Categories
DOT Elections Infrastructure United States

The path to a better transport system runs through progressive states and cities

We’re two weeks out from the 2020 United States presidential election, and the winner will undoubtedly play an important role in directing American urban policy. Given the importance of the presidency and the high stakes of the position on every policy area, it is hard not to focalize on this electoral race as key in establishing what sort of future the United States will have.

Hoping to respond to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 and the prospect of Democratic control over both houses of Congress and the White House, Senate Democrats have begun preparations for a $1 trillion infrastructure package. If the legislation pulls from this year’s House-passed H.R. 2 and from Joe Biden’s presidential platform, the legislation could include new funding for electrification; increased support for transit and intercity railways; and requirements that states “fix it first” before expanding highways. These are good concepts, and indeed, there is a lot of room for federal intervention, especially when it comes to filling the gaps left by declining tax revenues over the past several months, particularly when Americans support a potential big federal stimulus by an enormous margin.

Yet the key questions regarding transportation in the United States—whether the country is able to truly adapt its mobility system to mitigate the devastation wrought by climate change; whether we integrate transportation and land-use planning so as to reduce exurban expansion and automobile dependency; whether we harness access as a tool to reduce inequality, rather than as a mechanism to further empower and enrich a lucky few—are in fact more often than not in the hands not of the federal government, but rather in those of elected officials at the state and municipal levels.

This reality of the U.S. federal system will continue to be the case no matter which presidential candidate wins the election, and no matter how exciting their proposed policies may be.

States and cities make most choices on transportation infrastructure—and their choices have been regressive

The federal transportation legislation authorizing expenditures on transportation—reauthorized every five years or so, and known by such acronyms as FAST, MAP-21, and SAFETEA-LU—is typically the big story when it comes to transportation (though it may not be next year, depending on the scale and inclusiveness of a new infrastructure-focused stimulus). It’s essential for members of Congress, who can advertise it as meaningfully contributing to their respective district’s surface transportation infrastructure needs, to the tune of an average of more than $60 billion annually nationwide. It’s important in defining the overall patterns of spending, such as the share of funds to be distributed to road projects versus transit investments.

Despite this avalanche of funding from Washington, the administrators at the U.S. Department of Transportation are not the primary decisionmakers when it comes to what actual planning choices are made about new transportation projects.

The failure of the Obama Administration to make good on its proposed intercity rail plan is a case in point. After convincing Congress to devote billions of dollars to a national network, high-speed rail became a policy against which to rally among conservatives. Several states run by Republican governors simply sent back grants (free money!) the administration had allocated to them.

The result, then, was that a theoretically national plan for investment became a series of planning choices made state-by-state, each picking whether or not they wanted to engage in the overall program. One can imagine a similar outcome if a future administration makes a similar push for new rail investment.

Moreover, the U.S. government distributes transportation funds primarily by pre-determined formula to states, cities, and transportation agencies. For example, in 2020, of federal highway funds more than 90 percent is distributed directly to state governments to do, largely, what they wish.

It is true that certain programs, like the New Starts transit capital program, are more discretionary in that they give the U.S. Secretary of Transportation more oversight over what projects to advance. But, for the most part, even programs like that are largely formulaic; if you follow the rules for developing a transit project, and it scores well enough based on standardized criteria, you can get it in line on the federal list.

Those lower levels of the public sector, in fact, are those that make most of the choices related to what roads should be built or expanded, and what transit lines to promote.

Indeed, consider how different levels of government have distributed funds to transportation. Between 1956 and 2017, the federal government allocated a total of about $3.1 trillion in 2017 dollars to highways, transit, and rail investments around the country (most of which was simply sent down to lower levels of government to spend). During the same period, states and localities spent way more of their own funds: $8.9 trillion.

Since 2000 alone, the story is similar: The federal government has devoted roughly $1.2 trillion to surface transportation, while states and localities have spent $3.4 trillion raised by their own sales taxes, gas taxes, and the like.

In other words, not only does the federal government largely allocate decision making about what transportation projects to build to states and localities, while handing them control of most of the money that it raises, but also states and localities raise way more money that they use to spend on their own objectives.

U.S. governments at all levels have contributed to an infrastructure system that prioritizes road-based travel above all else. Transport Databook.

Unfortunately, neither the federal government nor lower levels of government have been particularly effective custodians of their massive expenditures on transportation—at least when it comes to achieving more sustainable and equitable outcomes. Since 1956, the federal government has devoted just 21 percent of its surface-transportation expenditures on transit or rail investments; states and localities, just 22 percent.

In other words, both have participated in the creation of an American society dependent on the private automobile for most of its function.

An infrastructure stimulus won’t be equitable or sustainable without buy-in from states and cities

If Democrats take the presidency, retain control of the House, and inherit the Senate, they are likely to push a new federal stimulus bill. It may well offer billions of dollars for improved transportation infrastructure, and if you take what Democrats have said over the past year seriously, it will include a vast expansion in support for transit, new climate-focused policies, and a renewed national rail program.

Yet the role of states, municipalities, and other public-sector entities will only be heightened if a stimulus is passed. States will be the entities deciding whether to participate in bringing improved inter-city rail to their communities. Cities will have to determine whether they want to use federal funds to renovate streetscapes to prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists. Transit agencies will have to identify new bus and rail projects that serve the most passengers.

