For all of their complaints about it, Americans care about public transit. Surveys show that large majorities support public transit initiatives. Nearly three-quarters of Americans approve of using tax dollars to fund transit initiatives. Every year new transit-focused ballot measures pass across the country.
But public transit ridership is falling, and the number of drivers is rising. U.S. drivers hit a record in 2016, traveling over 3.2 trillion miles in one year.
Unsurprisingly, with all of those cars on the road, traffic congestion is getting worse. According to the Federal Highway Administration, average daily congestion in Washington, D.C. increased by 15 minutes from 2015 to 2016. In Dallas-Fort Worth, it rose by 23 minutes. In Portland, Oregon—a city known for its strong focus on transit issues—commuters face a whopping 41 additional minutes of average daily congestion.
New technologies and business models can inspire us to reconsider how we move through society. “Sharing economy” companies use digital technologies to connect customers who want something with people offering it directly—in the case of Uber and Lyft, transportation services. Applying this approach to public transit offers new solutions to mobility problems. “Uberizing” public transit services—bringing them to customers on demand—can transform our approach to transportation issues.
The density factor
Most U.S. cities are “landscape cities”: open and low-density, with lots of single-family homes. In contrast, many European cities are “compact cities” that encourage high-density and multi-family housing. The lack of density in U.S. cities makes it very inefficient to run fixed-route transit systems that cover an entire town or city. As a result, almost all U.S. cities have transit deserts, areas without enough transit supply to meet demand.
Many transit advocates and urbanists are pushing for policies that will encourage greater density in U.S. cities, following the compact city model. However, European cities and American cities have markedly different historical, geographic and cultural influences. Simply pushing for policies that focus on land use and density changes may not be enough to make U.S. cities more transit-friendly.
We must also acknowledge that for many Americans, lack of density makes certain areas attractive places to live. Suburban residents may complain about traffic, but they also have strong attachments to their low-density neighborhoods. Moreover, traditional federal and state transportation funding systems—notably, relying on gasoline taxes to pay for highway construction—simply are no longer sustainable for maintenance and new construction. With limited transportation funding and low-density development, cities have to get creative.
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