A New (Old) Framework for Urban Transit: Encouraging Urbanism through Transit

A New (Old) Framework for Urban Transit: Encouraging Urbanism through Transit

(A potentially easier to read PDF version can be found here).

The Problem: The Urban and the Car

In many ways, the automobile is a wonderful invention. Like many transformative technologies, it can be viewed as a direct extension of human capacities and capabilities. It allows an individual, or a small group, to travel long distances at high speeds, as well as to carry tremendous amounts of stuff, stuff which would have often been too bulky, heavy, or numerous to realistically carry by hand. The oft repeated refrain that the car promises freedom may be cliche, but in certain real ways it is true: it allows an individual to travel a route of their choosing, on their own schedule, at any time, and to do so in relative comfort. The social tradeoffs and the past hardships of travel are, to a large extent, gone from the consciousness of the person with a license and access to a vehicle. It is also a distinctive and highly visible consumer good, a potential symbol through which those who are so inclined feel they can project something of their personality and individuality. For these reasons it shouldn’t be surprising that the car has captured, at one time or another, a large share of the world’s imagination, as well as a large share of its investment dollars. The private automobile is a powerful tool, and accomplishes much that that is difficult or cumbersome to achieve by any other singular means.

The car, however, comes at a price. Part of this price, of course, is economic. Though in theory drivers in the United States are supposed to pay their own way through gasoline taxes, this has never encapsulated the entire picture. While until recently this fee has covered the majority of interstate and major state highway construction and maintenance, there is strong evidence that through the combination of inflation, an aging yet expansive road network, and a stubborn refusal to increase it, this is no longer the case, and more and more money has had to come from governments’ general funds (Vuchic 1999). Even when this system was working, however, it was never quite the economically efficient user fee it is sometimes imagined to be: it costs the same per mile to drive on a massively expensive urban expressway as it does on a relatively affordable rural highway, a cross-subsidy which hides the opportunity costs of the former. Combined with the fact that US gas taxes have never made a serious attempt to recover the environmental effects of burning gasoline, we have a system which dramatically inhibits price signaling. What’s more, there are hidden subsidies to uncover. What this system has never paid for has been the local streets that are necessary for any road network to be useful. This cost comes from the budgets of counties and municipalities, who must keep up the level of maintenance and the burden of costly reconstruction as larger highways generate ever more trips, more cars and strain on these local networks. These costs, ultimately, come from local tax payers, that is to say, the public at large. Such subsidies are not always public, either: the costs in terms of land and maintenance of a parking lot for a store, for example, is not free, but is instead spread across the price of all the goods sold. Finally, private cars externalize onto individuals much of the cost of tranport that had, at one time, been centralized in a single fare. The capital costs of the vehicle, the cost of maintenance, of insurance, and operating costs (that is, the time spent driving) are all born the owner. Moreover, these fees are usually in the form of sunk or periodic costs, and are thus not directly connected to the amount of driving done.
Private automobiles can also extract a large social cost. Most obvious is the aforementioned externalization of costs: a large segment of society is economically excluded from car ownership for they simply cannot afford it. In certain regions, this can turn into a self-replicating cycle, for the inability to access certain jobs and/or the amount of time that must be spent on what little public transit exists can result in a certain class of people being kept at a constant economic disadvantage. Perhaps even more fundamentally, however, is the simple fact that not every individual is able to operate a car regardless of their economic condition. The young, the elderly, people with various disabilities, and a host of others are either not able or allowed to drive. Any system of mobility which is based solely or primarily around the car will exclude these groups.

The car brings with it a further cost, one which is not as widely discusses as its social and economic aspects. Put simply, cars and urban spaces simply do not get along. As the Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl puts it, there is a collision between the city and the car. In urban spaces, land is a precious and scarce resource. This is clear to anyone who opens the real estate section of a dense city’s newspaper, or who attempts to navigate a crowded city street. Cars, however, take up a tremendous amount of space, far more than that of an individual on their own. Some have estimated that the average automobile has a footprint roughly equal or larger than the average white collar worker’s office space (Vuchic 1999). This is easiest to visualize in regards to parking: a suburban office building where every worker is expected to commute by car must have a parking lot at least equal in square footage to the office spaces of that building, not including the space required to move those cars in and out. Moreover, since the majority of auto trips are completed with a single passenger, the land taken up for storing cars is essentially fallow much of the day. Making matters worse are the physical characteristics of the automobile: they can only move forward and backward within a certain turning radius, and must maintain a certain safety distance between them in order to maintain any significant speed, both of which increase the land required. Streets, the main public areas and common ground in a city, the physical form of the network that connects all buildings and places, must suffer the brunt of this pressure. Gehl has created a famous series of photographs, in which approximately fifty individuals occupy a standard city street, first in automobiles, which takes up the entire street, then in a bus, which takes but a tiny piece, and finally on foot, which is smaller still. Therefore, in order to accommodate the automobile as the dominant form of transit, a city needs to construct (or reconstruct) itself with massively wide streets and dedicate something approximating fifty percent of its habitable space to parking. This has a knock-on effect: as buildings and other spaces like parks are pushed farther apart by roads and parking lots, walking becomes less and less an option. Distances are greater, and the land that must be traversed in usually incredibly aesthetically unpleasant. Worse still, none of this has mentioned the other environmental effects of the car in close proximity, in particular the amount of noise they create, and the speeds at which they travel, speeds which are generally unsafe to driver and pedestrian alike unless their respective spaces are kept physically or legally separated. Car require very dramatic changes to the urban environment, creating spaces which in turn actively discourage other forms of transportation. Automotive space today tends to reproduce itself as automotive space in the future.

