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.
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 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.
» 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.
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.*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
» 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 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.
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.
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.
» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.
For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.
After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are somedepressingexceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.
But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed, once started, drugs are difficult to stop abusing—even when everyone is aware of their negative effects.
Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion.
The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. Here, in a city along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and with high transit use, the possibility of tearing down a roadway that prioritizes car use and blocks access to the waterfront has never really been up for discussion. In fact, as I’ll describe below, the city and state departments of transportation are pushing rapidly toward the road’s reconstruction in a manner that will increase the ease by which drivers get around.
A change that would actually meet climate and transportation goals set forth by the city and region is off the table. In the process, the city will miss a unique opportunity to reorient half of its lakefront to the needs of people, not cars. Too many cities have made, and continue to make, the same mistake.
The lakefront expressway
Chicago denizens are practically obsessed with quoting Daniel Burnham, who pushed to “make no little plans” and who co-wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. That plan recommended the creation of parks and a parkway along the lakefront. Many of the parks have indeed been built, producing—in some places—one of the nation’s most beautiful waterfronts.
Residents also point to Montgomery Ward’s push to ensure that the lakefront remain “forever open, clear and free.” While this stance was motivated at least in part to maintain views from his department store, it has inspired generations of Chicagoans to preserve and improve lakefront parks.
But Chicago has a disjointed relationship with its lakefront.
Though the 1909 plan is frequently discussed as if it has structured the city’s development, in fact, most of its waterfront interventions—such as a series of park-islands—have not been completed. And Ward’s efforts to keep the lakefront “free” didn’t do much to prevent the construction of a massive convention center along the water.
But the most dramatic violation of the parks-and-freedom message put forward by Burnham and Ward was the creation of Lake Shore Drive, a multi-lane roadway that now extends from 67th Street* in the South Side to Hollywood Avenue on the North Side, roughly 16 miles via downtown.
As envisioned in the 1909 plan, the road would be a “combination of park and driveway” without truck traffic. And as initially built, it came close to that purpose, looking and acting something like a tree-lined city street along which vehicles moved at slow speed.
But it was rebuilt over time, in the 1930s acquiring most of the function of an urban expressway and being transferred from the Park District to the city in 1959 and then to the state department of transportation in the 1970s.
Responding to concerns about the lakefront’s future, in 1973, the city passed the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which was designed to prevent further intrusions onto the lakefront parks. It legislated that “no roadway of expressway standards… shall be permitted in the lakefront parks.” The city code defines expressway as a road designed for speeds in excess of 45 mph.
Lake Shore Drive, however, is an expressway in all but name. It features grade-separated intersections outside of downtown and, despite the speed limit, anyone who has ever used the road knows its drivers treat it as if it were an Interstate. It features four lanes in both directions. Because of its position along the lakefront, the highway acts as a barrier between the city and the lake, in several cases cutting through the heart of parks. It is a great source of noise and pollution. It would be delusional to claim it meets Burnham’s vision for the lakefront.
It has also, along with the construction of other (official) expressways, encouraged the transformation of Chicago from a transit-focused city to an automobile-dominated region. The city’s transit mode share—the portion of people who use public transportation to get to work—has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to just 28 percent in 2016.
Automobiles dominate on the route; on the busiest section north of downtown, it serves up to 170,000 cars daily. Nevertheless, others have taken to using the Drive for other purposes. 69,000 daily riders use bus routes that travel along it; 31,000 daily walkers and bikers navigate the adjacent trails.
The southern portion of the facility was renovated in the early 2000s renovation, but the northern portion, which is more used by all types of users, is falling apart. The road is degraded; congestion is common; bus services are frequently delayed; and the path is crowded with bikers and pedestrians.
A planning process is now underway, to be completed by 2020, but construction funding remains uncommitted.
Given the size of the road and its position along the city’s famed waterfront, choices about what to do with it will define part of the city’s future. Will the city take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect its urban blocks to the waterfront and prioritize transit, walking, and biking? Or will it simply reinforce the status quo?
Planning for a sustainable, transit-filled future
Given what planners and elected officials in the Chicago region say they want to do, you’d think that the possibility of transforming the Drive into something else would be a major priority.
After all, the region’s new comprehensive plan, developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (the MPO), endorses the goal of doubling transit ridership, a goal the agency has been committed to since 2010. Moreover, the plan recommends “mak[ing] transit more competitive” and increasing the share of regional commuters traveling by modes other than driving alone from 30 percent to 37 percent in 2050.
