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Local Neoliberalism’s Role in Defining Transit’s Purpose

» Must transit capital projects be construed either as for capitalist development or social welfare? Can the two goals be reconciled?

Detroit has staked its development hopes on the creation of a light rail line down Woodward Avenue in the heart of the city. For the past few years, public and private groups there have banded together to suggest that this project, more than any other, would provide the kind of spark necessary to spur economic growth in this city that is losing population so quickly. Thanks to government grants and private donations, the project is mostly financed and may enter construction this year.

Yet the city’s budget situation is so bad that the mayor has suggested that if the city council moves ahead with cuts it approved this week, he will have to shut off bus service at nights and on Sundays — and eliminate service on the People Mover, a semi-functional one-way automated rail loop. This is in a city where a third of people are impoverished.

Detroit’s example is only the most extreme of what is becoming a meme in the American transport discussion, that we continue to engage in the construction of expensive new projects even as we are incapable of paying for the appropriate service on and maintenance of the system we already have. Why is this? And how can we fight the pernicious effects of these policies?

Writing recently in Environment and Planning A, Sociologist Stephanie Farmer argues that the rise of neoliberal ideology in local and national politics has encouraged a “retreat from social redistribution and integrated social welfare policies in favor of bolstering business activity.”* This, she writes in reference to Chicago, has specifically affected public transportation, which “is increasingly deployed as a means to attract global capital as well as enhance affluent residents’ and tourists’ rights to the city.”

This trend, she states, stands in opposition to the mid-century “Fordist strategy of territorial redistribution mobilizing public transportation to enhance economically disadvantaged groups’ access to the city.”**

Farmer’s approach provides something of an explanation for Detroit’s experience: Rather than concentrate on the needs of its most impoverished denizens through the assurance of basic bus service, the city’s business and political elite has instead put its resources into the construction of a light rail line whose primary purpose is to stimulate economic development by creating “place-based advantages for capital.”

Similarly, Farmer is very critical of Chicago’s approach, arguing that that city’s investments have repeatedly favored “business elites over everyday users by excluding public transit investment in areas outside of Chicago’s global city downtown showcase zone.” Her evidence for this trend is primary in former Mayor Richard Daley’s obsession in constructing a premium-fare, limited-stop express rail link to the airport (including his willingness to construct a station for said service without providing the funds to actually operate the trains) and the transit authority’s Circle Line plan, which she argued would “effectively redraw [and expand] the downtown boundary,” with little benefit for the city’s most transit dependent.

The repeated delays in extending the Red Line south of 95th Street into some of Chicago’s least prosperous neighborhoods suggest that there is no political will to invest outside of the wealthiest areas.

Farmer’s argument is revealing of the one of the peculiarities of transit promotion: Those who engage in it simultaneously argue for the social welfare benefits of providing affordable mobility for as many people as possible while also suggesting that good public transportation can play an essential role in city-building — essentially for the elite. After all, one of the primary arguments made for investing in new transit capital projects is that their long-term benefits include raising the property values of the land parcels near stations.

This creates an uneasy pro-transit coalition in many places where development and real estate interests align their lobbying with that of representatives of the poor to argue for the construction of new transit lines (usually rail), under the assumption that projects will benefit each group.

This produces an identity crisis for transit. For whom is it developed? Can its social mobility goals be reconciled with the interests of capitalists in the urban space?

Identifying the value of a transportation project is an essential element of the planning process, so asking these questions is essential, since there are limited resources. When it comes to transit, this seems particularly relevant, since most funds invested in bus or rail projects are provided by the public sector.

Ultimately, this means that the promotion of almost every transit project is defined by political ideology. Do we invest our funds in a project to connect downtown with the airport, under the assumption that economic benefits will flow down from the top, as conservatives might suggest? Is spending government money on ensuring the efficient transportation of the elite effective because it grows the economy as a whole and eventually aids the poor? Or should public dollars be reserved for redistributive causes, focusing on the needs of those who are least able to provide for themselves?

