Focus on What’s Common to Good Transit Cities, not on Differences

Successful transit cities are not alike. There are large differences in how the most expansive transit networks are laid out. It takes multiple series of posts across several blogs (not just mine but also Human Transit and others) covering just one of them, for example stop spacing or how construction contracts are let. With so much variation, it’s easy to get caught up in details that differentiate the best systems. After all, the deepest communities of railfans tend to sprout in the cities with the largest rail networks; arguing with railfans with experience with London, Tokyo, or Paris is difficult because they know intricate details of how their systems work that I am catching up on but only know in the same depth for New York. Add in the fact that London and Paris view each other as peer cities and from there the route to arguing minutiae about two cities that by most standards have good public transit is short.

But what if this is wrong? What if, instead of or in addition to figuring out differences among the top transit cities, it’s useful to also figure out what these transit cities have in common that differentiates them from auto-oriented cities? After all, in other aspects of development or best practices this is well-understood: for example, a developing country can choose to aim to be hyper-capitalist like Singapore or the US or social democratic like Sweden or France, but it had better develop the institutions that those four countries have in common that differentiate them from the third world.

Unfortunately, before discussing what the common institutions to transit cities are, it’s necessary to discuss things that may be common but don’t really matter.

The US as a confounding factor

The biggest problem with figuring out things all good transit cities have in common is that in the developed world, the US (and to some extent Canada and Australia) is unique in having bad transit. Frequent commenter Threestationsquare has a list of cities by annual rapid transit ridership (counting BRT but not infrequent commuter rail, which lowballs parts of the US); New York is near the top, but the second highest in the US, a near-tie between Boston, Chicago, and Washington, would rank #22 in Europe. As a result, some social, political, and technical features that appear to differentiate good and bad transit are not really about transit but about the US and must be discarded as confounding factors. Fortunately, most of these confounding factors are easy to dispose of since they also occur in New York.

The more difficult question concerns factors that are distantly related to the weakness of US transit but are not direct explanations. I wrote about racism as such a factor a few months ago, arguing that high US construction costs come from weak civil service, which in turn comes from the way American segregation works. The US is not uniquely racist or even uniquely segregated; the unique aspect is that it a) has a long-settled oppressed minority and not just immigrants who arrived after the characteristic of the state was established, and b) has segregation within metro areas (unlike Singapore, which has social but not spatial segregation) but not between them (unlike Israel, where the built-up area of Tel Aviv has very few Arabs). But while this can explain why institutions developed in a way that’s hostile to transit, it’s not a direct explanation for poor US transit except in Atlanta, where the white state underinvests in the black city. White people in Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities with little to no public transit do not avoid the bus or the train out of stereotypes that match typical American racial stereotypes, such as crime; they avoid the train because it doesn’t go where they’re going and the bus because it is slow and unreliable.

There are two ways to avoid confounding factors. The first is the sanity check, where available: if some feature of transit exists across major transit cities but is absent in auto-oriented cities not just in the US but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Italy, then it’s likely to be relevant. Unfortunately, clean examples are rare. The second and more difficult method is to have theoretical understanding of what matters.

Size artifacts

London and Paris are transit cities. So are Prague and Stockholm. I’ve stressed the importance of scale-variance before: features that work in larger cities may fail in smaller ones and vice versa. Thus, it’s best to look at common features of successful transit cities within each size class separately.

In fact, one way cities can fail is by adopting transit features from cities of the wrong size class. China is making the mistake in one direction: Beijing and Shanghai have no express subway trains or frequent regional rail services acting as express urban rail, and as a result, all urban travel has to slow down to an average speed of about 35 km/h, whereas Tokyo has express regional lines averaging 60 km/h. China’s subway design standards worked well for how big its cities were when those standards were developed from the 1970s to the 1990s, but are too small for the country’s megacities today.