The City of Chicago and Cook County—the large county that includes and surrounds the city—have both signed on to a popular declaration holding that they will support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement through local policies. This implies that they will identify mechanisms to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Now that transportation accounts for the largest share of American emissions, you’d think that would be a focus.
Similar goals are endorsed by cities and regional agencies throughout the U.S. New York City, for example, hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent; Seattle expects to become carbon neutral and reduce the share of commuters driving alone to work from 43 percent today to 35 percent in 2035. Each suggests that future investments should prioritize reducing car use and encouraging transit ridership.
A reworked drive that doesn’t add up
From the start of planning for the future of the North Side portion of the Drive, it’s been clear that neither the state nor city departments of transportation—which are leading its $2-3 billion redevelopment—are particularly interested in rethinking the way the highway works. The route of the areas being studied is below (with north to the right and south to the left).
The planning process identified its goals early on, back in 2014, which included “improving vehicular mobility” as a primary purpose for the project. In making the choice to “improve mobility for all users,” the planning process was effectively dismissing alternatives, such as eliminating the roadway altogether. From the beginning, the choice of “improving mobility” put in stone the rejection of turning Chicago’s lakefront into the people-oriented space other cities have executed so successfully.
The focus on “mobility” rather than “access,” also suggested a prioritization of speed rather than other goals, such as creating more livable neighborhoods along the lakefront with better access to jobs and commercial needs. For, while the project is a “transportation” one, its impacts will be on land use.
Having to stick to the 1973 ordinance, the project cannot increase minimum speeds to levels higher than 45 mph. Planning documents thus far have suggested no effort to expand the number of lanes for cars. Yet the purpose of improving vehicular mobility has essentially disallowed any alternative that would lower automobile capacity.
It is worth thinking through what an alternative to today’s lakefront might be, because that act of conceptualization—imagining a different world—has been remarkably absent from the discussion.
Consider, for example, not a Chicago cut off from its lakefront by a highway that forces pedestrians to pass under or over it, but rather a city whose neighborhood streets turn into pathways down to the beaches. A rapid transit line with welcoming stations every half mile offering an alternative to the packed Red Line ‘L’ down the street. New opportunities for development, featuring water-fronting retail and cafes, without the ever-present noise and dust of the freeway—allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows. Larger parks, no longer divided in two by concrete.
None of these concepts were seriously considered. The city’s residents had little chance to explore what they might think of these ideas.
What officials do seem to have agreed to, after several years of planning, are the complete reconstruction of the highway, with eight lanes throughout the corridor and new dedicated bus lanes, for a total of 10 lanes, and increasing capacity over extant. These changes will not add any transit stations along the corridor; buses will simply use the route as an mechanism for moving between neighborhoods and downtown and a way to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Current projections suggest the bus lanes could increase transit use by 60 percent.
Despite the improvements for transit service, it’s hard not to conclude that the project will have as its primary effect the reinforcement of the highly automobile-oriented environment that now dominates the lakefront.
The extraction of buses into their own lanes will leave eight purely for automobile use; that simply means more space for personal cars. And the new corridor will be up to 19 lanes wide in some locations, such as south of the intersection with North Avenue, as shown here.
Enmeshed in brand-new concrete, that’s a barrier to the waterfront that won’t be altered for another half century.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the proposed renovations will make driving easier. After all, the project is being partly led by the state department of transportation, which a few years ago attempted to force a new highway down the throat of the Chicago region, ignoring the evidence suggesting its downsides. It was only stopped by litigation over its environmental impacts.
Moreover, the Drive is, of course, very well-used by motorists. Their collective anguish at the possibility that their express route to downtown might be eliminated would surely capture much of the discussion in future mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.
Even the planning profession’s tools would have a role to play in reinforcing the status quo. Transportation models premised on resistance to mode change undoubtedly would demonstrate a city paralyzed were the highway to be eliminated.
But the story is more complex than that. Along the waterfront itself north of central Chicago, no Census tract has more than 50 percent of its resident commuters driving alone to work. Indeed, in most of those tracts, about 50 percent of commuters travel by transit and only about 30 percent drive alone to work (35 to 40 percent of households in this area own no cars). Thus the people who would be most impacted by the replacement of the expressway with something else—the people who live nearby—are already limited car users, as shown below.
There is, just as importantly, significant evidence that cities that have replaced waterfront highways with surface boulevards or simply pedestrian space don’t suffer from massive congestion on nearby streets or a crushed economy, as some transportation models would suggest. Expressways eliminated from use in cities like Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul have seen their traffic “evaporate” as trips formerly taken by car have moved to transit, walking, and biking.