The question, therefore, is what do we want our cities to look like, and how do we want them to function? A city can exist with the car as its primary mode of transit; places like Houston are testament enough to that*. Such spaces come with the visible and hidden costs outlined here. Urban space, however, space that is sized for human beings to traverse, easily navigate and comprehend, and at the very least has the potential to be pleasant to inhabit, simply cannot easily get along with cars as the dominant form of transit: they simply take up too much space. If we seek to ameliorate the costs of the automobile, to encourage spaces which are more equitable socially and economically, as well as as to make and preserve spaces which are human scaled and more livable, different mobility options are a necessity.

*There is an argument that even this is only possible in the short term, given the realities of global warming and the difficulties of peak oil, a discussion which goes beyond the scope of this paper. However, even if one can create a green automotive system, based say on electric vehicles and renewable electricity, the majority of these costs still hold true.

The Problems of Existing Public Transit

Most systems of public transit in America are an afterthought. Such systems are usually envisioned primarily as a social service, a means to transport those who cannot afford a car or are unable to drive, and as with so many social services, are politically forced to operate as cheaply as is possible with the bare minimum level of service that is possible. Transportation planners make the explicit distinction between dependent riders and so-called choice riders, and in most cities have either readily acknowledged that they have no means for attracting those who have other transportation choices, or have tried and failed to do so. Such transit systems are usually run by infrequent buses, allowing the meager funds allocated to be spread over cheap to operate vehicles which can piggyback on existing automotive infrastructure. And yet, even with all these limitations and cost cutting measures, there are still those who question why these systems, systems which primarily carry the poorest stratas of society, cannot pay back their operational cost out of fares.

Such bus systems make it clear that their riders are, at least in some regards, second class citizens. This is in part due to the social stigma of buses: after all, in an aspirational society, few want to be seen using a system imagined mainly as a support network for the poor. It is also due in part to the quality of the buses themselves: they have far less ride comfort than similar rail vehicles without the ameliorating comforts, luxuries, or privacy of a private car. But it is also more explicit. A bus on a public street, carrying up to fifty or more people, is treated the same as any other individual vehicle. They are slowed by the same traffic, the same lights, and to make matters worse, are slowed further by the frequent stops they must make and the difficulty of merging back into traffic. In essence, a normal bus acts as a slower car, shared with many people, and with a limited schedule around which one has to plan their life. Such a system has most of the drawbacks of a car without most of the advantages, and precious few advantages all its own. To add insult to injury, for choice riders, whom have a tremendous sunk cost in their automobile and its ongoing maintenance and operation costs, this system extracts an additional per trip fee, a cost which is far more visceral and intermediately visible than the analogous increase in costs from driving. Given all this, it should surprise no one that bus systems have a tremendous difficulty attracting anyone who has alternatives.

Mass transit such as light rail and metro systems tend to be far more successful then their bus counterparts, but also come with issues all their own. The largest by far is their tremendous fixed capital costs. For many places, this makes their construction politically untenable, particularly as unlike an expressway, where the connection between gasoline taxes and trips is somewhat vague, the connection between fare and capital expenditure is easily grasped. Transit systems are still regarded by some as having to directly and quickly pay back their capital costs, ignoring all the externalized issues discussed above. Even in cities which are willing to consider the expenditure, raising funds is a difficult task. Unlike highway construction, where the federal government will pay a full 90% of construction costs (with the other 10% usually being pick up by the state), municipalities are expected to pay significantly out of pocket to meet their transportation needs. There are federal mass transit grants, but they are harder to obtain and less numerous than the ubiquitous roadway finance systems already in place. In addition, such systems often take time to develop a significant ridership, particularly if they are designed to alter the long term physical morphology of the city. Since the majority of the expenditure is upfront, this burdens a transit authority, a municipality, or a state with a significant debt burden for a large period of time, and leaves these projects open to further political attack. Another concern is that fixed mass transit, by its nature and because of the limited amount of funds available, privileges certain neighborhoods over others. The political muscle necessary to achieve such projects usually means that the neediest riders are not the ones served first, and even when they are, subsequent development pressure and gentrification may push them elsewhere. Finally, these systems are largely fixed in place: while bus routes can easily be changed to meet shifting patterns, a luxury which built structures lack. This is mitigated by their potential long-term effect on physical growth, but creates a tremendous amount of pressure to do things right the first time.

Finally, most existing transit systems, whether they be bus or mass-transit oriented, have a distinct core focus: they concentrate on bringing individuals between one or more central business districts or concentrations of office or industrial parks and distinct residential neighborhoods. This star pattern has a distinct logic to it: a large percentage of daily trips are commutation to and from work, and these workplaces are often centered in places of high traffic congestion, hopefully meaning a higher patronage, particularly amongst choice riders. Such trips are easy to measure and to quantify, but they are not the entirety of transportation, much as working isn’t the be all and end all of human existence. Quick trips to the store, excursions to theaters, or visiting friends and relatives are far harder to measure, and far more dispersed. Systems which privilege commutation are often time consuming and difficult to navigate for other trips, be they to non-downtown stores, or worse yet, other neighborhoods. Such radial systems encourage the rigid types of use separation, the gulf between places of work, places of entertainment, and places of residence, that can be so harmful to the life and safety of the city (Jacobs 1961). Moreover, when such trips are neglected by public transit, they must fall into the realm of the car. This not only encourages the negative spatial and social effects outlined above, but also means that even the most transit-minded individual will face strong pressure to own a car, with the fixed costs thereof. These fixed costs in turn can make public transportation start to seem a less financially preferable option.

