Mass transit agencies developing land to generate revenues

The actions of New York’s MTA – Metropolitan Transportation Authority – suggest a way American mass transit agencies can generate money: through partnering on transit-oriented development.

That is what inspired Harrison’s Halstead Avenue project, a $76.8 million mixed-use real estate development built in collaboration between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees the Metro-North, and developer AvalonBay Communities. It is the first time ever that the Metro-North will sell a parcel of its land for transit-oriented development (TOD); in this case: 143 apartments, 27,000 square feet of retail space, two pedestrian plazas, and a 598-space parking garage, most of which is reserved for the public and commuters…

The New York MTA, the largest transit agency in the U.S., is becoming more familiar with this type of construction. The Hudson Yards project—where the MTA decked over its train yards, and sold the rights to developers for $1 billion to build an entire Manhattan neighborhood on top, with a new subway line extension beneath—is perhaps the largest TOD project in American history. At One Vanderbilt Avenue, an office building being constructed across from Grand Central Terminal, developer fees to the MTA will pay for interior improvements throughout the huge hub.

But the Harrison project marks a new direction for the cash-strapped MTA, which is on the hunt for new revenue: Decades of underinvestment and recent ridership declines have left the MTA with a projected $433 million budget shortfall, a gap that a recession could worsen. Meanwhile, critics agree that Manhattan’s soon-to-come congestion pricing scheme cannot alone cover the cost of the subway system’s badly needed overhaul. Capturing revenues from transit-oriented development on MTA-owned lots could help. So the agency is eyeing projects in suburban communities outside of Manhattan, with the hopes that the prospect of economic development will prod smaller towns to plot their futures near its train stations…

Transit agencies in Europe and Asia are much more likely use development as a revenue tool much more commonly than their U.S. counterparts. David King, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied transit-oriented development, said that this is largely due to the fragmented (and car-centric) nature of land and transit planning, capital investment and operation in the United States. For example, as a state-regulated public authority, with a variety of funding pots for capital and operating costs, the MTA has to comply with home rule for a housing project.

Private transportation firms in the United States have promoted and/or participated in development for years. It was good business for transportation providers to promote travel and now more accessible properties. Railroad and streetcar lines made special trips to the end of their lines where they would then sell riders on new properties.

What could make this more complicated in the United States is that transit agencies could be drawing on public funds and the United States has a history of concern about how public funds are used for development. If public money helps support traditional suburban life – think the single-family homes and highways the federal government and others groups helped make possible before and after World War II – then there may be limited outcry. Try using such monies for affordable housing, particularly for poorer residents, and opposition will arise.

Thus, this project in suburban Harrison, New York fits existing patterns. Transit-oriented development along rail lines in suburban downtowns is very common and desired by many suburbs. The project is not too big. It sounds like the suburb wants some denser downtown development. It does not involve housing considered too cheap by the community. But, whether this tactic could expand across metropolitan regions remains to be seen.

Connecting residential segregation, highways, mass transit, and congestion

Historian Kevin Kruse suggests the traffic congestion in today’s big cities is connected to segregation:

This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.

While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place…

[S]uburbanites waged a sustained campaign against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) from its inception. Residents of the nearly all-white Cobb County resoundingly rejected the system in a 1965 vote. In 1971, Gwinnett and Clayton Counties, which were then also overwhelmingly white, followed suit, voting down a proposal to join MARTA by nearly 4-1 margins, and keeping MARTA out became the default position of many local politicians. (Emmett Burton, a Cobb County commissioner, won praise for promising to “stock the Chattahoochee with piranha” if that were needed to keep MARTA away.) David Chesnut, the white chairman of MARTA, insisted in 1987 that suburban opposition to mass transit had been “90 percent a racial issue.” Because of that resistance, MARTA became a city-only service that did little to relieve commuter traffic. By the mid-1980s, white racists were joking that MARTA, with its heavily black ridership, stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”…

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

Translation: decisions about transportation were both a consequence of a national inclination toward racial and ethnic segregation and an ongoing contributor toward racial and ethnic segregation. In a country that is relatively sprawling and prefers cars, determining who has access to transportation and what kind of transportation is available can be part of who can get ahead.