In other words, even with new federal funds, lower levels of government are ultimately those entities making choices about what kinds of projects they want to build. And there’s little stopping states and cities from spending their own money on new highway expansions that encourage pollution, sprawl, and further exacerbate inequality. Because of the focus on what happens in Washington, however, the actions those entities take is typically less visible. Road projects continue at a reckless pace throughout much of the country despite what we know about climate change.

Fortunately, some states have made progress. California, for example, has altered its system of measuring street performance away from prioritizing moving cars. Yet localities in that state continue to push destructive road investments.

Along with a federal stimulus, then, we need action for change within lower levels of government.

Categories
General Infrastructure

Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2020

20 new transit lines will open in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico in 2020.

These new transit lines won’t be adequate alone to counter the large-scale investment in highway construction that dominates most metropolitan regions. But they will significantly improve public transportation for thousands of riders in many large cities.

There’s also a lot more on the way. About 60 more major transit projects will be under construction in 2020 and are expected to open by 2026. Some cities, like Montréal and Seattle, will essentially double the size of their urban rail systems during that time.

Transit Explorer
Use Transit Explorer 2 to examine current, under construction, and proposed transit projects throughout North America.

This compilation of new transit projects is based on The Transport Politic’s transit database, Transit Explorer 2. This database is frequently updated and provides information about existing, under construction, proposed, and cancelled fixed-route transit throughout North America.

Thanks to support from Chicago Cityscape, Transit Explorer 2 is much faster and more usable for people accessing the site than previous versions.

In addition, the data it includes has been improved and expanded dramatically compared to the past. It includes almost 7000 transit stations (including for commuter rail, not previously included), and almost 1000 transit lines. Now additional information, such as the year that stations were opened and their grade—e.g. subway or elevated—is also available.

Data can be viewed freely on Transit Explorer 2 or purchased for $25 in Shapefile or GeoJSON formats for those who would like to use the data for research or other uses, such as using ArcGIS or QGIS.

This is the 12th year of my compilation of new transit projects on The Transport Politic. Find previous years here: 20092010 | 2011  | 2012  | 2013  | 2014  | 2015  | 2016  | 20172018 | 2019


New transit investments completed in 2019

In 2019, roughly 200 miles of new fixed-guideway transit service was opened throughout North America; these projects cost a total of roughly $7 billion to complete.

In Canada, the most exciting intervention was the opening of the Confederation Line in Ottawa, which includes a new downtown tunnel and a light rail network that replaces an oversubscribed busway; it is designed to eventually carry about 240,000 daily riders. The Confederation Line’s benefits will be magnified by several extensions planned for the next few years.

In the U.S., the opening of a new busway on 14th Street in Manhattan attracted considerable attention, as the project immediately increased transit ridership but did not ramp-up surrounding traffic. It may be a model for other American cities looking to improve their bus options—demonstrating that giving bus services dedicated lanes and freeing them from being stuck behind cars is an effective way to get people to ride.

Throughout this article click on to explore the line on Transit Explorer 2.

Regional rail (Relatively frequent service on mainline rail tracks) opened in 2019

  • Denver Gold Line—11.2 miles, part of an overall $2.1 billion project including other lines
  • SMART Train Phase 2—2.1 miles, $43 million
Denver Gold Line station at 41st and Fox. Credit: RTD.

Commuter rail opened in 2019

  • Fort Worth TexRail—27.2 miles, $1 billion

Metro rail opened in 2019

  • Panama Linea 2—13.1 miles

Light rail opened in 2019

  • Denver Southeast Rail Extension—2.3 miles, $233 million
  • Ottawa Confederation Line—7.7 miles, C$2.1 billion
  • Phoenix Gilbert Road Extension—1.9 miles, $184 million
  • Waterloo Ion Light Rail—11.8 miles, C$770 million

Bus rapid transit (Improved bus service with dedicated lanes) opened in 2019

Indianapolis Red Line. Credit: IndyGo.
  • Albuquerque ABQ Rapid Transit—14 miles, $133 million
  • Calgary Southwest Transitway—13.7 miles, C$304 million
  • Indianapolis Red Line—13.1 miles, $96 million
  • New York City M14 SBS
  • San Diego South Bay Rapid—26 miles, $126 million
  • Seattle Swift 2 Green Line—12.4 miles, $67 million

Arterial rapid transit (Improved bus service, but no dedicated lanes) opened in 2019

  • Chicago Pace Pulse Milwaukee—7.6 miles, $14 million
  • El Paso Brio Alameda—12.2 miles, $36 million
  • El Paso Brio Dyer—10.2 miles, $36 million
  • Kansas City Prospect MAX—10 miles, $56 million
  • Minneapolis C Line—$30 million
  • Tulsa Aero—18 miles

Planned openings in 2020

In 2020, several long-awaited projects will open across the continent, including three heavy-rail routes, two new light rail lines, two commuter or regional rail extensions, and 13 improved bus projects.

In Vancouver, the metropolitan region has already opened four RapidBus bus rapid transit routes, which include dedicated bus lanes, queue jumps, all-door boarding, and relatively high levels of frequencies. A fifth new line is planned for opening in April.

Miami’s new downtown station, to serve Tri-Rail trains. Credit: Tri-Rail.

In Miami, a new downtown rail link will leverage the infrastructure built by Virgin Trains to extend the region’s Tri-Rail commuter rail system into the center of the city for the first time.

