Trying to find a balance: Derailing public transport myths

Phil Stephens

About a month ago, I was finishing a beer in the hills of Barcelona while enjoying a battle between two cats and the largest beetle I had ever seen. The beetle’s demise was not pretty, but my spirits were hardly dampened. I had spent the day getting fried on the beach, turning darker shades of red with every drink I bought from the locals walking around with coolers. My girlfriend and I had beers and tapas (free food with every drink) before heading back to the hills where I sat contemplating my first column. It was one of the best days of our six-week trek through Europe this summer.

On that day, to get from the hills outside of the city to the Mediterranean Sea, we took the local train. Much like the metro we took to reach Notre Dame in Paris, the tram we caught to get to a train station in Amsterdam and the subway that took us to the Madrid Airport for our trip home. In fact, in almost every city we visited we used public transportation regularly and with ease. While a taxi would have cost us 20 euros for even the shortest rides, our public transportation tickets would only require a euro or two and take us wherever we needed to go.

The transportation we used was especially pleasing for me because I saw it as a government investment that worked. One you could answer with when naysayers ask you to name something the government doesn’t mess up. The metros, trams and buses served citizens from all walks of life. We sat amongst businessmen, mothers with grocery bags, seemingly nomadic children and elderly couples. The system didn’t discriminate, there was no first or second class and everybody paid the same fare to ride. Most of these rides around town were packed.

I worry that this type of public investment is not only lacking in the United States but is demonized. It doesn’t stop at public transportation; we short-change our country’s workers, citizen’s health and environment as well. The U.S. has plenty to be proud of, and I don’t envy the fact that Spain’s unemployment rate recently hit 20 percent; however, I do think that we can be selective in what we take away from countries with high social spending, and that the government, believe it or not, can serve us in some roles that private enterprises will not.

I don’t seek socialism, and I don’t seek massive wealth redistribution. I’m even going to avoid preaching the merits of topless beaches, which I might or might not have frequented during my trip. What I do seek is investment in our entire citizenry, and you won’t find that in private businesses outsourcing jobs for cheap labor or companies that offer executives millions in annual bonuses. The kind of investment I seek is done by the public, for the public.

Phil Stephens is a columnist for The Post at Ohio University.