: the disabled, the poor, the young and the elderly. Second, we need to make it easy for citizens to get hooked on transit. And, finally, we must fight for balanced transportation funding.
It's one thing to support transit when asked in a survey, and quite another to change behavior dictated by an institutionalized car culture. The automobile industry spends $14 billion every year on advertising. From every angle, our citizens are bombarded with the message that the automobile is the only way, the only cool way. A perfect of example of this came from an Infiniti advertisement, ironically launched on Earth Day in 1997, which bragged of its newest model, "It's not a car. It's an aphrodisiac."
This sort of message, repeated over and over, compounded by government gas subsidies and spending priorities, and multiplied by sprawl development, has virtually eliminated the thought of other transportation options from the minds of many Americans.
It's time for an educational and media campaign of our own. Drivers need to be confronted with the hard facts about the impact of their auto-dependency on their quality of life. When drivers realize what they are missing by spending an average of 55 eight-hour workdays behind the wheel each year, the glory of the automobile will start to fade. When commuters realize that recent studies have shown that multi-year construction projects, like our recent four-year expansion of I-15 through Salt Lake City, often end up costing drivers more time in the long run instead of saving it, the lure of the road will be lessened. And, when the word gets out about the many thousands of dollars a family can save a year by using transit, instead of maintaining two, three, or even four cars, incentives will be created for people to explore mass transit options.
For mass transit to succeed, we must get these messages out there, clearly, concisely, and persuasively. We need images and messages that rival the shock value of the anti-smoking campaign, "The Truth," with its images of destroyed lungs and blackened airways.
I realize campaigns take money, and unlike the anti-smoking campaign, transportation and quality of life were not even mentioned by the presidential candidates last year. However, we can start by raising these issues every time we interact with the public, and we can start with the advertising available to us in and on our busses and trains, and through public service announcements, flyers, and promotional events.
If we can get people thinking about the downsides of over-reliance on cars, we will be headed in the right direction. However, to raise public awareness on transit issues to the critical level, we need to do something more. We must give a voice to those who need mass transportation most, those who often are heard the least in our political system—the poor, the disabled, the young, and the elderly.
Jane Holtz Kay observes in her excellent book, Asphalt Nation, that nearly 1/3 of all Americans face severe transportation limitations due to our car-centered system. This system traps the elderly, who can no longer drive, in their homes, depriving them of social interaction and friendships. Our car-only system prevents youth from getting to enriching activities, like after-school programs, because parents are still working and feasible transit is not available. Those who cannot afford the astronomically high costs of owning a car are often limited in the jobs they can find and the educational opportunities available to better themselves. And, without adequate, accessible transit systems, the disabled are rendered virtually immobile.
These compelling reasons all cry out for better mass transit systems. But as long as the fight for public transit remains a battle between auto industry-funded politicians on one side and people viewed as leftist, environmental activists on the other, our cause will be doomed to the obscurity it experienced during the last presidential campaign. The history of social change in the United States shows that if we can give a voice to those numerous, but unseen, casualties of our auto-only culture, we will see change. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. helped our nation face its demons in terms of race relations, vocal leaders giving a voice to those most affected by a lack of transportation options can bring this issue to the forefront of national awareness.
Once this is accomplished and people are at least willing to experiment with transit, we must make it easy for people to get hooked. We need expanded service and schedules, friendly and efficient customer service, and incentive programs to get people started.
If people have to walk long distances to catch a bus, they'll keep driving their car. If they have to wait long periods between trains, they'll jump in the car and drive. But, if their employers offer a free or reduced-price transit pass on a transportation mode that is convenient, that will save them money and allow them to relax while riding to work, people will rush to join the growing crowd of transit faithful.
Of course, much of this is limited by funding, but we can maximize what we have. Instead of trying to cover too large a geographic area with widely dispersed service and schedules, we should devote our limited resources to providing excellent service in a smaller area, gaining momentum, and then expanding. It is largely because of the huge success of our 14-mile north-south light rail line that we now have tremendous public enthusiasm for mass transit—so much so that voters in three counties approved a referendum last November providing for a transit sales tax increase.
We should also remember that riders are not the only ones we must convince with convenience. When expanding our transit services, the business community can either be a strong ally or a fierce enemy. Businesses afraid of the impact of construction projects near their operations will oppose transit expansion. On our TRAX extension to the University of Utah, however, Salt Lake City and the Utah Transit Authority have implemented cutting-edge collaborative strategies to lessen the impact of construction on businesses and residents.
In addition to the low interest loans Salt Lake City has made available to businesses struggling because of construction, the City and UTA have worked tirelessly to respond to the daily concerns and problems of businesses and residents along the construction route. Salt Lake City employs a full-time project manager to oversee the work of the construction crews, and respond immediately to construction-related problems.
We have also developed Community Coordination Teams and given them extraordinary influence over the contractor. These teams, comprised of residents and business owners from every block along the construction route, make a recommendation on the approval or denial of large quarterly incentive bonuses, thus giving the contractor a tremendous incentive to keep the residents and business owners happy. For the first two quarters of project construction, the contractor received bonus approval ratings of 83% and 88%, respectively. For the first quarter of 2001, the CCT recommended a 94.7% payment of the bonus available for that quarter. I know of no other construction project in the country that can boast such high levels of satisfaction from those parties being most heavily impacted.
We are hearing that this approach is generating a great deal of interest around the country, and may be used as a model for other projects. In addition to the high satisfaction rates, by the way, this project is likely to be finished in November of this year, nearly a year ahead of the contractor's required completion date.
Businesses can and should be great supporters of transit. Instead of the congestion, parking problems, and headaches brought by more auto-driving customers, transit-riding buyers are a great boon for local business. One of Salt Lake City's downtown malls has reported a 16 percent increase in foot traffic and a significant increase in sales since our light rail line began running in 1999. Roughly 15 percent of mall shoppers now arrive by light rail. When businesses see these benefits, they become valuable allies in our efforts to expand transit and lobby for funds.
The reality is that, in the end, our success comes down to dollars, cents, and more balanced governmental spending priorities. Proponents of highway building argue that drivers pay for these costs through gasoline taxes. This could not be further from the truth. For example, gas taxes and vehicle registration fees only cover 19% of the money allocated to Utah's Centennial Highway fund. The rest of highway funding comes from other sources, such as sales taxes and bonding, meaning that, in Utah, we all subsidize 81% of the highway system, whether we use it or not. But, when it comes to transit, many expect operators to cover all their costs and expansion through fares and transit sales taxes. This sort of double-standard must be changed.
We must convince our state legislatures that transit is at least as worthy of our public investment as highways. We must persuade Congress to drastically increase the funding for new starts in the 2003 reauthorization of TEA-21. And we must demonstrate to our citizens that transit service will enhance the community as a whole and improve the mobility of all residents whether they use transit or not.
This is the key—transit helps everyone. Even automobile drivers benefit from increased mass transit because of decreased traffic congestion. We know that mass transit is a win-win solution to our current transportation woes, but, to ensure its success, we must fight to break the stereotypes and engrained behavior caused by our car culture, we must give a voice to those who need transit the most, we must make turning in car keys for transit passes easy, and we must influence the distribution of transportation funds and balance the scales.
Spending more time with our families, having more money in our pockets to do the things we like to do, saving our citizens from the dangers of traffic and pollution, and making our communities more friendly, interactive, and inclusive is what mass transit is all about. This vision of community transportation is no illusion--it can be a reality. Given time, effort, persistence, and foresight, we can provide better options and continue with the momentum we have already created. And, if we do things right, we will all have the chance to make life-long friends on our ride to work on the "Friendship Express."