Of course there are many examples in which these questions appear to have been resolved. Even in Chicago, it would be difficult to argue that the subway and elevated lines that run into to the Loop are unhelpful for the poor, since many of the city’s greatest resources even for the impoverished are located in Farmer’s “downtown showcase zone.” Nonetheless, ponder this question next time a transit project is proposed: For whom is it being built, and why?

* Farmer, Stephanie. “Uneven public transportation development in neoliberalizing Chicago.” Environment and Planning A. Volume 43. 2011. 1154-1172.

** I should note that in terms of transit, the Fordist conception of the use of public resources for the benefit of social redistribution itself replaced an entrepreneurial approach towards the provision of transportation. Many, though certainly not all, transit systems in the U.S. were funded and developed by private groups. Were these investments able to straddle the competing goals of expanded mobility and economic development?

44 replies on “Local Neoliberalism’s Role in Defining Transit’s Purpose”

A central city’s social services require tax base. Rather than just provide another social service with transit, it’s smarter to leverage it as investment that also stimulates more tax base.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

Where I come from, transit service is heavily dependent on sales taxes for operations. So for us, economic development and transit have to go hand in hand.

The issue is not really black and white. Investing in light rail strengthens access to more jobs. Urban infill from light rail lowers carbon footprints and displaces development at the periphery. High intensity transit infrastructure generates healthier short-trip ridership to reduce operating subsidies. Rail reduces long term operating costs, which allows for bus service hours to be more efficiently redeployed to where they’re needed most.

This might sound a bit off-topic, and its certainly unrealistic given the political climate and discourse, but maybe the US should move to public funding of political campaigns. At least that way the dependence of elected officials on those with the most funding capacity would be reduced.

I haven’t had a chance to read Ms Farmer’s full article but thanks for referencing it. Based on your review, however, I feel compelled to argue that assessments like hers are pernicious in effect if not intent. At the risk of mis-interpreting an article I haven’t read – but based on discussions with advocates who seem to share similar views – the problem with an approach to transit planning that prioritizes access improvements that serve mostly the impoverished over those that serve a broader mix of people is that it severely marginalizes the constituency for transit. Transit by this approach is first and foremost for the poor, and its benefits for all other groups are secondary. With that kind of approach you’ve just taken an already difficult proposition (transit in an auto-dominated culture) and just made it 10 times more difficult (“there’s nothing in it for you who aren’t poor, nor longer term for anyone who’s poor now but aspires not to be, but please support transit development anyway”).

But beyond that, and as you suggest, this sort of “improve transit for the poor first” argument makes no sense even on its own terms. First, is it not true that the primary value of enhancing/extending transit service in an impoverished area is that it would better connect with economically vibrant area(s) – presumably with abundant jobs and services? If so, by definition there are two sides to that equation – the area being connected (low opportunity) and the area it’s being connected to (high opportunity). And maintaining the strength of the high opportunity area is an absolute requisite to gaining utility from the transit service enhancement in the low opportunity area. Therefore, if a project like enhancing airport access will strengthen the regional economic competitiveness of downtown, that helps any area that’s connected to downtown. Certainly it’s better for the poor to further concentrate economic opportunity in areas that are already accessible by transit. What’s the alternative – more suburban growth out beyond the airport?

This point is even more relevant in terms of transit investments that would grow transit-supportive economic activity centers (such as Chicago’s Circle Line proposal). If it’s so important to enhance transit connections between impoverished areas and an existing transit-oriented downtown, how could it not be even better if there were even more transit-oriented downtown to connect to, by way of transit projects that “redraw [expanding] the downtown boundary” to use Ms Farmer’s words. And the fact that an expanded and enhanced transit-oriented downtown serves and benefits more than just the poor is a virtue not a vice – this is precisely what makes a vibrant downtown so. To suggest that a project like Chicago’s Circle Line proposal has “little benefit for the city’s most transit dependent” is to suggest that Chicago’s existing downtown likewise has little benefit – but if so, why bother improving transit service via projects like the Red Line Extension which would serve primarily to improve access to downtown? This argument doesn’t add up. (See my extensive comments in Yonah’s post of 15 May 2011 for more thoughts on the Circle Line’s benefits and opportunities for Chicago).

