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Why Is America's Transportation System Stuck in the 1950s?

For anyone interested in getting around without a car, the new transportation legislation holds nothing but bad news.

The House of Representatives is starting work on the next big transportation bill this week, unveiling the proposed text Tuesday and marking it up today. For anyone interested in getting around without a car, the legislation holds nothing but bad news. It zeroes out funding for biking and walking infrastructure and cuts Amtrak’s budget by 25 percent, while lavishing care on cars and the highways that carry them using revenues from increased gas and oil drilling. The only silver lining is that it does not cut funding for mass transit.

The Republicans that control the House have never pretended to like alternative modes of transportation. But while the Senate’s bipartisan bill doesn’t scorn biking and walking and train-taking with quite the same verve, it still favors cars above all other forms of transportation. While Americans are moving towards a multi-modal transportation future, Congress is focused on shoring up a system designed in the 1950s to enable Cold War-era military movements and to please the auto industry. That system needs patching (its bridges, in particular), and fixing its creaking joints should, as Republicans promise, create jobs. But by prioritizing highways, the country is missing an opportunity to build a system that reflects the preferences and needs of today’s travelers.

It's clear that America’s travel culture is shifting. In the 1950s, a car defined a person. Now, a growing number of young people don’t even want drivers’ licenses: In 2008, only 65 percent of 18-year-olds had a license, compared to 80 percent in 1983. Millennials also say they prefer car access to car ownership. (That factoid comes from Zipcar, though, which has business interest in believing that’s true.) Although 20- and 30-somethings have been relocating less often during the Great Recession, when they do, they choose cities like Portland, Denver, Austin, and Washington, D.C., where biking and walking culture rules.

Young people don’t necessarily stay in cities when they grow up, though—it does become more difficult to shrug off a dangerous intersection or subway delays with babies in tow. School quality, nostalgia for backyard adventures, and rising rents all have the potential to force people to the suburbs as they get older, too. But the government should be doing everything it can to keep young people in dense urban areas for economic as well as environmental reasons.

To roll back climate change, Americans are going to have to travel more responsibly, and by living in cities, without cars, young people are already stepping up. Instead of favoring a highway system conceived by past generations, Congress has an obligation to invest in the alternative systems that will rule the future.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user JoeInSouthernCA

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