But the largest investments by far are being completed in the Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington regions. In Hawaii, the first phase of that state’s first rail line—an elevated route—will open. In Los Angeles, the Crenshaw Line, a $2.1 billion light-rail route that includes a subway portion and a new station near LAX Airport, will be completed. In the Bay Area, the BART rapid transit system will continue its slow path toward downtown San Jose with a $2.4 billion extension to Berryessa station. And outside of Washington, the Silver Line will finally reach Dulles Airport, thanks to a $2.8 billion extension

L.A.’s Crenshaw Line tunnel at Martin Luther King Jr. station. Credit: L.A. Metro.

Each of these projects is considerably delayed compared to original projections. Honolulu’s rail transit first phase was supposed to open in 2012; the Crenshaw corridor was supposed to open in 2016. BART’s extension all the way into central San Jose—now put off for many years into the future, was supposed to open in 2018. And Metro service to Dulles was originally planned for 2016.

Regional Rail opening in 2020

Commuter rail opening in 2020

Metro rail opening in 2020

  • Honolulu: Rail Transit Phase 1—10 miles (East Kopolei to Aloha Stadium; remainder of project should open by 2025)
  • San Francisco Bay Area: BART to Berryessa—10 miles, $2.4 billion (first phase of project that will eventually extend to downtown San Jose and Santa Clara)
  • Washington: Silver Line Phase 2—11.4 miles, $2.8 billion (to Dulles and Loudoun County)

Light rail opening in 2020

Winnipeg’s Southwest Transitway, under construction. Credit: Winnipeg Transit.

Bus rapid transit opening in 2020

Arterial rapid transit opening in 2020


A busy decade to come

Despite the relatively limited investments made in transit improvements in the 2010s, cities throughout North America will expand their fixed-guideway transit networks substantially beyond 2020.

In this final section, I document all of the transit projects in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that are already under construction or will enter construction in 2020 (at least preliminary work will be underway), and thus that are highly likely to be completed. The same cannot be said for the dozens of other proposed projects on Transit Explorer 2, many of which will fall to the wayside thanks to funding crises, political backlash, and other problems.

Four metropolitan regions will see extensive improvements to their transit systems in the coming years if projects under construction this year are completed.

Montréal will open the new REM automated heavy rail system in phases, roughly doubling the scale of its current metro network and creating new transit links throughout the metropolitan area.

A rendering of a future Montréal REM station. Credit: REM.

Thanks to referenda passed in 2016, both Los Angeles and Seattle will open large new extensions to their rail networks. In L.A., a new subway line will open to the west side, making travel to UCLA far less burdensome, and a light-rail subway downtown will allow commuters to travel from the west to the east side of the region without having to change trains. In Seattle, meanwhile, new light-rail extensions will open south, east, and north of the existing route, creating a regional transit network out of what is now a relatively limited service.

And in New York, the opening of the East Side Access project—which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central Terminal—and the Penn Station Access project—which will bring Metro-North trains to Penn Station—will radically improve the accessibility of the region’s central business district. The two projects will make it possible for people commuting from Connecticut and Long Island to have direct access to both the east and west sides of Manhattan’s central business district, saving hundreds of thousands of people each up to an hour a day in travel time.

The new terminal station under Grand Central for the East-Side Access Project. Credit: MTA.

In addition, Vancouver is expected to complete the first phase of its subway underneath Broadway—now the heaviest-used bus corridor in North America. Honolulu will complete its rail project. Boston will expand its urban rail transit system for the first time since the 1980s. San Francisco will get a new subway downtown for light-rail trains. And Washington will get the U.S.’ first true circumferential transit line with the Purple Line light-rail project.

Transit projects expected to open in 2021

Transit projects expected to open in 2022

Trans it projects expected to open in 2023

Transit projects expected to open in 2024

Transit projects expected to open in 2025

Transit projects expected to open in 2026


Despite the massive investments planned throughout North America in the coming years, cities throughout the U.S. and Canada should be investing considerably more in improved transit—especially through better buses. These countries continue to under-allocate street space for buses compared to much of the rest of the developed world, and the result is that most cities are failing to take advantage of the lowest-cost mechanism to improve public transportation options and reduce automobile dependency.

We can only hope that, as we move into the 2020s, more cities will learn from New York’s success on 14th Street and find the political means and financial capacity to dedicate more space on their streets to people, rather than to cars.


Image at top: Based on “Public Roads of the contiguous United States,” by WClarke (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Categories
General Infrastructure United States

Too little, too late? A decade of transit investment in the U.S.

» Cities across the U.S. added more than 1,200 miles of expanded transit service between 2010 and 2019. But all that construction isn’t keeping up with the need.

It’s been a busy decade for many cities throughout the U.S. From coast to coast, they’ve been building up their transit networks, offering riders something more than run-of-the-mill bus routes.

Overall, American cities added more than 1,200 miles of new and expanded transit lines between 2010 and 2019, spending more than $47 billion in 2019 dollars to do so. They’ll continue making such investments into the 2020s, as I document on the interactive Transit Explorer website, and in The Transport Politic’s annual update article (coming later this month for 2020).

In this post, I’ll document those investments—but also show that they have been inadequate, at least so far, in stemming declining transit ridership in many U.S. cities.


First things first: What do I mean by improved transit service?

What I don’t measure here is perhaps the most important element of transit effectiveness: The frequency and speed of service. Trains and buses that show up more often and that travel more quickly are more useful, and thus more likely to be attractive to potential riders. Some, such as David Levinson, have developed effective measures of accessibility that measure how such services change over time. The costs of providing more frequent journeys are typical reflected in transit operating expenditures.