Also, a claim that “repeated delays in extending the Red Line south of 95th Street into some of Chicago’s least prosperous neighborhoods suggest that there is no political will to invest outside of the wealthiest areas” is also difficult if not impossible to support. The fact of the matter is that there is very little political will to invest in transit period – either in wealthy or poor areas. But notwithstanding that, let’s look at Chicago’s largest transit capital investments of the past quarter century (dollar figures approximate) – Orange Line ($450M in 1990$), Green Line rehab ($450M in 1995$), Pink Line rebuild ($450M in 2002$), Red Line south partial rehab ($300M in 2003$), and Brown Line rehab ($500M in 2008$). All but one – the Brown Line rehab – were in largely or exclusively poor neighborhoods. How can an article in a peer reviewed academic journal get away with such an unsupportable claim that elected officials here have been “excluding public transit investment in areas outside of Chicago’s global city downtown showcase zone?” Yes, there’s much need, but the dollars that have been spent have very much gone disproportionately to poor areas. You would never know it from a quote like that but in fact the most disinvested pieces of transit infrastructure in Chicago at present are the most heavily used and in some of the most well-to-do areas – the Red and Purple Lines along the north lakefront and the subway and elevated stations downtown.

As for Chicago’s Airport Express train project, it’s certainly worthy of critique but did Ms Farmer’s academic paper bother to explain how at the time the decision was made to commit to that project (in 2002) CTA’s capital program had reached more that 70% funded (up from around 20% just a few years earlier) – and the overwhelming majority of this was for projects outside of the “downtown showcase zone?” The environment at the time the station funding decision was made was one of optimism, and the opportunity to include the station in the private Block 37 development downtown was truly now-or-never. The “never” option was not chosen. Furthermore, CTA’s own studies have indicated that the preferable express train infrastructure (parallel tracks to the Blue Line between Chicago Avenue and Cumberland) could be used to support a limited stop Blue Line service at ordinary fares – shaving considerable travel time off of the very lengthy trips people from the disproportionately poor West and South-sides must now take to get to the job-rich O’Hare area. I doubt her analysis exhibited sufficient sophistication to highlight how such “showcase” projects could indeed become win-win propositions – attracting a valuable constituency (rich people) to transit while also improving access to jobs for those who need it most.

The point is that transit planning needs to be a both/and not either/or proposition. We must find ways to make transit a better option for a both those of limited means as well as those whose means afford them choices. To deny the poor side of town service while enhancing it across town is certainly not fair to the poor side of town. But to improve service to the poor neighborhood and then stifle transit development in the area to which the poor people need access benefits no one. It is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Quite right, simple–although talk of downtown circulators and airport expresses has tended to dominate transit expansion discussions in Chicago, the projects that actually got built tended to be rebuilds of dilapidated infrastructure or capacity improvements, be they in poorer neighborhoods, gentrifying neighborhoods, or downtown (modernizing subway stations and improving their capacity, another couple hundred million or so). Block 37’s really the only exception to this (the Orange Line might count as well–and I’d describe much of its environs as more working or lower-middle class than poor), but then we’re going back to a whose funding agreement dates back to the Reagan years).

With respect to people going downtown on a Red Line extension, though, there is a lot of inter-south side travel on the Red Line, with a lot of passengers making bus-rail-bus trips across the south side–since the Red Line EIS doesn’t project any increase in train length or frequency, I’m guessing that the CTA basically expects that to continue to be true.

I think one major point that tends to be missed in debates such as this is that framing arguments as for the benefit of elite vs. poor tends to miss the majority of the population in the middle.

Yes, public transportation is particularly important for the poorest individuals in society, but what about the guy making $40K a year, with a bunch of student loan debt or the family making $60K – $80K? The economic benefits created by new public transportation projects is done so mostly by those individuals in the middle which seek employment in the vicinity of public transporation and spend money in businesses that are established by those at the higher ends of the income bracket (depending on the type of business).

Public transportation should serve many parts of the population and in many cases should be tied to economic development. However, it cannot be tied to economic development if it only serves the elite or the poor.

