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Public Transportation Expands Around the World

Many governments are promoting above and underground transit systems to fight increasing congestion. Urban trains are appearing even in the wide expanses of the western United States, in places like Dallas, a Texas city known for oil riches and big cars.

Brewster McCracken, a city council member in the Texas capital, Austin, says “in Texas, we are not very used to riding a train around the city. But actually, Dallas and Houston have both started light rail systems. It is very popular in both cities.”

Citizens of Austin recently voted for a new public train similar to those in Dallas and Houston. The Austin plan will use existing railroad tracks already in place throughout the city.

What is happening in Texas reflects a growing trend elsewhere in the United States, says William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, a non-profit advocacy group. “In the last several years, public transportation in America has undergone a renaissance. If you look at all of the year 2004, some 42 out of 53 referenda were passed. It was not uncommon ten years ago for more than half the referenda to fail. What it shows is that in many places, the public is ready to invest in public transportation.”

Voters across the United States are supporting public transit systems like the one in Austin. But a majority of Americans still commute with cars and most transportation funds are spent on building roads. Alan Pisarski is a transportation consultant and author of "Commuting in America." He says the excitement over public transportation in America is “an expression of people's frustration. There is a lot of discomfort and unhappiness around the country about congestion and about transportation services in general. I think there is a feeling of trying anything that is going to help.”

In 1900, many US cities had extensive urban rail systems. But with the arrival of the automobile and the individual freedom it provided, America focused on the road. Most urban public transit systems disappeared by the 1950s. Now many cities are returning to transit systems similar to those they had 100 years ago.

Today, about 5% of Americans commute on public transit systems. But nearly a third use public transportation in urban hubs like New York, San Francisco and Washington.

In other countries, riding buses, trains or subways are part of everyday life. “Many countries support public transportation to a much greater degree than happens in the United States, particularly in Europe. In other places in the world that are developing, there is a tremendous growth of investment in public transit. In China city after city is building metro systems. Throughout Southeast Asia, certainly in the capital cities, over the last two or three decades have built major rail systems. In South America we see not only rail systems being built, but some of the most innovative use of public transit buses as anywhere in the world.”

Rising levels of pollution from cars is also leading to more investment in public transportation. Mike Ashforth, a historian of London's underground system, says urban transport can help cities develop without spoiling the environment with excessive greenhouse gas emissions. “The main impact of the underground is that it can reduce the amount of surface transport which in many cities depends on the internal combustion engine. The one advantage that electrically delivered urban transport has is that it is relatively clean at the point of delivery. It can also carry far more people in terms of the amount of energy used.”

Many analysts say the growth of public transportation does not challenge the automobile but rather provides another choice to commuters. As a rising number of people want to go to an infinite number of places at any time, public transportation may be the answer.