Defining a social problem: “transit gaps” or “transit deserts”

One skeptic of the concept of transit gaps explains his concerns:

The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology recently unveiled its AllTransit Gap Finder—an online mapping tool designed to point out areas with “inadequate” transit service. It’s a good effort, and it’s certainly good that we have more tools for understanding transit demand…

A transit gap is some kind of difference between transit service and transit need or demand. But need and demand are different things. A need means that there are people whose lives would be better if they had transit. A demand is an indication that transit service, if it were provided, would achieve high ridership.

These terms correspond to the two opposing goals of transit service. If the goal of service is ridership, then it should provide excellent service where there is demand. On the other hand, many people who need transit wouldn’t be served if transit agencies ran only high-ridership service. So transit agencies run a certain amount of service for the non-ridership goal of coverage, which responds to need. In other words, they spread service out so that everyone has a little bit, even though low ridership is the predictable outcome. This critical distinction is explained more fully here. It’s a difficult budgetary choice about dividing resources between competing goals, one that local governments need to think about…

Although AllTransit’s claims are framed in misleading terms, the idea of being able to accurately see exactly how well any given neighborhood is served by transit is a laudable one. Over the years I’ve written about other efforts to get this right. An especially important idea, buried deep in the overly complex methodology, is that a transit quality index should be about where you can get to in a given amount of time, rather than what transit is available. In my own work I routinely use this measure to describe the human benefits of transit service changes, because getting to destinations, and having a choice of more destinations, is what makes for a great life.

There seems to be two issues here: separating community values from possibilities as well as how to best measure transportation options. No city has an endless pot of money with which to fund mass transit. Yet, I imagine proponents of transit deserts would note that the general American orientation is toward driving and roads while mass transit has to regularly scrap for money. The measurement issue is hopefully an ongoing conversation as researchers with different decisions and aims work to find measures that both reflect the social realities as well as provide helpful information for residents and local governments.

But, I also suspect that this is critique is missing a key concern of some of those working in the food/transit/grocery stores/parks/medical care desert literature: the key is which groups are most affected by these deserts or have less access to these necessities. Many of the deserts – however defined and regardless of the goals of the community – seem to affect lower class and non-white residents. One could argue that a community might not have the resources or vision to extend mass transit to a particular area but this does not necessarily address the issue of residential segregation that is alive and well in the United States.

Unusually successful experiment: the CTA Yellow Line

The CTA Yellow Line to Skokie was constructed in the 1960s and quickly became a success:

The proposed transit test brought together a unique trio: a federal agency looking to improve transit, a city rail system experimenting with expansion, and a suburb grabbing at the chance to maintain a rail connection to the city. Funding for the concept was split between the three parties—$349,217 came from the Department of Housing and Development, $1,837,415 from the CTA, and $37,193 from the village of Skokie. At the conclusion of a two-year test, the parties would figure out next steps…

After one day, the CTA logged 3,959 riders, and almost immediately added weekend hours. By early 1965, 6,000 riders a day rode the Swift (the CTA estimated that the service removed 1,000 cars a day from the highway). The CTA logged more than 3.5 million rides during the two year test period, and by 1967, the passenger load had grown 170 percent from already-high 1964 numbers, hitting a record high that year of 8,150 riders a day. Chairman DeMent told the Chicago Tribune that it was “a perfect example of how good rapid transit can induce motorists to leave their cars at home.” Not only did the service prove itself, it made a profit of $216,717 on revenues of just under $800,000 in its first two years of operation. At one point, the Feds actually asked for $250,000 of their funding back.

This success didn’t necessarily lead to much change across metropolitan areas:

In short, the experiment wasn’t replicated. As some writers at the time noted, other Chicago suburbs could have set up similar lines, and even had the abandoned rail lines to do it; the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Railroad, which ran through western suburbs such as Wheaton and Glen Ellyn, lay dormant beginning in 1961 (to be fair, the line was eventually turned into the Prairie Path, a wildly successful rails-to-trails conversion). In the late ‘60s, Skokie voters rejected a bid to apply for a federal transportation improvement project.

Perhaps most importantly, during a period of highway expansion and urban renewal, the money wasn’t there, and additional capital for building such systems from scratch was hard to come by. Just look at the 1967 federal transportation budget. Of the $5.35 billion spent, only $160 million, or 3 percent, went to transit. As Joe Asher, a writer for Railway Age, wrote in 1968, “the streets and highways of U.S. cities suffer arteriosclerosis, the urban population chokes on auto exhaust, and one downtown after another gets chopped up to make room for new spaghetti-bowls of highways.”

It is hard to convince suburbanites to use mass transit unless it has significant advantages compared to driving. The Yellow Line to Skokie seems to offer such advantages: a relatively short ride with Skokie right outside the city, a big parking lot, and a fast train. But, could this work further out from the city? What if the train was a slower commuter train or a bus? Or, if parking was hard to find in the suburban lot?

