Resist the social engineering of mass transit but ignore the social engineering of suburbia

Mass transit in the suburbs is hard to accomplish but one of the biggest advantages of establishing mass transit now is that it can help shape future suburbia. Yet, a number of commentators mass transit efforts are folly even as they ignore how the suburban decentralized landscape came about. Example #1:

That was my first up-close encounter with the Cult of Transit. There is nothing wrong with expanding bus service and building new rail lines—provided they actually enable people to get where they are going. However, urban planners’ fixation on transit stems more from social engineering than transportation engineering. The latter develops projects that enable people to get from Point A to Point B. The former builds projects designed to change the public’s behavior—prodding them into getting around in ways the planners believe is best…

I think of my attempts to take transit to go from my exurb to downtown Sacramento. It would involve driving to a station 20 minutes away, paying for parking, buying a ticket and waiting for a train. It would take longer and cost almost as much as just driving downtown directly and parking. That train might make sense in the urban core, but not in the outlying areas, yet officials love to lecture us about our supposedly unsustainable reliance on driving.

This highlights the real problem with transit. Planners, not consumers, drive it. Real private enterprises—as opposed to firms receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies to build government-directed projects—would never build a rail system based on an “if we build it, they will come” model. They would build systems that meet customer needs rather than fulfill wishful fantasies.

Example #2:

Some propose to redesign American cities to serve obsolete transit systems: forcing more jobs downtown, building high-density transit-oriented developments in transit corridors, and turning highway and street lanes into dedicated bus lanes. Yet huge changes in urban form are needed to get a small change in transit usage, and the benefits are trivial. Transit isn’t particularly green, using more energy and producing more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average car.

Seattle has done the most to reshape itself into an early twentieth-century city. Draconian land-use policies and tax subsidies increased the city’s population density by 25 percent since 2000 and increased the number of downtown jobs from 215,000 in 2010 to 281,000 in 2017. These policies came at a terrible price: housing is no longer affordable and traffic is practically gridlocked. The urban area gained 58,000 transit commuters since 2000, but it also gained 190,000 auto commuters.

It is time to stop thinking that transit is somehow morally superior to driving and that it deserves the $50 billion in subsidies that it receives each year. Ending the subsidies would lead to a variety of private transit alternatives where people will use them and allow cities to concentrate on relieving congestion and making roads safer and cleaner for everyone else.

The suburban landscape based on driving and single-family homes did not come about organically or naturally; it was the result of government support (presidential statements, highway construction, socialized mortgages) and American ideologies. And it developed in nearly a century and a half from railroad suburbs to streetcar suburbs to mass-produced suburbs accessible by car.

Thus, I find the arguments against mass transit spending a bit strange. The suburbs occurred at least in part through direct intervention (what could be called social engineering) and over a long period of time. If planners and others wanted to change suburbia for the future, the elements of time and intervention would also be necessary. Mass transit construction in suburbs today may be much less about current results and instead about setting up an infrastructure that enables more suburban density and mass transit possibilities in the future.

All of this does not necessarily mean that planners and others want to destroy everything about suburbs. Higher densities in suburbs do seem attractive to a number of communities and residents as it allows for more housing options, more street life, and using less land. Suburban mass transit will likely not replace driving but it could enable some households to go from two to one car or provide new options and possibilities.

Trying to predict future suburban patterns is always difficult. My own research suggests planners, officials, and residents in the postwar decades had a difficult time envisioning significant growth. But, if we are looking toward the suburbs of fifty or one hundred years from now, is it so unreasonable to think some suburban areas will be denser and certain mass transit decisions made today helped guide some of those patterns? Wouldn’t we want to try to act with the future in mind rather than simply saying Americans prefer driving and sprawl now so that is the way it will always be?