In contrast, in the developed world, the megacities with good public transit all have frequent express trains: Tokyo and Osaka have four-track (or even eight-track!) regional lines, Paris has the RER, New York has express subways (and the premium-price LIRR trains from Jamaica to Penn Station), London has fast regional rail lines and Thameslink and will soon have Crossrail, Seoul has a regional rail network with express trains on Subway Line 1, and Moscow stands alone with a strictly two-track system but has such wide stop spacing that the average speed on the Metro is 41 km/h. Smaller transit cities sometimes have frequent express trains (e.g. Zurich and Stockholm) and sometimes don’t (e.g. Prague), but it’s less important for them because their urban extent is such that a two-track subway line can connect the center with the edge of the built-up area in a reasonable amount of time.

And if China failed by adopting design standards fitting smaller cities than it has today, the US fails in the other direction, by adopting design standards fitting huge megacities, i.e. New York. Small cities cannot hope to have lines with the crowding levels of the Lexington Avenue Line. This has several implications. First, they need to scale their operating costs down, by using proof of payment ticketing and unstaffed stations, which features are common to most European transit cities below London and Paris’s size class. Second, they need to worry about train frequency, since it’s easy to get to the point where the frequency that matches some crowding guideline is so low that it discourages riders. And third, they need to maximize network effects, since there isn’t room for several competing operations, which means ensuring buses and trains work together and do not split the market between them.

The best example of an American city that fails in all three aspects above is Washington. While railfans in Washington lament the lack of express tracks like those of New York, the city’s problems are the exact opposite: it copied aspects of New York that only succeed in a dense megacity. With interlining and reverse-branching, Washington has low frequency on each service, down to 12 minutes off-peak. The stations are staffed and faregated, raising operating costs. And there is no fare integration between Metro and the buses, splitting the market in areas with price-sensitive riders (i.e. poor people) like Anacostia.

The political situation

While I’ve written before about what I think good metro design standards are, these standards themselves cannot separate the major transit cities from cities like Los Angeles (which has about two and a half rail trunks in a metro area larger than that of London or Paris) or Tel Aviv (which has no metro at all). Instead, it’s worth asking why these cities have no large subway systems to begin with.

In the case of Tel Aviv, Israel has had an official policy of population dispersal since independence. After independence the North and South of the country had Arab majorities, and the government wished to encourage Jews to settle there to weaken any Palestinian claims to these areas. As a result, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion rejected a plan to develop an urban rail network centered on Tel Aviv and instead encouraged low-income Jewish immigrants to move far away, either to depopulated Arab towns or to new towns (“development towns”) built at strategic points for national geopolitics. Decentralization was national policy, and with it came auto-oriented urbanism. A less harsh but equally politicized environment led to Malaysia’s auto-centric layout: Paul Barter’s thesis outlines how Malaysia choked informal transit and encouraged auto-oriented suburbanization in order to create an internal market for state-owned automakers.

In the case of the US, the situation is more complex, since there were several distinct political trends in different eras favoring cars. In postwar suburbia (and in Los Angeles going back to the 1920s) it was the association of cars with middle-class normality, and in California also with freedom from hated railroads; it’s related to the fact that American suburbanization was led by the middle class rather than by the working class as with more recent exurbanization. In Israel suburbanization was led by the working class, but the deliberate government policy of decentralization meant that the urban middle class’s demands for better transportation were ignored until the 1990s.

Without enough of an urban middle class to advocate for more transit, US transit withered. New cities in the Sunbelt had little demand for public transit, and in the older cities the middle class cared little for any transit that wasn’t a peak-only commuter train from the suburbs to the CBD. Moreover, in existing transit cities the middle class demanded that the urban layout change to fit its suburban living situation, leading to extensive job sprawl into office parks that are difficult to serve on transit. This paralleled trends in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; Sydney in particular saw middle-class suburbanization early, like Los Angeles.

The political situation changed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but by then high construction costs, NIMBYism constraining the extent of TOD (unlike in Canada), and indifference to leveraging regional rail for urban transit (as in Canada and until recently Israel but unlike in Australia) made it difficult to build more public transit lines.

Regional rail and TOD

The largest transit cities in the rich and middle-income world all make extensive use of regional rail, with the aforementioned exception of Chinese cities, where the lack of regional rail is creating serious travel pain, and New York, where the city itself is transit-oriented but its suburbs are not. Smaller transit cities usually make use of regional rail as well, but this isn’t universal, and to my understanding is uncommon in Eastern Europe (e.g. Kyiv has one semi-frequent ring line) even in cities with very high metro and tramway usage.