Rather than seeing the Yellow Line as a model to follow, perhaps it is difficult to replicate. That does not mean cities shouldn’t attempt similar efforts – we have a good sense of what building more highways leads to – but they should be realistic about what is possible.

Bus ridership down in America

Fewer Americans – 13% – are riding buses compared to ten years ago.

I’ve argued before that Americans perceive mass transit options as having different statuses. For those with more resources, trains and subways are preferable. If those are not easily accessible or the person has reached a certain status in life, driving is a must.

At the same time, bus service is relatively cheap for cities and communities to provide. Because American cities are often planned around cars and have spent decades trying to efficiently move vehicles around, adding or subtracting buses to adjust service levels is doable. In contrast, constructing new trains or subways can be incredibly costly and require years of work. It may be that in the long run trains and subways are better options to plan around but that requires a long-term commitment.







The ongoing difficulty of Chicago suburb to suburb commuting

The Daily Herald’s transportation writer details the difficulties of taking mass transit between Chicago suburbs:

My odyssey was prompted by the annual Dump the Pump Day, which encourages people to embrace public transit instead of driving.

Here’s a recap of the two-hour, 36-minute voyage to work:

• 8:20 a.m.: Boarded a Metra BNSF train in Downers Grove that arrived at Union Station.

• 9:23 a.m.: Caught a Blue Line train to Rosemont after a short walk from Union Station and a fight with a Ventra machine.

• 10:13 a.m.: Arrived at Rosemont and transferred to Pace Bus Route 606 at 10:30 a.m.; reached work at 10:56 a.m.

The tedious reverse commute lasted two hours, 57 minutes.

• 2:49 p.m.: Boarded Pace Bus Route 757 in Arlington Heights en route to the Forest Park Transit Center.

• 4 p.m.: Left on Pace Bus Route 301 headed to Oak Brook Center.

• 5:03 p.m.: Departed on Pace Bus Route 322 to Yorktown Center at 5:23 p.m.

• 5:30 p.m.: Took Pace Bus Route 834. Arrived in Downers Grove at 5:46 p.m.

By car, the trip is typically 30 to 40 minutes in the morning and 30 to 60 minutes in the afternoon, depending on traffic.

There are some easy answers as well as some more difficult discussions. The easy reasons to start:

  1. Mass transit in the region was constructed in an earlier era when many more people wanted to commute from suburbs to the city. The suburb to suburb trip is a product of recent decades.
  2. There is not money to do mass transit in the suburbs. This applies both to constructing mass transit (such as rail options) or attracting riders (with buses) who have too many starting points and endpoints.

But, given that so much commuting is now suburb to suburb, why aren’t there some more consistent options? Two deeper reasons:

  1. Infrastructure – not just mass transit but other systems including water – are in trouble. We are decades behind in providing good infrastructure. If it is any consolation, highway systems aren’t in much better shape as they often wait too long to add lanes or new routes (and it is debatable how successful these efforts are anyway.) It is both a funding and planning issue.
  2. Wealthier suburbs and suburbanites don’t really want mass transit. They don’t want to pay for it and they don’t want certain people coming to their community. They can generally afford driving and they like the freedom (and the exclusivity) it provides.

Overall, there is both a lack of will to build and use mass transit in many suburbs.

Mixing shopping malls and transit centers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong demonstrates a very different model of shopping malls compared to the American suburban mall:

Hong Kong has more than 300 shopping centers, but most of the city’s malls don’t sit on asphalt parking lots; rather, they’re above subway stations or underneath skyscrapers. In my book “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption,” I describe how some are connected to so many towers that they form megastructures—cities in and of themselves that can accommodate tens of thousands of people who live, work and play without ever going outside. Hong Kong also has the world’s tallest vertical malls—“mall skyscrapers” that rise up to 26 levels, with crisscrossing “expresators” that shoot shoppers high up into soaring atriums…

As convenient this urban form may be, it does come with strings attached. In the case of Union Square—as in many other podium-tower developments—the mall is deliberately placed at the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office and transit areas…

For millions of residents and pedestrians, then, entering commercialized areas becomes an inevitability, not a choice. It normalizes a culture of consumerism: Everyday life is played out on the terrain of the mall, and the private shopping atrium takes on the role of the public square. Because Hong Kong’s apartments are small—its summer climate hot and humid—the mall becomes a default gathering place. And why not? There’s plenty of space and the air-conditioning is free. And while you’re there, you might as well browse around the shops and spend some cash…

The Asian hyper-dense urban mall is also making an appearance in American cities. Miami has Brickell City Centre, a five-story mall in the heart of the city. Covering three city blocks, it’s topped by three high-rises (and was built by a Hong Kong developer). New York City is building a seven-story mall attached to two skyscrapers in Hudson Yards, America’s largest private development. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus—the centerpiece of the World Trade Center—has a mall with over 100 stores, with its white-ribbed atrium attracting an army of tourists taking pictures with selfie-sticks. Since the hub connects office buildings with train and subway stations, the stores are also “irrigated” by the 50,000 commuters who pass by each weekday.

