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Why American public transit is so bad

The 2020 elections could be a step toward getting Americans to stop driving so much.

In the middle of the 20th century, the US government made a decision that would seal the country’s fate as a car culture: It decided to build the federal highway system. But rather than constructing highways that circumvented city centers, like in Europe, it instead built them right through their downtown areas.

We are seeing the result of that infrastructure decision today. Most cities have public transit systems that serve an outdated commute, and it’s impossible to get around except for in a car. And our political discourse often tends to favor building new roads and highways, rather than improving and expanding public transportation. And nearly 80 percent of Americans get to work by driving alone.

The result of all that driving is a system that doesn’t serve the people who rely on public transit. That system is also the biggest contributor to the country’s carbon footprint. Getting more Americans to use public transit is both a long game (transforming how we build our communities around transit hubs) and a short game (just investing more in basic services to convert drivers).

Watch the video above to learn more about how the outcome of the 2020 elections could have a profound impact on the future of public transit.

This video is the seventh in our series on the 2020 election. We aren’t covering the horse race; instead, we want to explain the stakes of the election through the issues that matter most to you. To do that, we want to know what you think the presidential candidates should be talking about. Tell us here: vox.com/ElectionVideos

Further reading

For Jonathan English’s research comparing Canadian and US public transit:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-08-31/why-is-american-mass-transit-so-bad-it-s-a-long-story

For research on suburban commutes from the Brookings Institution’s Adie Tomer, Joseph Kane, and Jennifer S. Vey:

https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/connecting-people-and-places-exploring-new-measures-of-travel-behavior/

For more of Vox’s coverage on public transportation:

https://www.vox.com/2015/8/10/9118199/public-transportation-subway-buses