Image: AP Images
In New York City, one-fifth of a commuter railroad’s trains can’t fit through the tunnel to the new train station that cost $12 billion to build, contributing to the frustration of many riders who say the new terminal causes more problems than it solves.
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In Charlotte, the entire light rail system, which is only 15 years old, needs to operate 20 mph slower until the train fleet can be repaired for a faulty part that caused a 2022 derailment, which could take years. In Boston, the regional transit agency issued a systemwide slowdown because it lost paperwork and is advising all commuters to budget 20 extra minutes each way. Officials cannot say when service will be back to normal, although most T riders would likely argue that constant delays and service disruptions is normal. “I could have a whole briefing every single day on the T,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said at an unrelated press conference, via the Boston Globe. “It’s a feeling of ‘no end in sight.’”
Back in New York, the Port Authority is scrapping plans for a poorly-designed AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport first proposed in 2015, but also costed out a full Bus Rapid Transit replacement that could cost as much as $1.9 billion and take 10 years to build. In California, the high speed rail saga drags on. When it was approved by voters in 2008, it was supposed to be a state-of-the-art high speed train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. But it has since exceeded cost estimates by so much that the state decided to simply build the middle portion for no transportation purpose but simply to demonstrate it could build a high speed train, hoping that would galvanize voters and politicians to fund the more expensive parts at either end. But the latest update from the authority building the train is so dire with further delays and cost overruns it is an open question whether even the “starter” line, which is supposed to be the easy part, will ever be finished.
And in sunbelt cities like Miami and Nashville—which have routinely opposed public transportation improvements and are entirely car-dependent—traffic is now so bad it is threatening the region’s economic future. A Miami resident claims a one-mile drive to the pharmacy can now take as much as an hour during rush hour (the average human walks a mile in about 15 minutes). Another says she bought an SUV because, as the Wall Street Journal paraphrased her, “to get a higher-perched view of the gridlock in front of her.”All these news stories are from just the last 24 hours of transportation news in the United States.The U.S. has long been in a transportation crisis, but it is entering something more like a transportation suicide pact. Car-dependent cities are growing and unable to function, jammed in gridlock. But voters and politicians there are justifiably skeptical about proposals to build mass transit systems to escape the gridlock, for want of an example of a U.S. city that has built a successful one in the last half-century. The few half-decent transit systems we do have are old and breaking down due to a combination of underfunding and poor management, each encouraging more of the other. And any attempt to improve our existing systems or build new ones are proving so astronomically expensive and take so long that we can’t build enough new stuff to accomplish anything meaningful.Nothing in transportation policy happens quickly. The effects of new rules, regulations, funding programs, projects, and philosophies take decades to see and measure. After the construction of relatively successful systems like the Washington D.C. Metro and San Francisco’s BART, mostly in the 1970s, the federal government changed the way it funded mass transit programs, preferring to build small sections at a time rather than commit to entire new systems at once. This is hardly the only problem with the way the U.S. builds transit systems, but the fact is for the last 50 years we have had a policy to never build transit systems, but to construct transit segments one at a time and hope, eventually, it turns into a system. Instead, this makes everything more expensive as plans drag across decades and often leaves transit agencies stuck with plans designed to accommodate the city as it was decades ago, not as it is today. Projects are abandoned, tweaked, or scaled up or down based on the whims of whatever executive is currently in power because the timescales of these projects always span multiple administrations. Meanwhile, there is always more money for road building and highway widening, which just might reduce traffic congestion for a few years before everything is back to—or worse than—how it was before.The end result of decades of this conundrum is slowly coming into focus through the trickle of news about how U.S. residents get from place to place. The answer is in headlines like the ones above. We get there slowly. Or we don’t go at all because it will take too long or be too annoying. We move from cities to suburbs, exurbs, or rural areas if we can, which makes sprawl worse and deepens our reliance on cars. But options are limited because another thing the U.S. doesn’t build enough of is homes for people to live in, driving up prices and forcing people to put up with whatever transportation they happen to have access to wherever they can afford to live.These are not new problems, but they are ones that have metastasized through neglect and become something more than a problem. The transit and housing crises in the U.S.—which are really the same crisis—is the kind of all-encompassing issue that causes societies to no longer function. In these 24 hours of headlines, we have a snapshot of a country that is crumbling from the inside out.