Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit

Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit

by Christof Spieler


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610919029
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Christof Spieler, PE, LEED AP, is a Vice President and Director of Planning at Huitt-Zollars and a Lecturer in Architecture and Engineering at Rice University. He was a member of the board of directors of Houston METRO from 2010 to 2018.

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Transit is not the primary mode of transportation in the United States. Seventy-seven percent of Americans commute in a single-occupant car, and only 5 percent by train, bus, or ferry (the rest carpool, walk, or bike). Improving transit options and ridership is essential for two reasons.

The first reason is that transit is available to almost anyone, regardless of age, ability, or income. We tend to consider cars as universal, but a significant portion of Americans are not able to drive because they are too young, because they have physical or mental disabilities (which get more common with age), or because they cannot afford a car.

This alone is reason to have transit. Transit allows everyone to get around, to have interesting and fulfilling lives, to be full and productive members of society. Countries like Switzerland and Japan, as a matter of national policy, provide transit everywhere, regardless of how many people will ride it. This is what transportation expert Jarrett Walker calls "coverage service." In the United States, we take this approach to roads. Cities generally pave every street, regardless of how many houses it has on it. They don't do cost-effectiveness calculations to see if the property taxes collected on the adjoining properties will cover the cost of pavement, or project traffic figures to see if the use of the road will meet minimum standards. They simply pave a street to every house. State highway departments do the same. Every town, no matter how small, is on a network of highways. Transit is not as universal, but it is still widespread; nearly every town of meaningful size has some bus routes, and even rural areas have "dial a ride" services for seniors and the disabled.

But if transit is only a lifeline service, it will be limited in quality. Even in Switzerland, rural bus service is hourly or less. There is simply not enough travel demand in small alpine villages to justify running a bus any more often. In areas with a low level of transit service, from an Alpine village to a US suburb, people who can use and afford a car are likely to drive. In these low-density places, roads are less congested and every building has a parking space in front if it. Someone driving can park right in front of their destination in plentiful and free parking spaces, but someone arriving on a bus must navigate that parking lot on foot to get to their destination. Lifeline transit is a necessity for some people, but it is never as good as driving.

But the majority of the global population lives in cities, which makes transit essential for a second reason: it moves a lot of people in very little space. A transit bus seats 40 people (and can handle another 40 people standing) and takes up about as much space on the street as two to three cars. Thus, 80 people can travel in the space it takes to move three people in single-occupant vehicles. Transit also requires no parking space at the destination — the vehicle simply keeps going and makes another trip. Consider Manhattan: 2.4 million people work on the island. Getting them all to work in cars would require several hundred lanes of bridges and tunnels and 2.4 million parking spaces, which, built as surface parking, would cover the entire 30-square-mile island, leaving no space for the workplaces those commuters are traveling to. This space advantage is a matter of geometry, not technology. Taxis, whether hailed at the curb are summoned via an app, still take up as much space as a car. In fact they take more, since they circle empty as they wait for a rider. Autonomous cars may be able to travel closer together than cars, but they still cannot approach the space efficiency of an ordinary bus, let alone a subway.

Space efficiency is vital because cities succeed by crowding things together. A company works by bringing together its employees, with their various skills and functions, into one place. It also depends on other businesses, from lawyers to reprographics services, and benefits from having them nearby. Moreover, it benefits from being near its competitors, so it can draw from a larger talent pool, and from being near restaurants and stores and cultural institutions that will make its location desirable to talented employees. Even the tech industry — which actually makes its money by allowing people to communicate, shop, and entertain themselves anywhere — is highly concentrated not just in the San Francisco Bay Area but in specific neighborhoods. Cities work by physically bringing people together, and that generates commerce, ideas, and culture. Cities are vital to the nation as a whole. The ten largest US metropolitan areas, all of which have large transit networks, represent a third of the US economy. Some of the most economically productive places in the United States, from Midtown Manhattan to the Las Vegas Strip to Harvard University, are utterly dependent on transit. Around the world, every major economic center has a large and busy transit network.

Transit can be the mode of choice in a city. In Manhattan, getting around on the subway is faster and more convenient than driving. Even in famously car-oriented Houston, half of the suburban commuters to downtown take the bus because it is often faster, generally less expensive, and always less stressful than driving. But it is not just affluent riders who benefit from the high-quality transit that cities can support; time often matters even more to low-income riders.

But for transit to be a mode of choice, it has to be integrated into a walkable, mixed-use place. Every transit rider is either a pedestrian or a bicyclist for some part of their transit trip. Even people who drive to a park-and-ride lot have to walk to their job at the other end of the ride. Transit is only convenient if walking is convenient. And, once a rider is at their destination, they want to be able to other things a well — get a coffee, eat lunch with their coworkers, shop, and run an errand. If they need a car to do any of those things, they will use a car for their entire trip.

