To Improve U.S. Transit, Follow the Lead of Other Countries

The common refrain is that transit is just better in other countries. However, the reasons why are more complex than initial impressions allow, providing important lessons for the United States.
October 19, 2018, 7am PDT | Camille Fink
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Jonathan English takes a closer look at how transit systems have evolved in Canada and throughout Europe to better understand why transit in the United States lacks in comparison. In short, policy and planning decisions that foster robust service are the key, says English:

Sustaining higher gas prices won’t single-handedly save transit systems, as advocates sometimes wishfully hope. European countries show that, while pricier fuel may drive some people to transit, it doesn’t make a meaningful difference if service isn't improved first.

Both the United States and Europe embraced the automobile after World War II and built the roadway infrastructure to support it. However, says English, in the suburbs of European cities transit remained a priority and train and rail stations were the anchors of new neighborhoods.

In addition, European cities continued to build rail even while developing highway networks, and the extensive commuter rail and bus networks throughout Europe today make transit travel much more feasible. English also says that equitable fare models are important to make transit an accessible and attractive mode of travel.

He says that planners in the U.S. need to look at the possibilities for improving transit, particularly for the suburbs. “All too often, transit planners—and even advocates—find themselves resigned to fatalism about the prospect of transit in American suburbs. They’re convinced that these spread-out and car-centric spaces are fundamentally irreconcilable with public transportation,” says English.

Toronto is an example, says English, of a city similar in variety of ways to many American cities, with an expanse of suburbs and highways. However, bus service connects these suburbs to the subway system. As a result, transit use is much higher and subsidies for transit are much lower than in comparable American cities.

“In some ways, the story of American transit is not so unique. Europeans and Canadians also like to drive. Their countries have also built big expressway networks. The difference is more basic, yet profound: When transit service isn’t good, few will choose to use it,” concludes English.

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Published on Wednesday, October 10, 2018 in CityLab
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