Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Declining Quality of U.S Public Transit?

Public transit is cheap and slow. Private vehicles are fast and expensive. Your value of time and whether you are trying to get downtown (the central focus of public transit) play key roles in determining which mode you choose. If you work in the suburbs, you are unlikely to commute using public transit. Today there is an interesting story in the NY Times on public transit quality. Due to budget cuts, public transit agencies are cutting back the quantity and quality of service at the same time that demand is rising. What will happen next? Do the bus takers have enough clout to move state, federal and local policy to devout more $ for their sake?

I've been interested in light rail/bus fiscal issues. If a city spends billions on a new light rail system, that money probably comes from the bus budget.

In the year 2050, how will urbanites get to work and get around town?


Matt Young said...

In the year 2050, we will have lightweight, high efficiency personal vehicles. The question is what did we do to freight in 2050 to make lightweight vehicles possible?

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C. Nicholson said...

It seems that after a recent trip to Switzerland, where you can set your watch to their transit system, I've been having this conversation more and more. Our nation just doesn't get it compared to Europe when it comes to public transit. In Boston all we hear about is expansion, expansion, expansion yet the MBTA has yet to figure out how to run the existing system efficiently and on time. They increasingly spend the public's money on new lines and expansion when that money should first go to maintaining and improving the lines currently in service. How can they convince people to use public transit when it is the least efficient way to get from point A to point B due to equipment failure, track signal issues and poor planning? If people could rely on public transit to get them to their final destination on time, every time, there's no doubt that ridership would increase but it seems that the priorities of the US transit authorities are misaligned with the public's needs. Is it too much to ask for a transit system that has at least some degree of reliability? If the Swiss can do it, why can't we?

I'd love to see a future where our system runs as efficiently and reliably as those in other parts of the world but it doesn't seem like that will be possible given the misappropriation of funds for new projects where the resources should be dedicated towards perfecting the existing system first.

envirochiq said...

That's an interesting question, but I think there are other factors beyond monetary and quality incentives that influence this debate.

For one, where will people be living in 2050? Given the current pattern of development in suburbia, the housing crisis, an economic recession, and rising fossil fuel prices, will people be able to continue living in suburbia or find it necessary to move closer to dense urban centers, closer to places of employment, mixed-use development, and public trans access?

Also, what will a "green" stimulus package do for our economy? Will there be shifts in public transit access? Will we see more smart-growth or transit-oriented development communities?

Furthermore, given a hypothetical scenario of the above situations, will Americans stop driving?

Just some questions to consider...

312 said...

In response to C. Nicholson:

European populations are so much denser than N.America, that the ridership/transit line length provides much greater paybacks to investment in transportation.

Our lack of quality public transit is a symptom of our sprawl, and you can slander "the man" as much as you want, but it won't change our demographics.

To raise density, we could institute tolls on roads, property taxes, or gasoline taxes. Sound politically suicidal?

So? Come up with a win-win incentive to raise density and you solve your problem. You can talk about misappropriation all you want but it won't change the fact that all politicians will try to stay in power.

Carolyn Chase said...

Lack of quality public transit is, yes, part of sprawl, but it's also lack of insight that transit is key competitive infrastructure to any large metro area - and is viewed mainly as a public welfare program. In most places, we are growing through both sprawl and infill - but without sufficient transit services. Europe is usually not the best model for most US cities due to sprawl patterns and lack of concentrated density. Best models are usually Australia, Canada and there are many interesting models in Latin America.

For presentation on global best transit planning for models for Southern California (San Diego) see:

and for other comparisons see:

Anonymous said...

"Do the bus takers have enough clout to move state, federal and local policy to devout more $ for their sake?"

Funny, you say this as if only the "bus takers" will benefit from having a public transit system. What about employers and businesses that would have more flexibility in employing people if more people could get to certain locations via public transit?

In NYC, there is a correlation between high rents and good subway connections, because obviously the latter is desirable. If there were good public transit all over the city, "bus takers" would likely be in a much better situation, not just because they could "take the bus", but because rents (in places they can live) would be lower. There are so many secondary effects from having good public transit systems, that it seems shortsighted (and not actually realistic) to localize the decisions and the power with the "bus takers".

Tom A said...

"Our lack of quality public transit is a symptom of our sprawl, and you can slander "the man" as much as you want, but it won't change our demographics."

No, it's not. It's a cause.