I would group those people together with the poor as ordinary people. I’d even include upper middle-class neighborhoods in this category. The opposition between good, rider-oriented transit and development-oriented transit is not just a class division; lines serving high-income dense neighborhoods, such as Second Avenue Subway and the Wilshire Subway, are equally deprecated in favor of lines serving marginal density.

I believe what you say is correct with regard to many new public transit construction projects being built out to the suburbs or high-income areas. However, I feel this is more of the trend for cities that are just beginning to embrace some form of public transit, while this is not the norm in older East coast cities with substantial public transit systems.

For example, the green line extension in Boston to Somerville and Medford would not be considered a high-income neighborhood extension, nor is the Fairmount infill project (regardless of any possible shortfalls).

The NYC projects you mention may be exceptions, but at least from my Boston knowledge, most of the new or improvement projects over the past ten years are in lower income areas. The Silver line to the airport is not low income, but was desperately needed for the entire city (even though BRT was a poor choice).

need to find ways to build transit infrastructure that can break even or make money on operations. it will most likely involve grade separation and automation as part of the equation.

The greater the share of external (3rd party) benefits, the more likely it is that operating at break even is under-providing transport in terms of full economic cost and benefit.

A lower bar to aim at is a reliable public subsidy for non-avoidable or “establishment” costs, both capital and operating, and services that are able to cover their avoidable costs.

If transit could be provided in a way that is cost effective enough to break even, then additional subsidy will bring those additional economic benefits.

But they don’t provide it that way. Subsidizing transit hasn’t actually bought us more transit…it has brought us more bureaucratic and less productive transit agencies. Transit subsidies today (at least in the US) are nothing more than rent seeking.

The difference between the claim of “involve substantial rent seeking” and “is nothing more than rent seeking” is substantial, but the second claim is far more demanding in terms of the evidence required to be credible.

Indeed, a single piece of evidence that any subsidy provides some 3rd party benefit contradicts your claim, though it does not contradict the first, more plausible, claim.

We have this debate in spades in Portland, with quite a few poverty advocates (and transit union members, another constituency which is suspicious of large capital transit project, especially rail) applauding the local libertarian think tank fellow when he makes anti-light-rail speeches at the TriMet board. Obviously, the latter does not have the former’s best interests at heart.

A big part of the problem, though, is that Big Capital Projects are the only thing which can attract money from Uncle Sam. Want to expand service hours on the bus system? No money for that; operations are excluded from federal funding. What does get funded? New capital systems. And of course, these too must be operated once built.

Of course, new capital projects vs existing service isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. New projects may make existing services redundant, thus the funding can be transferred without impacting existing service. And new capital projects can also improve operational efficiencies; and one should never discount the positive network effects of expanding a system.

But the political compromises often necessary to get these things off the ground often looks bad.

Improving public transportation for the poor will eventually improve it enough for the middle class as well, as increased frequencies and routes will make service good enough for the choice riders. Even though the Red Line extension to the far south side in Chicago serves a poor area, it is far from certain to me that it will only serve the poor. If parking lots are built won’t middle class people drive in from the surrounding suburbs to use the line? The fact that the line looks like it will be in the middle of a freeway suggests this will not happen, but increasing the mobility of the far south side could result in redevelopment of depressed areas, which would benefit people besides the poor.

Chicago has put a lot of money into rehabilitating all of its rapid transit lines, not just the ones that serve poor communities. The Circle Line seems like it will try to transform some rundown inner city neighborhoods into an extension of the loop, which will serve all people if excessive gentrification can be avoided.

The experience in Chicago is very different than Detroit’s starter light rail line. Since the light rail line is not serving any residential areas, it seems the intended target is a suburban hipster on a barhop, government employees on their lunch hour, or families going to a Sunday ball game. Note even the much longer Phoenix light rail line often has higher ridership on Saturdays than it does weekdays because people are riding it to the ballpark and not to jobs. Will we strand Detroit’s transit dependent so wealthy suburbanites can take their children on the train on Sundays?

