Using the data embedded in the Transit Explorer database, I calculated key statistics on how transit investment has changed over time in the United States and a number of other countries. These data point to some intriguing trends, notably a decline in investment stateside combined with significant expansion in countries like Canada, Egypt, France, Israel, and Turkiye (I have not yet assembled data for countries in south and east Asia, where transit expansion is proceeding even more quickly).
Over the past century, transit construction in the US waxed and waned. Overall, the number of kilometers of rail transit systems added reached its apex (at least since the 1920s) in the 1990s, when about 1,000 kilometers of new commuter rail lines were opened. During the first decade of the 2000s, the country added the most heavy rail (subway/metro) and light rail lines, generating more than 500 new kilometers over ten years, a record.
Since 2010, however, rail transit construction has lost steam in the US. The number of kilometers opened declined by about 30 percent between the 2000s and 2010s, and the first few years of the 2020s suggest further decline by 2030. At the current rate, less than 500 new kilometers of rail transit will open by then—the lowest figure since the 1970s.
Nevertheless, among the countries in the Transit Explorer database (meaning, excluding Australia, plus south and east Asian countries), the US now has the most kilometers of metro rail (heavy rail or light metro). As of 2023, it has about 1,350 kilometers in operation, of which about a third are in the New York region.
But the growth rate of active metro lines in the US has been slower than in other countries since 2000, increasing by only about 10 percent in route length (the US population grew by 18 percent over the same period). The length of metro systems more than doubled in Brazil and increased by 45 percent in Spain, by contrast.
And there are about 1,700 kilometers of metro in operation in the European Union’s seven most populous countries (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, and the Netherlands), whose collective population is almost identical to that of the United States. Their metro route length has increased by 30 percent overall since 2000—three times as fast as the US. (Those countries’ populations collectively grew by only about 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2021.) It is worth noting that Russia’s urban metro rail systems have also expanded tremendously since 2000, outpacing Spain as of 2022.
We can see similar trends when examining the number of light rail, tramway, or streetcar stations in operation across the countries in the database. Since 1980, US cities have invested heavily in light rail, adding about 1,370 stations nationwide. That’s a lot, but it is less than in those seven EU countries combined (2,100 stations), and even just in France (1,450 stations).
And some countries, like Italy, are planning very large investments in new tramways in the coming year.
Transit expansion plans, of course, vary by metropolitan area. Among regions in the US and Canada, New York has by far the largest number of line kilometers of light or heavy rail, followed by the Bay Area, Mexico City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Toronto.
But New York actually has fewer active heavy rail lines in service than it did in 1950. And neither it nor Chicago has added much light rail or subway service since the turn of the millennium. Neither has any major expansion plans actually funded for completion over the next five years, either.
Los Angeles, Montreal, Seattle, and Toronto, on the other hand, stand out as having the largest transit expansion plans in terms of new route kilometers that are currently under construction or planned, meaning projects are funded and almost ready for construction.
And when controlling for urban area population, New York is arguably an under-performer when it comes to overall transit route length. The New York urban area currently has fewer light or heavy rail kilometers per capita than the Baltimore, Bay Area, Denver, Philadelphia, San Diego, St. Louis, and Washington, DC regions. It goes to show that having the maximum amount of transit route length isn’t necessarily directly correlated with having the most transit ridership; the New York area carries more people on transit than all those regions combined.
But New York, as noted, also stands out for having no light rail or subway projects that are either under construction or funded. This situation contrasts strongly with the Minneapolis and Seattle urban areas, whose rail transit expansion plans are the largest in the US on a per-capita basis.
New York’s limited transit expansion prospects are particularly remarkable when compared to the plans of many other world regions. Cairo, Istanbul, Paris, Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Toronto each have many light rail or metro lines under construction today—and many more kilometers planned (Paris is likely to soon overtake London and New York in terms of total kilometers of such routes). London, on the other hand, has none.
