Why Public Transit Doesn't Work In The U.S.

Gas taxes, parking charges, toll roads - these are the ingredients to making transit successful, according to experts who state that it's not enough to offer good transit - driving must become more expensive. Add to that high density land use.

David Lazarus, business reporter for the LA Times, took a 2-week trip to Japan and took every conceivable form of public transit, from high speed rail to buses, and then questioned transit experts as to why transit doesn't work well in this country.

"Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, said the hardest part isn't constructing the infrastructure for a world-class public transit system. It's creating the necessary incentives to get Americans out of their cars.

"We now keep the cost of driving as cheap as we possibly can," Taylor said. "As long as we do that, we won't be able to make public transportation work."

"David Boyce, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said another key piece of the puzzle is land use. Americans prefer low-density communities and large lots for their homes."

Lazarus came away less than hopeful that making driving less attractive and land use denser were likely to occur, meaning that the billions of dollars spent on improving public transit was not likely to attract that many new riders.

"So don't hold your breath for a public transportation system that rivals what our friends abroad enjoy. It's not going to happen -- at least not until a majority of us agree that we're prepared to accept the trade-offs necessary to bring about such a wholesale change in how we live and travel."

Thanks to Roy Nakadegawa

Full Story: U.S. public transit improvements will be a tough sell



See Also:

The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index


Cheap gas isn't cheap if one is forced to use a great deal of it daily...

Tough Sell? Maybe Not...

It all depends on what one is selling and to whom. Selling urban land owners and developers LOWER parking requirements, or streamlined approval for building higher density/more complimentary site use in TOD areas shouldn't be too tough. Burning cheap gas while circling the block endlessly looking for scarce parking may have a tutorial advantage over consciousness raising - if necessity is the mother of invention, inconvenience may be the father of virtue.

Good Ingredients, Bad Headline

This piece identifies many important elements for widespread transit use. The headline is too broad. It certainly doesn't apply to New York City, Boston, or Washington D.C., or all the places like them in the U.S (I'm writing from a part of LA that has good transit, density, and expensive parking).

Driving cars powered by fossil fuels is unsustainable. Our obesity is a national crisis, and some of us are bothered by the fact that 40,000+ people die in car crashes every year. It's all connected to suburbia and solo driving.

Not everybody in America wants to live in a suburb on a gigantic lot, despite the ideology and subsidies that support that lifestyle.

Irvin Dawid's picture

NYC the exception...somewhat

Note that Lazarus uses Manhattan to illustrate that it's necessary to create incentives to get Americans out of their cars for the Big Apple in order to make transit successful:

"New York demonstrates the viability of this notion. "Who'd even consider the hassles of driving and parking in Manhattan when you can take the subway instead?"

However, Transportation Alternatives would remind the reader that East and Harlem River bridges are still free, and Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan, complete with $354.5 million in a federal urban partnership grant, was rejected by the Assembly because their constituents complained about having to pay to drive downtown....

Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

Re-framing needed

The frame of the discussion is that public transit "needs help". We need some more honest economists to step forward and show how the auto-system is heavily subsidized. Road-fuel taxes pay only a tiny fraction of the actual costs of the auto-system. The rest, carbon emissions, oil-wars, parking, collisions, drainage, congestion, ...etc are all absorbed by the taxpayer, future generations, or other countries.

Convenience is key...

I have to defend convenient transit. The mixed-uses found in Portland Oregon (the poster child of planning) includes a mix of travel options, (fareless transit in city center, walking, bicycling). All are convenient. Portland's pedestrian environment makes crossing streets amazingly nonchalant.

Driving also becomes more convenient (less need to circle blocks searching for the closest curbside parking spot, less maniacal speeding and bunching into packs of speeding cars, etc), when the other means of travel are designed through specific infrastructure to be convenient.

Some people say Portland's shorter blocks (200') are the reason it's easy to walk there. I disagree. Cities with longer blocks should take out traffic lanes and install curb extensions at intersections to achieve a standard for pedestrian travel, bicycling and transit use that make them all convenient.

Public Transport

Perhaps the real problem is a generalisation about 'America' as one country - it is the United States - 50 states and even more cities.

Many mayors talk about wanting public transit in the USA. Some cities are building walking cities,... bicycling cities. Indeed wealthier cities often fit this classification. Some of this is geography. Some is the 'Appalachian Mountains' & other federal funding for ever bigger highways. Some is cultural.

When the motor car was released there was a massive education campaign to get people to use cars!

So, there is possibility, there are solutions, and it's not all 'hopeless'. But it's a local solution. Our firm have built the 'Innovation Cities Program' to change cities. It can be done.

