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Fresh Thinking on Urban Transit

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During the last few weeks three refreshing perspectives on urban transit have crossed my screen, which I’m pleased to summarize and encourage you to read in full.

In the first piece, Henry Grabar recounts how transit consultant Jarrett Walker is helping Houston reconfigure its bus transit system, converting it into a “frequent network.” The idea is to refocus bus routes and frequencies toward corridors and areas with high potential ridership and away from places with low potential ridership. That sounds obvious, but politics in most metro areas stresses things like “geographic equity,” which generally spreads out bus service to large portions of the metro area where demand is low and costs are high. The aim of Walker’s redesign is to do just the opposite. Calculations predict that the revamped design will, with no increase in budget, increase bus ridership by 20%. The percentage of potential riders with access to frequent service will increase from 49% on weekdays (and just 25% on weekends) to 73% seven days a week, 15 hours a day. That is, of course, if politics does not veto the plan. The article has an over-hyped title of “Mass Transit Magic: How America’s Fourth-Largest City Can Abandon Its Addiction to Cars,” but is still very much worth reading (Salon, May 25th).

The second article takes a very different tack, “How Cars, Not Subways, Will Make Us Richer.” Written by Scott Beyer for the Daily Beast (June 4th), it begins with the 2011 study from Brookings finding that in America’s hundred largest metro areas, only 22% of low- and middle-skill jobs are accessible via transit in less than 90 minutes (which is more than three times the duration of the average auto commute, BTW). It then summarizes a report from the Urban Institute led by Rolf Pendall, which found that transit access has little effect on people’s economic success. By contrast, the study team found that low-income people with automobile access were twice as likely as transit users to find jobs and four times as likely to keep them. Beyer suggests that planners need to give greater attention to ways of increasing auto access for lower-income people who are not well-served by transit systems. The report is “Driving to Opportunity,” released by the Urban Institute in March 2014, written by a team of people from Urban Institute, the National Center for Smart Growth (at University of Maryland), and the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA.

Finally, the next day (June 5th) CityLab published a comprehensive piece by David Levinson of the University of Minnesota: “How to Make Mass Transit Financially Sustainable Once and for All.” To introduce the subject, he makes a good case that over the last 40 years or so, transit has been in a state of crisis that we have mostly refused to recognize. “Current strategies have not placed transit on a financially sustainable path,” he writes—and he’s correct. As a long-time transportation researcher, Levinson has thought a lot about this problem, concluding that “transit should be successful and cover its costs,” but to do that it needs to be reconceptualized as a kind of public utility. The rest of the piece sets forth and briefly explains seven key aspects of this model:

Reduce costs by competitive tendering of bus service as done in London;

Increase fares, so that the average farebox recovery eventually exceeds 100% of operating costs (with transit vouchers for the poor);

Require the use of a smart card and encourage seasonal passes;

Cancel money-losing routes unless someone is willing to subsidize them;

Recover future capital costs via land value capture (see NCHRP synthesis 459, “Using the Economic Value Created by Transportation to Fund Transportation”);

Raise capital in bond and equity markets, like other utilities do; and,

Fund transit locally, since its benefits are local.

These are very provocative ideas, and I think they are worth serious consideration, as transit faces the likelihood of declining federal support and massive fleet replacement and infrastructure refurbishment costs in coming decades. And I find it encouraging that Levinson’s piece is part of the CityLab “Future of

Transportation” series funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

(This article first ran in the June edition of Surface Transportation Innovation)

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