In light of the increase in Sacramento, this article from New Geography is timely.
Journalists in older cities like New York, Boston or San Francisco may see the role of rail transit as critical to a functioning modern city. In reality, rail transit has been a financial and policy failure outside of a handful of cities.
In 23 metropolitan areas that have built new rail systems since 1970, transit’s share of commuting — including all forms, such as buses and ferries — has actually slipped a bit, from an average of 5.0 percent before the rail systems opened to 4.6 percent in 2013. The ranks of those driving alone continue to grow, having increased 14.4 million daily one-way trips since 2000, nearly double transit’s overall daily total of 7.6 million, according to Census Bureau data.
Virtually all the actual increase in rail commuting has occurred in the “legacy cities”: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia. These are older cities built around well-defined cores that were developed mostly before the automobile. Together the core cities of these metro areas, excluding the suburbs, accounted for 55% of all transit work trips in the nation in 2014, according to the latest American Community Survey data. Overall, transit’s work trip market share in these six metropolitan areas rose from 17 percent to 20 percent between 2000 and 2014. In the entire balance of the country, where most of the new rail systems have been built, transit’s market share is only 2.2 percent, up a scant 0.2 percentage points since 2000, according to Census Bureau data.
Manhattan alone, in fact, accounts for more than 40 percent of all rail commuters in the nation. New York is the only U.S. city where more than 20 percent of workers labor in the central business district (downtown). In most cities, the percentage is less than half of that, and in many others, even smaller. In Los Angeles, less than 3 percent of employment is downtown. In Dallas only 2 percent of metropolitan employment is downtown. In Houston, where numerous large companies maintain headquarters, it’s still only 6.4 percent.
For transit to work effectively, employment needs to be concentrated. This explains why between 2013 and 2014, New York accounted for a remarkable 88 percent of the total increase in train commuting. But what works for Brooklynites headed to Union Square does not generally work so well for people living in our increasingly dispersed metropolitan areas. Indeed in most cities — Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Diego, and even the new urbanist mecca of Portland, according to 2015 American Community Survey data, where new transit lines have been put in, it has failed to increase the share of commuters who take public transportation, and in some cases the actual ridership has dropped.
It has even failed where cities are booming and their downtowns flourishing. Houston’s light rail system opened in 2004, but has done little to change the car-dominated commuting pattern of America’s energy capital. Between 2003 and 2014, Harris County’s population grew 23 percent, but transit ridership decreased 12%, according to American Public Transportation Association data. This means that the average Houstonian took 30 percent fewer trips on the combined bus and light rail system in 2014 than on the bus-only system in 2003.
The Next Great Transit City
Nowhere is the transit mania more profound than in Los Angeles, a city progressive blogger Matt Yglesias describes as “the next great transit city.”
There seems to be a conscious strategy of making auto commuting in Los Angeles and the rest of California so unpleasant as to force people into transit. Mayor Eric Garcetti has made bold predictions that commuting times will drop in half, largely by people moving from cars to trains. Of course this is folly, since transit commuting generally takes considerably longer than commuting by car. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has called for putting all California on “a road diet,” meaning that traffic will simply continue to worsen. This in a state which has among the worst roads in the country – 68 percent of which are in poor or mediocre condition.
Can rail solve or mitigate congestion? L.A. has already spent over $15 billion on rail yet this has proven less than effective in either boosting transit ridership or lessening congestion.
Since 1980 before the rail expansion the percentage of Los Angeles County commuters who take transit has actually dropped from 7.0 to 6.9 percent while the transit share of the combined statistical area has dropped from 5.1 to 4.7 percent. Even the total numbers of riders is heading down. Recently the transit booster Los Angeles Times published statistics that showed that there were now 10 percent fewer boardings on the Los Angeles MTA system than in 2006, and that the decline was accelerating.