HANSEN: Public transportation relates to public health

Opinions Column: Oh, The Places You'll Go


I’ll begin my last column with a confession: It took me four tries and two years to pass my driver’s test. As I watched my friends get their licenses, I got increasingly worried — would I never pass? Thanks to a dose of determination and a deeply patient driving instructor, I finally passed on Jan. 10, 2014 — coincidentally, my younger brother’s 17th birthday was Jan. 11, 2014, and I couldn’t let him pass before I did. While the process didn’t make me feel great, it now turns out I was in good company. A Federal Highway Administration study revealed that only 8.5 million people 19 and younger had their licenses — the lowest number in half a century.

In many ways, this conforms to the popular perception of the so-called millennials. We prefer cities to suburbs. We prefer public transportation to cars. Cultural explanations aside, it seems that our economic situations can explain much of this phenomenon. A study from The Guardian shows that disposable income for millennials is scarcely higher than it was 30 years ago. We’re not buying cars or putting down payments on suburban homes because we can’t afford to.

This economic problem, however, presents a clear opportunity. While not having the income to buy a car may be unfortunate, there’s an upside: Driving is incredibly dangerous, on both an individual and societal scale. If we can keep young people out of cars for longer, even after their incomes go up, we’ll all be safer and healthier. In 2014, 89 people were killed in traffic accidents each day. And that’s just traffic deaths. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that 53,000 people die prematurely each year due to emissions from automobiles. Allowing longer commutes, cars increase sprawl, bringing up suburbanites’ carbon footprint. Unfortunately, American cities are designed around the automobile. We’re lucky in New Jersey, and New Brunswick especially, to be served by relatively good public transportation. But those outside the Washington/New York/Boston megalopolis are less fortunate. I’m able to commute to my internship in lower Manhattan pretty easily without a car — if I lived in the South or Midwest I might not be so lucky.

We’re all pulling for an economic upturn. I want milliennial income to increase — I want for us to be able to buy cars if we want them. But that would squander an opportunity. We should create systems that allow people of all ages to live without a car. We already know how to do this — housing along the PATH line, in Jersey City, Harrison and Hoboken, increasingly allows young professionals to skip the car with rents somewhat more affordable than those across the Hudson. Perhaps Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood is next. Even for those farther from New York, transit-oriented development allows commuters to walk from their apartment complexes to the train station.

The challenge, of course, is to make these neighborhoods affordable. Hoboken may be appealing to young graduates starting careers in the city, but with average rent for a one-bedroom apartment being more than $2,000, it’s hard to afford. Increasing income can help, but it’s unlikely to cover rent that high. We need to drastically extend transit’s reach, creating affordable, walkable and exciting communities in the mold of Jersey City or Hoboken.

This won’t be an easy task. Public transportation, especially in New Jersey, is chronically underfunded. It will be a challenge to raise the funds to adequately maintain our current infrastructure, let alone build new stations. A lack of funding, "NIMBYism," and political intrigue all conspire to make transit expansion difficult. But it’s not just an economic or social issue. As the dangerous implications of a reliance on cars makes clear, public transportation is a public health issue. It’s time to realize that, and treat it as such.

Since I’ve gotten my license, I haven’t driven much. Most places I need to get to are served by transit, and for those that aren’t, I can borrow one from my parents or brother. But I may finally need to bite the bullet and buy an automobile to commute next year. Let’s hope I don’t always need it.

Nick Hansen is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science with a minor in history. His column, "Oh, the Places You'll Go," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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