A Quick History: How we got here, and a possibility for getting out

There is a common narrative for American urban history: cities were, and indeed had to be, dense until the coming of the automobile, when technology and policy came together to allow the explosion of suburbs and sprawl. While there is undoubtedly truth to this story, it ignores an important middle phase: long before the dominance of the car, the American landscape was dominated by the streetcar. From approximately 1880 through the second world war, streetcars were ubiquitous (Cudahy 1990). Cities were not alone; every town of any note had a streetcar line, and much of the rural countryside was laced with so-called interurban networks. By the turn of the century, it was proclaimed that one could travel from New York to Chicago one local streetcar network at a time, if one had the time and patience. These services followed a general pattern: they would receive an exclusive charter to place rails and serve a certain route in return for a promise of a certain frequency of service and a uniform five cent fare. Lines would often initially be a single track with trains running every half hour or so, and would be built into dual-tracked, much more frequent networks as the regions they served filled in. All of the sudden, the distance individuals could live from their job or from shops or entertainment was quadrupled, and so-called streetcar suburbs, medium density neighborhoods of tightly packed houses and small apartments, came to surround almost every city (Warner 1978). This move was so fast, and the concentration of business in the center city was so dominant, that for a generation or more almost all activity, be it working, shopping, or entertainment, was performed downtown, merely a nickle away (Fogelson 2001).

Larger cities were laced with such railways, sometimes with multiple companies having tracks on the same major streets in center cities. Between the streetcars and horse carriage traffic (some personal, most business related), traffic snarled. Beginning with New York in 1869, cities first looked up, elevating rail traffic, then with Boston in 1897, putting it underground. Such investments, particularly for subway construction, were massive, and required government investment for no single corporation was willing to take the risk (Derrick 2001). These contracts generally followed the same general pattern: a route monopoly in exchange for service guarantees and a nickel fare. However, even with the massive capital investment, either for part of a subway or to build to outlying districts with little population at the time of opening, the general consensus was that such contracts were a gold mine- if residents lived along a certain route, they had no other choice for their transportation needs.

In many ways, this first wave of suburbanization set the tone for that the car would later take up and amplify. But as the private car spread and the motorized bus became practical, some shortcomings of the streetcar came to the fore. The rails meant that streetcars had to stop in the middle of the street, blocking other traffic. If something blocked the track, a streetcar could not go around it; a bus, however, could. At the same time, the snarl of horses and trains was only made worse by the coming of auto based shoppers. Few had ever commuted using a horse and carriage, for there was nowhere to store and take care of private horses in the center of a city), but now, if parking could be found, a car could be left all day (Fishman 1987). Meanwhile service on the streetcar and mass transit lines had been getting worse and worse. Many had never upgraded their equipment or their tracks. More importantly, the inflation following the first world war meant that a nickel no longer had the same buying power it once did. The five cent fare, however, was so popular- it had opened up whole new types of transportation, such as leisure trips- that traction companies were unable to have their contracts modified to raise what they charged. The combination of declining service, public monopoly status, and their high visibility made streetcars and transit providers one of the most vilified industries in the country. Along with electricity and gas, the first Public Service Commissions in the United States came into being to regulate street railways.

As lines started to go bankrupt, and as buses began to replace rails, there was an outcry from segments of the population. In the interwar years, the service provided was still essential. Moreover, streetcars had advantages no bus could match: they traveled faster, rode smoother, and carried more people more comfortably, something that remains true to this day. Municipal ownership was often held up as a solution, and was taken up during and following the second world war, but by that point it was often too late: ridership was declining, many lines had already been converted to buses, which were getting cheaper, trains were old and needed replacement, and the five cent fare remained sacrosanct. None of this would change until service hit rock bottom in the early 1950’s, and fares, usually under government control, began to rise, and bus substitution continued.

Beyond the attempt to transfer control and ownership to the public, little was done to protect the streetcar. Lanes were not set aside for it; in a sense, this was unthinkable. Space was being carved out everywhere it could for the new car constituency, and it would seem lunacy to remove perfectly good stretches of road for old-fashioned trains. Under no circumstance would a portion of the population find giving up valuable land which was viewed as so necessary for cars acceptable. Those who preferred the streetcar could either get used to buses or buy their own automobile. But more fundamentally, a good segment of the population had already turned on the existing system of public transit. For them, the car represented more than just the freedom to travel, it meant the freedom from an overbearing corporate oligarch. Sure, it would cost more out of pocket, but that had to be preferable to being fleeced for private gain one nickel at a time. And while this monetary gain was no longer a reality by the interwar period, transit was not yet a public entity. Many cities, Detroit and Los Angeles in particular, had city wide referendums to determine whether to invest in subways or expressways (Fogelson 2001). The votes were close, but transit, for the time being, lost, and suburban America boomed. It would not begin to make a renaissance until it was firmly a service for the public good, run by the state.

