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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 5 Insights and Opportunities This report was prepared for policy makers seeking to increase public transit ridership in the United States and wishing to know what can be learned from experiences in Canada and Western Europe. The preceding chapters describe many of the important government policies and institutional, social, and economic circumstances that have increased transit ridership abroad, as well as some specific practices and innovations that have enhanced service performance and quality. In this chapter these factors are summarized, and Western European and Canadian experiences are contrasted with those of the United States. Some opportunities, derived from the committee’s review, for boosting U.S. transit ridership in the near and long terms are then examined. MAJOR FACTORS DIFFERENTIATING THE UNITED STATES, CANADA, AND WESTERN EUROPE A number of factors together have contributed to the high use of public transit in Western European and Canadian cities. Some of these factors can be traced back many decades; others can be attributed to existing differences in practice and policies. Historical Factors The United States was once a world leader in the use of new public transportation technologies. The expanding and enterprising American cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided the quintessential environment for the introduction of faster and more efficient forms of urban transit. Almost overnight, the electric railway revolutionized urban employment and settlement patterns, allowing cities to expand both upward and outward
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 and to accommodate the thousands of new workers and residents being added each year without overcrowding. The electric streetcar and rapid rail lines that radiated out from city centers became popular corridors for residential development. They transported workers to and from busy downtowns and even out to the countryside for excursions to amusement parks and beaches. Yet for most American cities, the boom in electric railways—especially streetcars—lasted little more than a generation. The widespread introduction of automobiles during the 1920s had a much more profound and lasting effect on urban size and form. Almost as quickly as Americans had embraced transit at the turn of the century, they abandoned it in favor of the increasingly affordable private automobile. Widespread automobile use progressively altered the contours of America’s urban areas. It allowed growth to disperse outward at lower densities and without the kind of residential and commercial clustering found along transit corridors. By comparison, Western European cities were more cautious in introducing electric streetcar lines in the years before World War I. The populations and workforces of the older Western European cities were growing more slowly than those of still incipient American cities—many of which emerged from small towns in a matter of years. With their urban infrastructure and development patterns long established, Western Europeans were more concerned about the potential cost and disruptions associated with introducing successive new forms of transport. Many Western European cities opted to build and operate the new electric transit systems themselves rather than entrust this responsibility to private entrepreneurs as in the United States. The mass introduction of the automobile took even longer to occur in Western Europe. Decades passed before Western European cities witnessed the kind of widespread automobile usage that took hold in American cities between the two world wars. The automobile did not emerge as a primary mode of urban transport in Western Europe until the 1960s. By then, most Western European urban areas consisted of compactly settled “walking” cities surrounded by a close-in ring of suburbs clustered around rail and bus corridors. Automobiles have since multiplied in Western Europe, and urban populations and businesses have been moving farther from the traditional central cities. Compared with urbanized areas in the United States, however, Western European cities remain compact and well suited to travel by tran-
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 sit. Even smaller Western European cities have ridership levels comparable with those in much larger American cities. Transit is used for about 10 percent of urban trips in Western Europe, compared with about 2 percent in the United States, although there is considerable variation across Western Europe, just as in the United States. Despite increasing competition from automobiles during the past 40 years, Western European transit systems have not experienced the precipitous declines in patronage that befell American transit during the middle decades of the 20th century. As cars proliferated, the mostly private American transit systems saw patronage fall to a point where few could generate the revenue needed to maintain their networks. However, the dwindling fortunes of public transport after World War II received little national attention. By 1960, the public takeover of transit had hardly begun. Even after the automobile was mass introduced in Western Europe during the 1960s, few transit operators failed. Most were publicly owned, and government investment in them continued. Automobiles, once considered luxuries, continued to be heavily taxed. High car ownership and fuel taxes were first imposed before cars were widely used; as automobile use grew, however, these taxes became important sources of government revenue. The funds were increasingly used for many government social programs, including transit service. In addition to boosting transit demand, the high automobile taxes made it incumbent upon Western European governments to continue to provide good transit service. Meanwhile, taxes on motor vehicles and fuel remained much lower in the United States, where the revenues were used largely to fund highway programs. Long-standing limits on suburban development, coupled with the high cost of operating cars, kept urban areas more compact and transit oriented in Western Europe. Many Western European cities owned or otherwise controlled the land on their periphery and actively sought to curb its development to preserve the traditional function of their historic city centers. At the same time, strong national and regional governments, concerned about the loss of open space around cities, took steps to limit urban expansion. In contrast, ample land was available for burgeoning American urban areas to expand outward. Highly localized control of land use planning precluded any significant regional or national coordination of new development and transportation investments. Many American urban areas were subject to economic and demographic growth pressures not experienced widely in Western Europe. After
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 World War II, the population of the United States—especially in urban areas—grew several times faster than that of Western Europe. Most population growth in the United States was in metropolitan areas and accommodated by new low-density development outside the central city. By comparison, fewer Western Europeans could afford private homes and automobiles after the war. In those cities heavily damaged during the war and desperately in need of more public housing, Western European governments located much of this residential development near public transit. These historical differences are helpful in understanding why trends in transit use diverged in the United States and Western Europe. They offer little explanation, however, for the differences between the United States and Canada. Many of the trends that occurred in the United States—from rapid urbanization to the widespread introduction of the automobile early in the century—also occurred in Canada at about the same time. Yet Canadian urban areas have managed to retain high levels of transit use, in part because their center cities experienced less decline and their provincial governments intervened much earlier in providing