Why is successful public transportation seemingly so hard to develop, and should we all be learning from Salt Lake City?

A little over a year ago, I was applying to graduate school. I’ve lived in Houston for something like 10 percent of my life, which is odd, but other than that it had been all Northeast. I wanted to do something different, and so did my wife, so we were mostly looking in the Midwest. At the start of the process, and even in the middle of the process, I figured we’d end up in Chicago, mostly because we had one car and didn’t want to tack a second car (and associated costs) into the equation. Lo and behold, we ended up in Minneapolis. Part of the reason it was able to get over the hump — aside from basic things like cost, cost of living, etc. — was that it actually has a pretty good public transportation system. The light rail is a little bit of a shitshow in that it doesn’t necessarily go to areas where people live, but the bus system is very good, especially if you’re headed to a job downtown. Point is, public transportation can make a lot of difference, especially at a time where middle-class earnings are presumably being squeezed.

It’s pretty remarkable, then, if you really think about it: in the United States (we’ll start there), you can probably rattle off the cities with good public transportation on one, or maybe the beginnings of a second, hand. Let’s go. NYC, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston. There’s one hand. Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and … and …. looking for the last two on the second hand. There are different lists all over about this stuff, and they use different metrics — for example, one list uses “percentage of city you can reach in 90 minutes without a car.” Here are a couple of different examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. So, it can be done. But there are maybe 12 or 15 good examples state-side at most, yet there are 111 cities in the U.S. with more than 200K people. Gas usage should a very real concern for humanity right now, so shifting to a more bus/light rail/bike share friendly system would benefit the masses. But it doesn’t really happen. Why?

Salon has one take: that the development of systems is doomed because politicians don’t actually know anyone that ride buses and trains. Atlantic Cities took a deep look at the finances of running a public transportation system, including 18 different options via this report from Todd Litman. (Turns out you can do more than simply raise fares, and that bulk passes might be the best idea.) Public transit systems in most major cities are often designed in a bass-ackwards way, creating a situation where many have to travel over 1 hour to work and back.

To quote this article from The Atlantic:

“America can’t grow the way we’ve been growing,” says Rob Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an author of the report. “Cities need to get smarter about connecting to their suburbs and building jobs where transit is available.”

Before I shift to looking at this internationally, the key thing to think about on the U.S. side is actually — and somewhat surprisingly — Salt Lake City. That’s a mountain-area Red State, which you would assume is all about the car. No, in fact. It has some of the most aggressive public transit growth in America, and as a result, it has the best connectivity between people and jobs in all of America. If you hate commuting or just want the process of getting to work to be relatively painless — as most Americans do — then this is a hugely attractive feature.

World-wide, there are some public transportation champs out there. London, Berlin, and Seoul are considered especially good. Hong Kong, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo also receive strong marks. (This is a list of every metro system in the world at present, more or less.) It all left me wondering: is this an issue like education or health care, where it’s broadly perceived that parts of the rest of the world have a jump on the United States? This article from The Economist begins to explain the answer: essentially, yes. American transport projects tend to be much more expensive, for some of these reasons:

  • Conflicts of interest, with “consultants who consult with consultants and advisers who advise advisers.”
  • A common-law legal system with lots of legal review that slows down infrastructure projects
  • Incredibly strict anti-corruption rules that do more harm than good
  • Not enough emphasis on speed of construction, leading to long projects and escalating costs.

Madrid’s metro system — again, one of the best in the world — made a list of best practices for developing an extension quickly and effectively. Virtually none of these things happen in U.S. cities. I grew up about two blocks (two avenues over) from the Second Avenue Subway; that project has been going on for literally years and they just finished Phase One Bloomberg isn’t sure he’ll be alive when it debuts. The focus is clearly not on speed of construction.

A lot of people are riding metros globally, and likely more would if systems were cranked up quicker and more effectively. Consider this regarding the US: by 2050, there’s expected to be another 130 million people, potentially. That’s essentially the entire population of the current Western U.S. It’s honestly not feasible, 100 years on (or even sooner), for all these people to be multi-car families. (Now, there’s a possibility the shift will eventually be to solar cars or something else, but that’s not concretely on the table right now.) We need better public transportation — not necessarily just rideshare programs — and we need to design it smartly (connecting where people live to where people work, and adjusting when those elements adjust) and quickly. The future of the American city is going to be much different — San Francisco, New York and DC can’t honestly take that many more people — and public transport is at the cornerstone of that.

To bring this kinda full circle, I’m finishing up my grad school stuff in March/May (classes over in March, so could move around then). One of the things my wife and I actively consider about all potential destinations is the public transportation. Beyond “baseline quality of life” and “access to airport/friends,” it’s probably No. 2 or No. 3. That’s where the future is. You want to know that a potential city you’ll be living in embraces it.

Ted Bauer