The Collapse of U.S. Public Transit?

Interesting article and well worth reading; not all is happiness in transit land.

From Zwei’s almost 40 years advocating for better transit and more affordable transit planning in the region, it seems those in charge are afraid of change. The same thing is done over and over again, ever hoping for different results, because that is the way it always has been done. TransLink’s near religious faith in light-metro is testament to that.

Despite many shortcomings of light-metro, especially the costs involved, TransLink advises politicians with questionable studies that light metro is the only way to go. Sadly local politicos have little knowledge on transit issues and have been walked all over by the entrenched “SkyTrain Lobby”.

Europe faced the same sort of transit crisis in the 1970’s and 80’s, but with modern light rail, low floor cars, modern operating procedures and very user friendly operation the tide turned and good public transit is seen as a necessity of a modern city. Indeed the most successful public transit systems in Europe are very user-friendly because planners and politicians make sure that the transit is built to satisfy customer wants. Karlsruhe’s famed TramTrains are result of planners designing transit to meet customer needs.

Planning for affordable user-friendly transit is unheard of in metro Vancouver.

A Karlshrue TramTrain, winding through Bad Wildbad. TramTrains were first conceived to overcome a troublesome transfer at the main rail station, by providing a direct service; a true seamless journey.

It is also interesting that TransLink’s announced their new CEO, Kevin Quinn, with all the hype and hoopla they could muster.

Quinn is currently the Administrator and Chief Executive Officer of the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), overseeing one of the largest multi-modal transit systems in the United States including subway, bus, and paratransit modes.

He has served as CEO of the MTA since 2017, focusing on customer experience and employee engagement, overseeing the development of customer-facing real-time tracking technology for local bus and commuter rail service, and introducing the agency’s first mobile payment app. Prior to his role as CEO, Kevin was the Director of Planning and Programming for MTA, responsible for implementing a complete overhaul and rebranding of the core transit system, including the introduction of new, high-frequency bus lines.

Kevin holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).

What TransLink and it’s rather inept board did not say was Baltimore’s transit operations has been hemorrhaging ridership. Zwei has been told from sources within the MTA, that pre covid, ridership is off 2% per year for some time.

Zwei received the following email from a planning engineer in Baltimore;

You are about to get a new CEO of TransLink in the person of Kevin Quinn.  This is a good news/bad news situation.   good news is we are rid of him, bad news you are getting him.

Mr Quinn may be the nicest yes man you will ever meet.  he is very personable and friendly but have yet to actually see him in 6yrs have an opinion of his own.   and if he has any use for light rail he has kept it well hidden.

hopefully you will have better luck than Baltimore, ridership is off (before pandemic) 2% year over year since he took over.

Good luck

Getting a John-Hopkins trained spin-doctor as TransLink’s new CEO, , instead of someone who understands transit and transportation issues is hardly reassuring.


The Complex 50-Year Collapse of U.S. Public Transit

A new analysis of a half-century of transportation patterns in U.S. cities shows how the share of transit commuters has plunged in most — but not all — metro regions since 1970.

Los Angeles is one of a handful of U.S. cities that has managed to grow their share of transit commuters since 1970. 

Back in 1970, 77 million Americans commuted to work every day, and 9% of them took a bus or a train. By 2019, the number of U.S. workers had nearly doubled, to more than 150 million. But the vast majority of these new workers chose to drive: The number of public transit riders increased by only around 1 million during those years, and their share of the country’s overall commuters collapsed to 5%.

That historic shift reflects several broad trends in U.S. life, including suburbanization patterns and urban highway expansion, the growth of the car-friendly Sunbelt, and the depopulation of once-robust industrial cities. But fundamentally, the fading usefulness of public transit is a result of the fundamental lack of integration between federal transportation and land-use authorities, says Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute.

“In a number of other countries, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are combined in one entity,” he says. “In the United States, we ended up with two different entities.” As a result, housing and mobility needs have been poorly aligned; the landscape is laden with housing that lacks access to public transportation, light rail lines that course through sparsely settled areas, and too many cities whose transit networks can’t connect riders with jobs.

But as Freemark’s new analysis of commuting data shows, based on his database of long-term trends in U.S. metros, regional patterns reveal a more complex story. Some cities have bucked national trends and gained transit commuters over the last 50 years. Coastal cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston saw an increase of hundreds of thousands of transit commuters between 1970 and 2019. Pre-pandemic, 3 million New Yorkers commuted by bus, subway and train daily — 500,000 more than in 1970 — and the region’s share of transit commuters held relatively steady.

