Why America Hates its Trains: Part 2 - Dealing with Public Transit


Travel Analysis

Getting sidetracked

Knowing just how Americans fell out of love with public transit is key to understanding how rail travel got derailed


Anyone who's been on public transit in the US can attest to the fact that it leaves much to be desired. Just like its counterparts that run between cities and states, the trains that make up America's subway systems are buckling under the twin pressure of poor maintenance and growing ridership.

Only 4 out of the 10 largest American cities (3 if you’re being strict) have an adequately developed rail network. Nevertheless, before we begin to chronicle just how bad these systems are, it is perhaps useful to recount that things didn’t use to be like this.

Before cities received the blessings of electricity, the dominant form of mass transit for city dwellers lay with the horsecar; which sounds like a weird concept, but just imagine streetcars (locked onto road-bound rails) being pulled by horses.

The first implementation of the horsecar was the New York and Harlem Railroad in NYC, running along the current Park Avenue between downtown Manhattan and Harlem in the North. From this initial (and doubtlessly pioneering) service, horsecars and the eventual streetcars that replaced them proliferated across the US, spanning over 6,000 miles of track and pretty much having the annual capacity to carry the entire population of the country many times over. Few countries in Europe even came close to matching the scale of such a network, and many consider this period as the golden age of mass transit in American history as the systems set global standards of scale and frequency. 

On the developmental front, it is without a doubt that these streetcars improved the mobility of residents living in America’s quickly industrialising cities. This worked in concert with the logical grid systems being laid out in many cities to allow the young nation organise industry and hence achieve stellar rates of economic growth and output. 

After its peak in the early 1900s, public transit in US cities unfortunately started their precipitous decline into irrelevance as the automobile revolution gradually edged out the need for mass transit in many cities. Progressing alongside the fall in the quality of intercity trains, these systems began to not only fail the people who were still using them, but in a few decades when roads started to get clogged, started to trap many urban dwellers in a transport quagmire.

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How bad's the damage?

For one, rides are pretty expensive.

Many have pointed out that public transport should always be affordable, and whilst there are services like Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator that are operated free of charge, it is the exception to the rule. 

Compared with the rest of the world, taking the subway in the US costs much higher than their Asian counterparts and are slightly above average when compared with their European relatives. Similarly, whilst some argue that such fares are reasonable compared to systems like the London Underground, it is worth noting that the Underground has an inbuilt fare cap which allows commuters to break even after 3 rides. No significantly sized American city has this other than Portland.

American cities also for the most part adopt a flat-fare system regardless of the distance travelled. This means that in New York, you’ll be paying $2.75 regardless of whether you stay on the subway for the whole day or if you're just headed to the next stop.

Interestingly, this results in a scenario where short intra-city rides end up ‘subsiding’ longer end-to-end ones, which is a system that just doesn’t make sense. In this vein, short intra-city journeys (within downtown regions) are discouraged, which is precisely where mass transit is considered to have its greatest and most important developmental effects. This fare structure looks even worse once you realise that the people who are in greatest need of affordable public transit, the poor, are more predisposed to live in the inner neighbourhoods of most American cities. 

Services are limited as lines don't serve enough communities.

Going back to our 10 largest American cities survey, the 6 cities without subway lines are: Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio, San Diego and San Jose. All of these cities except Houston and Dallas have shockingly deficient light rail networks. For illustration, Phoenix has one light rail line, San Diego and San Jose each have 3 services, and while San Antonio literally operates none for its citizens, it thankfully it has 3 streetcar lines for 'tourist-use'. 

Taking a look at the coverage area of the aforementioned lines will reveal that they don't extend out into the suburbs (where many Americans live). Even if one were to take into account the fact that this was done by design (more on that later), that doesn't excuse the shockingly limited application and hence, ridership of these networks.

Trains are infrequent and waits are sometimes frustrating.

Ask any Singaporean whether they would wish to wait 5 minutes for a train and you'll start to hear some people furiously composing tweets complaining about the delay. However, let's triple that figure and put it figure to an American - you'll get a nonchalant response. 

Trains on the New York City subway and on Philadelphia's SEPTA rail can sometimes take up to 15 minutes in between services even when there are no major delays in the network. This is because maintaining higher service frequencies costs more money, and there is a severe lack of funds to pay for this. 

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How did things get this bad?

The wheels of the bus came rolling

As we’ve covered, many American cities began their public transit stories with extensive streetcar networks. However, with the invention of the bus, public opinion started to shift away from supporting the streetcars and its fixed rails to viewing the bus as its next evolution.