Towards the end of this period, prior to the US entry into the second world war, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit company or BMT, one of the three competing subway and street transit companies in New York, came upon an idea. They realized they had a system of four modes, each of which was a step up in capacity, comfort, and capital expenditure. These were, from smallest to largest, buses, trolley buses (a type of electric bus run by two overhead wires, a popular transition device for streetcar operators), and subway/elevated rail lines (Cudahy 1990). It was quickly realized that new lines could be started as buses and, if traffic grew, a little capital could be spent to upgrade them to faster, more frequent trolley buses. If the line grew more, rails could be laid for higher speed, higher capacity transit, and if and when the time came, a subway or el could be built in its place. The BMT would never have much of an opportunity to put this pattern into practice; a victim of the rigid five cent fare, it went bankrupt in 1940 and was merged into the publicly owned New York City Transportation Authority. But this elegant solution with its ability to allow ridership to grow with gradual upfront capital costs, along with the lessons of what made the streetcar less appealing that private automobile, provide a lesson for the future.

A New Framework for Transit

If we are to attempt to create mass transit systems which work to preserve and generate urbanity as well as work to increase economic and social equity, we will need to work with what we have. In this era of austerity, money for projects will be tight, particularly given the massive amount of need. Even if funding for massive projects were available, there is some evidence that such an inrush of capital could be catastrophic for the neighborhoods involved (Jacobs 1961). It is here that we can repurpose the four-part hierarchy of the BMT, the method of working from the bottom and scaling up what we have in order to create a holistic transit system.
To that end, I propose a four part framework for urban transportation: walking, bus rapid transit, light rail transit, and heavy-rail subways and metros.

1.) Walking

It is striking that the most basic way humans get around is usually forgotten in systems that exist to create mobility. For all of us save those confined to wheelchairs or in some way invalid, every trip begins and ends with a walk. And yet, we do little to actively promote it.

The field of transportation studies has a term called trip generation (Meyer et al. 1965). It comes from the observation that adding more lane-miles of highway added to a metropolitan area does little to increase congestion, and in fact, actually makes things worse- the promised ease of new roads encourages individuals to take trips they otherwise wouldn’t have taken before, and to take such trips more often. Thus, very quickly, the new roads are filled and the cycle repeats. With rare (but notable) exceptions, urban places do not lack places to walk, even if they are crowded. Rather, the more pleasant we make walking, the more we encourage it, and the more walking trips we generate (Gehl 2010). Here, little things make a large difference. Wider sidewalks with tree canopies help, as does the relocation and/or redesign of furniture which blocks busy streets (such as signs or garbage cans). Slowing traffic, separating it from walkers (such as with parked cars or plants), and prioritizing the experience of the pedestrian over the speed or freedom of flow of traffic all help. The more active a street is, the safer it feels to walk on, and the more interesting it is to take in. The same can be said for a variety of stores and homes, which add visual interest to the neighborhood. Thinner, taller buildings can make distance seem much shorter compared to long, horizontal ones. And though it is a bit of a tautology, the more aesthetically pleasing the environment is, the more likely it is people will want to spend time in it. Each of these ideas comes from Gehl, and in research, he has discovered that such changes not only encourage more walking trips, but actually encourage walkers to walk further than they otherwise would; adding interest makes the trip seem shorter (ibid.). At the same time, encouraging walking shares almost all of the characteristics of quality urban space. Encouraging walking encourages urbanity, and vice versa.

Achieving better walking conditions will not come overnight. Much of the built environment today is antithetical to walking. Where there are sidewalks, buildings are often very far apart, separate by massive roads and parking lots. Such not only increases the distance individuals have to walk, but also, because the walks are often so bland and indistinct, seem longer than they actually are. It will take time and a gentle hand to encourage such regions to change. Of vital important is changing the zoning laws of numerous places. All too often, these laws have required street setbacks, required parking requirements, and the like, all things which discourage walking (Kuntsler 1993). However, many of the things described above are relatively inexpensive, and can be encouraged starting in places where walking is already easy, such as in existing downtowns and center cities. Over time, new regulations can guide these spaces to a new form. At the same time, encouraging walking can also encourage transit use: not only does it help the beginning and end of all transit trips to be more pleasant and to seem shorter, to walk is to be in the habit of going places without a car.

Walking is not only the fundamental keystone of any transit system, it is also the fundamental keystone of urban space.

2.) Bus Rapid Transit

As described above, buses are usually treated as second class citizens; slow, plodding, and only for the poor. Given these facts, studies have repeatedly shown that choice riders prefer rail-based solutions, even when those rails are street running and service is no faster than the equivalent bus (Vuchic 1999). There are many reasons for this, some of which we’ve already covered and some we will cover below. Buses and bus infrastructure are, however, as of this writing much cheaper than any rail-based solution. Partly this is down to the lack of specialized infrastructure which needs be laid, such as tracks and overhead wire. Partly this is down to the cheapness of the vehicles, which, because they are in high demand, come from a large number of competing suppliers. Partly, too, this has to do with municipal and state familiarity with these systems: such governments already have experience operating buses as well as building and maintaining the roads on which they run. Most importantly, buses can utilize the roadways we have already invested in with no or minor modifications.

