Margaret Thatcher earned the undying enmity of the world's transit users when she said (in her sexist and condescending way), that any "man who, beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure."
Following the former Prime Minister's calculus, that makes me a loser of almost two decades' standing. But I'm not afraid to admit it: I ride the bus. What's more, I frequently find myself on subways, streetcars, light rail, metros, and high-speed trains. I've never owned an automobile, and though I'm no anti-car zealot (I belong to my city's car share program, and dutifully pay to renew my license every year) I'm proud to call myself a straphanger: somebody who relies on public transit for most of his or her urban travel.
I'm not alone. Half the population of New York, Toronto, and London do not own cars, and transit is how most of the people of Asia and Africa, the world's most populous continents, travel. In North America, the Millennial generation, who now outnumber the Boomers, are fleeing the 'burbs for old city centers by the millions, and have far fewer hang-ups about fare cards and bus passes than their parents' generation. (A recent survey found that half of American teenagers would now rather have a new smartphone than a new car. Makes sense: armed with a new iPhone or Android, they can download apps that will tell them exactly when the next bus or train will get to the stop.) Last year, ridership on the New York subway surpassed 1.6 billion, the most trips since the boom years after the Second World War. Meanwhile, though the U.S. population continues to grow, vehicle miles traveled, the most reliable indicator of automobile dependency we have, have been in decline for the last seven years.
In the three years that I've spent traveling the world researching my book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile [Henry, Holy & Company, $25.00], nothing I've found makes me believe the car has any future as a plausible form of mass transit for our cities. From Lagos to Los Angeles, we're reaching a state of crisis when it comes to gridlock and ever-thickening congestion. Whether it involves digging new subways in Shanghai, creating Bus Rapid Transit systems in Bogotá, or urban bike-sharing plans in Paris, Copenhagen and 120 other cities around the globe, far-sighted administrators have done the math: the cities that people want to visit, and live in, are the places that are finding alternatives to that old emblem of personal freedom, the private automobile.
Cars aren't going to disappear any time soon. They're pretty handy for deliveries and carrying loads, and, given the realities of residential settlement on this continent, indispensable for real-estate agents, large families, and traveling salespeople (not to mention anybody who lives in small towns or on a farm). But as gas prices creep ever upwards, and the exurbs continue to die a slow death, we're going to be relying on them less and less.
And that may be a good thing: as I've found, opting out of the spurious mobility offered by car-ownership can take you some pretty interesting places.
Correction: The article formerly incorrectly stated that Margaret Thatcher was the "late" Prime Minister. It has been corrected to "former Prime Minister."