These cities’ economies certainly haven’t suffered—in many cases, they’ve actually seen more development and higher property values as the fumes and noise of cars have diminished. These transformations suggest that people are able to adapt, even in the face of massive alterations in urban infrastructure.
But these arguments are largely irrelevant to decision makers, because the possibility of eliminating the expressway along Chicago’s lakefront wasn’t struck from discussion because of some comparison of the merits of alternative solutions. This possibility has been largely ignored because planners and elected officials in US cities are mired in the wishful thinking of a drug abuser. They’re aware that projects that benefit automobile use will diminish transit ridership and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They just want one more dose, one more chance to address the needs of car users.
The problem, of course, isn’t just a matter of this project alone. Perhaps Chicago could achieve its climate and transit mode-share goals even with Lake Shore Drive remade as it is. The issue is that the Drive’s reconstruction is just the latest in a decades-long stream of decisions to reinforce the automobile-focused status quo rather than fight it. Every time a city makes the choice to do something like rebuilding an expressway to carry more cars than it does today, it is pulling away from the broader efforts it should be pursuing.
Opportunities like the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive come along rarely. They present the ideal circumstances to pilot new ways for people to get around—to promote change that might otherwise be impossible to move forward. Yet city after city continues to miss the chance. New York and Seattle, noted above as other cities also looking to reduce their climate impacts and increase transit ridership, are also the sites of major highway redevelopment and construction projects.
Ultimately, it is naive to believe that a city can both achieve its progressive goals and continue to invest in projects that reaffirm the way the transportation system currently works. Regional plans to double transit ridership won’t happen at the same time as space for automobile circulation is expanded. These two are irreconcilable; cities are going to have to choose what is more important to them. You can’t take another hit while you’re trying to go cold turkey.
* An extension of the highway, from 79th through 92nd Street on the South Side, was completed in 2013, but it is unconnected to the rest of the route.
» Transit agencies are losing ridership across the country. Just how bad is this problem?
Between 1996 and 2014, overall transit ridership in the U.S. grew by about 35 percent, roughly twice as quickly as the nation’s population as a whole. That increase was driven, to a large degree, by very significant growth in boardings on New York City’s Subway, which in 2017 accounted for more than a quarter of all transit trips in the country. The rest of the country kept up, seeing relatively steady increases, particularly in places where new light rail systems opened.
Yet over the past few years, the trend reversed itself. Overall ridership declined by about six percent, or almost 600 million rides annually, between 2014 and 2017. In the context of the breakdown in service on New York’s Subway, the crises of confidence in Washington’s Metro, the arrival of ride-hailing services, and automated vehicle testing, the future of American transit now feels unsteady.
To conservatives like economist Tyler Cowen, the recent trends are simply a reflection of the fact that “mass transit is largely a 20th century technology, it is being slowly abandoned, and in the United States at least its future is dim.”
Should we actually be worried about transit’s recent ridership declines—are we facing an emergency? And to what degree are they reflective of some sort of long-term transition?
These are subjects that have been (and continue to be) meticulously analyzed and researched by scholars of all sorts, so I’m hardly the first and won’t be the last to weigh in. But in the face of what appears to me as either growing hysteria (about the chances for transit’s survival), or technological/public choice triumphalism (about the fact that Americans are moving out of transit because of its deficiencies and thus that it can be abandoned in favor of new options), I’d like to take a step back to calm the waters, so to speak.
What I argue here is that what we’re seeing now is unquestionably a decline in transit ridership—almost universal among large cities. Yet there are reasons to believe it isn’t a permanent shift, given that its causes don’t appear to be primarily related to technological change. Transit’s recent woes are thus hardly insurmountable. But the future of American transit systems—their ability to support today’s riders as well as to attract new ones—is dependent on a rejection of fears of decline and a political willingness to invest in change.
How much is transit ridership falling?
Ridership on the nation’s transit systems declined steadily between its peak in 2014 and 2017, according to national-level data provided by the American Public Transportation Association, and those trends appear to be continuing into 2018, according to month-by-month statistics reported by the Federal Transit Administration.
This is the longest continuous period of declines in national public transportation use since at least 1990. Though transit ridership overall remains significantly higher than it was in the 1990s, on a per-capita basis, ridership is now reaching the depths of the mid-1990s. This means that the nation’s transit systems not only have been unable to maintain their recent levels of use, but also that they are systematically losing mode share. In other words, people are switching to other options to get around.
This is undoubtedly a depressing trend for the nation’s transit operators. But to magnify the less than 10 percent decline over the past few years into a new trend is, I think, going too far.
