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US Public Transport Is a Disaster, and Urban Planners Are to Blame

By: Nick Zaiac - @NickZaiac - Mar 15, 2016, 1:36 pm
Streetcars combine the worst of public transportation: they are slow and expensive. (Wikimedia)
Streetcars combine the worst features of buses and urban rails: they are slow and expensive. (Wikimedia)

The story is old by now. Washington D.C. Metrorail users faced a nightmare in the wake of yet another fire on a train.

This came not long after the city inaugurated its first modern streetcar, a widely-panned 2.2 mile line which replicated a popular bus route at a vastly higher cost to taxpayers. The city wants to expand this streetcar, despite a real need for money to make its existing network of rail and bus services more reliable.

In terms of public transportation, American cities are plagued by a disease that touches nearly every aspect of their administration.

It is a form of status-seeking, the quest for showy new projects to drive real estate investment and provide high-quality amenities, even in places where cheaper, lower quality amenities would suffice. Streetcars have a higher perceived quality than buses. New rail lines even more so. The former seem sleek, the latter antiquated. Yet this comes at a cost.

Providing high-quality bus transit is cheap compared to building a rail line. Streetcars fall in between, but come with their own negatives, making them expensive and slow, the worst of both worlds.

New rail lines and streetcars are simply luxuries that cities cannot afford. The projects are a drain on budgets that have many priorities, acting as an indirect subsidy for a particular part of a city, without benefiting everyone.

Indeed, their impact on real estate investment is touted as the main benefit of many streetcar projects, including the line in Washington. Worse than being bad policy, they distract transportation planners from their core mission: providing public transportation to people. Urban planners should not be trying to micromanage what area get developed. The real estate market does that pretty well on its own.

When public transportation planners get caught up in these Sim City-esque dreams, they fail at their core job.

Distractions from Real Public Transportation Needs

Providing an efficient public transportation system means making improvements which the public won’t celebrate with a party. It means making sure maintenance workers are doing their jobs competently and efficiently, no matter how much their union might complain. It means getting the paperwork to oversee agencies done in time. It means spending money wisely, so it’s available to pay for safety improvements and repairs.

It means saying “no” when people want to use the public transportation budget for social engineering. If new development requires more transportation spending than can be addressed, new fixed-route services line streetcars and rail lines should not be priorities.

In a sense, transportation should react to economic development, it should not be proactive. If citizens feel they want a particular area developed, they can pressure urban planners to allow more density. When development takes place, transportation planners can add or increase bus service as demand warrants.

[adrotate group=”7″]By making the public transportation system reactive, rather than proactive, we could prevent cities from adding long-term costs when future revenues are uncertain. Moreover, we lower the number of distracting novelty projects that sap budgets and distract transportation officials.

Transportation planning should not be fun. It should be functional.

In the last decade or so, we have allowed our transportation officials to venture into the world of social engineering. They have failed.

The nation’s many new streetcar projects have stretched authorities too thin. Maintenance has suffered, and systems have grown less reliable. Is it any wonder that the people are using them less?

Every dollar spent on a new, frivolous project is one not spent on making sure the trains run on time. It’s time to end the distractions and to make public transportation react to development trends. Urban planners cannot engineer development.

Nick Zaiac Nick Zaiac

Nick Zaiac is a public-policy researcher in Washington, DC. He also serves as a policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His column, The DC Leviathan focuses on the often-ignored bureaucratic agencies, from the Department of the Interior to the General Services Administration. He has been published in the Baltimore Sun, City AM, CapX, and other outlets. Follow @NickZaiac.