Different regions are investing in different ways. Among routes that are currently under construction, Casablanca, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Seattle, Tel Aviv, and Toronto have focused heavily on light rail projects. Cairo, Istanbul, Lagos, Montreal, Paris, and Riyadh are building at least 50 kilometers of metro rail each. And Bogota, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro are building many kilometers of bus rapid transit.
The result of all this expansion is that New York’s once-dominant position as having the world’s longest metro network—a position it claimed from London in the 1910s—has eroded. New York pulled down many of its elevated lines and didn’t do much to expand its Subway network. Meanwhile, London took on the mantle in the 1980s through its expansion with the Docklands Light Railway, and, through systematic, relentless expansion, Moscow took the crown from London in the 2010s. Systems in East Asia are even larger. At the same time, Paris, Cairo, and Istanbul have massive expansion plans with many new lines opening over the next five years.
These conditions overall tell a story of declining US commitment to transit expansion in the context of large growth in other countries around the world. There are some exceptions—Seattle, in particular, has a big investment in new lines planned. But while the world is building out ever more accessible transit systems, the US appears to be falling behind.
Last year, three lines Americans have been waiting on for decades—the Green Line extension in Boston, the Crenshaw Line in Los Angeles, and the Silver Line to Dulles Airport outside Washington—finally opened. Though they took years to be completed, they were greetedenthusiastically by riders and political officials content to bring better service to more people.
Similar reception greeted new rail and bus lines opening in Athens, Cairo, Guadalajara, Helsinki, Paris, and dozens of other cities around the world. And much more is planned for 2023: Finally, Long Island Rail Road service will reach the sub-sub-sub-basement of Grand Central Terminal. Toronto’s Eglinton light rail line will connect the city crosstown. And Honolulu, Gebze, Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Thessaloniki will get their first metro services.
This year, I leveraged data assembled in the Transit Explorer database to identify which projects opened in 2022, which are planned for opening in 2023, and which will be under construction this year—for a later opening date.
The Transit Explorer database now includes all fixed–guideway urban transit systems (meaning rail and bus rapid transit) across North America, South America, Africa, and nine Western European countries, plus metro systems throughout Europe and in parts of the Middle East. Transit Explorernow includes about 29,200 urban transit stations and about 6,700 urban transit lines (covering 78,000 kilometers). (It also includes some intercity rail systems.) These are the geographies for which I provide details about transit line openings below.
Overall, 517 kilometers of new fixed-guideway urban transit services opened in 2022 across the countries covered by the Transit Explorer database. Of these, the countries with the largest increases in kilometers were the United States (196 kilometers); Egypt (77 kilometers); Mexico (60 kilometers); France (39 kilometers); and the United Kingdom (34 kilometers).
Baku: 2 km Purple Line metro extension from Avtovagzal to Khojasan
Montreal: Creation of 11 km SRB Pie-IX bus rapid transit route through the east side of the city
Almost 1,100 kilometers of fixed-guideway urban transit is planned to open in 2023 in the parts of the world covered by Transit Explorer. Of these, about half will be in the form of metro rail services. The countries with the largest expansions planned for opening are the United States (242 kilometers); Saudi Arabia (169 kilometers); Turkiye (127 kilometers); Mexico (98 kilometers); and Canada (78 kilometers). That said, all investments aren’t equal: 57 percent of new US route kilometers will be bus rapid transit or arterial rapid transit. In many other countries, new kilometers are much more likely to be metro rail or light rail services: Saudi Arabia (100 percent); Turkiye (83 percent); and Canada (93 percent).
Rio de Janeiro: TransBrasil, 32 km bus rapid transit route
Edmonton: First phase of Valley Line, 13 km light rail route
Among the countries in the Transit Explorer database, there will be roughly 1,900 kilometers of new fixed–guideway urban transit projects under construction in 2023, but planned to be opened after 2023. About 43 percent of those kilometers will be in the form of metro services. 554 kilometers will be under construction in the United States, 305 kilometers in France, and 172 kilometers in Canada.
