Access to Public Transportation Should Be Made (More) Explicit in Catholic Social Teaching
An integral feature of modern societies, public transportation is assumed common good in Catholic Social Teaching, official Church documents seem to take public transit for granted. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church includes access to transportation as essential to helping promote integral human development and fundamental human rights that meet the proper conditions for the common good (Compendium, 166). Although Church documents generally neither specify nor endorse specific types of transportation, documents like Mater et Magistra and Pacem en Terris do take care to distinguish between transportation in general and road building in particular (MM, 127; PT, 64); the Church never limits the definition of transportation to private vehicles alone. John XXIII, in a December 1959 address to the Address to the Transit Workers of Rome, articulates this assumption well: “In the inevitable difficulties of life, which can be bitter sometimes, bear in mind that you fulfill a very good and necessary task, which everyone appreciates for its fair value, because it connects in the many activites of the whole social body.” The Church values, and takes for granted, public transportation precisely because it enables people to gather and engage in those activities which make a society dedicated to the common good possible.
Catholic Social Teaching’s treatment of public transportation is unsurprising, given that this body of thought originated and developed in Western Europe, a region which utilizes every mode of public transportation, has a history of experimentation with new modes of transit, and is home to some of the world’s leading manufacturers of transit products. Europeans, like Americans, did fall in love with private automobiles and helped pioneer modern highway systems. But, unlike the United States, Europe neither neglected nor disposed of public transit systems. Post-World War II, what became the member states of the European Union implemented a transportation policy that developed new urban and national transit systems, and redeveloped, modernized, and expanded existing systems. Europe pioneered high-speed rail as the preferred mode of travel over air between its capitol and other major cities. Today, public transit remains a priority in Europe, with ridership at its highest levels ever.
The United States is almost unique among industrial nations in its neglect of public transit The Federal Government favored state and municipal infrastructure projects with subsidies that supported private automobiles, trucks, and aviation against which unsubsidized and overregulated railroad companies could not compete. Eventually, the railroad shed their long-distance passenger and commuter rail services to Amtrak and local transit authorities. Commuter bus and trolley companies, marginally profitable in the best of times, could not compete with the rise of the automobile and they too passed into public hands. Further with the lack of a political consensus and public support for a dedicated subsidized revenue and, the public transit systems suffered from inconsistent levels of maintenance. This lack of support generated a vicious cycle of inconsistent investment causing inconsistent maintenance leading to a decreased quality of service with a consequent decrease in ridership: transit systems broke down; they could not expand to follow people living and working beyond metropolitan centers; and they were hurt by unionized workers striking for increased wages, benefits, and work rules that transit authorities believed they could not afford. Our urban centers became dumping grounds for our underclass, instead of commercial and manufacturing centers. Consequently, transit systems, save for those in our largest metropolitan areas, are today used primarily by persons with lower incomes, unfortunately, those who are most in need of better transportation options but whose concerns are rarely considered in political rationing. Nevertheless, beginning in the 1990s, national and regional public transit experienced a comeback in ridership: millennials in particular and Americans in general have rediscovered city life and are seeking less costly –in time and in fuel and maintenance costs not to mention the environmental impact of fossil fuel dependence—alternatives to automobiles. Ironically, the increased passenger traffic coupled with years of inconsistent maintenance and lack of infrastructure upgrades are the primary reasons behind the accidents and congestion issues which have befallen transit systems in recent years.
Public transportation has never been able to cover the costs of its day-to-day operations or the costs of the maintenance, upgrade, and expansion of its infrastructure through passenger fare revenue alone. By themselves, such systems are a money losing enterprise. However, when they are subsidized and paid for by the economic activity that public transit facilitates elsewhere in the economy, these transportation systems make possible the personal, governmental, and commercial social exchanges inclusive of the common good that generate the tax revenue, user fees, and fare revenue necessary for their success. Since public transit’s contribution to the common good is not assumed in the US as elsewhere, a study of public transportation contributing to the common good must expand from the occasional public statement in support to connect the dots between political action, advocacy, and Catholic Social Teaching (see Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, “Transit Reform: Why us? Why now?”).
Let’s start the conversation, purchase and use public transit fare cards, and encourage our neighbors to do likewise.