Given this reality, a number of attempts have been made to make buses operate like trains, in large part to give them some of the speed advantages and appeal of rail with the lower cost of buses, often utilizing distinct stations and fare prepayment. These systems, referred to usually as Bus Rapid Transit or BRT, have a decidedly mixed measure of success. In South America, cities like São Paulo, Brazil and Bogota, Colombia have implemented them to stunning success. In others, like Boston, Cleveland, and New York, the results have been quite poor. The reason for this divergence comes down to the same factors as buses in general: the refusal to allocate enough of the precious commodity that is urban street space or public transportation.
To be truly successful, BRT has to separate bus lanes from the general flow of traffic. If this is not done, not only does system speed suffer, but so does the system’s psychological appeal: the spatial inequity of the situation is made clear to riders when buses carrying 50 to 100 riders are forced to fight for space with cars carrying a single occupant. All successful BRT systems to date have physically separated, exclusive lanes. What can be frustrating for planners, but must be realized, is that compromise solutions generally do not work, and the success or failure of BRT can be a very delicate matter. Painted lanes which revert to traffic lanes in off hours usually do not work: no matter how well they are enforced, it only takes a few drivers in them to slow the system and destroy bus exclusivity. This is especially true of curbside lanes: one of the primary activities for drivers in an urban area is stopping to pick up and drop off passengers and goods; this tends to continue no matter how strong the enforcement, and always slows buses dramatically by forcing them to merge back into regular traffic. Successful systems, generally speaking, need physically separate lanes, preferably in the center of the road. Turning lanes (either right or left) can be dealt with in a number of ways depending on space and political considerations, from forcing left turning drivers to drive around a block to turn only lanes with equivalent signals. Letting turning vehicles utilize bus lanes is again a disaster, as turning cars must wait for pedestrians to cross, blocking the bus lane.

Such suggestions are undoubtedly more expensive than compromise solutions, both economically and politically. Taking away parking and/or driving lanes will always be a potentially contentious issue. But the fundamental fight is one of fairness: since transit vehicles carry more people, because of the detrimental effects of the car on urban space, and above all, because urban land is so limited, they should by all rights be given priority. It should also be noted that the reduction in automotive lanes can be a good thing. Not only does it reduce noise and environmental degradation, but ultimately reduces auto traffic in an equitable way. No one is denied a right to drive, if they so desire, for traffic lanes will still exist, but their footprint will be reduced to a more manageable number. Through a process of reverse trip generation, auto trips will be reduced: fewer traffic lanes mean less transportation supply, and thus a higher price in terms of time. Very quickly, as evidenced by freeway closures in cities like San Francisco, the cost-benefit calculus of driving vs taking transit changes, and many switch to transit. This, in turn, leaves the remaining space for those who value it higher, particularly for those who value it the most: those who require it. This reallocation of space in turn can make walking more pleasant, and can also improve the quality of urban space.

BRT systems are also easy to integrate into a hierarchy of transit. Though the above recommendations are stringent, they also only apply in full to lines in the densest areas, or on the busiest streets. By their nature, buses are modular. Lines on quiet residential streets, for example, may need no separation at all, or may only need it at intersections, which would allow buses to leapfrog waiting cars. Such lines could run into larger streets, turning into separated lanes, or could be upgraded when and if the need arises. BRT systems are also flexible: buses can easily have detours, introduce new routes, or be used as feeder routes which run over a central busway. Moreover, though the initial investment of land, physical separation, and significant stations are real costs, they can be offset by the knowledge that these investments can be viewed as down payments on future systems: they can easily be reused for light rail, for example.

Though it has been demonized in America, the bus should have a role to play in our future transportation systems. In particular, the infrastructure for them already exists, in terms of roadways, manufacturers, and operational expertise. What needs to change is the way land is allocated. If buses are treated as second class citizens, as just another car (albeit one carrying fifty people), they will continue to only attract those who have no other options.

3.) Light Rail Transit

Much of the American transit renaissance of the last 30 years has been in the form of light rail transit, or LRT. Starting with Sand Diego and St. Louis in the early 1980’s, lines have been constructed in cities from Portland to Denver to Minneapolis. Light rail is an odd descriptor: it refers not to the weight of the rails, which are usually substantially the same as those of any other form of rail transit, but with the vehicles, which are smaller and lighter than standard rail carriages. In essence, light rail is a rebranding of what past generations had called the streetcar or the trolley (indeed, San Diego still refers to their LRT system as a trolley), an attempt to reframe the discourse around what had been seen as a quaint, outdated, and defunct technology into something acceptable as part of a modern transit plan.

It is easy to see why light rail took off when it did: in comparison to subway or other metro-style construction, it is phenomenally cheaper. This allowed smaller cities, cities which had ripped up their rail-based transit systems after World War 2 to affordably begin to build systems to attempt to revitalize their inner core; that is, to try and counterbalance some of the decentralization and deurbanization that had come with car dominant policies. Like BRT, light rail systems vary widely in their forms and their success. Some systems, like those in St. Louis, were imagined primarily as ways to bring people into the core of the city, either to shop or to work. This idea can be traced can trace its routes to the 1920’s, when the decentralization started by the streetcar and enhanced the by automobile began to hurt downtown businesses. Local government leaders banded together to create ways to preserve the downtown’s privileged place as the center of business, entertainment, and public life (Fogelson 2001). Such systems are limited in their effect outside of rush hours: they don’t seek to change the morphology of their cities, but to simply offload part of their commuter load. Other systems, however, like those in San Diego and Portland, were explicitly designed as auto replacements, as ways to increase density and decrease car dependency. What is striking, however, is that even systems which were not designed with holistic plans for urban development has begun to attract so-called transit oriented developments, that is (at least in theory), relatively dense and walkable areas of housing and shops centered on transit stops. Combined with the already covered preference of riders for rails over buses, that is, for transit which is as privileged or more so than the car, the success of these developments can be read as a latent or resurgent desire of a certain segment of society for urban life. This can be seen in works defending and promoting such a way of life which have appeared over the past half century (Jacobs 1961, Whyte 1988, Kuntsler 1993).