That’s because transit’s role in American society has been declining for decades. What we see as a recent loss is, when zooming out, more accurately the continuation of a century of efforts by public and private forces in the U.S. to diminish the role of public transportation and replace it with, primarily, private car use. A country whose cities were once largely oriented toward transit has changed direction.
As the following graph shows, transit hasn’t accounted for more than 10 percent of overall commutes since before 1970—and the share of people driving alone to work has stayed relatively steady at around 75 percent since 1990.
In other words, the significant decline over the past few years is reinforcing what has been happening for ages, probably not reflecting the availability of new transportation modes likes ride-hailing or a sudden change of interest of the public away from transit.
It’s worth, though, considering how these changes have occurred at the urban scale, within specific cities, since national-level trends only tell us so much. Given the fact that the U.S. has for decades been hostile to investment in transit and has perpetuated automobile-based travel options and related land uses, it would be surprising to see anything else for the country as a whole. That’s not as true within specific cities, where the story is more nuanced.
Among major urban regions, as shown in the following graph, most have seen an overall transit ridership decline since 2015. There are exceptions—notably Houston and Seattle—but the trends suggest a concerning decline.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the most recent ridership figures (March 2018) show higher ridership today than in 2002 in half of the urban regions profiled below. The Minneapolis, New York, and Seattle regions all have significantly higher ridership now than they did then. Moreover, while the recent declines are large, so were those in these cities between 2009 and 2011.
We also must examine changes among different transit modes. Between 2016 and 2017, all major transit modes—bus, light rail, commuter rail, and heavy rail—lost ridership. But these trends are recent; the past thirty years have been a story of growth in rail use and declines in bus ridership. Total U.S. transit ridership is about 10 percent higher now than it was in 1990, with commuter rail, heavy rail, and light rail use 52, 58, and 271 percent higher, respectively, than then. But bus use has fallen by at least 17 percent. As a result, buses now account for just 48 percent of overall U.S. transit ridership, compared to 64 percent in 1990.
Ridership declines among bus systems are practically universal. Among the U.S. urban areas with the highest bus use, all have fewer riders today than they had in 2004—except Seattle, which has 32 percent more.
Ridership on light rail systems, on the other hand, has not changed much, with the exception of a large dip in Boston and large increase in Seattle. Heavy rail use did decline on most systems since 2016, but all systems except those in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington are carrying more riders now than they did in 2002.
What can we take from these changes, then? Unquestionably the decline in bus ridership in most cities is dramatic and is, in itself, the primary cause of general ridership declines among U.S. systems.
But that decline should be put within context. Between 1990 and 1996, U.S. bus use fell by almost 14 percent. That’s a far larger decline than that between 2012 and 2017. In other words, recent trends are not a historical anomaly. Moreover, recent bus ridership peaked in 2006, eight years before ride hailing was commonly available. Finally, the decline in ridership among other sorts of transit over the past year—notably most heavy and light rail systems—suggests that whatever is occurring now is not just about bus systems.
What is causing the decline?
There are a number of reasonable explanations that might spell out why transit networks have suffered from reduced use in recent years. Noah Smith points to higher employment levels, lower gas prices, and the availability of on-demand rides. Each of those changes make it more feasible for more people to use automobiles to get around. It is also worth pointing out that the declining population of lower-income people in city centers has likely shifted a large share of transit users out of the area accessibly by public transportation.
Recent research by Michael Manville, Brian Taylor, and Evelyn Blumenberg of UCLA delves into the Los Angeles experience specifically. They find that there has been a large growth in household vehicle ownership (in part due to the ability of immigrants to get licenses), and that combined with higher fares has meant lower transit use.
Indeed, Americans have been on something of a car-buying spree since the recession. The number of vehicles per capita increased dramatically from 0.83 in 2010 to 0.89 in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of miles Americans drive per capita increased by about 5 percent between 2014 and 2017. They were driving instead of hopping on the bus or train.
What the researchers don’t find has had much of an effect are gas prices. While it is true that higher transit use nationwide between 2000 and 2008 coincided with higher gas prices, the increase in gas prices from early 2016 to now has not been reflected in higher transit use.
The researchers also argue that ride-hailing has not had much of a role to play in the declines, as LA’s ridership drops began far earlier than such services were offered. If there is increased automobile use, it is primarily in people driving around in their own cars. And in fact, there appears to be little relationship between the growth in ride-hailing and peak-hour transit ridership. This seems reasonable given the fact that in most major transit-using cities, the share of commuters using transit to get to work remained relatively stable from 2014 to 2016.
On the other hand, discretionary transit ridership seems to have been hit heavily by recent trends. New York City’s Subway system, for example, saw a roughly 2.3 percent decline in ridership on weekdays between February 2016 and February 2018. But its weekend ridership fell by 4.7 percent over the same period, almost twice as large a decline.