But what I do consider are the capital investments, in the form of new and extended transit lines, that can play an important role in dramatically improving peoples’ day-to-day transit experience. If done right, these investments can also actually improve the efficiency of transit operations by, for example, giving buses dedicated lanes so they can travel more quickly, or replacing a bus with a train that can fit more passengers.

Using data from Transit Explorer and available in this spreadsheet, I’ve documented all of the new and extended ‘quality’ transit lines in the U.S. completed from 2010 to 2019. By ‘quality’ I mean something more than a basic bus route.

I’ve categorized the investments made by U.S. cities according to their modes—arterial rapid transit, bus rapid transit, commuter rail, regional rail, metro, light rail, and streetcar.

To clarify, bus rapid transit projects include at least some dedicated lanes (such as Indianapolis’ Red Line), whereas arterial rapid transit projects (often marketed as BRT, such as Tulsa’s Aero BRT) often involve improved station amenities and better buses, but no dedicated lanes. Regional rail projects typically involve the creation of all-day, relatively frequent, two-way service (such as Denver’s A Line)—whereas commuter rail concentrates on peak-hour, inbound services.

As noted, U.S. cities added about 1,200 miles of quality transit services between 2010 and 2019.

Just over half of new miles added were through bus lines, with the rest added in the form of extended rail lines.

Of those rail projects, just 26 miles were in the form of metro investments—heavy-rail lines like new subways or elevated trains that often carry the most passengers through the densest parts of the country. And just 37 miles were in the form of streetcars, perhaps a surprising fact given the frequent discussion of that transportation mode’s deficiencies.

Rather, the majority of new rail projects in terms of mileage came in the form of either light rail or regional rail, two dependable, effective transit options.

Mileage added to quality public transit networks, U.S., 2010-2019

The growth in mileage of quality bus lines has not been matched by the spending local, state, and national governments have dedicated to transit. Indeed, over the past decade, only about 8 percent of transit-expansion funds have been allocated to arterial rapid transit or bus rapid transit projects. The rest has gone to rail lines.

Whether this distribution of expenditures is a good or bad thing is a question that can be interpreted subjectively—rail projects may attract more riders, they typically provide a higher quality of service, and they’re typically faster and more reliable—but what is unquestionably true is that American cities have underinvested in expanded quality bus lines.

A total of about $3.6 billion was spent on new bus expansion projects over this period. That means the average American contributed just $1.10 in tax dollars annually to the construction of facilities for new or expanded quality bus lines, out of a total of about $14.50 every year on transit expansion overall.*

The average American consumer spent $8,427 on automobile transportation in 2016.

Expenditures on quality public transit networks, U.S., 2010-2019

These costs, of course, do not include expenditures on transit operations, such as the salaries of drivers and the costs of fuel. Those costs often significantly outweigh those of capital investments. Nevertheless, it is unquestionable that Americans are spending very little to expand their bus systems. They’re spending a bit more on expanding their rail networks.

Whatever the distribution of new transit mileage and expenditures, how can we explain the fact that ridership on public transportation throughout much of the U.S. has declined substantially over the past decade? Shouldn’t all those new, higher-quality bus and rail routes have produced some positive outcomes in terms of ridership? And why are other countries seemingly capable of building transit ridership?

One explanation is that many new American transit routes are poorly designed, typically remain inadequately integrated into urban development projects, and focus more on low-density suburban areas than urban neighborhoods likely to attract more riders.

Yet another key cause is undoubtedly the continued investment of American cities and states in new roadways.

Even as the country was adding 1,200 miles of expanded transit service, it added an estimated 28,500 new lane-miles of arterials—roadways like Interstates, highways, and the four-plus-lane “stroads” that constitute many of our cities and suburban areas. This is infrastructure hostile to pedestrians and transit users—and likely to reinforce patterns of automobile dependency and sprawl.

That’s roughly 24 times as many new roadway miles as improved transit miles. Who can blame Americans for continuing to drive? Transit offerings simply have not kept up.

2010 to 2019: A nation overwhelmed by new roads

Ceasing the continuing expansion of the public roadway network is an essential element of any effort to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation, which is now the single-largest contributor to American greenhouse gas emissions.

From this perspective, it should be concerning to U.S. policymakers that, not only do Americans contribute about 3.6 times as many carbon emissions per capita as their peers in countries like France, but also that per-capita emissions in the U.S. fell by only 21 percent between 1980 and 2014, versus by 50% in France.

If the American addiction to the automobile has been aided and abetted by the growth in roadways, it has also been encouraged by inadequate construction of new and expanded transit lines, at least from a relative perspective.

Below, consider the mileage added to quality public transit networks in the U.S., Canada, and France between 2010 and 2019, which I’ve divided up between bus investments on the left and urban rail investments on the right (I have not included regional or commuter rail in this calculation because of inadequate data from France).

In both cases, U.S. cities added roughly similar mileage compared to their peers in France, and significantly more than cities in Canada. So far, so good.

Mileage added to quality public transit networks, Canada, France, U.S., 2010-2019

But it won’t escape readers’ understanding, of course, to recognize that the U.S. is in fact far more populous than either Canada (1/9th as large) or France (1/5th as large).

Indeed, when adjusting those investments in new transit mileage to each country’s population, all those new projects in the U.S. seem depressingly modest.

Over the past decade, U.S. cities added an average of fewer than 2 miles of urban bus improvements per million inhabitants—and fewer than 1 mile of rail improvements. France, meanwhile, gained more than 10 and 3, respectively.

