How to Reimagine Public Transit and Get People Out of Cars

Tram in Munich

A new British study says it should be world-class and free.

Years ago, Alex Steffen wrote:

There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

We are seeing this play out in real time in California, which has more electric cars than any other state, but where tailpipe emissions continue to rise. According to Nichola Groom in Reuters, Houston's emissions have soared by 46 percent (but she doesn't say since when).

Transportation emissions have also been rising in other major cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, and San Antonio, according to city climate emissions reports from recent years, and have climbed about 21 percent nationwide since 1990, according to the EPA.

It is all about urban design, all about sprawl; that's why they are not hitting their targets in California.

That failure has less to do with energy or environmental policies and more with decades-old urban planning decisions that made California – and especially Los Angeles – a haven for sprawling development of single-family homes and long commutes, according to state officials.

The state has boosted spending on public transport by 60 percent, "but transit options are poorly suited for California’s vast expanses of suburban-style neighborhoods."

Meanwhile, in the UK...

Bus in london

Bus in London/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is not just a North American problem; transportation is also one of the biggest emitters of carbon in the UK. Now Friends of the Earth has sponsored a study by consultants Transport for Quality of Life, which calls for a massive investment in public transit, in an attempt to reduce car mileage by 20 percent by 2030. They describe a world-class transportation system, that would be nice enough to get people out of cars:

From the perspective of passengers, the main features of a world-class public transport system would include a comprehensive network; frequent, reliable and affordable services; a single ticketing system, valid across all modes; new low-emission vehicles; and high-quality waiting facilities. This is very far from the type of public transport system we currently have in most of the UK, outside London.

It is certainly far from the type of transport we have in North America. As a model of a successful system, they look at Munich: "Across this whole area, public transport functions as a single system: buses, trams, and underground and suburban trains are planned together to provide one network, one timetable, one ticket.”

Transit use

Transport for Quality of Life/CC BY 2.0

A comparison of British and continental systems is surprising; the numbers of people using public transit is significantly higher, even at California densities.

streetcar in station

Subway coming into station/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Having spent a couple of days in Munich I can attest that the system is superb; they run streetcars out to the edge of town in dedicated rights-of-way before it is even all developed, and build at a density high enough to put a lot of people within walking distance of the public transit. But the consultants have other ideas besides Munich-quality transit; they also say it should be free.

Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth tells the Guardian that this is not so expensive, compared to building highways. “Dozens of cities across the world offer some form of free public transport. What we are seeing instead is bus fares rising 75% over the last 15 years and over 3,300 services reduced or removed since 2010 in England and Wales.”

Indeed, where I live in Toronto, the last mayor removed a tax on cars, while the current mayor lets transit fares rise far faster than inflation. They continue to put the needs of drivers ahead of those who take transit, to the point that the streetcars cannot even move because of parked BMWs. And instead of integrating everything like they do in Munich, the province is about to tear it all apart – just like New York City, where transit is more a political football than a coherent system.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this report, the most important being that we have to depoliticize public transit and recognize its importance in getting people out of cars. To do that it has to be clean, fast, convenient and cheap. And if just a fraction of the money that was spent on highways was invested in public transportation, it could be all that.