But the problem isn’t limited just to new systems with growing pains. Older American cities with legacy systems have barely expanded to meet the growing footprint of their metro areas, as London and Paris are. The subway maps of New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia look almost identical as they did in 1950; in some cases, they’ve actually shrunk.Simply put, the U.S. builds less public transit per urban dweller than its peer countries. Freemark found U.S. cities “added an average of fewer than 2 miles of urban bus improvements per million inhabitants—and fewer than 1 mile of rail improvements.” Meanwhile, France added 10 miles of buses and 3 miles of rail per million inhabitants in that same time period.There is, of course, no simple answer why our transportation systems are broken, in much the same way there’s no simple answer to why our healthcare system is broken or why our criminal justice system is broken, beyond, as Freemark put it, that our “dysfunctional, irascible political system [is] woefully unprepared to commit to anything particularly significant.”
Ultimately, this is not about trains and buses. This is about a political system uninterested in reform, a system unconcerned with fixing what’s broken.
The answer to that question depends on understanding why we have failed so miserably up to this point. While researching the question of why our public transit is so bad, I’ve encountered a series of partial but ultimately incomplete explanations. If you don’t feel like descending into the transit nerd tunnel with me, here’s the tl;dr version:
Do you work for the Federal Transit Administration or a local transit agency? What are the challenges you face in getting public transit projects done? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Aaron Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
- Everything costs too much
- We build highways instead
- We don't plan well
- People don't trust the government to build things so they vote against projects under the assumption they will be executed poorly and waste taxpayer dollars
- We don't give transit agencies enough money to run good service which erodes political support to have more of it
- There are too many agencies at all levels of government, especially at the local level, and not enough coordination between them
- Our newer cities are sprawled out which makes good transit hard, and our older cities are too paralyzed by political dysfunction to expand the systems they have
- As a result of generations of privatization efforts by all levels of government, in the rare event we do actually get to build stuff there is not enough expertise within the agencies to do it well
“There Was Always A Subsidy Somewhere”
The Road to More Roads
The Costs Are Too Damn High
The problem is hardly limited to New York. California’s high speed rail project has given new definition to the term “boondoggle.” And, as Levy has documented, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and D.C., among others, all build subways and light rail lines at much higher costs than European cities.“Nearly all American urban rail projects cost much more than their European counterparts do,” Levy wrote in Citylab. “The cheaper ones cost twice as much, and the more expensive ones about seven times as much.” This includes both heavy rail (subways) and light rail. “Only a handful of American [light rail] lines come in cheaper than $100 million per mile, the upper limit for French light rail.”There are a lot of reasons for this, including:
What is undoubtedly clear is every transit project is first and foremost a political project, and political projects are about consensus-building. This gets us not the projects we need but the projects we deserve.
- Over-engineered stations
- Arcane labor rules that inhibit productivity such as requiring more employees to work at a machine than is necessary
- A lack of cooperation between agencies
Some cost overruns are attributable to unforeseen circumstances, but across the board, we are very bad at estimating how much these projects will cost to begin with. Sometimes, agencies give low estimates in order to make projects more politically palatable, knowing a realistic assessment will get shot down. D.C.’s initial estimate of $2.5 billion, according to George Mason University historian and author of The Great Society Subway: A history of the Washington Metro Zachary Schrag, was “never terribly realistic.”Depressingly, it seems we gave up on ever building necessary infrastructure for the same price as other countries decades ago. Schrag also quoted Jim Caywood, head of the engineering firm that helped design Metro, as saying “there’s no way in this world that you can build a mammoth public works project such as Metro within a reasonable budget with all the outside influences. They won’t let you do it.”
Do you work for a public transit agency or a contractor and have any experience with how projects end up costing so much? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Aaron Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The Biggest Outside Influence of All
“We often don't have really expert public staff making decisions, making some key decisions at least,” said Eric Eidlin, a former FTA planner. “We've given over that responsibility to consultants that have a profit motive. I don't mean to say that the consultants have this desire to subvert the public interest or anything, it's just not their job, right?”Karen Trapenberg Frick, an urban planner at UC Berkeley who used to work for the Bay Area’s planning commission, echoed Eidlin’s point and said it had a real impact on what agencies were able to do, only further undermining the public’s willingness to give them money for big projects.“There are certain cities where when I was a planner a long time ago and now, it's the same complaint: we give the city money but they can't move the project through because they don't have the staff to do it,” she explained. “And we don't have the staff to do it because there's been this whole neoliberal mind shift that the public sector can't do a good job.”