3 steps: Stop thinking it's one big hopeless problem, avoid 'national' solutions, trust & empower communities to make the right solutions with the right tools.

Christopher Hire
Executive Director, 2thinknow

The power of positive thinking

Ditto Christopher Hire's positive viewpoints.

Live Free or Ride Transit?

I find it regrettable that restricting people's freedom is a part of public transportation advocacy. For decades, highway users have paid nearly 20% of their gas taxes to subsidize transit development. And I for one support increasing access to all modes (better bike paths, faster rail, new transit lines, and more roads. Driving is not cheap. Free people just prefer the flexibility of being able to go to the beach, grandma's, their friends, the gym, work, baseball games, restaurants, and doctor's offices, and stores in a flexible manner. And not just a "transit accessible doctor or gym or restaurant" but the one they like best. And for those that prefer transit there are MANY cities and places in the U.S. where people live freely, and very happily, without a car riding transit everywhere they want. The key is that people have their freedom to do as they wish in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

U.S. Public transit is NOT subsidized

Are public schools subsidized? No. They are a public investment. Subsidy is using public money to support private profit-making industry. In the U.S. there is almost no privately owned public transit. Hence, it is a public investment. The autosprawl system, on the other hand, is made up of profit-making firms and is heavily subsidized.
As for fuel taxes "supporting" transit, your 401k would be zero if it were not for the working-poor urbanites who are riding the bus and subway to work every day. And to add insult to injury, these people have the lowest carbon footprint, while they pay taxes to support sprawl and die in oil wars to support the wasteful auto system.


Roads are government owned and operated for the most part as well as transit. As for the charge that private contractors make money from it, who do you think makes rail cars? How about labor unions? Aren't they getting subsidized by the awarding of big transit contracts? Labor unions are a public investment?

Besides, transit is not even a public good by economic definition. It can be exclusionary and there is rivalry in consumption. Nobody other than a transit advocate and politician would ever refer to transit as a true "public investment". The same is true for roads. The word investment is a nice justification for public expenditure. Fewer and fewer of government expenditures are really investments.

Autosprawl subsidy is an investment in waste

Private road contractors are just a drop in the ocean of private profit from autosprawl subsidy. USD Billions are made in profit, auto-companies, fossil-fuel companies, mcmansion builders, military contractors, flood cleanup, insurance, etc. It is true that profits are made from building rail equipment and such--just as there are those who profit from building public schools. The question should be elevated to the macro economic view, is there a benefit to society as a whole or a narrow segment. And, yes there is a difference between "investment" and "spending" -- only in fiscal policy are these two concepts deliberately confused by special interests.

Offer "good" transit that is auto-competitive or superior


There are lots of alternative, innovative transit systems that most people don't know about. Many could be competitive or superior to autos on congested highways and conventional bus and rail systems - because they can take you where you want to go, non-stop, in a very safe, reliable and visually rich manner. Increasing the cost of automobility is probably needed but superior transit systems are also an important need. Descriptions and illustrations of more than 100 of them are provided at http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans. Current leaders, now under construction may be seen at: http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/prtquick.htm
Today, most of the action is outside of the US in Sweden, the U.K. and the Masdar eco-city in Abu Dhabi. The US continues to believe that more and more autos, however green, are "the answer" - how silly!

Transit is a viable option in the US

I always enjoy when someone from Los Angeles makes any negative comment about Transit and its ineffectiveness in the US. Typically, that same person drives to work each day on a freeway maintained with my tax dollars (Oh, how the tables have turned). I on the other board a train twice a day to commute between home and work. Yes, I live in Los Angeles. I have to admit transit in Los Angeles is deficient due to the expansiveness of the county and the portion of the population that are transit-haters (not everyone). At the same time it is feasible to use transit in this county. The trains I ride each day are typically packed with people during peak hours. Transit riders represent a broad spectrum of the population. People who are fed up with driving on the 101 and 405 make an effort to save the environment and their sanity by stepping out of their cars for their daily commutes. People pass transit bonds in LA and CA on a consistent basis but a portion of those who support them just hope that it will alleviate congestion and will still use the freeway.

On another note I was just on the East Coast (Born and Bred) where I used tranist in Boston, Virginia, and Washington DC. I was easily able to navigate cities within those areas. Also, people appear to prefer transit as an option. Living near transit is actually a privilege. What a concept! Unlike the non-transit using Angelenos people in these areas of the country are progressive enough to optimize their commute by using transit. Frankly, I am tired of subsidizing non-transit users lifestyles. Get out of your car and make an effort to use transit. It will improve the environment, ease your congestion stress, and maybe you will actually be social instead of trying to run over pedestrians.

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