The difficulties of promoting mass transit in a decentralized landscape

Mass transit use declined between early 2017 and early 2018; here is one take on what was behind the drop:

Ridership declined in all of the nation’s 38 largest urban areas (and the 39th, Providence, gained only 0.1 percent new riders). Transit systems in Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Tampa-St. Petersburg all suffered double-digit declines, with Austin losing 19.5 percent and Charlotte 15.4 percent despite being two of the fastest growing urban areas in the nation…

Transit apologists offer many excuses for ridership declines, such as low gas prices and crumbling infrastructure. But gas prices were 10 percent higher in March 2018 than March 2017 and ridership is declining even in areas with brand-new transit infrastructure.

The fundamental problem is that big-box transit — moving people in 60-passenger buses, 450-passenger light-rail trains or 1,500-passenger heavy-rail or commuter-rail trains — no longer works in American cities. Such transit made sense a century ago when most jobs were in downtowns surrounded by dense residential areas. But today only New York City comes close to looking like that.

Modern urban areas have far more jobs scattered across the suburbs than concentrated in downtowns. Job location is only one of many factors people consider when deciding where to live. The result is jobs, residences, retail, schools, and other activity centers are widely dispersed.

This discussion encapsulates several important major shifts in the United States in the last seventy years or so: the move of people AND jobs to the suburbs; a whole way of life built around driving; and an increasing emphasis on private life. All of suburbanization presents a particular issue: as noted above, it is not very efficient to use trains or buses to help people move from a variety of residences to a variety of workplaces. Unless there is a certain level of density, suburban mass transit does not appeal to many.

The mass transit available in Wheaton, Illinois is a good example of this. The suburb has two train stations that send riders to Chicago. Few train commuters use this line to go suburb to suburb – though there are some denser concentrations of suburbia along the route – and it would take a long time to go into the city and then ride another train back out to another suburban location. There is also a suburban bus system that tends to run routes between train lines in the suburbs or between concentrations of residents and areas of employment. Ridership is limited and the lines can take a lot of time compared to driving in a car.

Given all of these conditions, mass transit is a tough sell, particularly as the years go by and new mass transit projects have higher price tags.

Debating mass transit: a format for discussing whether it is dead or can be revived

Even though I did not attend a recent debate in Washington D.C. between two mass transit commentators, I wish we could have more conversations like this one:

O’Toole opened with a whirlwind of statistical bullet points documenting the transit death spiral. He seized on the latest national transit ridership data, but his message was vintage O’Toole: Government funding of public buses, trains, light rail, and streetcars has failed and should stop. “I’m fundamentally pessimistic about the future of the transit industry,” O’Toole said. “Transit ridership has been declining steadily and it’s declining in all major urban areas, whether it’s rail or bus. I don’t see hope of recovery because the forces that are causing it to decline are not going away.”

Subsidies can’t overcome what shapes people’s preferences, O’Toole argued, and what people want is to live out in the suburbs and drive their cars. In recent years, transit ridership has really only grown in places where there’s been a dramatic boom in downtown jobs, such as Seattle…

For Walker, a consultant who works on improving transit systems in cities around the world, the narrative that O’Toole spins about declining transit ridership doesn’t frame the story quite right—it’s zoomed out too far. “A lot of what seems like an urban-rural culture war is actually just people at different densities understandably trying to solve the immediate problems of where they live. The national statistics are useless. [The decline of urban trips since 1976] is also a history of urban density, of course, because transit is a response to density.”..

Rather than directly rebutting each bullet point on O’Toole’s laundry list, Walker made a more values-based case, stressing that the big problems public transportation systems now face come down to just a few things: emissions, labor, and space. And those can be addressed with fleets of electric vehicles that are either large—think electric buses—or small e-boosted bikes and scooters. He’s optimistic about self-driving technology, but believes that their truly transformative deployment will be in city bus fleets, where they could dramatically trim labor costs.

It sounds like the debate accomplished two major tasks:

  1. Each side was able to put forth their arguments. One goes more with data. The other talks more about values. Both can explain what they think the problems are.
  2. The two sides had good conversation before, during, and after the debate. They found some common ground as well as points at which they still disagree.

