Memo to Obamas auto task force: build mass transit

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DETROIT — As the situation for autoworkers and all American workers continues to decline, stopping the hemorrhaging loss of jobs is clearly a top priority. So here’s a suggestion for President Obama’s auto task force: include the building and funding of mass transit in your plans.

This city and the state of Michigan have the factories and the workers with the necessary skills. Nationally there is a crying need for better public transportation — from bus to light rail to subway and commuter trains. Production of these forms of mass transportation would create good jobs and put unemployed autoworkers back to work.

A commitment to building “green” cars, a direction the auto companies already are moving in, is not going to bring back all the jobs that have been lost. Even before the current economic meltdown, auto plants were not operating at full capacity. Why? Look at these figures: In 2006, there were 225 million Americans 18 years or older, but there were 235 million cars and SUVs out there. Everyone could drive at once and we’d still have millions sitting in driveways. Yes, people will replace old cars, but this is not China or India with millions of potential first-time buyers. The market for cars is basically saturated — it will not grow as it did 50 years ago.

But there are other reasons to invest in mass transit.

In our plummeting economy, a growing number of Americans are forced to use public transportation to get to work, do their grocery shopping, get to the doctor or haul their laundry to the laundromat, because the cost of buying, maintaining and insuring a car has become too steep.

Nationally 24 percent of African Americans have no car. Even here in the car capital, it’s been estimated that more than 30 percent of the residents are carless. And yes, the new hybrids and electric cars will be easier on the environment, but the price tag on those are hefty, and prices for all other cars continue to go up. Been in a showroom lately? Cars are not cheap.

And it’s not just the cost of acquiring a car. Here in Detroit, the yearly cost for owning a mid-sized car is an amazing $12,210 per year — more than any other city in the country, according to a new report. A hefty $5,000 of that is for insurance — that is why Detroit tops the list, but no matter where you live, a car takes a big chunk out of your paycheck. Here, there are homes priced under $10,000 that can’t find buyers. How are people going to afford a car when they cannot buy a home?

Meanwhile, under-funded public transit systems, as inadequate as they are, keep raising their fares.

The poorest fifth of Americans spend 31 percent of their income on transport, compared with only 10 percent for the richest Americans.

Not being able to afford a car, many urban and rural residents rely on public transit systems that are badly in need of an update. Detroit and other Michigan cities have no subways or other local rail transit and depend completely on busses (in the home of the Big Three, are we surprised?). There are long waits for busses, routes are limited and very few bus stops have shelters to protect riders from rain, snow and cold.

A huge problem for urban dwellers is first finding work and then figuring out how you are going to get there and be on time. The construction of interstate highways made it much easier to move work out of cities and the jobs followed. For many city residents, hunting for a job and then (if they’re lucky enough to find one) getting to a job takes a lot of time and often involves transfers between different types of transportation.

The burden hits hard at all working people but especially the most economically hard hit in the most under-served communities — African American, Latino and other racially oppressed people. What we have is a growing inequality in access to transportation that is getting worse.

The car will remain an important part of how people travel but when it is the sole option, too many are locked out. Every American should have access to an efficient, quick and clean public transportation system. While the suburbs and exurbs have grown, 80 percent of the U.S. population still lives in metropolitan areas and some 30 percent are in densely populated city centers. These are areas where new and expanded mass transit lines are sorely needed. Retooling plants to produce an updated, modern, convenient, secure mass transit system is a win-win scenario for autoworkers and everyone else. Build it, and they will come — or should I say, ride.

John Rummel (jrummel @ pww.org) writes for the People’s Weekly World from Detroit.