Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program. VOX - The real reason American public transportation is such a disaster
The US is often seen as leading the way to the future of mobility. But during times of political turmoil, we see how the American conception of mobility is firmly stuck in the past, and rooted in the idea of mobility and transit as a private good. The recent US government shutdown, the longest in the country’s history, was rooted in US president Trump’s desire to build a wall to stop Mexicans from crossing the border. The fall out from the shutdown brought US public transit to a halt and underscored the gaps in who gets to be mobile in the US.
Cross border migration is an issue that many countries have tackled with a wall. We aren’t here to debate the merits of Trump’s xenophobic mission, we’re interested in the public transportation issues that it has brought to light. And while other countries have used walls (like Israel’s Gaza wall, which is more like a smart fence — effective but rooted in regional politics) to stop migration, the US has failed to implement sufficient public transit to support its residents.
European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. In times of political turmoil, it becomes clear how much the US relies on the private sector to drive innovation. This fundamental difference explains why the first successful ride-sharing products were born in the US.
The Trump administration has not been supportive of public transit. The President’s first and second budget requests both called for eliminating critical programs that provide funding to transit—the competitive TIGER program, Capital Investment Grants (CIG) for building new transit and funding major improvements, and intercity passenger rail funding.
This move is likely playing to his voter base who are largely non-urban and perceive themselves as not effective by public transportation investments.
During the shutdown, the Federal Transit Administration was not able to pay the $250 million a week to local providers and state governments to support transit. At day 35, there was about $1B in backlogged payments.
Judging by the numbers, this amount of money should provide a much higher quality of service!
So if the US is spending 250 Million a week, why is it so bad?
American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits between trains than those in virtually every comparably wealthy European and Asian country. While having much higher costs.
It seems I’m not the only one asking why things in the US are dismal for public transit. VOX has an article aptly called: “The real reason American public transportation is such a disaster”
At first glance, it seems easy to accept America’s complaint that city and suburban planning was done in the 1950s when the car became the dominant mode of transportation. The US is also larger in geography than most Asian or European countries.
There is one problem with this mentality and that’s Canada, which is also a sprawling and built for cars. Canadian cities’ public transit systems, though, look very different.
“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker to Vox. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”
Historically, many countries invested in public transpiration at the same time as they designed cities for cars. However, if you look at Los Angeles, you see a city that completely and proudly neglected public transportation until the gridlock simply overwhelmed. The city was left with no choice but accept the concept of mass transit.
What did we learn from the shutdown?
During the government shutdown Chariot, a ride-sharing service which provided customized transportation in vans announced it was shutting down.
When Chariot launched in 2014, it joined a wave of Uber-inspired “microtransit” tech companies hoping to disrupt transportation services by providing faster, more efficient options for riders sick of—and underserved by—traditional public transit.
This isn’t a sign that ride sharing is doomed to fail. What it shows is what happens when private ridesharing doesn’t attempt to integrate with public transportation. Right now there is a dramatic lack of integration between public transportation and ride sharing. Public and private systems need to work together to create a seamless experience. A lack of integration is what caused Chariot to fail even though San Francisco’s public transportation by global standard is tragic.
Uber is already looking at working with public transportation to improve their revenues. This blending of public and private services is key to a flexible and meaningful roll-out of mass transit.
But President Trump really, really wants his border wall and kept the government shutdown for a record 35 days. LaGuardia Airport was closed for a short period by the Federal Aviation Administration, due to a lack of air traffic controllers. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and ended the shutdown. It wasn’t the national parks were being destroyed or the threat that 38M Americans losing access to food stamps. It was when global mobility was impacted that the shutdown had to come to an end.
Ensuring that the US government views public transit as a public good, and not a welfare product, is an important shift. Mass transit should be seen as a way to increase the quality of life while bolstering the economy. It shouldn’t take a government shutdown to align around that simple fact.