Making the connection – Part 3: Public transit: At a loss without it

NewOrleansHUDRedStreetcarRiverfrontCanal[1]Transit is interesting in that it consists of both railway- and roadway-based modes – trains and buses. It’s also interesting because of a seemingly unending debate over what mode is better – buses or trains. In my view the debate is pointless because each plays an important role and serves a purpose by filling a need. If this were not true, plainly put, the public transit that we know today would simply not exist.

This is Part 3. Covered already in Parts 1 and 2, respectively, are rails and roads. Transit, the subject of this review, rounds out surface transportation.

Transit 101

Ever since and even prior to the time when the electric streetcar made its 1888 Richmond, Virginia, debut, transit has kept on keeping on, even if somewhat the worse for wear. That transit in America has survived as long as it has, is a testament to its importance, need and usefulness.

Besides the aforesaid buses and trains, public transit is also comprised of the lesser known personal rapid transit, group rapid transit and people mover systems.

So, why transit at all?

In the early days, that people embraced public transit the way they did what with its considerable reach and all is no surprise. Absent public mass transit, for most residents living in densely populated, big-city, inner-ring neighborhoods, the world beyond such was seldom frequented. With the introduction of transit, on the other hand, to those inner-city dwellers in particular, the world became a lot less big.

Driverless monorail train, Las Vegas, NV
Driverless monorail train, Las Vegas, NV

In “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” authors Ted Balaker and Sam Staley, seem to agree, relating, “Mass transit, first horse-drawn trolleys and then electric trolleys and buses, let people move out of the city and take jobs from locations far beyond their familiar neighborhoods. These transportation modes expanded our world by pulling places previously too distant to work or visit into our commuting orbit.”1

Over the years with many having flocked to suburbia, public transit use was no longer the rule but had become the exception. Motor vehicle travel dominates – plain and simple.

‘Houston, we have a problem’

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in a Mar. 19, 2013 press release gives transit the lowest passing grade.

“Transit’s grade remained at a D as transit agencies struggled to balance increasing ridership with declining funding, and 45 percent of American households lack any access to transit,” the ASCE offers. “Although access to and investment in transit has increased, deficient and deteriorating transit systems cost the U.S. economy $90 billion in 2010. Many transit agencies are struggling to maintain aging and obsolete fleets and facilities amid an economic downturn that has reduced their funding, forcing service cuts and fare increases.”

For more on this, see: “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” from the ASCE.

That transit finds itself in this situation is through no fault of its own.

To the rescue

For people who do not own or lease or have access to a car – a third of Americans – having access to transit goes without saying. Transit fills a mobility void. So, for those who do not drive, walk or ride a bike, public transit service is essential.

Understanding that the proliferation of suburbs along with corresponding exponential rises in population, vehicle traffic and vehicle miles traveled had led to a point of diminishing returns being reached, with concomitant traffic congestion which, wastes time, money and fuel and has led to a deterioration of urban air quality and a host of other “unintended consequences,” alleviating or easing or outright eliminating congestion is paramount. Interestingly, the effect of high gas prices played into transit’s hand, the service garnered with a ridership boost. And even after gas prices fell, many drivers who gave transit a try when the price of gas was high, have remained loyal transit users.

Support for transit remains strong evidenced by increased ridership numbers – 10.5 billion public transit trips were taken in 2012 according to the American Public Transportation Association. This is up from 10.4 billion a year earlier and the seventh year in a row annual ridership was north of 10 billion.

Subsidy or investment?

I hear over and over and over again how public transit doesn’t cover its own operating costs and therefore requires a subsidy. In responding, I ask: Are highways not subsidized? Are airports and aviation not subsidized? Infrastructure is subsidized. That’s the reality. It’s a fact of American life.

Transit does have the potential to pay huge dividends, though.

This from the Fall 2011 RAIL Magazine in CommentaryRAIL Magazine’s Priorities from the Mountain West”:

“While the number of passengers travelling through a station as the product of its cost is a fundamental equation that must be addressed, as important is the amount of value that station produces in economic output – the number of jobs created nearby because employees have access to convenient transportation, or the development opportunities spawned by riders looking to find retail, entertainment and housing near a train stop. Moreover, successful rail-oriented development locations produce long-term property and sales tax revenue that often ends up drawing near or exceeding the cost of constructing or operating the system, or both. At the same time, the marginally greater cost of utilizing electrified vehicles, or installing an ascetically-pleasing [sic] rail corridor can provide lasting and substantial benefits in terms of air quality, ridership and a sense of community pride. Passenger rail projects must be afforded the opportunity to claim credit for these benefits at every stage of the process, from planning and design to installation and operation.”

