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U.S. public transportation. Why it is so bad and what is being done to change the situation

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The current state of U.S. public transportation systems

The United States is not a name that would come to mind if someone asked about a place where public transportation is readily available. Quite the contrary, it would be one of the last if we focused our view strictly on the Western World. But, how did the first country to introduce an electrified trolley system in the late 19th century  abandon, except for a few coastal cities, efficient and reliable public transportation systems? The answer is very complex; many factors influenced the phase-out of almost all light-rail lines and the cut-off of rail passenger services, as well as the reduction later on of bus routes and frequency. Some were related to unprofitability caused by demand decreases associated with a contracting economy, especially in the 30s with the Great Depression. Others were a consequence of changing habits as cars were becoming more affordable. At the same time road infrastructure was being built faster than ever. 

Car-manufacturing and oil companies

In fact, there were some problems with managing public transportation companies in the 30s and 40s, but the US government made it even harder by promulgating legislation such as the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935. This forced many electricity-providing companies to sell their public transportation business to enterprises that were not necessarily interested in operating them in the long run. It is thus not a surprise that car manufacturing and oil companies were occupying the front seats in these sell-offs. Backed by these investors, three companies, Pacific City Lines, American City Lines, and National City Lines, rapidly became owners of most US light-rail systems. In a very short time, operations conducted using trams began converting to buses produced by General Motors. Baltimore Transit Company, still very profitable when acquired by National City Lines in 1945, saw its ridership fall by more than 30% in less than three years with the introduction of this new means of transportation. A once-reliable service became increasingly unreliable; no more transit vehicles ran at two-minute intervals during rush hour, and because of this many Baltimoreans opted for alternative arrangements. Streetcars were banned, highways and wider roads replaced their space instead. 

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Federal intervention: then and now

The construction of highways was facilitated by the Federal State. After  World War II more than $100 billion were made available through the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 for the construction of an interstate highway system. The process involved the destruction of many historical neighbourhoods and saw the implementation of a system where white people lived strictly in a certain part of the city, while people of colour were kept mainly around the downtown area (Skid Row in Los Angeles a prime example of this phenomenon, unfortunately still present today), in unsuitable conditions, to say the least. Not living in the suburbia and using public transportation were seen as something to be ashamed of, and as such there was no incentive for politics to be interested in improving transit systems. The situation seems to have changed though: last month Congress finally approved the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (a 2700-page long proposal), which allocated more than $1.2 trillion to improve utilities resilience, implement environmentally-friendly practices across the US economy, and, more importantly, to make the transit system better. More than $100 billion have been allocated to this last task (30% strictly to public transit systems, and 70% specifically to Amtrak).

And how is the situation in Italy?

Thanks to the PNRR, in the next few years even Italy will invest more than €25 billion in infrastructure. Most of the funds will be used to complete important projects such as the high-speed corridor between Genoa and Milan (also known as Terzo Valico), Bolzano and Innsbruck (Traforo del Brennero), and, Milan and Venice. Even around Bocconi the situation will change. The new Tibaldi rail station is expected to be complete in the next two years, while the already existing Porta Romana station will be refurbished as part of the preparations to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. 

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Author profile

I’m an Economics and Finance student at Bocconi University.
My main passions are finance (what a surprise!), technology, as well as coding (mainly Python), and politics.

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