Strong corporate interests also factored into this phenomenon. As buses started to draw intrigue from commuters, manufacturers began to devise schemes to eliminate their biggest competitors - the streetcar. General Motors was the biggest perpetrator of this strategy through what is now called the General Motors streetcar conspiracy. This involved the purchasing of streetcar operators nationwide and the conversion of their services into bus operated lines. Complementing this effort was a plan to dismantle the existing infrastructure used by the streetcars (remember those 6,000 miles of rails?), which was finally achieved across 25 cities over the span of 12 years.

Though this didn't extend to every line in every American city, this unregulated proliferation of buses significantly impacted the reliability of streetcars as they had to compete with buses for space on the road. Unsurprisingly, this caused a gradual decline in ridership and triggered the end of the streetcar's relevance in the American public transit paradigm.

Psychologically, the hangover of the declining streetcar system (coupled with the high costs and difficulties associated with constructing subway lines) also limited the future possibility of using trains (and subway networks) as a means of addressing the transport needs of urban America.

The rise of the automobile and suburban living

As cities began to suffer from overcrowding, many middle class Americans saw an opportunity to use the car as a reason to move into new property developments in the suburbs. For the first time in human history, the automobile allowed for the creation of 'personal commutes', where residents would commute into the city for work but were able to enjoy the benefits of living in the suburbs - lower population density, lower crime, cleaner air and at least in the early years, racial homogeneity. 

Unsurprisingly, rail services to these low density suburbs would be unprofitable because the infrastructural costs needed to add and maintain stations were disproportionate to the potential fares paid by the small amount of people who would utilise them. Furthermore, as the federal government plied manufacturers with automobile subsidies, it also made it cheap to drive, and hence indirectly ingrained a culture of driving over train travel for huge swathes of the country.

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Strict and pro-vehicular urban planning guidelines

Aligning with the pro-automobile slant of the federal government, city councils started to rethink their approach to building and city zoning guidelines. Currently, city councils have strict guidelines that force companies to set aside huge parts of their space for the creation of parking lots.

A famous example of this lies in the design of the new Apple Park campus in Cupertino. Though the core tent of the campus' design lay with maintaining the existing green spaces of the area, Apple was foced to build almost 11,000 parking lots for a building of 14,000 employees. This means that the total land area devoted to parking spaces will be higher than the total office space of the entire building.

Unsurprisingly, this is yet another uniquely American phenomenon. What's the effect of such a policy? Well, more parking spaces mean that driving is more attractive and easier. Oh, and the city gets to relinquish the overwhelming burden of providing ample spaces for parking to private developers.

The inclusion of more parking spaces also ends up spacing out businesses and buildings from each other, which further discourages walking and hence, also the use of rail based mass transit. Furthermore, not only does this mean that there is less productive land area for businesses (and indeed, higher costs to set one up), it also means that mass transit takes a backseat as automobile supporting infrastructure increases in quantity and quality.

A classic story of neglect and underfunding

As waves of middle class Americans moved out of the city, public transit ridership started to fall dramatically and ironically, it was up to the poor to pick up the slack of funding the entire system. Needless to say, this was a terrible idea as fares soon started rising despite a decline in service quality. As the years worn on, lawmakers came to view public transit in a decidedly condescending way. Instead of it being enshrined a crucial set of infrastructure and one that promoted economic development, many saw it as a welfare program for the poor. 

Cities also diverted what was once public transit funds towards road widening projects in an effort to accommodate the growing vehicular traffic commuting to and from the city. On a state and federal level, new highway networks were introduced to better connect the suburbs to the downtown city core.

Consequently, this new shortfall in public transit funding forced rail companies to cut back on service frequency and quality across the board in an effort to rationalise their operations. A vicious cycle soon emerged as falling standards self perpetuated higher fares and lower ridership.

As mentioned previously, it is shortsighted to think that auto-obsession is the sole reason for the decline of public transit. Why is it that Canadian cities (which are similarly spread out and developed in a similar fashion) have significantly better public transit systems? This is simply because governments north of the border have deemed public transit as an essential public good and not as a sinkhole of financial resources like they do in these 50 states.

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Models rather than critics

While it is clear that significant work is needed to improve the state of America's public transit systems, it is worth noting that the moral to this story is definitely not lost on some policymakers.

There is some hope that as cities across the country start to adopt the use of streetcars, that there will be an uptick in the level of urban mobility (they're actually doing it!). At the same time, we are also seeing a decline of the automobile industry in the US which might bring some benefits to public transport systems as a whole. It's also been revealed that pesky millennials are much more likely to ditch the car in favour of utilising public transit. 

Could the US have had the most advanced public transit systems in the world if it had a more equitable development narrative? Maybe. However, what's clear to everyone now is that there needs to be a concerted effort to address some of the public transport woes that are current befalling America's biggest metropolises lest things get worse.

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