Smarter spending priorities would create a better transportation system

This is the second of a two-part guest post on public transportation in China, New York City and Wisconsin from Pei Wang, who interned with us this spring semester.

This is the second of a two-part guest post on public transportation in China, New York City and Wisconsin from Pei Wang, who interned with us this spring semester.


Guest Post, by Pei Wang

In my last post, I compared impressions from using the struggling New York Subway as a university student there to the rapidly expanding public transit system in my hometown of Zhengzhou, China. Today, I’ll take a look at how decisionmakers could do a better job at creating an effective transportation system.

China and the United States have different approaches to infrastructure, so it’s no surprise that the outcomes are quite different, too. China is heavily investing in expanding public transportation, spending $189 billion on subways between 2010 and 2015, with plans to spend another $300 billion by 2020. The U.S. spends about $2.3 billion on all public transit each year. Massive investment has created effective public transportation networks in China, including in Zhengzhou, while underinvestment in the United States is one of the major factors contributing to struggling transit systems here. 

Public transportation is an important way for Wisconsinites to get around, too, but many Wisconsin communities have difficulty providing the service people need due to years-long underinvestment from the state, and massive spending on highway infrastructure expansion often at the expense of other priorities. (WISPIRG has done a number of studies on that problem.) 

When I moved to Madison recently, I found the bus system convenient and clean. I live downtown, so there are many bus stations near my home and several bus lines going all over the city. For getting around in Madison, I don’t need a car.

However, not everyone is fortunate to be able to live and commute mostly in the downtown area. A recent report by the Sierra Club and several other partners found that many Madisonians struggle to connect to jobs, schools and other points of interest in more outlying parts of the city, where bus service is spotty and frequency less convenient. 

Additionally, if I want to travel to Milwaukee or Appleton, or to other cities in Wisconsin, I can’t easily get there without a car. When I went to Milwaukee with a colleague recently, we rented a car and took the highway all the way there. The rental was expensive for us and we needed a licensed driver who was at least 25. There was also an option to take a bus (for $20 each way), but it runs infrequently and would ultimately have cost more than the car. 

Improving public transportation and providing more transportation options would make it more convenient for people to get around, and help save time and money on people’s daily commutes. There are several things that policymakers can do in order to improve Wisconsin’s transportation system: 

  • More funding for the right priorities: Using the state budget, decisionmakers should increase funding for public transportation within cities, and create a modern statewide public transportation system to better connect cities with one another. If Wisconsin provided public transportation infrastructure like trains to connect the state’s main cities, everyone would benefit — not just students and residents who don’t have a car.

  • Making our communities more walkable and bikeable: Governments should enact Complete Streets policies to encourage communities to improve walking and biking options. Walking and biking are important ways to make our communities more welcoming and attractive. 

  • Focus on maintenance, and stop expanding highways: Wisconsin’s decades-long focus on expanding highways is outdated and harmful. More and wider highways encourage more people to drive, and discourage people from using public transportation (in addition to driving up debt and leaving the state with less money to invest in transit). More driving also increases carbon and particle pollution, which is detrimental to the climate and public health. Focusing on maintenance of existing infrastructure and on providing better transportation options would benefit more Wisconsinites. 

The U.S. has a long way to go in creating a transportation system that works for everyone, is cost-effective, and reduces pollution. But by focusing on the right priorities now — maintaining existing infrastructure, and investing in transit, walking, biking and other options — rather than on highway expansion, we can improve people’s quality of life in communities in Wisconsin and nationwide.