If a project is going to bring new tax dollars into the existing system then in the long term it would help. But I wounder what reserch did they do on the new light rail vs spending it on the existing buses. If there are valid studies suporting that the light rail line will bring in new tax moneies into the syetem they should go for it for the time being. But if there are no studies then the project does sound questionible.

I wounder they could have spent this rail line money into extending the people mover into more parts of the side instead to make it much more useful.

We really shouldn’t need to be having this sort of discussion. Public transit is for everybody and both rich and poor neighbourhoods need it equally. Evidently people in poor neighbourhoods depend heavily on transit and where poor neighbourhoods are severely underserved by transit (e.g. Malvern and Rexdale in Toronto) then something needs to be done. However focusing only on poor neighbourhoods tends to create a “transit is not for us” mentality among wealthier people that undermines political support for it. It ignores the fact that car ownership is a huge burden for even the middle class. Car + car insurance + gas + maintenance takes a large chunk of a typical middle class income e.g. 50K before tax is about 35K after tax, car ownership takes about a quarter of that. Even being able to sell a family’s second car frees up a lot of money for other things. Furthermore a large part of the goal of transit is to reduce traffic congestion and also greenhouse gas emissions. For this to be effective higher income people need to use it.

Andrew, your reasoning has two shortcomings:

(1) It assumes that widespread use of transit would automatically equals savings. As many articles in this site have discussed, it is rare that a transit system can sustain itself through the fare box so “transit everywhere for everyone” would equals “taxes everywhere for everyone”.

(2) It ignores the peril or transit becoming a sort-of welfare program, an entitlement that can easily be attacked as a boondoggle.

The greater the mode share in off-peak trips, the better the average load factor, and the more cost-efficient the service is on a per-trip basis.

And Andrew is only discussing the private share of the costs of automobiles ~ a smaller mode share for automobiles also reduces public costs, so reduces the automobile burden on tax receipts.

Depends on where you draw the line. If you do it by quintiles, where household incomes above $88,000 put you in the top 20%, lots of ‘elite’ would take regional commuter transit in areas where there are high paying jobs in central urban areas that experience substantial parking shortages and inner urban traffic congestion. If you do it by the top 5%, households with incomes above $157,000, still quite a few.

If you count ‘elite’ by the 1%ers who own most of the wealth, no, not so much, even in those types of areas described above.

It depends, yeah. I know of a judge who drives from the Upper East Side to City Hall every day – he gets free parking, and doesn’t have to move his car for street cleaning.

The well-heeled commuting into NYC already have their own elite (and well subsidized) form of transit in the form of the various, commercial, hi-speed ferry operators to and from places like from Pier 11, E. 35th St. World Financial Center, etc. I’m sure the situation is much the same in Boston, Seattle and San Francisco.

The elite own downtown real estate, which is made much more valuable through the provision of transit.

Also, the elite was the intended audience for the O’Hare-Block 37 Airport Express service (bypassing numerous middle-income neighborhoods), which has little chance of ever being completed even though $250M in public funds have disappeared into its sinkhole.

Transit as a concept was created for capitalist reasons, and until we decided to destroy those enterprises, they served the poor quite well. They can do the same thing again if public transit agencies would focus on efficiency and productivity in the same way that private enterprises do.

Sure, but Detroit isn’t really banking on profit here. All those development-oriented lines are built for pizzazz; the money will go to contractors, consultants, and urban renewal czars, rather than to the people operating the trains.

Well that is my point…Capitalism didn’t create this mess, corporatism did. I’m not sure what neoliberalism has to do with corporatism, but I guess it seems like an easy scapegoat.

Corporatism is the form of capitalism we have now, so what’s the point being made?

The building of subsidized interurbans as a means of selling property, for example, was an effective means of selling property in its day, but it was no more sustainable than the system of the last three quarters century of using urban populations to cross subsidize the expansion of suburban settlements, where the impact of building the road network is to undermine the cross subsidy that made it feasible.