While the root cause of all of this may be racial issues, it is interesting to consider this as a congestion issue. Would the public be convinced to change transportation infrastructure because they dislike sitting in traffic? The evidence from Atlanta as well as numerous other American cities (such as developing a regional transportation effort in the Chicago region) suggests this is not a strong argument. Wealthier residents are hesitant to ride buses, trains may be tolerable, but driving is still preferred even when so many hours per year are devoted to it. Suburban Americans like cars and they like the ability to exclude and I would argue the second is the master priority when push comes to shove.

Two data points in transportation change: NYC subway ridership peaks in 1946, US non-commuter rail traffic drops after 1945

That the automobile came to dominate American social life and physical spaces after World War II is clear in multiple ways but two recent points of data I saw helped drive this point home.

Start in an obvious place: New York City. On one hand, the use of mass transit in New York City is unparalleled in the biggest American cities. On the other hand, subway ridership peaked in 1946:

1946: Subway ridership peaks

Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.

To a less obvious place: Toledo, Ohio. In the late 1940s, the city proudly constructs a new train station amid a growing population and optimism about the future. And then train traffic fell off dramatically across the country:

In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.

There is little doubt that the car is a nearly essential part of American culture today but it was not always this way nor is it guaranteed to be in the future. Reversing or countering a major trend is always difficult, particularly when its tentacles are everywhere and embedded in infrastructure and culture. To truly move to other forms of transportation would require not just fewer cars and vehicles on roads but a massive reconfiguring of American society.

A test of taking Lyft from the train to the suburban office park exposes mass transit issues in the suburbs

One company in the Chicago suburbs is running a test to encourage employees to take the train to get close to their office and then use Lyft to complete the trip:

The two-year program aims to solve the “last mile” problem — how to bridge the gap between the train station or bus stop and the rider’s final destination. This problem is especially nettlesome for reverse commuters, who live in the city but work in the suburbs at jobs that are sometimes far from transit stops. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the RTA…

GlenStar Properties is paying 75 percent of the cost of transporting employees at its Bannockburn complex on Waukegan Road to and from Metra stops in Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest. The Regional Transportation Authority is picking up the rest of the cost, up to $30,000 during the pilot…

The program, which launched in March and is the first of its type in Illinois, is starting small with just a few trips a day, according to the RTA. Bannockburn Lakes tenants get a monthly Lyft pass for the rides.

Many suburban companies, including Walgreens and Allstate, have some kind of shuttle bus program to get workers to and from Metra stations, said Michael Walczak, executive director of the Transportation Management Association of Lake-Cook, a nonprofit that works with companies and the private sector to figure out transit issues.

This is an interesting way to solve a common problem in both cities and suburbs: how to get people and goods that last step (or “last mile”) between a mass transit stop and their destination. Even in cities with good mass transit, the last step can cause a lot of problems.

This strikes me as the pragmatic solution to the larger problem of limited mass transit in the suburbs. The Chicago train system runs on the hub and spokes model where suburban communities, typically their downtowns, are connected to the Loop. This system may help funnel people into the center of Chicago but it is both difficult to get around the region and the train lines run into historic town centers, not necessarily the work and residential centers of today. Ride-sharing can help make up the difference by connecting train stops to workplaces. This can limit long-distance solo trips by car and allow more workers to not have a vehicle or to drive significantly less.

On the other hand, this solution could be viewed as less-than-ideal reaction to the real issue: sprawling suburban sites do not lend themselves to mass transit and the ride-sharing solution is just a band-aid to a much bigger issue. Chicago area suburbs have tried versions of this for decades including public bus systems in the suburbs to connect office parks to train stations, buses from remote parking lots to train stations, and private companies operating shuttle buses (as noted above). This all may work just for a limited number of workers who are located near rail lines and who are willing to use mass transit. But, most suburban workers – and they tend to work in other suburbs – have no chance of using timely and convenient mass transit to get to work. The densities just do not support this (and the office park in the story illustrates that this may be more feasible with denser concentrations of workers).

If companies, communities, and regional actors truly wanted to address these issues in the Chicago region, a more comprehensive plan is needed to nudge people closer together to both take advantage of existing mass transit and develop new options.

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.