On social media and various forums, I have an expression for a variety of cities: “it has no public transportation.” This concerns just about the entire United States excluding a handful of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago; Los Angeles notably is not among these handful, but has no public transportation, and neither do any cities in the South or the Midwest except Chicago. I want to talk a bit more about what I mean by this. I obviously don’t mean that literally there is no scheduled public transportation in these cities; I’ve taken these non-existent transit systems, in Los Angeles on a visit and in Providence when I lived there. But I mean that there’s something about such places distinguishing them from the bad-but-existing transit category of Boston, Chicago, Nice, etc.
Whatever you’re doing isn’t working
Let’s use an 8% cutoff for trips to work. This number is fully motivated reasoning: the metro area (MSA, not CSA) of Philadelphia is just above this cutoff, and I would not say it has no public transportation, at least not in the current state of the system. Bad, yes, but it exists. I may be missing some areas, but I don’t think I am: the list of American metro areas that meet that cutoff is New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Fairfield County, Seattle, Kitsap County, Philadelphia, Honolulu. 70% of American transit commuters live in one of these MSAs. Go down to 6% and you also get Portland and Baltimore, adding about 2.5% of US transit commuters.
Nor are things improving. Some parts of the US are seeing rising mode shares. The most notable is Seattle, which is serious about permitting urban housing, and has tunneling construction costs that would only get Europeans fired rather than simply not existing in democratic Continental Europe. But other cities that occasionally win accolades from American urbanists for investing in public transportation just aren’t cutting it. In the 2006-17 period, chosen because that’s what the ACS makes available, Denver went from 4.6% to 4.4%, Los Angeles from 6.1% to 4.8%, and Portland from 6.4% to 6.3%; in the praised-by-urbanists set, only Minneapolis went up, from 4% to 4.8%.
Let’s unpack what this means: whatever Los Angeles has been doing in the last 10+ years has gotten its mode share down – and that’s without counting the fact that the Inland Empire, officially a separate metro area, is growing much faster and has an even lower mode share, as people drive further and further from jobs to qualify for a mortgage. Portland and Denver have done a lot of supposedly good things with their light rail networks, but are standing still. Portland’s stagnation goes back at least to 1980, while Vancouver has built SkyTrain, a high-rise downtown, and Metrotown, and at 20% has a higher (and rising) mode share than any American metro area save New York.
When a metro area has 2-3% mode share, it’s best to treat it as tabula rasa. Yes, there are people who ride the buses and trains today, but so few that the advantages of from-scratch design are usually greater than the disadvantage coming from the risk to current ridership. The 2-3% figure really depends on the situation – I don’t want to give it as an ironclad figure.
Suburbs of very large cities (read: New York) approaching 10% may still be best treated the same way: commuter rail systems like the LIRR are really shuttles that extend auto-oriented suburbia into the city rather than the reverse. Sadly, where I say such suburbs have no transit as a positive statement, an MBTA general manager said “commuter rail is not public transit” as a normative statement.
The situations of extremely low-mode share metro areas and low-mode share suburbs are not exactly the same. For one, existing ridership is higher on Long Island than in Cleveland or St. Louis so there’s more risk if (for example) supernumerary workers go on strike to fight efficiency improvements, but the reward is much greater. We know how to squeeze high ridership out of regional rail in the suburbs, even low-density ones, since the city has so many jobs in the center. Moreover, we know which ready sources of ridership are suppressed by current operating patterns: working-class reverse-commuters, people who work non-traditional hours regardless of class, and peak-direction commuters getting off short of city center.
The tabula rasa concept notably does not mean the infrastructure doesn’t exist. Los Angeles has the physical infrastructure of a rail network. Long Island and Westchester have many rail lines pointing toward Manhattan. However, the operating patterns and development are deficient and little to no accommodation should be made for them. In the suburbs of New York and a handful of other American cities this concerns premium fares, low off-peak frequency, and lack of integration with local buses. In American metro areas with low overall ridership this concerns weak city centers, lack of TOD even when it could succeed (for example in Los Angeles and San Diego), local political systems that view transit as an excuse to get federal funds for other things such as road repaving, and, as in suburbia, low off-peak frequency. The problems vary, but the fact that there are severe problems remains.
The other element of tabula rasa is social. There is almost never any knowledge base in those areas about how good transit works, because people who’ve only lived there have by definition not regularly used even bad-but-existing public transport. Whatever local activists of all stripes have been doing in Los Angeles is not working. Understanding why from them can be valuable, for the same reason I talk to planners at poorly-run agencies like the MTA and the MBTA to understand what’s wrong, but all local practices should be considered suspect unless corroborated in an area with at least decent public transportation.
On giving offense
The people who complain about my use of “no transit” to refer to the vast majority of the United States are not making a semantic nitpick or asking for clarification. They specifically complain I give offense by erasing 2-3% of the population of Cleveland and St. Louis, or 1% of the population of Kansas City. (I name these cities and not 6% Portland because that’s what people have complained about to me.)
So let’s unpack what this means. I point out that in the vast majority of the United States, excepting a handful of regions all of which are politically stereotyped as Not Real America partly because they have public transit, has buses and trains that are so useless they might as well not exist. I point out that this remains the case despite extensive construction in many cities – Dallas has 150 km of light rail, which is respectable for a city of its size, Denver keeps expanding its network and has something resembling frequent regional rail, and so on. The problem is that I do not conveniently blame this on a political faction of others, be it Republicans, unions, moderates, drivers, or whoever. I genuinely think it’s the fault of everyone who’s had any amount of power, and this includes community organizations that keep identifying as always losing even when they repeatedly succeed in blocking changes they dislike.
This is American culture. Even the denigration of New York and other cities where there is public transportation is part of that culture; there are certain aspects of San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia that are useful for other parts of the US to emulate. But accepting that requires understanding that there is to a good approximation no contribution coming from no-transit cities (and this again includes Portland and Los Angeles, it’s not just Cleveland or Dallas).
Part of the problem is that the US defines itself so much around cars and car culture that the presence of public transportation is enough to make something feel not really American. The result is that any exhortation to learn from places with trains with decent ridership is bound to offend; I might as well tell Americans to move to Tokyo and learn Japanese and never come back to the West. But sadly for Americans, reality can be offensive. The culture of Real America has to change, at least when it comes to how to treat transportation and cities.