Saturday, May 28, 2011

Public Transportation is NOT the answer?

Map of Public Transit Access in the New York Metro Area, according to the report “Missed Opportunities: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” by the Brookings Institute. 

In urban planning, environmental, public health, and other circles, public transportation is often held out as the answer to many of the world’s problems, especially in the U.S. (air pollution, respiratory and cardio-vascular disease, profligate use of non-renewable fossil fuels, obesity and lack of exercise, over dependence on foreign oil, traffic congestion, vehicular fatalities, stress, lack of  "community," and social isolation, etc., etc.). 
Turning this conventional wisdom on its head, the Brookings Institution, (which is ranked as the number 1 “think tank” in the U.S. and therefore has far-reaching policy influence, and has variously been called “conservative,” “liberal,” and “centrist”!) recently conducted a research study with rather disappointing (and depressing) results for those of us who have always bought into the concept of mass transit = better world/environment.  Forget about whether or not the transit options exist, or could exist given the exigencies of today’s lack of public resources.  Even if they DID exist, according to this study, it wouldn’t help most Americans to get from home to their places of employment within a 45 minute commute time.  The average American commute today (mainly by private vehicle) is 21 minutes, so a 45 minute commute is a considerable increase in time on the road (or railroad).  But even allowing for the 45 minutes threshold, most transit systems in major metro regions would not be able to get you there in that timeframe, making it extremely unlikely that people would opt for mass transit over their private automobiles.  Somewhat surprisingly, the report found that 15 of the 20 metro areas that rank highest on a combined score of transit coverage and job access are in the West.  (Really??? Salt Lake City, Tucson, and Las Vegas are among the top-ranking?  Sounds a bit dubious to me!) 
“The report is unusual in not evaluating the performance of metropolitan transit systems, but rather, ‘what they are capable of.’  Moreover, the Brookings access indicators go well beyond analyses that presume having a bus or rail stop nearby is enough, missing the point the availability of transit does not mean that it can take you where you need to go in a reasonable period of time.” (Wendell Cox, of newgeography)
This, of course, is not to blame public transit systems for the length of time required to get from point “A” to point “B.”  Rather, it is due to the increasing dispersion of jobs away from the downtown areas of the cities, which generally are (or could be) well-served by transit options, as well as the general sprawl of residential suburbs to areas outside of easy (and direct) public transit commuting options. 
            According to their report, only 7% of the jobs in the U.S. would be accessible within 45 minutes by public transportation.  I need to see their methods on how they figured out the issue of access and how they calculated the commute times.  But if the methods and their results are valid, then we have a bigger problem on our hands than just finding the money to throw at public transportation financing.  Is it too late to turn the tide on the faulty land use planning policies of the past 60 years (since the post-WWII period)?  Can we reverse the trend of massive decentralization and dispersion of both homes and jobs? Can we stop the madness of land consumption and development of our agricultural and "natural" areas near our cities? Can we create policies that will encourage jobs to remain in the areas well-provisioned by easy public transit? Is it possible to refocus American priorities away from ¼ acre lots in the suburbs?  Can cities once again be desirable places to live for middle class families, and not just be warehouses for the very poor and playgrounds for the wealthy, the tourists, and the young urban hipsters?

You can read the full article on the website “newgeography” at:

Really good interactive map of about 100 metro areas’ access to transit, (you can zoom to specific metro areas, filter by income level, and look at transit coverage, service frequency, job access, and travel time, etc.)

The Brookings report “Missed Opportunities: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” can be accessed at: and full report pdf at:

Explaining the findings of the Brookings Report (interesting rebuttal of some of the criticisms of the study):

Another example of their maps and stats – this one for Oklahoma City, OK. 

Capability of Transit: 45-Minute Job Access in Metropolitan Areas over 2,000,000 


  1. I wonder whether the "21-Minute Commute" is really the "21-Minute Commute on a Good Day (which are few and far between)." I live 22 miles from work and it takes me about 40 minutes to commute on a good day (I live in a rural town with no direct highway access and work in a medium-sized city 30 miles from a major U.S. city). If I take the highway for the latter half of my trip I can cut it down to 30 minutes IF there is no accident, truck turnover or other slow down caused by the large amount of traffic going to the larger city.

    If the highway was my only option I would probably report to the census that my commute was 30 minutes even though it could run over an hour if there were some traffic issue which there often is. It's just too unpredictable to take the highway every day even though I know I can sometimes shave ten minutes off my commute. I wonder what number people are reporting as their commuting time?

    I haven't read the article and maybe it talks about what "average commuting time" really means but I suspect it's from the Census forms and people are reporting their optimum commuting time, not a monthly average of actual commuting time.

    I also wonder what people are doing these days in this lean economy when their job moves to, say, Parsippany from Manhattan and they live on Long Island. Would they quit and find a job with a better commute (tough to do these days)? Would they try to sell their house and move to New Jersey?

    Just wondering...

  2. Yes, all good points. Back in the 1980's and '90's, many firms in Manhattan DID move their offices (especially what was termed their "back office staff") to New Jersey, due to sweetheart tax deals, cheaper land costs, etc. I worked for one such firm, a big financial services company, who gave everyone a bonus if they stayed with the firm for one year after the move, (acting as a transitional cushion, so they didn't have to hire everyone new all at once) but realistically they counted on only 1/3 of the staff staying on after that. And they were actually fine with that, since they figured that replacement workers in NJ would cost them less than New Yorker employees. Most of the New Yorkers did not stay with the company, because it was just too much of a hassle to get there (for almost everyone from anywhere, it usually involved a train or subway, plus a bus, a ferry, and then a shuttle bus!) and jobs weren't so scarce at that time, so workers just found something else. Commuting within a metro area is a nightmare, unless you are going to work in the central business district - the so-called downtown area. Otherwise, it takes forever to reach work, and you are already all worn out by the time you get there! Not to mention all the time you have to build in to your commute for making connections between transit modes.

  3. As we've noted from recent census data, poor people, especially Black poor people, are being displaced from city centers, and areas near city centers (LA, Chicago, NY, Washington, among many others). There does seem to be some use-policy being implemented, even if indirectly. Where the poor live, or are allowed to live, is a scary question, because it implies that someone/something is actively making that decision.

    But back to commutes - probably the simplest and most impossible reform is to make it easy for people to find and afford housing near their place of work.