The flip side of the pattern can be seen in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, which lead the list of cities — many in the Rust Belt or the South — that have shed tens of thousands of transit commuters.

This unequal pattern of transit commuting is even more acute when the share of commuters is taken into account. In New Orleans, for example, nearly a quarter of residents got to work via bus and streetcar in 1970. By 2019, only about 5% did. Similar drops are seen in smaller industrial cities like Buffalo, Richmond, Cleveland and Milwaukee. “In the 1970s, use of public transportation was really common in cities all across the country no matter their size,” says Freemark. Now, widespread transit commuting is a phenomenon limited largely to large coastal metropolitan areas. “Other regions don’t have realizable public transportation people can depend on.”

Cities where transit use has seen massive reductions tend to be those that have endured deindustrialization and suburbanization during the last 50 years, with a concurrent rise in investments in highways designed to shuttle car-driving commuters in and out of town. “These used to be places that had really successful downtowns, but now most of their workforce has suburbanized,” says Freemark.

The profoundly unequal geography of U.S. transit reflects — and contributes to — the economic gaps that have grown between cities; as struggling metros have shed jobs and wealth, their ability to maintain useful transit systems has likewise declined. “Most money that goes for transportation comes from state and local governments, and their ability to invest is based on their resources,” says Freemark. Poorer regions don’t have enough income to invest in transit, which in turn hampers economic growth even more. “It’s a negative spiral, a vicious cycle; there’s a trap situation going on.”

here are lessons to be learned from the handful of cities — all in the western U.S. — that have managed to grow their share of transit commuters since 1970, Freemark’s analysis concludes. In Seattle and San Francisco, for example, the city has made efforts to centralize jobs in downtown areas, and they boast extensive rail networks that can reach a larger share of commuters in the region. Seattle has also invested heavily in upgrading its bus service, while San Francisco reduced fares for people with low incomes. In Salt Lake City, housing growth in neighborhoods around transit has been prioritized; Portland’s urban growth boundary has been effective in limiting car-centric sprawl.

Not every region has the means to make the kind of transit investments that would be needed to bring riders back to their 1970 levels, and there’s no question that reversing the effects of a half-century of transit-unfriendly land-use decisions is a tall order. But it’s also increasingly urgent, given the role of car-centric planning in boosting greenhouse gas emissions. “The federal government could play an important job filling the gap” between wealthy and struggling cities, says Freemark. “But they haven’t done that yet.”


3 Responses to “The Collapse of U.S. Public Transit?”
  1. Nathan Davidowicz says:

    Need a similar article on Canada.Transit ridership in Canada is on the average double the US on per capita basis. However, still need lots of improvements.

  2. zweisystem says:

    I have been told that part of the reason for higher ridership numbers is that there was not the flight from the city (Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, to the burbs, thus public transit ridership within the three cities remained quite high.

  3. Haveacow says:

    Our still relatively city centre centric real estate and job market plus, relatively financially healthy city regions, sure does help but we also do something the Americans don’t do at all and that was having our local and provincial governments spending on average 2 to 3 times per capita what most American local and state governments do on basic transit system operations. Local and Provincial/State governments are the main levels of government responsible for local transit operational funding in the USA and Canada, although there is a small American federal component as well. Keep in mind, we shouldn’t get big heads here, German transit operators spend on average 50-75% more than we do per capita on transit operations. French transit operators on average spend 1.5-2.25 times per capita compared to us, here in Canada. That means that French transit operators spend 4-6 times per capita what the average transit operator spends on transit operations in the USA.

    For example, allowing for differences in the value of currency, Denver’s RTD spends roughly 75-80% (pre pandemic) of what Vancouver’s Translink does on transit operations, needing to serve a regional population twice as large as Vancouver’s. Many busy suburban bus routes in the Denver area must shutdown at insanely early times (7-8 pm) because of insufficient operational funding.

    Skytrain Fans,I have heard many LRT critics site that LRT technology can’t operate with a frequency greater than one LRV (Light Rail Vehicle) every five minutes (12 trains per hour) because they site data from American sources. Not realizing that American LRT operations are hindered by very low operational funding and a large proportion (definitely larger than any Canadian operation would have to deal with) of down right hostile, anti-transit, anti-government spending state and local politicians.

    On the capital funding side of the equation, we are now, just starting our federal government’s transit capital works funding program, “The Canada Infrastructure Bank”. Where the USA has a had a fantastic series of capital funding programs for decades, through the Federal Transit Administration (part of the Federal Department of Transportation). It was even strong enough to survive the Trump administration and its highly destructive, publicly stated anti-transit, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell.

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