Contrast this to two other public conversation options often employed by colleges as well as think tanks and other organizations interested in public conversations. It is common to have a single speaker present their book, article, or idea. There might be some back and forth with the audience afterward but the format generally assumes the one expert has the knowledge to share with the audience. In thirty to sixth minutes, the speaker can really get into their topic with some detail. A second option is the panel discussion where multiple people with insight to the issue talk in front of an audience. Each person might have a few minutes to share (this can’t go on too long or it becomes multiple mini-single person presentations) and there might be some robust discussion (though this can be difficult depending on the size of the panel and the temperament of the moderator and participants).

The debate seems like a better format to discuss difficult questions like the one these two debaters addressed. It works better if the two are skilled at presenting their sides and responding to others. The audience gets to hear two sides (better than the single talk but in less detail) and the conversation is only between two sides/perspectives (perhaps worse than the panel because some views will not be expressed but it is much easier to provide time for all participants).

And as for the result of such a debate? Perhaps the goal is less about winning and more about engaged listening, conversation, and trying to find a way forward between two people who might still disagree about important points.

When more technology leads to more traffic

Americans tend to assume technology will solve social problems but what if its use in vehicles leads to more traffic?

As Greater Boston creates more jobs and attracts more residents, car commutes have slowed to an excruciating pace. But while economists love congestion pricing — i.e., making people pay for the street space they use and the damage their cars inflict on the environment — it rankles Americans who’ve been raised to view driving alone as a human right. And in cities around the country, the advent of fully driverless cars, which could be many years away, has become an excuse for not building high-capacity transit networks. Autonomous vehicles, The New York Times reported this summer, became a major talking point in anti-transit campaigns in Indianapolis, Detroit, and Nashville.

Meanwhile, big names in the tech industry are portraying public transit as obsolete or worse. “It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it,” Tesla’s Elon Musk told a crowd last year, per an account in Wired. “And there’s, like, a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer. OK, great. And that’s why people like individualized transport that goes where you want when you want.”…

What autonomous vehicles won’t do is make traffic jams disappear. Someday, a driverless car could drop you off at work at 9 a.m. But what if, instead of parking itself in a private garage — which would cost money — it just circles the block until it picks you up at 5 p.m., because we refuse to charge motorists for the use of most streets?…

That’s all the more reason why Greater Boston can’t sit around waiting to see whether and how driverless cars will evolve. We’ll never squeeze enough cars into crowded spaces to get people where they need to go. In the end, no artificial-intelligence algorithm can change the laws of physics. Plan accordingly.

Adding more vehicles to the road leads to more traffic, even if it is easier to obtain those vehicles or the vehicles can drive themselves.

While this article calls for a long-term look at whether cities like Boston should prioritize mass transit or vehicles (and then act accordingly through means like congestion pricing or spending more money on mass transit), this is part of a bigger conversation: what if Americans will do whatever possible to keep up their ability to drive/ride in cars from their single-family homes to where they want to go? Even putting more money in mass transit can only do so much if density does not increase. And in a city like Boston that is already pretty dense, that could lead to some tough conversations about more affordable housing closer to jobs rather than relying on transportation to even out differences in where people live.

Argument: mass transit service comes before demand

A history of the decline of mass transit in the United States concludes with this claim: there must be transit service in order to generate demand.

The story of American transit didn’t have to turn out this way. Look again at Toronto. It’s much like American cities, with sprawling suburbs and a newer postwar subway system. But instead of relying on park-and-ride, Toronto chose to also provide frequent bus service to all of its new suburbs. (It also is nearly alone in North America in maintaining a well-used legacy streetcar network.) Even Toronto’s suburbanites are heavy transit users, thanks to the good service they enjoy.