Successful transit systems work because they serve places where many people want to go: commuting destinations like employment centers and universities; gathering places like sports stadiums, convention centers, and entertainment districts; and dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. Transit is not the best mode for everything, and there are many places where it will never play a large role. But there are some places where it not only works well, but becomes essential. In those places, transit still mattered after cars became widespread and the government invested billions in highways, and it will still matter no matter what future technologies come along.

In cities of all sizes, big employment centers have the highest transit use. Forty-seven percent of downtown Seattle employees take transit, even though many of them have cars at home. Only 30% commute in a car alone. From 2010 to 2016, downtown added 45,000 jobs, but only 2,000 more car trips. In dense, walkable neighborhoods with a mix of uses, people can depend on transit for all trips. In central Toronto neighborhoods, a third of households have no cars.


The history of transit in the United States goes back to the 1800s, but since the 1970s, transit in the United States has been reinvented and reinvigorated. Today's networks reflect over 150 years of evolution.

In the 1920s, transit operated in a different world. Cars had been introduced, but only a quarter of households owned one. In urban areas, horses and carriages had always been for the rich. Most Americans were dependent on walking.

Transit was a profit-making venture. Nearly all transit was privately owned. Some transit lines were owned by developers to support new neighborhoods, some by utilities who held city franchises to operate transit and provide electricity, and some by pure transit companies. Most were able to cover the costs of operating and building transit with fares. In fact, many cities depended on transit companies, with these fares, to provide additional services like street paving and cleaning and to pay franchise fees to the city.

Streetcars, invented in the 1880s, were the most common transit technology in the United States. Nearly every city — not just big ones like New York and Los Angeles, but small ones like Missoula and Biloxi — once had streetcars. These provided the same kind of transit service that buses do today. They typically shared lanes with other vehicles and stopped at every corner. While some routes ran every few minutes, many ran only every 20 minutes or even just once an hour.

In a few big cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, congestion caused by streetcars, carriages, and delivery wagons got intolerable, and elevated rail lines and subways were built.

Railroads were still the dominant means of long-distance travel, and virtually every town had a railroad station. Only a few cities, though, had train service specifically targeted to daily commuters.

Across the world, the advent of mass-produced cars in the 1940s and 1950s changed the role of transit. In the United States, though, due to government policy, this change was particularly dramatic.

Starting in the early 1900s, government at all levels began to invest heavily in roadways. Prior to this, only cities had made major investments in road infrastructure. Rural roads were often maintained (to very low standards) by local farmers. In 1916, the federal government began funding roads and encouraged all states to create highway departments. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate system, cemented the idea that all levels of government would fund roads and that most highways would not be tolled. Thus, government set up an unequal situation: roadways were subsidized by the government, but transit was provided by the private sector and expected to pay its own way. For obvious reasons, that did not work, and transit companies started to lose money.

Furthermore, the government began to require or incentivize new land- development forms that were inherently transit-hostile. Using new powers to regulate land uses and density through zoning, as granted by the Supreme Court in 1926, cities required single-family homes and separate uses, lowering density and making it harder to do everyday chores without a car. Through the GI bill and home mortgage deduction, the federal government explicitly favored home ownership, and that usually meant a home in a car-oriented suburb.

Transit companies started converting streetcar lines to buses in the 1920s. This made economic sense for the companies, since it reduced maintenance costs. It was also encouraged by civic leadership, who saw streetcars as obstructions to automobiles and as fundamentally old-fashioned. After a peak during World War II rationing, transit ridership started dropping precipitously. The construction of new roads encouraged people to shift to cars, which reduced ridership, which caused companies to cut service, which drove more people to buy cars. This was not inevitable. The same decline was not seen in either Japan, where major roadways were tolled, or Europe, where government subsidized transit (as well as cars).

By the 1960s and 1970s, cities faced two different crises. Transit systems, no longer as central as they had been, but still critical lifelines for some of the population, were going bankrupt. Meanwhile, the idea that more highways would alleviate traffic jams was proving false.

Transit agencies were formed to solve these problems. The first was relatively straightforward: government funds were needed for operating costs and new buses. The second would reuqire something more ambitious: new rail systems.

With the coming of freeways, cities tended to segregate along economic lines, as the middle class moved outwards and the inner cities to the poor. This migration most cities with a relatively prosperous, car-oriented suburban fringe, a belt of declining poor areas inside the fringe, and a vestigial downtown at the center — still a major employment center but no longer a retail or entertainment destination. The rail systems of the 1970s were intended primarily to sustain those central business districts. Business interests worried that congestion would drive white-collar jobs out of the city and promoted rail as a way to make life easier for suburbanites coming to work.

Rail transit was still widely seen as old-fashioned, and the major prewar systems were falling apart. Thus, the new systems were marketed as something altogether new: open, minimalist stations, shiny trains with carpeting inside (and no handholds, since everyone would have a seat!), mission-control-inspired computerized control systems, and big, free parking lots off of suburban highways. Generally, these systems were explicitly targeted at suburban (and white) "choice riders." The first was Philadelphia's PATCO, followed by San Francisco, Washington DC, and Atlanta. Los Angeles also began planning for transit, though it would take until the 1990s to implement.