As a mode of transit, light rail systems have numerous advantages. Compared to buses, they carry more people per vehicle (usually 200 or more), can be linked together into single-operator trains, travel faster, and do so in more comfort than their rubber tired counterparts (Cudahy 1990). LRT vehicles also can represent a much better return on investment: while they cost more, they tend to stay in service for around 30 years, 3 times longer than the average lifetime of a bus (ibid.). Compared to heavy rail (a neologism for metros and subways), not only are such systems cheaper, but they do not require a fully separated right of way, a major cost for any transit system. Like the streetcars they emulate, light rail vehicles can operate on a street in mixed traffic, in a segregated median which crosses streets, in their own separate right of way, or any combination thereof. This means that, like BRT, the light rail is inherently flexible and expandable. Smaller branches can run in street medians or even on the street proper, before joining central, segregated systems. Light rail can also be put underground into a subway system in the most crowded parts of a city (such as happens in Boston and San Francisco). This means that a city can begin with starter lines, and as ridership grows, begin to add more and more lines which can utilize the capital intensive core sections of infrastructure.

Light rail is, however, still an expensive proposition, and not necessarily applicable of the bat in all cities. Transit planners and urban proponents often find themselves in a bind: buses and BRT systems, except those designed with exceptional care, do not pull in riders to the same degree that rail does. However, often enough the initial expenditure is quite high compared to the capacity and cost of LRT systems, not only giving fodder to critics of transportation, but spending the little available money on a relative handful of lines. However, when instituted as part of a broader system, as a piece which is utilized for the busiest lines and corridors, LRT, like the streetcars it emulates, is an indispensably valuable tool. Indeed, for many cities, LRT may be the pinnacle of their transit systems, for it is expandable with capital investment into systems which can carry large numbers of people very quickly.

4.) Subways / Metros

Nothing can move people around a city as quickly, as comfortably, or as appealingly, as heavy rail. System after system bears witness to this: not only have metro systems never been threatened with removal in the way that streetcars were (indeed, streetcar systems in Boston and San Francisco were kept primarily because large parts were elevated and/or underground), but almost everywhere such systems exist, they form a large part of the public consciousness and popular image of that place. The more cynical minded may claim that this is simply a result of the amount of fixed capital invested in these systems: they are massive, they are notable, and there is no way the political or economic system can let them lay fallow. More fundamentally, however, these systems make up a large part of the everyday life and of the built environment in places where they exist. They are the pinnacle of systems to expand human, not simply automotive, mobility around an urban landscape.

Metro systems have their drawbacks. They are phenomenally expensive: only two cities (Boston and New York) have been able to construct any significant mileage without federal funds (Cudahy 1990, Derrick 2001), a cross-subsidize which can and has bee viewed as problematic. Attempts at cost cutting lead to building parts of these systems on the surface or on elevated guideways, both of which have deeply ambivalent results: while the transportation benefits they provide are enormous, their negative environmental impacts, namely further cutting neighborhoods in half, noise pollution, or blocking out light are major issues. Since they require large numbers of riders to appear cost effective, they are usually focused on commuting and on central cores, to the detriment of other types of trips. Indeed, often local bus service is rerouted to serve as feeders to such systems, which while effective at aiding commuters and at boosting ridership, also acts to hurt other forms of local, transit-based mobility. Moreover, their construction is usually deeply disruptive while it is underway, something which can be mitigated, but never eliminated.

These complaints, while real, are balanced by the benefits of these systems. Firstly, the permanence of these structures has encouraged construction of urban, human scale, walkable environments like no other type of investment. One need look only at the continuing urban boom around stations of the Washington Metro to see this, particularly when compared to the massive, auto-dependent suburbs which surround the city. Metro systems are fast and generally comfortable, and thus tend to attract riders like no other form of transportation. Modern examples of such systems, like the Washington Metro and BART in the San Francisco Bay Area, also demonstrate another advantage: these systems can act as an urban metro downtown, and a commuter system in the surrounding suburbs, allowing suburban spaces to connect with urban ones without relying on the car. Finally, Metro systems have to come with the realization that they are not 10, 20, or even 30 year investments, but more on the order of 100 year investments. They are long lasting, and their effects on the physical environment take time to demonstrate. If we can view them in this light, their costs suddenly seem much more manageable. However this requires not only a change in mindset, but new financial tools; unfortunately, there is little in our accounting or financial systems which can effectively deal with investments on this scale and this time frame.

Metro systems are the ultimate form of transit; very large, very dense cities simply cannot exist without them. They are not for everywhere, but have dramatic effects when they are built. Selling them is a problem, but in the end, nothing is as effective, nor does anything spark the public imagination, quite like these systems.

A New Pattern?

This framework attempts to lay out ways in which cities can build reasonably affordable and expandable transit systems, systems which not only promote social and economic equity, but human scaled environments, urbanity. If this framework can be successful at promoting affordable transit, systems which can start small and grow into their demands. It also seeks to use existing infrastructure. BRT and LRT, for example, can fit quite well into the wide boulevards and avenues of sunbelt cities, and concomitant with simple pedestrian improvements and decreased traffic, could gently begin to convert such places from auto-dominant to human-scale environments.

