Making Transit Work

Making Transit Work (pdf, Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences) compares reasons for differences in transit use in the US (2%), Canada (4%), and West Europe (10%), and produces a set of ideas which over many decades may work together to make the US as transit-friendly as Canada.

In 1900, the US had a greater percentage of people living in cities and more mass transit than other industrialized countries. However, the US also moved rapidly to mass-produced goods, including cars.

To some extent, the difference in behavior has to do with wealth; as Europeans become wealthier, they drive more. Still, car ownership/GDP is less in other countries, from about 95% US levels in Canada, to 55% US levels in Denmark.

Historical differences between the US and West Europe explain much about transit use. Europeans often wish to protect fragile city centers. This means fewer freeways, which led to traffic congestion back in the 1960s, when car ownership was still low. After WW2, European governments took over housing, building transit centers and housing both. While US population and jobs doubled since WW2, increase was only about 25% in France, Britain, and Germany. Racial and other tensions led many to move out of the US central city to the suburb, as did US land and transportation policies. Much of the US growth was in the South and West, where restrictions were fewer. In Europe however, central cities did not lose population, and some even gained.

Policies vary among these countries. Most European countries have very strong national planning (state in Germany). The provinces are most important in Canadian decision-making. The US depends on local planning. [In my city (greater San Francisco) means considerably more than 10 (20? 50?) transit districts. Someone from Berkeley who travels often in San Francisco might buy 3 transit passes, one for buses in each city, and one for BART.]

The US provides capital funding at the national level, which leads to more capital construction of both highways and light rail systems than is true in Europe. Subsidies skew planning in the US, encouraging and subsidizing driving, and in the case of mass transit, can lead to lower ridership as cities build more expensive light rail and ignore much less costly buses. [An old analysis shows both capital and operating expenses for BART to be much higher than for local bus lines.] US planning is mostly reactive, reviewing local plans. Florida and Oregon control of the planning process is still very small by Europeans standards. Europeans and Canadians are more accepting of top-down decision-making. Canadians share the European vision of planning transit and housing together. Additionally, the large differences in the density of US cities (and cultural values) make creating a common vision difficult. Additional chaos is introduced into American decision-making by our method of electing directors to the local transit.

Because so few owned cars for such a long time, Europeans became very accepting of high fuel prices, and fuels are taxed to raise money for non-automotive uses. Canadians began with low taxes and have been increasing them, but are not yet at European levels.

The differences in who uses transit may affect policies. In the US, 2/3 of transit use is in 6 cities. New York has the largest use, 140 transit rides per capita per year. Transit use in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and DC also exceeds 75 rides per person per year. Nationwide, a quarter of transit users make less than $15,000 (1995 dollars). In the suburbs, 70% of users are poor.

In both Canada and Europe, a comfortable, clean, speedy ride is emphasized, and perks are available to attract new customers. The ride is faster due for a variety of reasons, such as spacing bus stops twice as far apart as in the US, requiring or encouraging pre-bought tickets, picking people up on median strips that allow rapid integration back into traffic, and giving bus drivers the ability to change traffic lights. Bus stops are often covered, sometimes provide current bus information, and are often located in small shopping centers or at least near kiosks. Heavy discounts may be offered to museums and sports events to attract bus users during off-peak hours – and perhaps a new customer. Discounts may be available to regular users for weekend car rentals or car-sharing. Taxis in some places are dispatched hourly or every half hour during night service.

The main alternative, cars, are made less attractive by higher fuel costs, much higher purchase taxes (180% in Denmark) and yearly registration fees, and less highly subsidized parking.

Canadian and West European transit operators work with fewer mandates re the poor and elderly, and less restrictive labor contracts. Local districts are given more time and opportunity to solve problems, and often show more creativity as a result.

The recommendations in brief, as to preconditions that foster success:

• Transit operational and quality-of-service enhancements

Flexible transit workforce; management autonomy, including latitude and incentives to innovate; regional coordination of transit fares and services; public expectations of dependable and convenient service

• Transit priority in traffic

Integration of highway and transit management and policy-making; limited street space and suitable geometry; latitude and incentives for operators to innovate

• Transit-oriented site design in land use zoning

Tradition of strong government regulation of development and land use; commonly accepted standards and guidelines for site design.

• Parking restrictions

Regional governance that allows for parking coordination across a metropolitan area

• Increase in cost of automobile use

Acceptance/tradition of high taxes on vehicles and fuel; public concern over pollution, noise, traffic, and other adverse side effects of driving; good alternatives to driving, including walking, biking, and transit

• Regional coordination of land use and transportation planning

Regional governance, including revenue sharing; government land ownership; tradition of strong regional governance; public concerns about environment and land scarcity

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