However, smaller transit cities that do not have much regional rail have full metro systems and not just tramways, let alone BRT. Curitiba and Bogota are famous for their BRT-only transit networks, but both instituted their systems in a context with low labor costs and both are building metro systems right now.

The other common element to transit cities is TOD. Here, we must distinguish old cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, whose urban layout is TOD because it was laid out decades before mass motorization, and newer cities like Stockholm, Tokyo, and every city in Eastern Europe or the East Asian tiger states. The latter set of cities built housing on top of train stations, often public housing (as in the communist world or in Stockholm) but not always (as in Tokyo and to some extent Hong Kong), in an era when the global symbol of prosperity was still the American car-owning middle class.

The importance of TOD grows if we compare countries with relatively similar histories, namely, the US and Canada. Neither country does much regional rail, both have had extensive middle-class suburbanization (though Canada’s major cities have maintained bigger inner-urban middle classes than the US’s), and English Canada’s cities came into the 1970s with low urban density. The difference is that Canada has engaged in far more TOD. Calgary built up a large CBD for how small the city is, without much parking; Vancouver built up Downtown as well as transit-oriented centers such as Metrotown, New Westminster, Lougheed, and Whalley, all on top of the Expo Line. Nowhere in the US did such TOD happen. Moreover, American examples of partial TOD, including Arlington on top of the Washington Metro and this decade’s fast growth in Seattle, have led to somewhat less awful transit usage than in the rest of the country.

Most cities in the developed world are replete with legacy rail networks that can be leveraged for high-quality public transit. We see cities that aim at transit revival start with regional rail modernization, including Auckland and to some extent Tel Aviv (which is electrifying its rail network and building new commuter lines, but they run in freeway medians due to poor planning). Moreover, we see cities that are interested in transit build up high-rise CBDs in their centers and high- and mid-rise residential development near outlying train stations.

“Regional rail and TOD” is not a perfect formula; it elides a lot of details and a lot of historical factors that are hard to replicate. But both regional rail and TOD have been major elements in the construction of transit cities over the last 60 years, and while they both have exceptions, they don’t have many exceptions. In the other direction, I don’t know of examples of failed TOD – that is, of auto-oriented cities that aggressively built TOD on top of new or existing rail lines but didn’t manage to grow their transit ridership. I do know some examples of failed regional rail, but usually they make glaring mistakes in design standards, especially frequency but also station siting and fare integration.

At a closer in level of zoom, it’s worthwhile to talk about the unique features of each transit city. But when looking at the big picture, it’s better to talk about what all transit cities of a particular size class have in common that auto-oriented cities don’t. Only this way can an auto-oriented city figure out what it absolutely must do if it wants to have better public transit and what are just tools in its kit for achieving that goal.


  1. oevans82

    Alon, you have done a great job building yourself a platform here, and I think that by this point you have the ear of quite a few influential people in the industry. Previously your work to bring attention to the cost problem is a big part of the “WHAT” puzzle, for what’s wrong with transit in the US. And I think that this article does a pretty good job expanding on that by comparing with cities abroad.

    The overall lack of good regional rail in the US is one of your bullet points here. That is indeed a problem, when comparing the US with most international transit cities. Adopting international best practices of electrification, EMU rolling stock, level boarding, fare integration, higher all-day frequency, and takt-style scheduling should theoretically be a way to get great bang for the buck with regards to improving US transit.

    But, of course, it isn’t happening. And it seems every time it is proposed, it gets sandbagged, and held up as another example of why it “just won’t work here.” We all know that most of these arguments are BS, but what we really need is ammunition to break through them. This is the next step beyond “WHAT”: a clear understanding of “WHY”: why do US agencies not move forward with international regional rail best practices? You touched on this a little bit with the “Racism->Weak Civil Service” argument and although I agree that’s part of the problem, I do not think it’s the whole story nor am I optimistic that this problem will be solved in the near future.