**Do you work for a local transit agency and struggle with a lack of resources or funding? We'd love to hear from you. **Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Aaron Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
How To Fix This
More money for transit would obviously help. Bernie Sanders has proposed $300 billion for public transit by 2030 and $607 billion for a high speed rail network (Joe Biden, in an excellent distillation of the failures of American transportation policy to date, does not commit any dollar amounts to these issues in his platform, but does commit $50 billion in his first year to repair roads, highways, and bridges). That would be a lot more money where it’s desperately needed, and polling suggests it’s a popular platform with majority support.The most noteworthy part of Sanders' platform, however, is not the money. It’s the framework under which it is proposed: the Green New Deal.This, says Florida State University’s Jeff Brown, fits with the history of how big transit projects are proposed. “Transit, in most places, has very much been an afterthought or a reaction to some other perceived crisis,” he said. Traditionally, that crisis has been traffic. For periods in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the oil crises. Sanders, however, clearly puts better public transportation within the framework of the climate crisis.But the very concept of tying transit construction to a crisis misses the point. Transit does address those issues, but it is more than that. We will never build good transit until we jettison the century-old misconception that it is a business the government happens to run out of necessity. Rather, public transportation is a public good on its own merits, good times and bad. Allowing people to move about their cities cheaply, efficiently, and quickly makes cities more productive and better places to live and has numerous knock-on public health, environmental, social, and economic effects. Public transit funding ought not to be a response to any crisis. It ought to be as natural a government service as trash collection.On the other hand, framing transit as a fight against traffic is a losing battle, because it doesn’t take very many cars to create traffic. It is, as transit planner Jarrett Walker argues, a matter of geometry. It will always appear to a certain type of person that money was wasted. But positing that transit is a way for city dwellers to live better, more pleasant lives is a winning platform, as politicians across Europe can attest.We also have to work out what the right level of government is to make transit decisions. New York, D.C., and San Francisco in particular have complicated and bizarre governance structures for their transit agencies. Most of these structures were created in mid-century when good governance types replicated the corporate boardroom as the ideal of good governance. History has proven this approach hopelessly naive. Transit is politics. It’s time to, as Freemark has argued, put transit squarely within the responsibility of one elected official who is clearly accountable.None of this solves what may be the biggest impediment to good American public transit: costs. The solutions here are not easy. Hell, as Josh Barro of New York has pointed out, and I've also learned, we don’t even fully understand the problem. At the very least, fixing it requires cultivating long-term expertise on the local level so agencies aren’t reinventing the wheel the rare occasions they’re given enough money to undertake megaprojects. It also might require, as Laura Tolkoff of the San Francisco-based non-profit SPUR suggested, establishing governmental entities with in-house megaproject expertise, weaning the transit world off relying on expensive contractors and consultants and onto agencies looking out for the taxpayers’ interest, not the stock market’s.These are just a handful of the high-level suggestions I learned while reporting this story. I will keep reporting on this and learning more, and you should contact me if you work in a transit-related industry and know anything I ought to know. But one thing we must always keep in mind is the answers are out there.“[The U.S.] needs to learn what works in Japan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Singapore, Belgium, Norway, Taiwan, Finland, Austria,” Levy wrote. “It needs to learn how to plan around cooperation between different agencies and operators, how to integrate infrastructure and technology, how to use 21st-century engineering.”To that end, Levy and fellow researcher Eric Goldwyn just received a two-year grant from the John Arnold Foundation via New York University to study why U.S. construction costs are so high. And they’re looking to hire a research associate, preferably one with language skills other than English. “We are particularly looking to extend our coverage outside countries where information is readily available in English,” their job posting for the project says.“Imitate,” Levy advises. “Don’t innovate.”Correction: A previous version of this article stated "we added 881,918 lane-miles to our some four million lane-miles of road, an 11 percent increase." The U.S. had 8.8 million lane-miles of roads as of 2017, not four million.
Public transit…ought to be as natural a government service as trash collection.