Let’s now consider just those projects with dedicated lanes—in other words, excluding streetcar and arterial rapid transit lines. Dedicated-lane transit expansions are most likely to actually improve peoples’ commuting habits because they’re less likely to get stuck behind traffic.

On this count, shown on the red, rightmost section of the following chart, the U.S. has fallen truly behind these two peers. Over the past decade, it produced less than one-fifth the dedicated-lane transit mileage as France on a per-capita basis, and about 50% less than Canada.

Mileage added to quality public transit networks per million inhabitants, Canada, France, U.S., 2010-2019

We’re left with a dismal portrait of transit expansion in the U.S.—especially since, compared to most other developed countries, it already had poor transit offerings in 2010.

Despite 1,200 miles of new transit lines, states and cities in the U.S. have added far more mileage to their roadways. Despite tens of billions of dollars in expenditures, U.S. cities have increased their transit systems less substantially than cities in Canada and significantly less than those in France. The U.S. has a lot of work to do if it wants to encourage more transit ridership and identify mechanisms to reduce transportation-related greenhouse-gas emissions.

The good news that that American residents are, from a comparative perspective, spending very little on investing in transit-system expansion through new lines and the extension of existing lines.

It’s true that American transit projects are significantly more expensive to build than those outside the U.S., especially in cities like New York and San Francisco. Indeed, if costs were lower, we could build more. But we’re still dedicating very little of the public purse to new and expanded lines.

Every reasonably sized city in the country should be identifying corridors for bus rapid transit, reallocating street space for that purpose, and ceasing roadway expansion. The speed of implementing such improvements has been far too slow given the poor quality of most bus service throughout the country and the relatively low cost of making such changes.

But that requires cities to take seriously their responsibility to find the means to get people out of their cars. It requires activists to make the case that the era of automobile dominance must come to an end.

The federal government, meanwhile, should expand its support for new busways and rail lines, dramatically increasing the share of Americans with easy access to high-quality transit lines.

In today’s climate, such a proactive agenda has no real political legs in Washington—it would be very unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, let alone be proposed by President Trump. But there’s an election in 2020.

For further information about the projects in the U.S. and Canada examined in the writing of this article, the database of projects is available here.

* It is worth noting that these figures are in estimated 2019 dollars, based on the midpoint of the construction period of each line. Also, I do not include projects that were under construction between 2010 and 2019, but which will not open until 2020 or later. This means that the figures quoted in this article represent spending only on projects that were completed between 2010 and 2019; thus spending occurred in a period roughly ranging from around 2005 to 2019.

Categories
General

The perverse incentives produced by institutional division

» In Chicago, conflicts between local transit services and the commuter rail network have impinged on peoples’ mobility for decades. The institutional context encourages divides, not cooperation, to the detriment of riders.

Metra tracks on Chicago's South Side.

All across the developed world,* cities have transitioned their commuter rail networks—services designed for infrequent, relatively long-distance travel at peak hours between suburbs and central cities—into regional rail systems. Regional rail, exemplified by Germany’s S-Bahn and France’s RER systems, encompasses all-day, two-way, frequent service, often with through-running, meaning service from suburb to suburb via downtown. Regional rail is typically also integrated into the metropolitan transit fare system, such that a ride on regional rail costs no different than one on a local bus and train, as long as the origin and destination are the same.

These regional rail services have transformed metropolitan travel in the places where they’ve been implemented because they make show-up-and-go, fast service available to whole regional populations, not just those who live in center cities, where frequent local rail and bus options are available.

Why is it, then, that U.S. transit agencies have failed, practically universally, to adopt such changes? Why is commuter rail service in every U.S. city where it’s offered so infrequent? And why is it typically so much more expensive than other types of transit?

There are a number of reasonable explanations—commuter rail often travels on tracks also used by freight, so it’s difficult to add service; commuter rail journeys are longer, so they cost more to provide; and suburban Americans are less comfortable using transit than their foreign counterparts, so there is less demand for the service.

Yet there are also institutional constraints that have made U.S. regions so incapable of investing in regional rail. These are resolvable problems, but doing so will require a significant political lift.

Even so, if American cities are serious about moving people into transit, reducing transportation-related greenhouse-gas emissions, and providing an alternative to car-dependence at the metropolitan scale, regional rail is a necessary investment. It is the only mechanism available to provide fast, frequent, reliable, and long-distance transportation for large numbers of people. Finding the political will to surmount these institutional constraints and develop regional rail should be a priority in virtually every metropolitan area.

Chicago: A difficult case study

The Chicago metropolitan area would, in theory, make for an ideal place to implement regional rail. Less than a third of the area’s nine million inhabitants live in the central city, but Chicago’s downtown Loop is a massive jobs hub, and much of the region grew out along rail lines, now operated by Metra, the commuter rail service.

For years, advocates in Chicago have pushed for improvements on Metra Electric, a commuter line that runs south from downtown through the city and into the suburbs. They argued that it could provide frequent, all-day service and allow transfers to-and-from Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) local bus and rail routes; the Electric, which once had faregates and frequent all-day service, also had the advantage of operating on tracks not shared with freight trains. These improvements, they suggested, would increase transit use, reduce commute times, and help reinvigorate a low-income community.

The Chicago region, like most metropolitan areas around the U.S., has rapidly lost transit riders over the last decade, and needs a new strategy to build back the use of public transportation.