    There are clearly a bunch of factors at play here. To name a few:
    (1) In some cases, the existing railroads are owned by freight companies for whom passenger trains are a nuisance. This compares with Europe where (my impression is that) the rail networks are mostly nationalized, or Japan, where the railroads were built as passenger-first operations from day one.
    (2) Legacy old-tyme railroad practices holding over from the Steam era that require high staffing levels (1 conductor punching tickets per 2 cars, for example) or slow turns at terminals
    (3) Excessive regulatory hurdles that mandate expensive bespoke train designs with high buff strength, things like gauntlet tracks or gap fillers to allow for extra wide freight, extreme vertical clearances under wire, through tunnels, and at highway overpasses, to allow for “future upgrade” to double-stack intermodal freight service even when the likelyhood of such service in the future is close to zero.
    (4) Excessive construction costs due to whatever reasons (Featherbedding by labor, by contractors, and by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats)
    (5) The legacy of postwar era planning that prioritized roads and suburbanization while neglecting cities and transit in general.

    The final step would be the actionable “HOW” to fix it – and that follows from a clear understanding of the “WHY”.

    • Alon Levy

      There’s SEPTA, but there the explanation is pretty clear (shit frequency, premium fares). In Israel, rail ridership is still pretty weak despite through-running, but the system is slowly getting better and they’re finally electrifying, but the freeway alignments and edge-of-town station locations (without plans for TOD) are really not helping.

  2. adirondacker12800

    It’s how expensive it is to own and operate an automobile. Expense comes ways in other than money. How bad is congestion. How easy is it to park. People who can well afford the Hudson River tolls and 25 dollars for the first hour parking…. take the train. The ones on the Island and north of Bronx, who have lower or no tolls do too. Traffic isn’t as bad in Philadelphia and parking is a lot easier. Philadelphia is gonna look different. One can have hour long commutes in metro New York. It’s really difficult in metro Albany because you can drive across the urban-ish parts of it, during rush hour, in under an hour. From the places where farmland begins to appear to the places where farmland begins to appear.

    • michael

      The primary cost of automobile orientation isn’t in the operations of the vehicle, but in land. When there are not attractive transportation alternatives, everyone will drive. If everyone drives, a city begins to be parked over – not just anywhere – but in it’s most important places economically, culturally, civically. Paving over a city’s most economically & socially productive locations is not a way to build a prosperous society – rather an asphalt dystopia & a feeble economic entity. The comparative advantage of mass transit is that it runs through the city, with the buses & trains being stored far in the outskirts away from the high importance/high value locations in the city core.

      As soon as society reaches a density that it’s transportation needs aren’t met by active transit & possibly some modest on-street parking, it needs transit or else the city will be trading it’s entire vitality as a place for essentially the pocket change saved from not creating attractive alternatives.

  3. Reedman Bassoon

    1) BART is usually called “regional rail” because of the distance it goes. It has zero passing tracks. I assume it isn’t considered “failed” regional rail. It has high demand, especially during the commute. BART has a completed extension to San Jose that is presently unused because BART can’t get its control system debugged and can’t get more rolling stock.
    2) BART and METRO have near identical track miles, but METRO has about 50% more annual passengers. METRO is doing something right.
    3) In the context of “regional rail”, should Orlando (metro population 2.1 million) and Tampa (metro population 2.8 million) connect themselves with ~90 miles of “high speed” rail (“high” here being ~90mph)?

    • Brendan Dawe

      BART Could have the most efficient operation in the world, but 4 lines running far out into the exurbs to a single downtown tunnel is always going to be all-else-being-equal useful to fewer people than 10 branches to the nearer suburbs serving 3 central trunk lines

    • Alon Levy

      1. BART has the characteristics of regional rail, but technologically it’s a subway, which makes it difficult to take over commuter lines without spending a lot of money on regauging, resignaling, reelectrifying, etc.

      2. Indeed. Christof Spieler credits TOD in Northern Virginia and Metro’s use of several trunk lines in the city rather than just one as on BART (link). But Metro still has to be viewed as a failure as a subway, and the same is true of BART; both underperform metro systems of similar age abroad, especially Munich but also Lyon, Toronto, and Montreal.