But it also has another potential effect: beginning to break the dominance of city-centers and radial, commutation focused, patterns. There is nothing inherent in any of the above transport systems which implies a singular destination: destinations can, and perhaps should, be distributed to some degree along them, adding life and activity to far more of the urban region. If transportation can be made affordable enough, a new paradigm could be encouraged, that of the grid instead of the star. A grid-based transit system would allow such dispersal, and would allow easy connectivity between all points of a city. Not only would this begin to deprivledge the automobile in surrounding regions, it could cause a spike in transit ridership as the numerous, small, usually unmeasured trips begin to switch to transit; things like visiting friends, going grocery shopping, dropping by a park, and a whole host of other, innumerable small trips. By removing the the tyranny of the center, and the tyranny of commutation, whole new emergent, human activities could be allowed to flourish. Consider central Paris: until the 1980’s and the rise of La Dèfense, small scale structures meant business was distributed over much of the city. Combined with a comprehensive metro system and the equal distribution of housing, this means that much of the city in multifunctional, and in turn, the transit system allows mobility far beyond that of simply commutation. Such systems needn’t be either or; stars can be superimposed on grids, or grid lines can serve as feeders to other grid lines which are expanded to maximum capacity, either as LRT or Metro lines.

Such a shift, if it be desirable, would undoubtedly take many years to accomplish. But it has the potential to re-envision the way we approach urban space and urban life.

New Ways of Measuring Success

In addition to a new way of constructing transit, we also need new ways of measuring our successes and failures, new ways to rate our systems both in order to improve what we already possess, and to plan our future systems to function better. There are many such principles, but what follows are four of the most important, and most often overlooked, qualities for transit systems:

1.) Density

Density here refers in part to the urban density necessary to support quality transit, but also to the density of lines within any given transit system. In order to be useful, a transit system has to run near one’s origin and destination. A properly spaced grid of transit lines, connected by walkable environments, could accomplish this. This may seem simple, but it relies on a complex property called the network effect. The network effect simply states that the more people who utilize a product, service, or standard, the more prevalent that standard will become. In the field of electronics, for example, it was at one time applied to fax machines: once every office had one, not only did other, technologically superior inventions have trouble finding a foothold (until the arrival of email and the internet), but the number of faxes sent soared. The problem with many starter transportation projects is that they build one or two starter lines which then show disappointing ridership, and the project is then abandoned. What is missed here, however, is the network effect: the more places connected by the system, in this case by transit, the number of trips taken does not go up lineally, but exponentially. The automobile, both by its nature and through a half century or more, currently has a strong network effect, and this is something transit needs to capture to be truly transformative.

2.) Frequency

Frequency, the number of vehicles on a line per hour, is often one of the first things that is cut when budgets are tight. Small bus systems, for instance, often prefer to run larger buses (thus utilizing only a single driver) than decrease their headways. While cheaper, this fundamentally hurts their ridership. One of the primary advantages of the car is its lack of schedule. Transit has its concomitant advantages, such as the freedom to use travel time for other activities, but the longer individuals are forced to wait, and the more they have to plan their trips, the less appealing transit is. This is particularly notable when transfers are involved, as they often must be for an effective transit system. Most importantly, transit needs to become second nature, needs to be always available but a quick bit away, if it is to take part in so many of the spontaneous, unplanned activities that are part of human life. Schedules are fine for commuters or the occasional trip, but few are ready or willing to plan every part of their day around a service schedule. Though this is admittedly based only on anecdotal evidence, headways shorter than 15 minutes are strongly preferable; any longer, and the wait starts to become intolerable, and scheduling starts to take over. Combined with the network effect, frequent schedules should demonstrate ridership growth that far outpaces the linear growth in number of vehicles.

3.) Quality

Though a simple concept, small pieces of relative quality can greatly effect the ridership of transit systems. Some studies have shown that relatively inexpensive changes such as station renovation can increase ridership nearly as much as the construction of entirely new lines (Vuchic 1999). This in part goes back to the psychological quality of service: is transit a priority, a place we want to be (or at least don’t mind being in), or is it merely a conveyance, or worse, a forgotten, visibly poorly maintained government social service? Any advertiser will expound on the importance of appearance; if the interior of a plane, for example, is worn and dirty, passengers will begin to question the maintenance and safety practices of that airline, even though the reality is usually that the regulations and regulators are more than doing their job with regards to the non-visible, safety critical parts. this also goes back to the question of rider preference for the steel rails and wider cars of light rail over almost any form of bus; perhaps transit designers have been too blind to the importance of these seemingly small effects. Transit needs to be as pleasant as it can be. This is not only a question of ridership, but the fact that a transit system should be part of urban space. Urban space is best, and utilized the most, when it is a place where people want to be (Gehl 2010).

4.) Legibility

In order to be useful, a transit system, needs to be understandable. As is true in urban space, when individuals are more comfortable navigating their environment, they are more comfortable, and better utilize the spaces they are afforded (Lynch 1960). If one takes a look at almost any given bus map, one will be left confused and perplexed. Lines which run once every 2 hours are represented the same was as lines which operate every ten minutes. Complicated squiggles on a shrunken map require a significant knowledge of the surrounding geography to understand. Worse, once riding, lack of distinct landmarks or stations can leave bus riders straining to find their location: we are expecting transit riders to be utilizing the same landmarks and visual clues as drivers. Compare this to most metro maps. Thanks to the work of the Englishman Harry Beck, who developed simple, schematic maps for the London underground, most of these systems are easy to understand and to navigate. They do not overly bother with geographic accuracy, but seek to represent the transit system as a whole, labeling places and allowing riders to quickly discover the easiest routes to their destinations. One reason for the success of light rail and BRT, it can be strongly argued, is that they are published in similar-style maps, with clearly defined routes and stops.