It seems reasonable to conclude that a combination of poor off-peak service and the availability of cheap ride-hailing options has encouraged people to stop using transit during these periods.
While many advocates have suggested that one potential solution to declining transit ridership is increasing service—pointing to Seattle, notably, as evidence for this case—the UCLA researchers aren’t convinced. I’m of mixed minds.
While it is true that the LA region offers significantly less bus service than it did in 2004—almost 15 percent less according to recent data—it’s the worst among all regions. The Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington regions all offer substantially more bus service than then (all have increased service more than Seattle), but each has seen its ridership decline substantially over the same period.
It is true that Seattle increased bus service by 7 percent between 2015 and 2018 and saw a 1 percent increase in bus ridership. But Baltimore increased its service by 8 percent and saw a decline in ridership of 13 percent. There isn’t a direct correspondence here.
Can transit agencies be acting to address ridership decline?
Increasing and improving transit service won’t automatically mean higher ridership, as the examples above illustrate. Moreover, it is difficult to avoid the broader trends affecting the economy as a whole.
Nevertheless, Seattle is special. Since 2002, its urban area transit ridership has increased by 50 percent. It has increased by 8 percent since 2015 alone. Certainly the opening of that region’s Central Link light rail line in 2009 and its extension to the University of Washington in 2016 were key changes. Effective light rail services that allow easy transfers to bus routes, combined with Seattle’s creation of several bus-priority routes, likely stemmed what otherwise would have been lower bus usage.
But perhaps most importantly, Seattle has pursued a transit policy that rewards using transit in the off-peak period. The city, for example, has increased the share of its residents who live within a 10-minute walk of a transit service that runs at least every 10 minutes all day from 51 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2017.
It also has a fare policy that encourages people to buy unlimited passes. For example, a monthly pass costs the equivalent of 36 single trips—meaning that people who ride two times a day during the week (40 trips/month) have a strong incentive to buy it. In Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, the equivalent ratios are 42, 57, and 46 trips per month, respectively. In other words, weekday commuters in Seattle, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, might as well upgrade to unlimited all-day transit. That, then, encourages them to take buses and trains during the middle of the day or on weekends “for free,” when, were they to have to “pay for it,” they might otherwise take a ride-hailing service or their own cars.
Seattle, unlike most other cities, also has discounts for low-income riders, a policy that is now fortunately being discussed in New York.*
U.S. cities won’t realistically invest in the sort of game-changing expansion of urban metro systems that the Chinese central government has undertaken over the past few years. That kind of investment (or similar improvements made throughout Asia and Europe) could, I am convinced, make a major contribution in altering American society to increase transit ridership. These projects are also evidence that there is no “slow abandonment” of transit elsewhere in the world.
U.S. cities have, thanks to destructive public policies and poor attention to service provision, chosen the ridership declines they are now experiencing.
The declines in ridership we’re experiencing today appear to be primarily a continuation of a century-long trend of general transit mode share loss at the national level, combined with a cyclical change in major cities. The last few years have meant a loss of transit users in most urban regions, and the crises in New York and Washington haven’t helped. Yet ridership will likely come back, especially since per-capita driving appears to be, once again, headed down.
Seattle’s focused investment in new light rail and improved bus service, combined with a reasonable fare policy, does seem to be working in the meantime. Other cities that make similar improvements, however, cannot assume that similar improvements will mean more riders.
But perhaps that shouldn’t even be the primary goal. Lost in the context of the discussion of ridership decline is the reality that the large majority of transit riders continue to be transit riders. A large share of them cannot afford ride-hailing alternatives or their own cars. Others simply prefer the convenience, lower price, and ease of taking transit. They deserve our attention just as much as—if not more than—potential future riders. Making their commutes easier, faster, and more affordable is a public policy goal in itself.
Despite the hoopla about the rise of ride-hailing and the excitement about automated vehicles, U.S. cities have an opportunity to attempt to address ridership decline while improving the quality of the daily lives of existing transit users. Making a genuine effort to improve their lives will, I am convinced, eventually bring more people back onto systems.
The most significant threat to transit’s revival isn’t the current trend itself. It is acquiescence to that trend. Convinced by the argument that transit is retrograde—nowhere to go but down—and unworthy of improvement, city and state officials may simply allow its slow abandonment. Those officials, however, would be making an ideological choice about the future of urban transportation, choosing a particular technological future rather than challenging themselves to make their existing transit systems work well. In doing so, they’d be leaving millions of people behind.