Americans took a record 10.8 billion transit trips in 2014—the most in 58 years. More cities are realizing the critical role public transportation plays. In addition to getting people from point A to point B, a solid system can make an area the most sought after neighborhood and attract talent and jobs.
As buses and rails rise in popularity, cities’ individual experiences offer lots of lessons, from best practices to cautionary tales about how to build and maintain a great public transportation system.
Here are a few cities doing things right—and some that still have some work to do.
San Jose (and the Greater San Francisco Bay Area)
"Walnut Creek BART - 011" by Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis.
The San Francisco Bay Area may have jumped on the heavy rail bandwagon later than some other cities, but it’s doubling down on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. Already more than 104 miles long, BART is one of the few heavy rail systems in the United States that’s actually growing. Construction of the Warm Springs and Milpitas stations are ahead of schedule, and within a decade the system should connect the region’s three major cities.
Even more exciting, Bay Area cities are tapping into the potential of public transportation to build communities and enhance economic development. Leading up to the opening of BART stations, San Jose is investing in transit-oriented development (TOD), changing zoning codes and encouraging projects that increase mixed-use density nearby to transit stations. These are particularly around downtown stations that could also see high-speed rail move through in coming decades. Giving people more options to live a car-light or car-free lifestyle can seriously mitigate congestion on the area’s crowded roads.
Phoenix is proving that TOD isn’t just a strategy for cities that have a long history of public transportation. The city has invested substantially in a light rail system connecting downtown Phoenix with nearby Arizona State University and other communities in the sprawling metropolis. The argument for their investment hinges on economic competitiveness: To attract the best talent, cities need to be a place people (millennials in particular) want to live. This increasingly means providing access to alternative transportation.
Partnering with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and local stakeholders, Phoenix even changed its zoning ordinances to create the “Walkable Urban Code,” designed to make TOD even easier. Already, large companies like State Farm have relocated to be near the region’s new transit lines, bringing with them thousands of jobs and new riders to keep the system growing.
Trains and subways come to mind first when we think about public transportation. But in reality, buses make up the majority of these systems because of their many advantages. Without fixed rails, buses are more nimble and able to switch routes as population and demand changes. They use existing road infrastructure, so they’re often cheaper to build.
Like Phoenix, Houston is a sprawling city known more for its gargantuan freeways than public transportation. But in August 2015, the city sparked national acclaim when it redesigned its bus routes. Rather than stay married to the routes that had been in place for decades, Houston analyzed job and housing concentration and historical ridership to figure out where bus lines were actually needed. The changes will put 1 million people and 1 million jobs within walking distance of a seven-day-a-week bus line—more than double the access under the previous system. Better yet, by simply reshuffling existing resources to use them better, the city made improvements without having to budget more money.
"HealthLine at Public Square" by Center for Neighborhood Technology - Flickr: CNT tours Cleveland's HealthLine, a Bus Rapid Transit route along Euclid Corridor.
In recent years, cities are creating a bus/rail hybrid that can harness the best qualities of both systems: bus rapid transit (BRT). These systems have fewer stops that are farther apart and create dedicated lanes for buses to mimic the speed and reliability of rail lines. They also are much less expensive, take existing roads and often utilize buses already in a city’s fleet.
Cleveland’s BRT line, the Healthline, takes things a step further. The line connects the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic and Case Western University with downtown. Along the line, the city is encouraging redevelopment focused particularly on health fields. This leverages its existing strong medical industry and public transportation to grow the city’s economy and make it a professional destination.
Still Learning: Washington DC
The Metro in Washington DC should be doing well. Its distance-based fares help it recover more money at the turnstiles than the average system. It’s also expanding: phase one of the Silver Line opened in summer 2014 and phase two, scheduled to open in 2018, will take the system beyond Dulles International Airport. This is to provide a critical connection between transportation infrastructures.
Despite this ambitious planning, the Metro has a track record of serious safety and reliability concerns. In 2009, six people died when a Red Line train’s automatic brakes malfunctioned and it collided with a stopped train at Fort Totten station. In January 2015, a woman died from smoke inhalation after an electrical arcing event caused a small fire and permeated the nearby tunnel and train stuck in it. An August 2015 train derailment caused chaos in the system. The problem had apparently been identified, but not fixed, a month earlier.
Many of Metro’s problems stem from governance issues. It’s no easy task to corral officials from two states with several counties and independent cities plus the nation’s capital. But the National Transportation Safety Board’s urgent recommendation for more federal oversight of the system shows how deep the system’s problems run.
There is also the streetcar project, the opening of which has been delayed more than two years as preliminary testing found serious safety and design issues. Needless to say, the city and its region have a long road ahead.
"New Orleans RTA Building" by Infrogmation.
It’s complicated to criticize New Orleans for its infrastructure challenges. As we mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the city still has a long way to go in regard to rebuilding neighborhoods to facilitating residents’ returns. By comparison, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) rebuilding and recovery efforts look far along.
While the RTA has rebuilt many streetcars, however, notably absent are those that serve low-income communities—often the places with the highest concentration of people lacking access to a personal vehicle or other means of getting around. In 2014, the nonprofit organization Ride New Orleans found that transport wait times were significantly longer in poorer areas with more people of color. Parts of the infamously neglected Lower 9th Ward were still not served by a single bus line.
Emily Logan is Director of Acquisition and Retention at Care2, where her team works with member activists to spread the word about their petitions, builds petition campaigns into full-scale organizing efforts, and helps keep current Care2 members happy and engaged. In her time at Care2 she has also worked extensively with hundreds of nonprofit organizations to help recruit activists and donors and build out their online strategies. Emily has a B.S. in journalism and a B.A. in music from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and currently lives in rainy Portland, Oregon with her cat, Ostrich.