The point is that certain neoliberal policy planks are in direct opposition to corporatism. Neoliberal advice to developing countries consists of competitive bidding for public projects, elimination of government subsidies to domestic big business, regulations that make it easier to start a business, and reduction in red tape. When Thaksin did that, the poor liked it just fine; it’s the middle class and the bureaucrats who revolted.

I’m not following how those in the context of neoliberal demands made to developing countries are anti-transnational-corporation. You need to also include requirement to cut spending on services to citizens and sell off publicly owned infrastructure to get the items that are priorities when neoliberals are in a position to dictate policy to developing nations.

Actually, the justification given for ending industrial policy in the original Washington Consensus article is that the corporate subsidies could be diverted to social welfare, health, education, and infrastructure. That’s what Thaksin did, or perhaps Kim Dae-Jung. Privatization of state-owned industries is another plank of neoliberalism; privatization of infrastructure is more ambiguous.

Domestically, neo-libs can be surprisingly liberal. Jagdish Bhagwati supports EFCA, Brad DeLong writes “Name_of_Newspaper crashed and burned” every time he reads an article that says something nice about Republicans, Larry Summers thinks the stimulus was too small, Jeffrey Sachs (he of shock therapy infamy) advocates more international aid and fights climate change denialism.

Actually, the justification given for ending industrial policy in the original Washington Consensus article is that the corporate subsidies could be diverted to social welfare, health, education, and infrastructure.

Which goes to underline the difference between public relations and reality: there is quite a bit of dead letter which sounds nice, and quite a bit of real policy actions in support of unfettered transnational corporate power which proceeds quietly under the cover of There Is No Alternative to neoliberal policy actions.

First, neo-liberal or neo-lib-approved leaders often did just that. And, second, the person who wrote that did sound alarm bells about various IMF policies he thought contradicted his own conception of neo-liberalism – for example, the Argentina dollar peg.

Now why is this relevant to Danny’s argument that profit-motivated railroads can be quite effective, and the problem is when there’s industry-government collusion?

I don’t really understand the singling out of transit subsidies. All transport is subsidized. If it weren’t subsidized a state like Nebraska would be lucky to boast one paved toll road to usher people & goods between Chicago and Denver. The Army Corps is currently spending $311 million to deepen the Delaware River – which may or may not benefit a terminal operator and a refinery. It’s certainly not getting 600,000 taxpayers to and from work everyday. The absence of such transit would require the equivalent of 12 new lanes of interstate running the length of the metro area and we’d still be looking at a near doubling of commute times for ALL commuters.

In actual fact, railroads and electric traction transit companies of the gilded age covered their capital costs through real estate development. (see term “railroaded”) They were able to profit on their operating costs because they were the only game in town. They used to their political clout to maintain monopolies and to acquire cheap or free land.

Suburban towns around NYC, Philly, Chicago, etc (some of which date to the 1840s) were planned by or with RR companies and were built for the wealthy. The streetcar suburbs of Victorian era West Philadelphia were built for the nouveau riche. The infill housing between the lines was built for the middle and working classes. The shorter your walk to the trolley stop the wealthier you probably were. An excellent resource on this is “Bourgeois Utopias” by Robert Fishman

If one looks at cities (with well developed transit systems) across North America there is a premium on proximity to rail transit, express bus service, etc. The less expensive neighborhoods often require a bus to rail transfer. In that regard things are not much different today than they were 100 years ago.

Basically I think there is to be differed between three questions before implementing (new) public transit:

1) Size, topography and proportion of the town and its parts and existing infrastructure.
2) Aimed planning goals (e.g. reducing car traffic in modal split).
3) End and primary energy consumption of building and running public transit in the long term.

Above those three questions there must be the premise, that only town- and landscapes that lower the need for any motorized mobility essentially are sustainable and in the long term financeable. So the pedestrian and bicycle -infrastructure will be worth the money before any other.

