Obama on the Train

Tomorrow’s Inauguration events are the main attraction this week, but thousands of people also turned out along train tracks over the past several days to cheer President-Elect Obama as he made his way from Chicago to Washington in a historic rail car. The journey was noteworthy not only because it symbolically repeated the trip Lincoln made on his way to assume the presidency, but because it suggests that our soon-to-be president appreciates public transportation. (And Vice President-Elect Joe Biden is assumed to be even more pro-train, having ridden Amtrak between DC and his home in Delaware during his many years in the Senate.)

The economy, healthcare, and the environment are three pressing issues for Obama as he assumes office, and public transportation is important to all of them.

By reducing personal car travel, public transit reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and other forms of tailpipe pollution. Reliable and extensive bus and rail lines also make it possible for those who can’t afford their own vehicles to find work and stay employed. (According to AAA’s 2007 estimates of driving costs, a small sedan driving 20,000 miles per year will cost $7,487 annually; that’s more than one-third of the poverty threshold for a family of four, which was $21,203 in 2007.) Those who live near good public transportation and make the choice not to own cars can invest their money in other priorities, like health and education.

More and better public transportation can also play a role in reducing the healthcare costs associated with a lack of physical activity and improving access to healthcare. A study of public transit users published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that they walked an average of nearly 25 minutes on the days they used transit. Another study presented at the 2005 AcademyHealth meeting found that “3.6 million Americans miss medical care due to a lack of transportation in a given year.”

Public transportation is clearly something that the incoming administration and Congress should support, and transit advocates are scrutinizing Obama’s cabinet picks and stimulus proposals.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill up for consideration in Congress right now includes $10 billion for transit and rail, while highway construction gets $30 billion. The long lead time for new transit projects, whose planning and approval processes can take years, might make them unattractive candidates for short-term economic stimulus, but Christopher Hayes at The Nation points out that existing transit systems are perpetually underfunded and desperately in need of money for delayed capital improvements.

At Gristmill, Ryan Avent provides background on the cabinet picks that will have the most influence over transportation and urban planning: Shaun Donovan at Housing and Urban Development, Ray LaHood at Transportation, and Adolfo Carrion for the newly created Office of Urban Policy. He notes that greens and urbanists haven’t been thrilled with this set of choices, and reminds us that they reflect “the inevitable intersection of idealism with political reality.” Nonetheless, he predicts that Obama’s commitment to changing energy policy and a national surge of support for public transit and rail funding will make sure that a progressive urban policy stays near the top of our new president’s priority list.

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