      3. Intercity rail isn’t regional rail. It connects independent cities with relatively weak commute ties, and tends to be financially stronger in part because the limited commute volumes reduce the peak-to-base service ratio. Occasionally you see intercity lines turned into regional lines in enormous cities, like London (where Thameslink connects to Brighton and Bedford, both about 80 km from Central London) or New York (where the New Haven Line is intercity in all but name), but this isn’t really relevant to Florida. The scale of regional rail in Orlando would be something like Sanford-Orlando-Kissimmee, with aggressive residential and commercial TOD at all stations.

  4. Untangled

    >Sydney in particular saw middle-class suburbanization early

    I thought Melbourne had middle-class suburbanization early, Sydney came quite late to this. But Melbourne’s middle-class suburbanization came before the advent of the car, the train enabled growth and sprawl to lots of distant places whereas Sydney was stuck with the slower tram which only served the inner city during the same period. Middle-class suburbanization only came about during the post-war era of the car in Sydney and even then it wasn’t smooth and a bit unwanted. Eg, there were big protests against the removal of the Watsons Bay tram, a tram line to and through a very, very wealthy area of Sydney.

    By the early 1880s the wealth of Melbourne was concentrated in its suburbs, where there were thousands of large houses and tens of thousands of comfortable villas. After describing the affluence of these suburbs, which was on a scale unknown in England, one perceptive visitor discussed the importance of the railways built by the M&HBURCo to their development:

    All these suburbs are connected with the town by railway. A quarter of an hour will bring you ten miles to Brighton, and twelve minutes will take you to St Kilda, the most fashionable watering place. Within ten minutes by rail are the inland suburbs, Toorak, South Yarra and Kew, all three very fashionable; Balaklava, Elsternwick and Windsor, outgrowths of St Kilda, also fashionable; Hawthorn, which is budding well; Richmond, adjacent to East Melbourne, and middle class; and Emerald Hill and Albert Park with a working class population. Adjoining the city itself are North Melbourne, Fitzroy, Carlton, Hotham and East Melbourne, all except the last inhabited by the working classes… Nearly everybody who can lives in the suburbs, and the excellence of the railway system enables them to extend much farther away from the city than in Adelaide or Sydney.

    In the early decades of the 20th Century, Sydney had a far less developed rail system than Melbourne and public transport was based primarily on trams. In 1907 Sydney trams carried three and a half times more passengers annually than Sydney trains, whereas in Melbourne patronage was split evenly between the two.

    • Alon Levy

      (I fixed the blockquotes.)

      Maybe by Australian standards Melbourne suburbanized before Sydney, but my understanding is that both suburbanized early by European and even American standards, as turn-of-the-century Australia had very high incomes thanks to resource wealth, just like California.

      • Untangled

        I fixed the blockquotes.


        both suburbanized early by European and even American standards

        Well, I guess if there was a silver lining in early suburbanization, a lot of this was pre-car and semi-rail-oriented and this left a very extensive legacy regional rail network at the cost of not having rapid transit like Boston or Chicago. But I don’t know if is actually an entirely good thing either, Boston and Chicago, with their legacy subway and el, roughly has a mode share to work not much lower than Melbourne today and is a fair bit below Canadian cities even though Melbourne’s electric rail network is far more extensive than anything in North America.

        But I guess land use has a lot to do with this as well, at least the extensive legacy regional rail network means that it has far more potential for growth if Melbourne’s land use changes, unlike Boston or Chicago but it’s only an if.

        Australia had very high incomes thanks to resource wealth

        Speaking of which, Argentina was kind of similar during the turn of the 20th century (it was incredibly wealthy during that time, it’s just that the once mighty has fallen) and Buenos Aires has a very extensive, electrified, legacy regional rail network in addition to a subway, so I’m guessing they had early-ish suburbanisation as well. In fact, they have a rail system that’s only rivalled by New York by size in the Americas. I guess that’s what happens when you are successful but then fall. Unlike New York, it has frequent all-day service but like New York, it doesn’t do through-routing. Buenos Aires is a fascinating case.

  5. FDW

    We’ll make a revolutionary of you yet, Alon.