» With rail rapid transit construction in virtually every major Chinese city, the country is betting on an urban future focused on transit.
Faced with limited political will for increased infrastructure funding, the debate over transportation planning in the United States has become increasingly dominated by an austerity-driven understanding of how to respond to growth. Unwilling or unable to develop ambitious plans for the future, many cities and their public officials have contented themselves with doing more with less.
Doing more with less is a strange maxim for an incredibly wealthy—and still growing—nation. Nevertheless, it is a pathology that has so altered many American planners’ sense of the acceptable that the mere idea of a master plan of significant investment attracts little more than dismissive scoffs. With blasé planners and uninterested politicians, “doing more” is readily transformed into actually doing very little.
But it is perhaps only in the act of comparison that the illness of American planning is made apparent. For in examining how one place acts in the context of another we can see whether the malignant cancer to which it has become resigned is, in fact, a factor of unavoidable shared inheritance, or if, rather, it is the consequence of its own poor choices that others have not made.
Evidence, indeed, suggests that there are choices when it comes to planning, that it is possible to have more, not less. I point to Chinese cities, which over the past ten years have acted to seize the reigns of transport planning through aggressive investment.
Having been reliant on bicycle transportation for much of the 20th century, Chinese cities were models of unmotorized mobility. But the country’s opening to capitalism in the 1990s brought massive motorization and the purchase of millions of automobiles. Millions of rural inhabitants streamed into urban cores. Many of the cities were woefully unprepared to respond to the sudden changes that ensued; until 1995, only one Chinese city—Beijing*—had any metro line, by which I mean fully grade-separated rapid transit.
What has occurred since then, however, has truly altered the way people use transportation in Chinese cities, and the changes will keep on coming.
Metro construction in these cities has exploded, rising exponentially especially since 2008. A country largely bereft of metros in the 1990s now has more than 5,000 kilometers of metro lines, more than four times the U.S. figure, which has increased very slowly since the 1960s. 25 Chinese cities now have systems, and the number is rising every year.
Some estimates suggest that Chinese cities will have more than 10,000 kilometers of metro lines by 2020. That’s in addition to the almost 1,000 kilometers of bus rapid transit, hundreds of kilometers of tramways, and massive commuter rail systems that have been built in cities around the country—not to mention the enormous high-speed rail network that has been constructed since 2007.
The “riding habit”—the frequency of transit use per capita—has risen quickly in city after city. Guangzhou and Beijing now have greater use of their systems than any American city except for New York, with the average resident there taking 189 and 167 rides per year, respectively, compared to 230 per year in Gotham. Beijing and Shanghai systems now each carry more than ten million daily riders, the two highest figures in the world. And they have both doubled their ridership since 2010. It seems likely that the other cities following their path in line construction will eventually follow their lead in ridership, too.
Metro construction in China is largely the product of a massive central government investment. Between 2010 and 2015, the nation spent the equivalent of $189 billion on such lines, and between 2016 and 2020, it is expected to spend between $262 and $308 billion more. The U.S. government dedicates about $2.3 billion per year in total for all transit projects, so less than one-fifteenth of the Chinese investment.
The story of Chinese investment in metro systems might be chalked up to processes of urbanization that were familiar, too, to U.S. cities in the early 1900s. It is easy to forget that American residents of major cities were the most reliant on transit in the world at the time, and that before the Great Depression, efforts to build subways and elevated rapid transit were widespread (if ineffective).
Yet actions in Chinese cities today are examples of contemporary planning, not simply responses to a particular historical moment that all cities eventually go through. The unabashed commitment to investment in rapid transit in city after city through support from the national government is an effort that never had its equal in the U.S. The growth in metro systems is being conducted in response to, not before, the increase in automobile dependence. Line construction is being undertaken in parallel with massive creation of dense new neighborhoods, a legacy whose hysteresis will produce generations of transit riders.