Likewise, in Europe, even as urban areas expanded dramatically with the construction of suburbs and new towns, planners designed these communities in ways that made transit use still feasible, building many of them around train stations. When cities like Paris, London, and Berlin eliminated their streetcar networks, they replaced them with comparable bus service.

Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented. As poverty suburbanizes, and as more jobs are located in suburban areas, the inaccessibility of transit on a regional scale is becoming a crisis.

The only way to reverse the vicious cycle in the U.S. is by providing better service up front. The riders might not come on day one, but numerous examples, from cities like Phoenix and Seattle, have shown that better service will attract more riders. This can, in turn, produce a virtuous cycle where more riders justify further improved service—as well as providing a stronger political base of support.

I wonder how much infrastructure – largely paid for by taxpayers and serving the public – differs from other kinds of innovation. Sometimes, new products meet a clear demand. At other times, a new product generates new demand that people did not even know existed.

Furthermore, let’s say for the sake of argument that this claim is true: building more mass transit lines and options would eventually increase demand. Municipalities and governments would still be left with a tricky issue: is there enough will or enough resources to pay what can be massive costs up front with a promised payoff in the future? Long-term thinking is not necessary something Americans have done well in recent decades. (And this does not even include the possibility that the big investment might not pay off.)

Finally, another way to approach this is to start with smaller-scale projects, show people that they work, and then build up to a larger structure. In many American communities, this would mean starting with bus service since plenty of roads already exist. But, many Americans do not like buses. They may be more likely to take trains but these require a lot more work and money.

Could Americans be convinced to use buses by new technology?

Technological advances to buses might make them more attractive…or they might not. Here are the five new features:

Electrification

Autonomy

Minibus/trackless train

Seamless payment

Accessbility

Two things stand out to me from the argument:

  1. Newer technology tends to make things more attractive in society. This does appear to be a general pattern though I am not sure technology alone could overcome misgivings wealthier Americans have about buses.
  2. The shifts described here tend to reduce some of the features that might be less attractive about buses: they would not be as large and they would be less tied to particular routes. This makes them less like traditional buses and more like large vans that have flexibility.

One aspect of mass transit to which I’m surprised there is not more discussion of in this argument is whether these smaller and more flexible buses would be faster for users. If so, this could be a tremendous plus. One of the promises of self-driving vehicles is that traffic flow could be better coordinated and would not be affected by drivers slowing things down.

City vs. suburbs in Nashville transit vote

An ambitious transit plan in the Nashville metropolitan area was roundly defeated by voters:

Had it passed, Let’s Move Nashville—the boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory—would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city. Depending on how you do the math, the scheme would have cost $5.4 billion or more like $9 billion, funded by a raft of boosted local taxes. More than 44,000 voters across Metro Nashville’s Davidson County came out in favor of the referendum, with more than 79,000 voting against it…

That’s a simplified version of the city’s politics, of course; while the vote fell broadly along urbanite versus suburbanite lines, a map reflecting the vote tally, and not just the vote result, would look more purplish. But not all that purplish. In the end, a vision for transforming transit in Nashville could not transform the politics of the city.

“There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments),” writes Emily Evans, managing director for healthcare policy for Hedgeye Potomac Research, in an email. Evans previously worked as a municipal financial analyst and served on the Nashville City Council for nine years.

A complicated plan like this has a lot of moving parts that voters could either support or vote against. At the same time, it can be a difficult sell for those outside the city core or in the suburbs to support mass transit plans that (1) they feel are not as necessary since they are able to drive where they need to go and (2) that might bring new people to their neighborhoods. When given a choice and their own personal resources, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit, particularly if they would have to pay more for something they do not perceive helping them.

I would suggest this gets back to larger issues of whether regions really want to work together. Can cities and suburbs both thrive due to joint projects and shared resources? Or, is this a zero-sum game where resources can taken from one area and given to another in the same region is seen as a loss? The voters of Nashville remain to be convinced that mass transit is a big enough boon for themselves, let alone everyone.