For question 1)
Independent from the chosen mode of transit it is important to know, whether the proportions of the town and the distribution of density is appropriate. To view this in the right way everything that is farther away than a foot-walk of ca. 7minutes must be kept out of consideration. So the radius of impact, surrounding stations, is seldom more than 300 to 600m (dependent on the constitution of its inhabitants). The number on inhabitants that can be reached within this radius of impact should be able to give a “payload” of 1000 passengers in peak hours minimum. Considering the inhabitants age pyramid the effective number o inhabitants might be triple in minimum (which means a density of 30000 inhabitants per square-mile). Of course the inhabitants should be “lined” along corridors, ideally half mile wide, of high density which also must contain their travel targets (workplaces, sports, study etc.).
If those levels of density and structure are not reached, but despite that infrastructure is already available, it would be silly to reject this gift. Then it is more a question of how to change planning in order to strengthen the existing infrastructure.

For question 2)
This is the question directly related to the referenced blog entry. If the aim is reducing car traffic, the beneficiaries are not the totally impoverished inhabitants. To make those people using public transit, its standard (or comfort) must be lifted.
If the aim is keeping minimum standards of transporting for the poorest, available public transport is viewed as a charitable institution, thus devoted to the principles of pragmatism. But this comprises that other potential passengers wont (or seldom) use this kind of bargain.

For question 3)
Primarily local decisions will depend on the amount of energy / resources that are needed to build and run the infrastructure. This is on the other hand related to the durance of infrastructure use. Both parameters will have a severe impact on the transport mode – decision – i.e. streetcar or bus.
The long term energy use is an important factor. It is clear, that end-energy use is the lower the lower loss in the system itself is. E.g. per transported person rail transit doubles the efficiency of provided energy – compared to the bus and the automobile although railcars are usually heavier (because with “steel on steel” there is considerable less friction loss).
Approximately the costs of building bus-transit and rail– transit (to compare two of those modes) referred to their different life-period (bus ca. 10 years, street 20 Years, railcars ca. 30 years, track ca. 40 years) are on the same level.
Global decisions will base of course on the question of primary energy use. Electrified rail with electricity from coal or nuclear powerplants will probably not the ideal decision. Maybe sometimes diesel rail will be more appropriate.

As someone who drives as well as takes transit, I can tell you that the reasons I may not consider driving for a particular trip is totally due to any difficulties I may have in driving – the cost and availability of parking and traffic congestion. If congestion is high and parking at the destination difficult or expensive, I may take transit if good transit is available. I don’t think I am unique in this regard. If what I said is true, then transit, except in those cases where the transit system also has control over road and parking policy, has no power over getting people out of their cars. In that case, transit should focus on purposes that it can achieve without any outside assistance, which is providing high quality public transit to the transit dependent. In my mind, it is not worthwhile for a transit system to spend time and money to get people out of their cars when all other organizations are at least passively encouraging people to drive by allowing low density construction and cheap or free parking.

This is at first blush sensible, but may be overly restrictive ~ even if a transit provider has no power to determine parking and road policy, it may be the case that there is nothing anybody can do to provide the parking and road capacity to allow for totally dominant road access.

There is an infant industry type of problem, though, in an area that requires transit for further growth because it has reached the limit of what auto-centric transport can accomplish, since the transit capacity and services are required to permit the growth but only growth in transit ridership that can be expected immediately after the expansion in capacity and services is provided. That is, releasing a constraint is a development enabler, but is on its own not a growth driver.

to put it in more simplistic terms – in the long term transit doesn’t really reduce congestion. It just increases capacity.

In places like LA, the limits of the freeway/arterial systems (and the distances people are willing to drive) were reached some time ago and now the only way to add capacity to the transport network is to add high capacity transit.

In cities like Boston, DC, Chicago, etc parking is already at a premium, land is very expensive and the construction of more parking usually requires the demolition of some other (increasingly) expensive structure. The cost of a casual r/t from suburbs to downtown in a car ($30) usually outweighs the cost of r/t on regional rail ($12). Even from the farther out neighborhoods within the city someone in a car is likely to pay far more ($22)than someone opting for the subway ($4).

Unless and until the rules, regulations, and funding mechanisms for major capital investments fundamentally change such that highway solutions are no longer pre-determined solutions to our transportation and transportation-related needs, the social, economic, and environmental outcomes associated with these enormous public investments will not only fail to improve, but will continue to erode over time, continuously amplifying the adverse consequences associated with the single-minded highway-oriented investment strategy we have pursued well beyond the point at which it remained the right thing to do.