While Chinese cities have frequently been poor models of urbanism—massive highways, malls, and tower-in-the-park apartment blocks have taken root in too many places—they appear to be at least minimally cognizant of the reality that a future of unlimited automobile growth is unsustainable. Unlike any American city, for example, cities from Harbin to Shanghai to Shenzhen have implemented caps on vehicle registration and are examining congestion fees. Thus the growth in metro construction is being implemented in line with restrictions on overuse of cars.
The feats of Chinese infrastructure development are often dismissed by Western critics as the unrealizable actions of an authoritarian, illiberal country with no property rights, a poor citizenry, too-dense neighborhoods, and sheer government power. Its actions, then, are supposedly not meaningful for the deeply democratic American context.
Yet this is too much of a gross exaggeration of what is actually happening in China. While it is true that the country is authoritarian, land cannot simply “be taken” with no response from residents. Incomes have increased dramatically many of the larger cities, creating a middle class of individuals ready to contest projects they don’t like. Investment isn’t cheap; Chinese metros, while not as pricey as American ones, aren’t much cheaper to build than their European counterparts. And the residential areas that have been created around metro stations are intentionally dense, the product of a decision to be dense, not the product of poverty.
The difference between U.S. and Chinese approaches to planning for growth through transportation, then, really gets down to this question: are cities prepared to make the commitment to change, or not? American cities have largely abandoned the effort, hoping and praying that they may eventually wean people out of their cars through such under-supported devices as commuter incentives and tactical urbanism. Chinese cities, aided by massive central investment, are building a new society for themselves.
» Platform screen doors could save lives, reduce trash on the tracks, and improve the customer experience. Yet they’ve been repeatedly pushed back as a solution in cities like New York. At fault: A bureaucracy that isn’t able to plan for technological change and is unresponsive even to its own board members.
Charles Moerdler wants to make the New York City Subway better for its passengers, but he keeps getting blown off. His story is parochial in that it is relevant directly to New York, but it is also generalizable—representative in its own way of how American transit agencies respond to the availability of new technologies, even when those new technologies can save lives and improve operations.
Moerdler may be one of the most prominent, if unrecognized (perhaps even by himself), advocates of what are known as platform screen doors. These glass doors, which line the edge of train platforms and prevent people from jumping, falling, or being pushed onto the tracks, are installed on rapid transit systems all over the world. They are aligned with a train’s own doors and are designed to open when a train pulls up. They can play an important role in improving transit safety, in many cases literally saving lives, and they can prevent people from throwing trash onto the tracks, a typical cause of system-disrupting track fires.
Yet they’re also virtually non-existent on rapid transit systems in the U.S. Why is that?
I’ll return to Moerdler in a second, but suffice it to say that his advocacy has been repeatedly and condescendingly rebuffed—I document the instances below—by leadership at the agency that runs the Subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), where he is a board member. Partly as a consequence, like many other systems, the New York City Subway remains dangerously susceptible to people getting hit by trains and service disruptions. No progress, at least in the public eye, has been made on addressing this problem. This public bureaucracy seems incapable of adjusting to technological change.
Platform screen doors: A worldwide phenomenon for rapid transit, except in the U.S.
Platform screen doors may be familiar to anyone who has used an automated people mover at airports from Chicago O’Hare to New York JFK, and they have a number of benefits. They allow platforms to act as insulated rooms, physically stopping people from jumping or falling onto the tracks—a particular plus for blind people. They prevent people from trashing the tracks—a major cause of subway delays. They allow trains to enter stations at higher speeds, and they make it far more feasible to air condition those stops.
Doors can be installed at full heights, completely isolating the platform from the tracks, or they can be installed more cheaply at a lower height. They can be installed at all stations along a line, or just some of them. They can be added on lines that are automated, and on others that are not.
The MTA suggests that platform doors could require platform edge reinforcement, electrical upgrades, and a new interface between trains and signals. So determining the relative importance of lives saved and reduced trash fires resulting from platform doors, compared to other potential investments, is needed for any system considering their implementation.
