As of this year, there are ten cities that provide more than 100,000 rides a day on their rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail lines. The renewal and strengthening of these lines, which represent the backbone of America’s transit infrastructure, must be the first transportation priority of the next Presidential Administration. Here is the simple rationale: these systems have been chronically underfunded and together represent the vast majority of the nation’s fixed-route transit riders. About half of these systems are crumbling, having been built a century or more ago; the other half, built since the 1960s, need to be renewed and strengthened if they’re going to be able to last another century themselves.
These are the two groups of transit systems:
1. Systems built in the first decades of the 20th century:
- New York’s MTA, PATH, and NJT (metro and CR) – 9.2 million weekday rides
- Chicago’s L and Metra (metro and CR) – 1 million weekday rides
- Boston’s MBTA (metro, LRT, and CR) – 900,000 weekday rides
- Philadelphia’s SEPTA (metro, LRT, and CR) – 500,000 weekday rides
- San Francisco’s Muni (LRT) – 150,000 weekday rides
2. Systems built starting during the Great Society:
- Washington’s Metro (metro) – 1 million weekday rides
- San Francisco’s BART (metro) – 400,000 weekday rides
- Los Angeles’ Metro (metro and LRT) – 300,000 weekday rides
- Atlanta’s MARTA (metro) – 300,000 weekday rides
- Portland’s MAX (LRT) – 100,000 weekday rides
- San Diego’s Trolley (LRT) – 100,000 weekday rides
All five systems in the first list have been provided billions of dollars in upgrades in the past few decades. Chicago’s L, which until last year lacked enough funding to provide even basic service, has been working feverishly to reduce its number of “slow zones,” which hamper train speeds. The federal government has provided enough money to make the goal achievable. Philadelphia is in the process of upgrading its Market Street Elevated. New York City invests more than $2 billion a year to spruce up its gigantic system of tunnels, elevateds, and commuter rails.
But these systems are hardly in states of good repair. Any visitor to subway stations in each of the five cities will see huge maintenance problems. In New York City, the program to renew the system that began in the mid-80s has a long way to go; Lee Sander, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s CEO, recently admitted that only about 100 of the city’s more than 400 stations are in acceptable condition. Earlier this year, a teenager in Brooklyn fell onto the tracks when the ancient wooden edge of the platform literally fell apart at his feet; these are not acceptable conditions. Because of new funding shortfalls, however, even New York’s slow transformation team will be significantly slowed in coming years. Both Chicago and Philadelphia’s metro systems are relatively lightly used compared to those cities’ overall populations and densities (both are larger than Washington, D.C. but achieve far lower ridership), arguably because the service they provide is of such poor quality. Chicago’s Bid for the 2016 Olympics will likely have trouble competing with other world cities because of the failures of the L.
Why has this happened? Why are early-20th century mass transit systems in the United States in so desperate need of repair? Because they simply have not been provided adequate funding to produce the massive transformation that is required for them to provide the quality of service and livability that we should expect of modern transportation systems.
These systems are old, of course, but their age does not have to doom them to permanent obsolescence. In fact, by looking abroad at what other old systems have done, we can learn a thing or two. Take Paris’ one-hundred-year-old Metro, for example. Beginning in 1999, the subway authority began a comprehensive remaking of the system, with the goal of renovating more than 200 stations; by 2002, one hundred stations were done. The work continues today, with stations being renovated on three-month timetables in which they’re taken out of service to complete the work quickly and effectively. Today, there are six stations closed and undergoing renovation. The results are spectacular: ancient stations look virtually brand new. Across the Channel in London (a 2.5 hour ride away on the HSR Eurostar), Transport for London is in the process of renovating all of its stations in a ten-year plan, a process that will also include significantly increasing capacity in heavily used stations. A look at London’s Transforming the Tube plan (pdf) is worthwhile.
So the age of our oldest and most-used systems is no excuse. We have the ability to reverse course and rebuild the stations and infrastructure of our subways, and the millions of riders in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco deserve higher levels of service. Productive and efficient cities demand good public transportation, and we would never accept the degrading and embarrassing conditions we see in these systems in our households – or even in our airports. We must develop a multi-billion-dollar funding plan for government investment that recognizes the value of these systems and acts quickly to ensure their continued usefulness. This should be the first transportation priority of the incoming President. If not, these networks will fall further into disrepair, reaching a point where descending into the subways means loosing all self-respect.
The second group of high-ridership transit networks has understandably far fewer problems than the first because of their relative youth – the first segment of San Francisco’s BART opened in 1972; Washington’s Metro began operation in 1976. But these systems, now more than thirty years old, are starting to show their age. As a 2005 Washington Post article pointed out, Metro has been attempting to upgrade its escalators, trains, and tracks for the 21st century (albeit with some mismanagement) as ridership climbs. As these train systems get older and more frequented, they will need significant upgrades. Those improvements should begin now to prevent the kind of systematic decline that has occurred along the lines of the first set of transit networks mentioned here.
Other cities – notably Miami, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas, and Salt Lake City – have made significant investments in their transit infrastructure in recent years. The federal government should continue to invest in the expansion of their networks, and the transport politic will invest plenty of time in the future discussing how that might be done. But their current demand is significantly lower than that of the nation’s largest transit systems: our primary focus must be improving the conditions in the nation’s largest and oldest train networks.
This initial push for increased infrastructure investment has been pushed by groups such as Transportation for America and Building America’s Future, both of which recognize the importance of upgrading our existing systems. In the context of the current economic recession, likely lower tax returns will result in a decrease in transit funding nationwide based on current spending priorities. Yet transit investment – a long-term, sustainable project – can provide a needed increase in jobs and would act as a Keynesian response to the financial crisis. We must put out a strong appeal for a massive investment in existing transit networks – that’s what we desperately need to push our cities and their transportation networks into the future.