This year, change finally seemed to be afoot: The state passed a huge gas-tax increase, providing new funding for transportation investments. And Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle announced that she wanted to subsidize Metra to increase service not only on the Electric, but also on the adjacent Rock Island line, and reduce fares to levels equivalent to those on the CTA—just $2.50 a ride in the city.

But this week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her opposition to the proposal. The fact that Preckwinkle was Lightfoot’s opponent in last February’s mayoral race suggests that personality politics may be partly to blame. Officially, for the new mayor, however, the policy is problematic because it would shift riders from CTA onto Metra, hurting the CTA.

CTA is an independent agency that the mayor of Chicago controls through appointees. Metra is a state agency whose board is largely composed of appointees from Chicago-region counties, including Cook County.

This leaves Cook County’s proposal with an unclear future. It’s not obvious that Metra will be able to assemble the political constituency to move forward without the city’s agreement, since the majority of people who would benefit from the service live and work in the city.

If Mayor Lightfoot’s opposition is successful, the citizens of the city will be worse off. The proposal to improve and cheapen Metra services would boost overall transit ridership, reduce car dependence, increase equity of access, and generally make the Chicago region a better place to live.

So what gives? Much can be explained by the current institutional configuration of transit in the Chicago region, which isn’t so far off from those of transit systems elsewhere in the U.S.

Institutional constraints at play

Let’s consider the current institutional configuration of transit systems in the Chicago region. The CTA, again, is controlled by the mayor, since she can appoint four of its seven board members (the other three are appointed by Illinois’ governor). Of Metra’s 11 board members, five are appointed by suburban county boards, one is appointed by the Cook County president, one is appointed by the mayor of Chicago, and four are appointed by suburban members of the Cook County board.

There is also an organization called the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which is supposed to oversee CTA, Metra, and Pace, the suburban bus service, but whose actual power is largely limited to distributing a small share of grant funds and vetoing the other agencies’ budgets, a power it has not engaged in.

CTA and Metra largely receive funding from the same sources: Sales taxes collected throughout the Chicago region and state financial assistance; together, these accounted for 95 percent of public subsidies to the two services in 2019. In other words, generally the same taxpayers are paying for services operated by CTA and Metra (though the transit-related sales tax rate in Cook County and Chicago, 1.25%, is higher than in the rest of the region, 0.5%).

Despite these shared sources of funds and official oversight of both agencies by RTA, CTA and Metra operate as if they were competitors. As an example, the CTA runs express bus services to the South Side, such as the #6, J14, and #26 buses, which serve destinations just adjacent to station stops of the Metra Electric—despite the fact that Metra Electric services are faster and more reliable.

Metra services, meanwhile, are more expensive than their CTA equivalents. One-way travel between the Loop and the South Side of Chicago costs between $4 and $5.50, compared to $2.25 for CTA bus and $2.50 for CTA rail fares. Metra’s fare doesn’t allow for transfers to other parts of the city on CTA services, whereas such transfers cost $0.25 for those using the CTA.

Cook County’s proposal would address some of these deficiencies, making Metra trains more convenient from both a timing and cost perspective.

It is unquestionably true that Mayor Lightfoot is right in suspecting that such changes would move riders out of CTA and onto Metra.

People on much of the South Side of Chicago are currently using CTA services instead of Metra for two reasons. First, they’re cheaper; many people who ride transit are financially constrained, and they make choices that reflect that fact. Second, CTA is more convenient, since its buses and trains operate more frequently.

Making Metra cheaper and more frequent would address those two problems to a significant degree. Allowing people access to regional rail service would improve their lives, allowing them to spend less time in transit and increasing the distance they could travel in a given period of time.

But Mayor Lightfoot has little incentive to encourage people to move from CTA to Metra. Doing so would reduce her political constituency by moving riders from a service she controls to one she does not. It would also put pressure on CTA’s finances by reducing its revenues to some degree.

Moreover, CTA officials are right to believe that relying on Metra to make wholehearted change is a tenuous bet at minimum. For instance, despite a state mandate for Metra to accept the Ventra transit card used by CTA and Pace, the agency still doesn’t accept the card in conventional forms. The suburban control of Metra’s board, meanwhile, means the agency has for decades undermined its urban customers—those living in the city of Chicago—to prioritize service for suburban riders. And even as CTA has slowly but steadily improved—for example, buying up-to-date railcars and buses—Metra remains stuck in the 1970s from a technological perspective. So encouraging a shift to Metra won’t necessarily be all roses.

The result, however, is a continued competition for riders, an absurd situation when both CTA and Metra are relying on the same market of passengers and both are receiving public subsidies from the same tax sources.

This is not an effective strategy for growing transit ridership.

What is the purpose of public transportation?

Setting aside institutional conflicts for a moment, this Chicago case raises questions about what the purpose of public transportation is, and what its goals should be, in a modern city. From my perspective, the answer to this is relatively straightforward: Provide high-quality service that encourages people to stop relying on automobiles to get around, and that ensures that everyone has access to affordable and reliable mobility.

If this is a shared view, then increasing regional ridership should be one of public transportation’s primary goals. But increasing regional ridership does not necessarily mean increasing the ridership of every individual service—it means improving the services as a whole such that the system is more attractive in general.

This isn’t a particularly complicated concept. For example, when a transit agency opens a new rail line, it generally expects people using buses along the same route to move to the new line. And that’s great! When people move from buses to rail on the same route, they’re generally getting faster, more reliable, more comfortable service. There’s nothing wrong with that. And the investment in this improved service will, in turn, bring in more passengers.