Clearly, many cities have decided they’re worth the cost. The below map illustrates all of the rapid transit systems around the world—excluding airport people movers—noting in yellow and green those systems with platform screen doors at at least some of their stations (click to expand).
As the map shows, none of the major rapid transit systems in the U.S. include such doors—not New York, but also not Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Washington. Only Las Vegas’ monorail, a tourist attraction, and Honolulu’s line, now under construction, include them.
In Europe and Asia, however, platform screen doors are quite common. They’ve been installed on new systems in cities as disparate as Bangkok, Chengdu, Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore, Toulouse, and Turin. They’ve been added to existing lines in places from Beijing to London and Paris. And many cities are installing them now.
In South Korea, there have been particularly significant efforts to incorporate platform doors at existing stations. In Japan, the government has recommended their installation at every station with at least 100,000 daily commuters and identified a significant reduction in accidents following their addition. The doors are common on every rail system in China.
In other words, the doors are ubiquitous for new rapid transit lines in the wealthier parts of the world. Except for in the U.S.
Return to New York
One explanation for the difference may be the manner in which American transit agencies approach technological change. Which brings us back to Charles Moerdler.
Yet my examination of MTA board minutes suggests that he’s been given misleading answers to his queries about the possibilities of such doors at least eight times, by a panoply of different officials, over the past five years.
In March 2012, then-MTA President Tom Prendergast told Moerdler that platform doors were being considered for installation, and he said they could improve safety, comfort, and timeliness of trains. Then- and now-MTA chairman Joe Lhota said “we will look at” the doors, though he suggested “it’s not something I think we’ll see, quite honestly, in your lifetime or my lifetime.”
In January 2013, an MTA Senior Vice President said the agency was considering the possible use of platform door barriers and other mechanisms to check for intrusions on the track.
In May 2014, Moerdler generated discussion among board members about the potential for platform doors to address safety and operational issues, to no real response from MTA officials.
In June 2014, then-New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco suggested that two initiatives, including intrusion detection and the feasibility of platform doors, “are ongoing.”
In November 2016, then-New York City Transit President Veronique Hakim “agreed to look into the feasibility of a pilot program for the installation of platform doors,” according to the minutes. Another board member noted that the agency needed a study to examine the issue.
In February 2017, Subways Senior Vice President Wynton Habersham said that the issue of platform doors “is currently under consideration, and agreed to get back to [board] Members with further information at a future date.” He agreed to produce a report on the cost and feasibility of platform doors in New York.
In March 2017, Habersham “agreed to consider the use of platform doors,” and the agency suggested a “comprehensive study” was being explored at that moment.
In September 2017, Moerdler was again promised by agency officials that platform doors were possible, and the idea had not been abandoned.
The MTA has never produced a comprehensive analysis of the potential for such doors, nor has it committed seriously to installing them. The way in which Moerdler has been treated is indicative of the agency’s unwillingness to invest in new technologies. For years, the agency has been responding to him as if the public is on the cusp of learning about the potential for platform doors, and yet responses over the years collectively indicate little progress.
Perhaps the MTA does, in fact, have something forthcoming. And the fact is that there has been repeated evidence that the MTA is at least minimally interested in investing in such technologies. In 2007, agency officials suggested that the Second Avenue Subway could include such doors. Board members designated $2.4 million in funds for platform doors in the 2010-to-2014 capital plan; this expenditure was delayed and supposed to be completed in December 2016 (it wasn’t). The agency complained about the difficulty of implementation in early 2013, noting that door installation would be costly, have to respond to varying train lengths, door placements, and differences in station designs. In February 2016, the MTA suggested it would put platform doors at the L train’s 6th Avenue station. By November last year, the agency noted that the S shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central might be a better option.*
All along, people kept getting hurt and, in some cases, dying. Just last year 102 people were accidentally hit by trains at stations, and another 51 allegedly or definitely attempted suicide by jumping in front of trains.