American shopping malls tend to get a bad rap: they take up a lot of space with their endless parking lots, they often require a car in order to get to one, and are centers of consumerism. The Hong Kong malls eliminate two of these major issues: they are a more compact use of space and don’t require cars. Indeed, it is clever to combine mass transit space with a mall. However, these integrated malls may present even larger consumption issues since travelers have to go through these spaces rather than choose to go there. Isn’t this the complaint about gift stores in museums, zoos, or amusement parks where you finish an exhibit or ride and then have to go through the items for sale? And mass transit is supposed to be a public good so it may be a bit strange to mix it so closely with private profit-making. (I wonder if the transit facilities/authorities could take a cut of the sales in these transit malls and funnel more money into transit systems. Is this a way to fund necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvement in the United States?)

I’d love to see an analysis of how sales change when people are intentionally funneled through consumption spaces like this.

Improving transit options in Las Vegas

It may be an iconic scene to drive down the Strip in Las Vegas but the city is looking for ways to improve transit:

But consistent growth has forced a city known for sprawl to start to change its ways. Last year, voters approved a measure that ties fuel taxes to inflation, a move that will address the region’s $6 billion shortfall in road infrastructure. In addition, the Regional Transportation Commission approved a new long-term plan to expand light rail down the Maryland Parkway and massively expand bus service. In mid-March, the RTC submitted a proposal to build a multibillion-dollar light rail system that would connect the Strip with McCarran International Airport.

The Strip has limited transit solutions, most of them privately funded by the gaming industry. A series of free trams that travel from casino to casino allows tourists to move up and down the western side of the Strip without using cars. In 2004, a 3.9-mile monorail opened just to the east of the Strip that serves casinos on that side as well as the convention center. The city also created a double-decker public bus named the Deuce that exclusively serves the Strip…

Brown says comparing Vegas to other cities, especially those in the Northeast with subway and rail systems, isn’t fair. Vegas has a different growth pattern due to the influx of tourists and the large number of workers who serve them—all of whom need to move to one place—and will need a different type of technology to solve its transport issues. “Vegas is about as unique a place in the world as you can find.”

Autonomous vehicles are one option that could improve congestion, lower emissions, and appeal to tourists’ desire for novelty. Brown wants infrastructure that can support and take advantage of that technology. The city and RTC are aggressively courting autonomous vehicle companies and studying “high capacity corridors” throughout Southern Nevada to prioritize opportunities for bus rapid transit.

These options sound like they would help. In particular, giving people an option to take a train from the airport to the Strip is something that should have been done years ago.

At the same time, these are primarily changes that would take advantage of the existing road structure (outside of the monorail and light-rail options). Perhaps it is too much to ask for a city with such important structures – the sprawling casinos built along the Strip – to attempt to create a denser, more walkable streetscape. The amount of work that would need to be done to better tie together the casinos would be massive. But, as someone who has walked the Strip multiple times, wouldn’t it create a more exciting experience for tourists? Wouldn’t it reduce traffic and the long lines at the taxi stands? Maybe the true goal of the Strip is get people to do their recreational walking within the casinos – stroll through Venice or Ancient Rome so you’ll spend some money there – but there are some bigger questions about urban planning than just providing a few more mass transit options.

Snowproofing the morning commute

Hearing the morning travel times near Chicago this morning, I wondered what it would take to reduce the abnormally high drive times due to the lake effect snow. The short answer is easy: get more people to take mass transit. But, this may not be doable. Here’s why:

  1. Not desirable. Even with the troubles presented by daily commuting via car (high costs, getting stuck in traffic, road maintenance), this is what Americans choose to do, even when they have other options. It is simply too attractive to be able to go and leave when you want and to not have to be close to other people while doing so.
  2. Not practical. Much of the American lifestyle, even in a city like Chicago, is built around the car. We have our own private homes with yards and garages (even in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods), we don’t put much emphasis on promoting street life, and our activities (work, school, recreation) tend to be all spread out. If you wanted to get rid of your car, you would need to live in denser areas – which do exist – but this would be a significant change for many.

Another way to put it is that days like today might be terrible for commuting but they are likely not enough to cause significant lifestyle changes. Americans have a high tolerance for putting up with commutes and having to use mass transit 300+ days a year isn’t worth it to many.

An additional option would be to delay commutes on days like these. Can’t more businesses and institutions provide more leeway to commuters? This might free up some road space if more people could delay their start or work from home.