The problem with Mayor Lightfoot’s approach is that it acts as if the goal for regional transit should be to increase ridership on the CTA, not on the system as a whole. To pursue this deeply questionably line of logic would be to oppose investing in a new rail line because doing so might result in less ridership on existing buses. On the face of it, the city’s position on improvements for Metra Electric appear to be motivated by agency promotion, not by the region’s best interest of increasing transit ridership.

The result of stopping improved Metra service may be, yes, the maintenance of existing levels of CTA ridership (though they are declining, so something is amiss already). But it certainly will not produce the increase in ridership associated with providing people who need it better access to transit.

As I noted, however, there are institutional and historic reasons why the CTA might be concerned about moving people out of its services and onto Metra.

A course forward for thinking about regional transit

I’m hardly the first person to suggest that a lack of regional integration in transit systems produces pathologies when it comes to the motivations of officials involved in related decision making.

But the Chicago case should remind us that an institutional configuration that separates control of transit agencies in the same metropolitan area to different political actors can produce negative outcomes for the region as a whole. We have yet to resolve this situation related to Metra Electric improvements, but decades of little to no integration between CTA and Metra suggests that the current environment isn’t working.

Simply integrating services does not necessarily solve the problem, however. New York’s MTA, for example, technically oversees the New York City Subway, buses, Metro-North Railroad, and Long Island Rail Road—and yet neither Metro-North nor Long Island Rail Road offer regional rail services, and neither offers free transfers to Subway or bus services, let alone reasonably priced fares in areas where service is overlapping.

Moreover, Chicago’s CTA does have the distinct benefit of being directly answerable to the city’s mayor, which I’m convinced improves political accountability and makes the service better over the long run.

So simply saying that CTA and Metra should be merged into a regional entity will not, by itself, make today’s problems disappear.

Even so, the agencies need to find a way to agree on a new set of ground rules. It should be self-evident that the goal of transit in the Chicago region is to grow overall ridership, not ridership on a particular service—and that might mean sacrifice on one service or another once in a while. Moreover, it should be obvious that the current situation, where customers are treated as if they’re supposed to choose between competing services—despite the fact that both are subsidized by the same tax revenues—is unacceptable.

If Chicago’s transit agencies are able to move toward such a détente, they would be taking a big step forward toward reducing the conflicts native to the current institutional configuration. They would also be moving the region toward a transit service that actually benefits the people of the metropolitan area. Perhaps Chicago could be a model for the rest of the country.

* Frequent, all-day, two-way regional rail services are currently available in Basel, Bilbao, Leipzig, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Paris, and Zurich, among others. They are in development in Brussels, Buenos Aires, Geneva, and Toronto, among others.

Image at top: Metra tracks on Chicago’s South Side, from Flickr user The West End (cc).

Categories
France General United States

Is transit ridership loss inevitable? A U.S.–France comparison

» The number of riders using transit in the U.S. continues to decline. But a comparison with French cities shows that the American experience is not a universal one.

Transit ridership declined again in the United States in 2018. As a whole, the nation’s transit systems lost 2 percent of their riders over the previous year—about 200 million fewer trips, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The number of people boarding buses and trains has declined tremendously since the last peak in 2014.

To what can we attribute this change?

American transit ridership is cyclical, but since the 1950s, Americans have been car-dependent. That car dependency is the product of a vicious circle: Reliance on automobiles encourages the development of automobile-focused urban environments, which, in turn, encourage more car use. Roughly three quarters of workers commute by car alone nationwide, and that’s remained true since 1990.

Recent changes, including the rise of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, unquestionably have limited transit’s performance. Numerous studies demonstrate that ride-hailing has increased congestion, slowing buses, and siphoned people out of transit in cities like New York and San Francisco. Moreover, in cities like Los Angeles, cheaper vehicle-acquisition options and the widening of who is allowed to get a license has reduced transit’s appeal. Finally, poor service provision among transit operators is a major problem; since 2004, the number of vehicle miles provided by bus systems has declined by 3% in the New York metro area, 10% in Miami, 12% in Chicago, and 15% in Los Angeles.

Just how universal is the U.S. experience?

To evaluate this question, I collected data on total transit ridership in the 30 largest urban areas in both the U.S. and France* between 2002 and 2018 (including bus, urban rail, ferry, and paratransit services). For the U.S., I used information provided by the National Transit Database; these 30 urban areas accounted for about 89 percent of national ridership in 2018. For France, I contacted transit agencies and examined online reports (I did not include TER regional rail services, since these operate beyond urban areas). Unfortunately, the French data are incomplete, but they still tell a compelling story about the deficiencies of transit performance in the U.S. It is worth noting, of course, that the French regions are quite a bit smaller than the American ones, with median populations of about 500,000 versus 3.1 million.

Let’s first consider how ridership changed before and after 2010.

In the following graph, I chart the ridership performance of all 30 U.S. and French urban areas between 2002 and 2018. The heavy lines show the change from 2010 for the average U.S. region (in black) and the average French region (in blue). (This is not the total ridership, which would be dominated by New York and Paris.)

Between 2002 and 2010, both countries saw increases in transit use in their major cities. The average U.S. city’s ridership increased by 6 percent over that time (though the peak was in 2008). In some cases, the increase was even more dramatic; the New York region’s ridership boomed by 20 percent during this time. French cities increased their ridership by 30 percent on average.