The agency’s response to Moerdler isn’t just evidence of an embarrassingly inappropriate relationship with board members. It’s also a disappointment for riders.
To be fair, I would be remiss to avoid mentioning the challenges the MTA would face if it were to attempt the installation of platform screen doors. The doors generally require several basic features to work: Trains that stop in the almost-exact same place every time; level and even platforms; and train doors that are always located in the same place.**
Stopping trains in the same place each time they arrive at stations typically requires advanced signaling, a feature that New York’s Subway is notoriously lacking. Level platforms require renovations. Train doors being located in the same place is difficult to achieve with a mixed fleet of trains featuring doors in different locations. Achieving any of these features would not be simple, and it would require MTA dedicate new funds to be accomplished.
Yet there are MTA services that are already practically ready for the installation of such doors. The L train has advanced, CBTC signaling that is similar to automation and can guarantee reliable stopping. It also has a train fleet whose doors are all located in the same place. Once the 7 train’s CBTC renovation is completed, it too will have those two features. So, interestingly, does the Q train’s just-opened portion under Second Avenue in Manhattan. The first two feature congested platforms where the dangers of falling in front of a train are real. And all three need to keep the tracks clear of trash to maintain appropriate operations.
But, at least as of now, the MTA has no plans to add platform doors to any of the lines. One explanation may be that the agency wants to hold off for a future in which it changes the location of train doors.
Promoting technological change
It’s hard to understand why, exactly, the management of American transit agencies act in the manner that they do. While they could use more funds in many cases, the biggest agencies work with billions of dollars of capital and operating funds, more than most agencies in Europe or Asia. While they’re public sector bureaucracies, so is virtually every other transit agency in the world. While agency leadership keeps changing, many staff members have remained there for years. While boards aren’t particularly responsive from a democratic perspective, neither are the heads of transit agencies in most other countries—and, even if they were, it’s hard to believe that issues like platform screen doors will ever rise to the top of issues relating to popular protest.
The best explanation I have is that management is simply uninterested in making the decisions necessary to bring their technologies up to speed. Given their (real or imagined) sense of being constantly under siege, transit agency leadership would prefer to just keep the existing system working as it does today: Better safe than sorry. And the repeated complaints of one board member, not backed by others and not likely to raise the concerns of the political official who appointed him (the governor), simply doesn’t matter enough.
It is also undoubtedly true that the fact that platform doors can, for now, only be installed at some stations, on some lines, poses a political challenge to doing it anywhere. Yet that hasn’t prevented the improvement of service in some places over others. And in the places where it is possible, the primary problem is a lack of foresight and coordination. If, when the MTA had begun renovations on the L or the 7, it had committed to platform doors, it could have simply incorporated their installation into the overall renovation plan, as have other cities. Including them now wouldn’t represent such a struggle. Comprehensive planning about multiple elements of a project clearly is not the agency’s high point.
There are reasons for hope, however. About two years ago, I wrote about the complete failure of American transit agencies to purchase open-gangway trains, which increase capacity by allowing people to walk between cars—a failure that could not be attributable to technology or cost and that was degrading customer service. Agencies offered surface-level, unreasonable excuses for their approach.
But in January 2016 (surely not just, if at all, as a consequence of my article), the MTA announced it would purchase an open-gangway train, and a portion of a prototype has been built.
It will take decades for the full fleet to be converted, but the decision signals that there is a willingness, somewhere deep in the heart of American transit bureaucracy, for change.
» In New York City, transit providers create new services to handle disruptions—even when existing lines can support the load.
Beginning early this month, PATH—the metro rail system operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that connects Manhattan and Northern New Jersey—began installing new signals, forcing the closure of a section of its network in New York City. In the process, the agency is providing a bus shuttle service as a substitute over the course of 17 weekends, shuttling passengers on an above-ground route between the Midtown business district and the World Trade Center, where PATH trains continue to run.