    In other news I made a transit map for Cincinnati. It’s in the same universe as the Seattle one. It’s based off them building their 1914 Loop project in full:

    I find it hilarious that the designers of this project had a better grasp of it being a good idea to integrate mainline rail and Subway than almost the entire American planning community today.

    And for a bonus I decided to take your deinterlined New York Subway and make it have a Geneticaly Engineered baby with Vanshnookenraggen and the historical plans to extend the Subway deep into New Jersey:

    It’s guaranteed to confuse New Yorkers! Though gif you look real close, you can figure out where the PoD for the map is.

    • Alon Levy

      POD has to be 1900, because a key part of the First Subway (the Lenox Avenue branch) isn’t there. So, the POD is that Parsons decided to be less racist and plan for two trunk lines from the start, rather than OTL’s one trunk line avoiding his beloved Upper East Side and steering the Lower East Side Jews to the Upper West Side instead?

      • adirondacker12800

        There was at least one commission that studied this that and the other thing. The myth is that they wanted to go up Broadway but the fine retailers north of Union Square objected. And anyway the ladies that didn’t actually have a carriage to be part of the carriage trade could take the noisy dirty El over on Sixth. Nor did it serve Grand Central. The East Side had two Els and the West Side only had one. Half the expresses up Broadway and half the expresses up Lenox there’s twice as much to redevelop.
        …..subscription to the New York Times gives you access to their archive. I’m sure they covered it extensively.

      • FDW

        Actually, I do have the Lenox branch here, it’s part of Line 9 (The one that goes through Central Park, and is basically the Q). You were a bit early on the PoD. For a hint, look at Midtown Manhattan.

        • Alon Levy

          But the line connecting 96th/Broadway with Lenox isn’t there, and the clearances under Lenox were too tight for BMT trains… based on Midtown the POD looks like the Dual Contracts (since there’s no 59th Street).

          • FDW

            I hadn’t had the opportunity to sketch out the unused tunnels on the system. But there are many there. The time period is right, so let me give you the context of this map:

            The PoD is that the HMR is extended up to Grand Central and over to Queens via the Steinway Tunnel, going out over the Astoria and Flushing lines, effectively making them a third party in the Dual Contracts. This is followed up with further HMR extensions into New Jersey, and eventually, more Subway trunks for New Jersey Lines. After World War II, The Flushing Line and 6th Ave Subway were deconnected from one another. Due to Butterflies from this PoD, the Subway instead standardizes around the IRT standard (though with longer trains than OTL), rather than the BMT standard.

            And for Clarity, the Ninth Ave Line here is a Subway, the Third Ave Line is the last elevated line in Manhattan, but it connects to the Nassau St Subway (the line the J/Z use in Manhattan), and uses the (unbuilt in our world) connection it has with the Brooklyn Bridge to connect with the Myrtle Av Elevated.

          • FDW

            Also, any commentary for the Cincinnati map? Or the Seattle one I did earlier? Or do you some more context of why I have those lines going so far out?

            The next map in this universe that I have planned is Baltimore. It’s a Streetcar Subway system based upon plans from the 1930’s. Though I’m going to finish up Cincinnati first. (Seattle’s going to have way more, since I’m going to include bus routes, and New York has a stupid number of stations, in addition to surviving Streetcar lines and Mainline Rail) The other systems that I have planned are: Los Angeles, Bay Area, Portland, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Kansas City, New Orleans, Birmingham, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, and probably more. Many of them are going to based around historical plans that never got turned into reality, though some are wholly my creations (Like the Bay Area RER, and the New Orleans Monorail).

  6. Pingback: Weekly Links & Thoughts #175 |
  7. lake9856

    Why does China need to build express subway lines? I mean, even though the subways are not that fast, they’re still often faster and always more predictable than driving. Also, in a city like Beijing, jobs are not really concentrated in one center. There are both houses and jobs in multiple districts of the city. Therefore, one does not need to commute across the city center to ones’ job, you just find housing closer to where you work.

    • Alon Levy

      Because a city of 25 million people can’t really live on just 35 km/h subway lines? The nearest comparison cities – Seoul, Osaka, and Tokyo – all have fast express lines.

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