In 1985, two urban policy scholars, J. Allen Whitt and Glenn Yago, wrote:
The urban transportation systems that carry us around are not solely the result of technological innovation or efficiency. They are also a product of the rising and sinking political and market power of industrial interest groups, the changing relations among social classes, the politics of urban development struggles, and the inherent dynamics of the economic system… These factors, particularly corporate control of transportation policy, have profoundly shaped urban streetcar, automobile, bus, and rail transport in the United States during this century. We conclude that this private dominance over urban transportation policy has often led to narrow, profit-seeking behavior that has thwarted the development of more effective public transit.
This week, The New York Times reported that in the last few years Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group financed by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat plans to expand or improve mass transit in Little Rock, Phoenix, Nashville, southeast Michigan, and central Utah. The group has also contributed to effort to defeat more than two dozen transit-related measures such as states proposals to raise gas taxes to fund transit or transportation infrastructure.
“Stopping higher taxes is their rallying cry”, Ashley Robbins a transportation researcher at Virginia Tech, told The New York Times. “But at the end of the day, fuel consumption helps them.” Although Americans for Prosperity opposes pubic spending on mass transit, it supports spending tax money on highways and roads. Koch brother-owned industries produce gasoline, asphalt, seatbelts, tires and other auto parts, businesses that could be harmed by new investments in mas transit.
Public health research shows that improving mass transit and reducing automobile use can bring multiple health and environmental benefits: less premature mortality from lung disease, fewer asthma symptoms, more physical activity and less sedentary time, fewer injuries and deaths from auto crashes, more social interactions and less isolation, less road rage, more walkable and attractive cities, less air pollution, reduced carbon emissions, less urban sprawl.
Despite these benefits, for more than a century public policy at the federal, regional, state and local levels has been disproportionately influenced by commercial interests that favor increased automobile use over the well-being of our population and our environment. Public health professionals and researchers need to explore new ways to bring this debate about democracy, health and the environment into the policy and political arenas.