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Snow, and Why Mass Transit Matters

The Philadelphia region was brought to a de facto standstill with yesterday's freakish 24-hour sleet storm. I had the day off from work, and didn't leave the house all day, sitting around blogging, drinking beer, and watching the roads and sidewalks ice up. My companion the radio broke in every ten minutes or so to update me on the roads and highways. Naturally, we were being warned to "stay off them", and naturally, they were all jam packed due to the snow and countless accidents. If there was any good news, it was that mass transit, with the exception of buses (ie, the trolleys, subways and regional rails), was "running on schedule with no reported delays." And even though Philadelphia's transit system is but a shadow of its former glory (click on the "maps" link to see how our system of streetcars was once more extensive than about anywhere else in the country, and how that Venus Williams of a system has been starved to a Kate Moss skeleton), and is mismanaged by the Board, the fact remains that on any given day, rain, shine, sleet, or snow, SEPTA's trolleys and rail lines outperform the highways and city streets.

This is due to the specific right of way trains have, and the fact that subways don't have to deal with traffic lights, slow drovers, crosswalks, and snow. Even when the snow is falling here, the trolley's surface routes are generally fairly reliable, as the sharp edges of the steel wheels cut through any snow and ice on the track. In fact, last night's 4-block trudge through blowing sleet to my girlfriend's apartment was made possible only by walking in the 13 trolley's right of way.

You don't need to have a ph.d in transit studies to know that trolleys and subways are good for local economies and small business owners: anyone who's traveled in the MTA, SEPTA, the MBTA, or any other line knows that newsstands, kiosks, food trucks, and sometimes entire underground shopping plazas, sprout up around stops.
So why is it that outside of New York City, most transit authorities have such dismal reputations and schedules? Why does the MBTA in Boston shut down everything, including buses, at 12:30? Why can't Pennsylvania provide a dedicated funding stream to SEPTA and other tranit authorities in the state? It's simple really: for years the highway lobby has had a much more powerful voice than the transit lobby, and things have not gotten any better during the Bush Administration.

Mass Transit matters: it's better for the air, it's better for traffic congestion, and its better for local economies.  Moreover, as we face higher and higher oil costs, due not only to the war but the simple fact that we're running out of the stuff, we will have to change our lifestyles. One change we'll eventually be forced to make is the abandonment of the drive-everywhere lifestyle that is now more common than not. We'll have to build more sidewalks, and live closer to where we work and play. Transit is going to be a big part of that, and despite attacks by the Republicans and BushCo (and gee Arlen, why is it your vaunted seniority in Washington isn't bringing home enough pork to keep our transportation systems fully funded?), numerous systems are expanding and opening, including believe it or not in truck-lovin' Dallas Texas (in an ironically sad aside, Philadelphia is one of the only major transit systems that continues to shrink, a reflection on on the short-sighted nitwits who represent us in Harrisburg, DC and on our own City Council).  It strikes me that if our leafy picket-fence suburbs ARE to survive, healthy transit systems are imperative that can bring people to the city to work, and return them home reliably.

Now, I'd like to end this post by saying the Democrats have a plan for mass transit, but I have been gooogling like crazym ad nd can't find anything specific: most links discuss rail security

. You can see the House Plan here and search the Senate's site here. And FYI: I'm a transit fan and a rider, but not an expert. So I'd love to hear from anyone more informed! See you in comments!

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