The new rail transit networks of the 1970s were limited to a few big cities. In the 1980s, new technologies and new funding sources allowed rail transit to spread to more places.

Light-rail systems in San Diego (1981), Portland (1986), and Sacramento (1987) became a new model for US rail transit. Cheaper than heavy rail, but still attractive enough for the desired "choice riders," light rail was an appealing option for many places.

The federal government had begun to see a role for mass transit. In 1964, Housing and Urban Development funding helped Chicago open the Skokie Swift rapid transit line, and in the same year Congress and President Johnson created the Urban Mass Transit Administration, today's FTA.

Federal laws enacted in 1979 and 1983 established long-term funding for transit projects and formalized the program for awarding grants, today known as "New Starts." By covering up to 50% of the cost of transit projects, it put rail within the reach of more cities, but it also set up funding requirements and processes that extend the planning process and sometimes lead to odd choices.

The federal government also created "formula" funds that would go to every metropolitan area to pay for transit. This funding for new buses and transit centers greatly improved the experience of riding transit in cities large and small across the United States.

Meanwhile, the freight railroads, facing their own financial crisis, began cutting passenger service. The federal government rescued what was left of long-distance trains with the creation of Amtrak in 1971, but did not provide for local trains. Thus, states were forced to take over the remaining commuter rail service or let it disappear. New equipment began appearing on the service that remained, replacing trains that were sometimes 50 years old.

In the 1990s, rail transit once again became a normal part of American cities. Transit advocates, agency staff, and consultants worked to spread expertise, technology, ideas, and political strategies from city to city.

Increasingly, transit is seen as a tool for revitalization and livability. Since the 1980s, cities have been striving to revitalize their downtowns, sprucing them up with convention centers and boutique hotels, museums and ballparks, nightclubs and restaurants, lofts and condos. Meanwhile, inner-city neighborhoods around downtown are gentrifying as the children of suburbia look for shorter commutes and places with character. In this new era, light rail's disadvantages turned into advantages. Tracks in the street, more visible than subway entrances, serve as beacons of renewal. Street-level stops encourage pedestrian activity. Even suburbs wanted walkable places and saw rail as a way to get them. "Transit-oriented development" became a major theme of industry conferences.

With the increased political support, cities got more ambitions. Early light-rail systems were generally expanded one line at a time. Cities began going to voters with master plans covering many lines. Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Denver embarked on multi-decade rail expansions. In 2016, Seattle voters approved $53.8 billion in new transit and LA voters approved $120 billion.

Along with light rail, cities started building commuter rail, with six new systems in the 1990s. In the 2000s, the Bush administration pushed hard for bus rapid transit as an alternative to rail. This resulted in some high-quality dedicated-lane systems, but also in multiple cities investing in multi-corridor rapid bus lines that still shared lanes with traffic but improved speed, frequency, and passenger amenities. The 2010s have seen a boom in modern streetcars. US transit is as diverse as it has ever been, and major transit infrastructure—rail and BRT — is now a normal part of American cities.


Excerpted from "Trains, Buses, People"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Christof Spieler.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction:Transit Where the People Are

The Role of Transit in American Cities
Basics of Successful Transit

New York-Newark, NY-NJ-CT-PA
Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA
Chicago-Naperville, IL-IN-WI
Washington-Baltimore-Arlington, DC-MD-VA-WV-PA
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA
Boston-Worcester-Providence, MA-RI-NH-CT
Dallas-Fort Worth, TX-OK
Philadelphia-Reading-Camden, PA-NJ-DE-MD
Houston-The Woodlands, TX
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Port St. Lucie, FL
Atlanta–Athens-Clarke County–Sandy Springs, GA
Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor, MI
Seattle-Tacoma, WA
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI
Milwaukee, WI
Cleveland-Akron-Canton, OH
Denver-Aurora, CO
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA
Portland-Vancouver-Salem, OR-WA
Orlando-Deltona-Daytona Beach, FL
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FLSt. Louis-St. Charles-Farmington, MO-IL
Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV
Charlotte-Concord, NC-SC
Sacramento-Roseville, CA
Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, UT
Kansas City-Overland Park-Kansas City, MO-KS
Las Vegas-Henderson, NV-AZ
Cincinnati-Wilmington-Maysville, OH-KY-IN
Austin-Round Rock, TX
Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro, TN
 Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC
Jacksonville-St. Marys-Palatka, FL-GA
New Orleans-Metairie-Hammond, LA-MS
Memphis-Forrest City, TN-MS-AR
Buffalo-Cheektowaga, NY
Albuquerque-Santa Fe-Las Vegas, NM
Tucson-Nogales, AZ
El Paso-Las Cruces, TX-NM
Urban Honolulu, HI
Little Rock-North Little Rock, AR
Eugene, OR

Metro Areas


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