This legibility extends to the physical realm, as well. Riding a bus in an unknown city, and sometimes even in one we know well, can be daunting: there is no physical clarity as to where a bus may go. Quality BRT and light rail, though, because of their dedicated lanes and/or physical infrastructure, are much easier to grasp at first sight. This is not only another argument for dedicated lanes, but also adds another reason to the growing list of rail preferences: the investment in infrastructure is also an investment in legibility. Clear stops help delineate space in what could otherwise be a mess of unfamiliar streets. Even trolley buses, in the present reserved for very hilly cities where electricity makes climbing easier or cities with bus tunnels, could be reinvestigated for their effect, for their wires make there routes visible.

Legibility is both a navigation tool and a safety blanket. When we see the infrastructure, we feel more comfortable that we are in the right place, and that a bus or train is coming. Such comfort, much like quality, has a very real effect of the ridership of a system.

The Future

Though this framework attempts to outline ways of building transit, instead of auto, oriented cities, none of this will entail the banishment of the car, nor should it. Anyone who has had to drop off an elderly relative, who has had to move a piece of furniture or other bulky object, or has transported a large pet to a vet can attest to that. For certain trips, cars simply cannot be easily replaced. There is also the real matter of quick trips between cities (perhaps with a large group), trips to rural areas, or traveling in our mass of existing suburbs. Moreover, car culture, and the importance of cars as symbols should not be downplayed. But ask anyone who likes to drive if they prefer the open highway or being stuck in traffic and the answer is clear. The idea is not to denigrate the auto, but to ensure that transit is an equal citizen, and gets priority in urban space. Cars can be necessary in urban space, but urban space should be designed for the pedestrian, for the human being, first. Car spaces, such as intercity expressways or rural roads, in turn, can then be left to be shaped for what they handle best. The collision of the car and city is real, but perhaps not as brash as it has been made out to be. Urban spaces and car spaces can coexist in the grander scheme of our landscapes, and both urban and car-oriented spaces will be the better for it.

The largest problem which still needs to be addressed is that of how to pay for such systems. Even with the relatively cheap yet expandable framework described here, comprehensive and quality transportation will be a significant investment. It can be reduced by reusing existing infrastructures as much as possible, but this is only a start. People’s general instinct is to turn to taxing the car to fund transportation, but such a tax may be regressive for those who need a car, for whatever reason. It also seems a fallacy to tax another form of mobility to promote another. The real key, if we find this vision of the future of the city appealing, is to find the most equitable way to distribute the cost, whether that is through progressive income taxes, sales taxes, or something else. We should not be beholden to the idea of fare box recovery: not only does such a position ignore the hidden automotive subsidies in our present system, but it ignores the lesson of the five cent fare: when transit is affordable for all, it offers opportunity for all. Indeed, an argument can be made that if transit is fundamentally a social service, it should not be based on a user fee, but be free: after all, if the reason for pricing is to distribute the cost of scarcity, how much productivity could we gain, economically and socially, by promoting abundance? This is more than likely a moot point as such plans will need all the funding they can get. Like with all investments, however, it should be done with the knowledge that the benefits will accrue with time. As with all questions of financing, this is not a policy question as much as a politics question. Money can be found if we are willing.

At the end of the day, the argument comes down to this: what type of cities do we want? If we do not mind automotive cities, cities which by their nature tend to actively discourage other forms of transit, and with their concomitant economic and social inequalities, there is no problem. But if we value urban space, for any of its social, economic, or environmental qualities (Jacobs 1961, Kuntsler 1993), we need to begin to envisage ways to do things differently. This doesn’t mean we must demonize the car, but it does mean we must acknowledge where the car and our other goals conflict, and finding ways to ameliorating these rifts and put our priorities in order. This is only the beginning of the discussion; other types of transit from bicycles to monorails deserve our attention and study. But in a very real sense, transportation is the lifeblood of an urban city. It allows it to exist beyond the smallest of scales, and encourages the interactions, economic, social, and political, which make city life enthralling. If we want our urban spaces to thrive, we need to tend to our transit systems. If we do not, mobility will be left to the car, and human scaled, urban space will slowly evaporate to be replaced by the cold expanses of the auto-dominated landscape.

Bibliography and Works Cited

Cudahy, Brian J., Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990).

Derrick, Peter, Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion that Saved New York. (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

Fishman, Robert, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

Fogelson, Robert M., Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

Gehl, Jan, Cities for People. (Washington: Island Press, 2010).

Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (New York: Vintage Books, 1961).

Kunstler, James Howard, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. (New York: Touchstone, 1993).

Lynch, Kevin, The Image of the City. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960).

Meyer, J. R., J. F. Kain, & M. Wohl, The Urban Transportation Problem. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).

Vuchic, Vukan R., Transportation for Livable Cities. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Center for Urban Policy Research, 1999).

Warner, Jr., Sam Bass, Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston (1870-1900) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

Whyte, William H., City: Rediscovering the Center. (New York: Doubleday, 1988).


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