All of this might make sense under normal circumstances; in fact, in places like Chicago where rail lines have been shut down, bus service replacement has worked well. Yet in New York, the service being replaced runs on a corridor shared by other subway lines*—but they’re managed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) instead. Those lines not only are faster than the buses PATH is providing, but they show up more often, and they connect directly underground to the World Trade Center (which the buses do not).
Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas delved into the details—and appropriately condemned—this service change last week. PATH has chosen to shuttle its passengers rather than take advantage of existing New York City Transit Subway services, giving them vouchers to use on the buses instead of working with the MTA to let riders take advantage of the trains it is running. It is a disappointing reflection of the state of cooperation between the Port Authority and the MTA.
Yet I can’t help chiming in, too, to discuss the mentality of transit operators that choose to pursue this course of action. For, while PATH’s “bustitution” is uniquely problematic, the agency’s perspective on how to act is hardly rare at all. Indeed, as I’ll describe below, given their general understanding about how to operate, it is a surprise that we don’t see more actions of this sort by transit agencies in the U.S.
Operators act as if their riders are incapable of using other services—or as if those other services simply don’t exist
It is possible that the Port Authority asked the MTA to provide free transfer rides to its PATH riders arriving at the World Trade Center, and the MTA declined the idea. Or perhaps the Port Authority determined that providing riders vouchers for rides on the MTA would be more expensive than operating the relatively minimal-cost substitute bus (see below). Even so, the decision to “bustitute” smacks of agencies that don’t believe customers should be transferring between services.
PATH’s approach is to assume that its customers can only take PATH-branded services, and thus that if the PATH rail line isn’t working, they’ll have to take a new PATH bus. Other transit services might as well not exist.
PATH, of course, is hardly alone in this approach. The MTA was capable of producing a map that demonstrated “regional transit connections,” including the Subway, PATH, and other services—but only during the Super Bowl in 2014. Otherwise, the Subway map treats PATH (which carries more than 250,000 riders a day) as a minor railroad hardly visible on the map, and with its service in New Jersey simply not shown.
In Chicago, the commuter rail agency Metra and the local metro rail system, the CTA ‘L,’ share stations at two points (the product, no doubt, of clearheaded thinking at some point decades ago), yet riders are provided no discount to transfer between these services. When required by state legislation to provide a single, shared fare card, the commuter rail agency responded by cooperating on the development of an app that can’t be used to board a CTA bus or train.
These agencies operate with isolation mentalities, ignoring the fact that their riders may well want to take advantage of other transit services, or even (gasp!) that many of them already do.
This approach has nefarious consequences that extend not only into the service that operators provide but also into the projects they choose to build. When planning a new route, for example, agencies often ignore the potential for improving existing services operated by other agencies; this results, for example, in BART pushing a multi-billion dollar expansion of its services to San Jose instead of encouraging local stakeholders to invest in improving existing commuter rail services such as Caltrain or Altamont Corridor Express.
Operators act as if they are in competition with other operators
Behind PATH’s decision to provide users a bus to substitute for its weekend service outage is the sense that the agency is somehow in competition with New York City’s Subway network. The agencies both provide services under Sixth Avenue, but to transfer between trains requires leaving one system and entering the other. From the rider’s perspective, the relationship between the two services is confrontational, rather than cooperative—and the weekend “bustitution” furthers this impression.
What’s ironic about this arrangement, of course, is that both PATH and the New York City Subway are run by public agencies (supposedly) serving in the public interest and receiving public subsidies to operate and construct projects. Each receives funding from the federal government to maintain infrastructure. Each operates on a tax-free basis. And each is controlled by state governments (in the case of the Port Authority, its management is 50 percent controlled by the State of New Jersey). One would think they might have an incentive to work together.
In other cases, transit agencies are even more directly linked. In the Chicago region, for example, both CTA and Metra receive operating subsidies from the same regional sales tax and from the same state matching funds (MTA and PATH have different operating subsidy sources). Yet those agencies’ management is divorced from one another and neither is compelled to consult the other when developing service plans or integrating fare systems.