As for transit-oriented development rail versus bus, unequivocally stated, “The evidence is quite clear that rail transit, all other things being equal, attracts more intense development and increases return on investment,” insist Hank Dittmar and Shelley Poticha in “The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development.”2


  1. Ted Balaker and Sam Staley, “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” 2006, pp. 6-7.
  2. Hank Dittmar and Shelley Poticha, “The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development,” “Defining Transit-Oriented Development: The New Regional Building Block,” (Chapter 2), edited by Hank Dittmar and Gloria Ohland, 2004, p. 37.
Biodiesel-powered bus
Biodiesel-powered bus

This post was last revised on May 8, 2020 @ 6:55 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel

4 thoughts on “Making the connection – Part 3: Public transit: At a loss without it”

  1. Some while ago I read that medium size cities , like Sacramento where I live, cannot hope to mitigate their innercity transportation problems with light rail services –despite their need–and owing to sprawl and lack of population density will have to turn to systems based on buses.
    Sacramento’s efforts to develop its long neglected innercity core , along with hopes of securing a downtown sports and multi-purpose arena , hinge not only on the financial issues but also on how to get the public in greater numbers back to the city.
    What discourages many, and why the majority suburban population prefers its recreation and shopping outside of the central city, I’m persuaded , has much to do with traffic and parking, the elephant in the room usually ignored by developers. The obvious reason being that given the historic infrastructure of cities, they are next to impossible to solve in our automobile-based society.
    With no background or experience in this issue, I wonder if a system of bus transportation providing a direct link to the central city from well-placed satellite parking lots in the suburbs might encourage more of us to profit from the greater concentration
    of entertainment and other venue choices downtown. Surely some transportation planner has considered and worked on such a solution???

    • I have ridden buses and light rail in Sacramento. Both, in my opinion, are essential.

      Interestingly, yesterday I read where the City closed the deal on the new $448 million downtown plaza sports arena. This, I understand, after a failure to close the deal for a Railyards-placed arena.

      As it relates, I am also familiar with the recent approval of the extension of light rail to Cosumnes River College. The system and service is growing.

      Where I am in disagreement, has to do with the notion the bus-based system being the only option through which suburbanites can “transit it” to downtown attractions – restaurants, entertainment venues, shopping, etc. Light rail can be supported ridership-wise if the density to support it is there and can be created. This is referred to a rail-oriented development. Portland, Oregon is a model where this approach has been quite successful. I have been there but once in the 1990s.

      I believe the greatest chances of success for mass public transit applications comes with good access, connectivity, ease of use (the convenience factor), comfort, good service frequency (regularity), reliability and safety. Funding must be available, however, in order that the service, whatever it may be, can be supported so that the quality of said service can be maintained.

      This following from “The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development” (also from page 37) should apply:

      “Transit-oriented development is about creating and exploiting synergies: between the community and the region, between jobs and housing, between levels of density and levels of transit service, between people and a vibrant community life, and among different generations, income levels, and people. At the heart of transit-oriented development is the pedestrian, and the purpose of mixed uses is to encourage the pedestrian environment. In successful transit-oriented communities in Europe, the share of trips made by walking is equal to or higher than the transit share, because the entire transit system supports the pedestrian. Pedestrian-oriented urban design tends to increase transit’s share of all trips if the scale of the pedestrian improvement is large enough and transit service is of good quality.”

      • Paris is a city with which I have some familiarity. When visiting at the Fondation des E.U, looking at the window of a friend’s across the expansive Boulevard Jourdan, I see first , a lane the exclusive use of buses and taxis,just beyond, an automobile traffic lane , in the center , light rail, another auto traffic lane, at last, the sidewalk and a city and suburban metro entrance What better mix!?!
        While we think of the metro as the Paris mainstay, buses are critically important and much used. Of course, Sacramento and Valley cities are not analogous in this way to Paris, but the real difference, it seems to me, is that other cities , especially those abroad, achieve much better results in designing systems that match with physical and demographic components.
        Dependence on the automobile ( confession: we have several) has actually compromised access to cities and towns. I would hope that more imaginative and cost effective ways to get people to use and frequent the venues and treasures of urban centers such as those of our Central Valley cities could be proposed and developed. More sophisticated and used friendly bus systems seem to me part of the solution. Spencer P. Le Gate
        . .

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