While we now have livability principles, signs of a transition toward a more sustainable and systems-based understanding of transportation and transportation-related needs, and tools to improve decision-making, such as Health Impact Assessments taking into account a wide range of public health and equity-oriented implications of competing alternatives, we do not yet have the single greatest weapon that can be brought to bear on the problem: a commitment to fund transit capital and operating in major urbanized areas. Cities, counties, and regions are going to continue to build what they can, even if the solution is sub-optimal. What they “can” build is only what they can secure funding to build. If they can only secure funding for roads, then what we will continue to get are more roads, including urban highway expansions which often loose their effectiveness after as little as three years due to a combination of induced demand, generated traffic, and simple growth in traffic.

Want improved outcomes? Then fund them rather than continue to fund what we already know no longer works. General purpose add-a-lanes are a complete waste of resources. HOV/HOT add-a-lanes are not much better, as they simply perpetuate the need to add more lanes. Add-a-lanes, no matter their configuration, method of operation, or moniker, are worthless in a 21st century paradigm.

Incidentally, this isn’t an anti-car argument, as our roads remain important, but rather one focused the need to reassess out investment priorities to achieve improved outcomes along many critical dimensions that have long been neglected.

I agree with many of the comments made above about the unwisdom of making transit a program for the poor. Universal programs like Social Security subsist, and benefit the poor, while means-tested programs wither.

But there’s an even bigger hole in the argument. The US highway program has an even bigger bias toward big new capital projects and against maintenance than the transit program. The structural factors in the political system that do this to the highway program go a long way to explain the problems transit has along these lines. You don’t need any special theory.

I’d add that in addition to the problem of Detroit’s diminishing bus service, the question of transit’s purpose appears in the ongoing debate over the Detroit light rail alignment itself. The private investors helping to fund the project are seeking a curbside, streetcar-like alignment over the central three miles of the line (and have suggested they might pull their money if they don’t get it), while the City and local transit advocates prefer a center-running, rapid-transit-style rail with its own right-of-way. (More at, and

The contest over a Cincinnati streetcar (which has put the local NAACP and labor groups on the side of Tea Party Gov. Kasich) is another interesting case to consider.

Another important parameter of Transit Funding is how much of what is sought is used to stuff the pockets of “connected” contributors (consultants, construction companies, etc…); and construct unnecessary new infrastructure (to expand spheres of influence), when cheaper alternatives are available.

This Transport Politic article from January of last year shows the short, and very expensive little 4 station 6 mile Red Line Extension at a then quoted price of $1.1 Billion (now up to $1.4 Billion):

This newly released CTA AA Report on the Western Avenue Corridor interestingly includes a map of Chicago Area Transit operations.

It also shows the 37 in-city stations of the Metra Electric District in it’s present operating format as Commuter Rail, and it’s extensive coverage of Chicago’s entire Southeast side:

Construction of the Red Line Extension would serve only a very small part of the Far South Side; and still leave Southeast Communities like Hyde Park, South Shore, and South Chicago unserved (forever?) by CTA Rail Rapid Transit.

Any fair comparison of the images of the Red Lines 4 stations to be constructed for $1.4 Billion, versus 1/7th of that cost at $200 Million for a 37 station already operating Gray Line system – makes the motivation of what, where, and why the agencies want to spend huge amounts of the taxpayers money obvious.

They want to “provide long-sought CTA Rail Service to the Far South Side” by feeding the needy “Somebody’s Construction Company” and “QC Consultants”.

Detroit’s upcoming Woodward Light Rail is being funded with a mix of large private corporate donations and federal grants. I suppose the donations could have gone to day to day services, but that’s not what the business community chose to do. It had to be investigated whether private donations could be used to access Federal matching grants; the Federal government determined it was permissible. This article seems to suggest that the city is funding the new light rail. It is not. The city of Detroit is not funding a new transit line instead of day-to-day operations.

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