Can we bring back the golden era of transit in the U.S.?

By Saumya Jain
“One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world.” – Jonathan English, Citylab.
A recent statistics brief by Union Internationale des Transports Publics compares transit ridership and metro infrastructure development around the world. Although U.S. cities were among the first to introduce subways and elevated trains as a form of public transportation, the statistics are clear that in the past few decades there has been little to no development in this transit sector. (Labeled as metro in the graphic below, this also includes at-grade and trenched systems.) The little development that is observed in North America is mainly due to Canada and not the United States. The two regions that have experienced the highest increase in ridership and metro transit infrastructure development in the past few decades are the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) areas. It leaves the U.S. with a crucial question: why are we doing poorly when every other region is improving?

Source: UITP’s World Metro Figures 2018 – Statistics Brief

A recent article published by Citylab delves deep into the history of transit in the U.S. draws a very interesting timeline of the rise and fall of transit. The article sheds light on how cars drastically increased the accessibility radius, and cities grew larger than the reach of the then-existing transit networks, resulting in a dramatic downfall of ridership. Instead of expanding service to sustain ridership, departments started cutting service, which further decreased the ridership and started the classic death spiral.
While most cities in the U.S. are still struggling to maintain transit ridership, mostly due to factors like higher car ownership, car-oriented land use patterns, lower fuel costs, etc., other countries like Canada and China are managing to increase their ridership. A study from the City of Kingston, Ontario, shows that large employer-focused transit improvements can help significantly improve ridership, even in low-density mid-sized cities. The recent ridership improvements in Seattle and Phoenix highlight the importance of upgrading bus service alongside long-term rail enhancements. Connecticut also experienced a substantial increase in ridership by improving their bus service and targeting university students, for whom transit is the most logical and affordable means of transportation.
Many up and coming transportation models show that public and private modes of transportation can maintain a healthy interdependence. These models are an especially good solution for transit’s first- and last-mile problems. A great example of such a partnership is the Bay Area’s new plan for its improved Clipper Card, the transit fare system that handles payment across 22 transit agencies in the region. The next generation of the card, being called “Clipper2”, is said to be an account-based system that integrates other private-sector transportation options like bike-shares, car-shares or e-scooters with public transit. This new card would give a user the flexibility of switching between public and private modes of transportation using the same payment method making transit much more than just rail and buses.
As with any other entity, it is important for the transit system to evolve with changes in technology as well as changes in household and individual needs. Connecticut, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. are doing just that and are succeeding.
Saumya Jain is a Senior Associate at SSTI.