This trend has diverged dramatically since the Great Recession, however. While the average French urban region saw its ridership increase by 32 percent between 2010 and 2018, U.S. regions saw ridership decline by 6 percent on average.

Ridership in the typical large U.S. region is lower now than it was in 2002.

Change in transit ridership compared to 2010, major U.S. and French urban areas

Average ridership by city has declined every year in the U.S. since 2014. It has increased every year in France since 2000.

It’s worth considering in more detail what has occurred in the largest urban areas in both countries.

Below, on the left, I chart how total transit ridership changed in each of the ten largest U.S. and French regions between 2010 and 2018 (2017 for some French cities because of insufficient data availability; see the bottom of the post with the same graphs, but the Bay Area and Seattle added). The ten largest U.S. urban areas accounted for 71 percent of nationwide transit ridership in 2018.

In three U.S. urban areas—Boston, Houston, and New York—ridership increased (though Houston’s ridership is considerably lower now than it was in 2006). In the other seven regions, ridership declined, with Los Angeles leading the way numerically (annual ridership fell by more than 100 million), and Atlanta and Miami leading the way on a percentage basis (losing 26 and 22 percent of riders, respectively).

In all of the ten largest French urban areas over that period, on the other hand, ridership increased on transit services.

Perhaps more interesting is per-capita transit ridership, which adjusts boardings on bus and rail services to the number of people living in each of the regions. This figure is a better reflection of just how well local transit systems are actually serving the population of a metropolitan area.

From this perspective, shown on the right below, the U.S. performance over the past eight years has been miserable. All of the ten-largest U.S. regions saw a lower per-capita transit ridership in 2018 than 2010; this figure declined by 15 percent on average. The decline in Atlanta—30 percent fewer riders per capita—was the worst.

At the same time, all of the ten-largest French regions saw a higher rate of per-capita transit ridership; this figure increased by 18 percent on average for these areas.

Since 2010, then, U.S. transit systems have failed to expand their market share—in fact, they’ve almost universally lost ground compared to the population of the urban regions they’re supposed to be serving. The French cities have moved in the opposite direction.

The result is that a French urban region like Rennes—with a population of about 750,000—now serves more overall annual transit riders than the Dallas region, in which 5.8 million people live. There are now at least 12 French urban regions where local residents take an average of at least 100 transit trips a year (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille, Nantes, Strasbourg, Rennes, Grenoble, Dijon, and Reims).

There are only two U.S. metropolitan areas—New York and San Francisco—where this is the case.

There are, of course, some exceptions to these national trends. Of the 22 French regions for which I have data on ridership from 2010 to 2017 or 2018, all saw an increase in per-capita ridership. However, it is true that I may be missing data on urban areas that saw declines; for example, Valenciennes, a city in northern France, saw a reduction in ridership between 2010 and 2015, but I do not have more recent information.

Moreover, among the 30-largest U.S. urban areas, two saw an increase in per-capita ridership from 2010 to 2018: Las Vegas (+3%) and Seattle (+5%). So there are some American success stories.

For region-by-region trends, the following interactive charts—first for the U.S., then France—allow a visualization of change over time. (These may be difficult to view on mobile devices.)

What explains the generalized success of French regions in building transit ridership—and the failure of U.S. regions to do the same?

Unquestionably, there are national trends at play; there may be broad cultural or economic differences that have recently made U.S. transit (even) less attractive than buses and trains in France.

At the same time, there are reasons to be skeptical of that claim. Seattle’s increased transit use—the region’s services carried 50 percent more riders in 2018 than in 2003—suggest that it is possible to increase ridership, even in the U.S.

The rise of ride-hailing and lower gas prices in the U.S. are often highlighted as causes of transit’s decline. But Uber is available in most French cities and fuel costs are actually lower in France than they were in 2014.

There are, however, certain changes in France that have made transit more effective. Most medium and large French cities have invested in tramway services; length of those lines increased from about 115 miles nationwide in 2000 to 515 miles today. Many cities, such as Metz, have developed effective bus rapid transit services. In both cases, and throughout the country, these services have been designed to serve the densest neighborhoods, rather than auto-dominated suburban communities, as is common along U.S. light-rail lines. They’ve been allocated independent street right-of-way, rather than forced to sit behind traffic, as is common for U.S. BRT lines. French cities have invested heavily in pedestrian-dominated city centers even as U.S. cities have hesitated to take lanes away from cars. And they’ve limited development in exurban communities where transit is unlikely to work.

At the same time, perhaps most importantly, U.S. transit providers simply haven’t increased service to account for a growing population. Between 2010 and 2018, vehicle-miles provided by New York region transit services actually declined by 1.6 percent even as population increased by 4.6 percent.

In the Paris region, transit service provided increased by 6.9 percent over the same period, as population increased by 3.8 percent.

Is it surprising that per-capita transit ridership declined in New York even as it soared in Paris?

Shifting people out of cars and into transit is an essential strategy for cities hoping to reduce pollution, combat climate change, and improve the vitality of their neighborhoods. The U.S. strategy, as this comparison shows, hasn’t worked.

Full data on ridership change can be found here. * I compare the U.S. and France for two principal reasons: First, both are wealthy, modern Western countries with a large number of urban regions; second, I know French and am able to acquire data from there more easily than elsewhere.

Ridership changes in major urban regions, including the Bay Area (combining San Francisco and San Jose urban areas) and Seattle.