The results are familiar to transit riders in many parts of the country: Difficulty making multimodal transfers, confusion about which services operate where and when, and additional costs when using multiple operators.
Sources of operator isolation
It is worth noting that the “bustitution” provided by PATH will not be particularly expensive to provide on the grand scheme of things. Using the information provided by PATH about its weekend service, I estimated that the agency would need a total of four buses to provide service—such a small number that the organization can surely scrounge up the buses from its existing airport fleets.
Assuming operating costs of New York City Transit buses in 2014 (from the Federal Transit Administration’s database), the total costs of operation will be between $720,000 and $930,000 for all of the relevant weekends (depending on whether you calculate based on average cost per vehicle revenue hour or revenue mile). These costs would account for less than a third of a percent of PATH’s $342 million 2016 operating budget.
Nevertheless, it would be cheaper for both transit systems overall for the MTA to simply absorb the transferring PATH riders during the weekend shutdowns. This would require no additional operating costs on the part of the Port Authority and likely nothing for the Subway system either, as it has the capacity to absorb these weekend passengers. But this would mean the MTA and the Port Authority would have to work for the good of the general public, not just their respective riders or agencies.
To place the blame for the operator malfunctions described above on the operators alone is almost as bad as the actions of the operators themselves. For while it is true that operators often have a lot of responsibility for the way they interact with their peers, it is also true that their economic and political makeup often obligates them to act as they do.
Transit operators in the U.S., as noted above, are universally subsidized. Those subsidies are provided to operators based on pre-set parameters that have been negotiated over time between elected officials, the public (through referenda), and the operators. In general, the subsidies are attributed to operators without operating requirements. As a result, operators are often free to make their own decisions about how to spend their funds, without required consideration of regional needs, potential overlap with other agencies, or direction from political officials.
Most transit providers are public authorities with boards appointed by elected officials representing local, regional, and state governments. In many cases, the same elected officials appoint officials to multiple transit boards; New York’s governor appoints representatives to both the MTA and the Port Authority, for example. This setup might imply that elected officials have some oversight responsibility (or sense of obligation) to make the right decisions for transit riders.
In regions where transit services are consolidated, such as in Boston or Minneapolis, these conditions are less problematic. State leadership holds transit service accountable and sets priorities for system expansion. And one agency (MBTA or Metro Transit) is tasked with setting service standards, and the agencies generally have an incentive to encourage riders to experience the system as a whole, not just a collection of lines.
That said, even in Boston, unified control of the transit system under one agency hasn’t prevented such absurdities as it costing riders $6.75 to ride between Braintree and South Station on commuter rail and only $2.25 to make the same trip on the Red Line subway. The commuter rail line, yes, is nine minutes faster—but it also runs only 18 times a day in total, versus every 9 to 12 minutes on the Red Line.
A better grasp on what regional goals are for transit networks in general, and a commensurate focus by elected officials on telling agencies what to do, rather than letting agencies operate in isolated fiefdoms, would aid American transit riders. In places with multiple transit agencies, it probably shouldn’t be up to individual operators to determine which services to prioritize, or what fares to charge, or where to expand, or how to deal with a major service change due to construction.
Elected officials rarely take responsibility for running transit services effectively and responsibly, the sort of “Sewer Socialism” Sandy Johnston has focused on of late. Transit agencies shouldn’t operate in a vacuum, devoid of political involvement (despite their considerable public subsidies), but they often do—and they do so with the explicit support of politicians who don’t have the interest, engagement, or expertise to demand better. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo should force the Port Authority and the MTA to work together. His constituents should demand that he does.
* Riders trying to get from Midtown near Sixth Avenue (where the PATH runs) to the World Trade Center have several options on the Subway system: Taking the 1 to Chambers Street; the 2 or 3 to Park Place; the E to World Trade Center; the A or C to Chambers Street or Fulton Street; or the R to Cortlandt Street.