financial aid to ailing transit systems. They also took a more active role in guiding and integrating land use planning and transportation system investments at the regional level. Because many of these policies and practices were adopted during the past 30 years, they suggest that transit-supportive policies and practices can have a significant influence on transit ridership. Current Differences in Transit Practice and Policy Americans using public transit in Western Europe and Canada today immediately notice how fast, convenient, and reliable the service is. They also note its popularity. Transit operators themselves deserve much of the credit for the large number of riders they attract through innovative operating practices, customer-mindedness, and investments in new technology. A frequent observation of those participating in American study tours of transit operations is that Western European and Canadian transit managers enjoy considerable discretion in determining methods of fare collection, adjusting routes, choosing equipment, and taking other steps to enhance service quality and performance. They pay close attention to customer needs, starting with the simplest and most obvious, such as providing clean, comfortable vehicles and pleasant, knowledgeable drivers. Moreover, most transit operators are committed to improving performance
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 through innovation and experimentation with new services, amenities, and technologies. As an example, many Western European and Canadian transit operators have equipped bus stops and train stations with vehicle locator systems that give waiting patrons up-to-date information on the status of pending service. Ticket purchasing is made convenient and fast through nearly ubiquitous selling points and off-board, automated fare collection. Service speed and regularity are often achieved by scheduling mainline bus routes with fewer time-consuming stops and by widening vehicle doors and encouraging prepayment of fares to expedite passenger boarding and alighting. In seeking to retain existing riders and attract new ones, many transit operators have demonstrated creativity—for instance, by offering commuters discounts on weekend car rentals and by incorporating transit rides into the price of admission to popular entertainment and sporting events. Western European and Canadian transit riders also benefit from the priority given to transit vehicles by urban traffic management actions. Many Western European cities, both large and small, deploy advanced traffic control systems that allow buses to selectively preempt traffic signals or increase the green time on mainline routes, thus reducing queuing and delays at congested intersections. Many cities restrict on-street parking to discourage automobile use, and some have even closed large portions of their commercial districts to motor vehicles, excepting buses and other transit vehicles. Such approaches to transit operations and traffic management have helped transit operators attract and retain riders. Many of these approaches may be applicable in the United States. It is important to recognize, however, that most Western European countries provide significant financial support for their transit systems, and they do so in part with revenues received from high taxes levied on automobiles and motor fuel. These taxes, in turn, encourage more transit use. These policies are also consistent with what appears to be a strong and commonly shared public goal of preserving the traditional form and function of Western Europe’s historic cities. The integration of transportation and land use policies is viewed as central to achieving this goal. In Western Europe and Canada, urban land use and transportation decisions are highly coordinated at the regional and often national levels. As examples, the governments of Great Britain and the Netherlands retain most authority for making local transportation and land use decisions, and in federalist Germany the national government, as a practical matter, shares this authority with local and regional governments. In parts of Canada, land use
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 and transportation plans are integrated at the metropolitan level by regional urban governments that have jurisdiction over transit, highways, and land use. By comparison, decision making on urban land use in the United States is almost entirely a local government prerogative, whereas the planning and provision of major transportation infrastructure are usually regional and state responsibilities with federal funding assistance. In an environment characterized by highly diffused control over urban land use—with local government actions tending to favor low-density development—it is difficult for government planners to coordinate their actions in ways that might boost public transit use. OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES The findings presented in this report suggest that a combination of factors working together and over time have led to differing levels of transit use in American, Western European, and Canadian cities. Urban areas in the United States and Western Europe clearly differ in many important respects that have affected transit demand and supply and continue to do so. The latter countries have stronger regional governments, long-standing controls on urban land use, tight constraints on city parking, and much higher costs for car ownership and operations. They have also experienced comparatively limited urban growth pressures, and most have continued to invest heavily in public transit since World War II. Because so few Western Europeans could afford to own cars until relatively recently, the public provision of transit was, and remains, a critical government concern. Most urban environments in the United States today are suburban in character and poorly suited to public transit service. An abundance of inexpensive and accessible land open to development outside most cities, fast-growing urban populations and economies, and inner-city social and economic troubles have combined with the automobile to create increasingly decentralized and dispersed metropolitan areas that are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to serve with public transit. Moreover, a long time and significant changes in government institutions, land use controls, and public attitudes and preferences would be required to reshape this environment in ways that would substantially favor transit use. In light of these marked differences, one must be cautious in drawing lessons from Western Europe, and even Canada, on how to increase transit
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 use in the United States. Still, there is opportunity for transit to play a more prominent role in the U.S. urban transportation system, and the experiences of these countries offer many important ideas for making public transit work better and gain in popularity. Although it is unreasonable to expect U.S. transit use to rise to Western European levels, there are many places in the United States that are now well suited to transit where its use could be increased. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, and several other American cities have retained high levels of central city employment, population densities, and public transit mode shares. Many of the policies and practices of Western European and Canadian cities—from their emphasis on channeling new development into areas that are well served by public transportation to their creative transit marketing and fare policies—are especially relevant for these American cities. Yet experiences abroad also offer insight into how transit can be improved in those American cities where it has a smaller role. Even in the most automobile-oriented cities of the United States, public transportation affords a service that is vital to a portion of the population and provides essential transport capacity in heavily traveled corridors, and therefore it is important to draw lessons for these cities as well. In particular, Western European and Canadian transit systems distinguish themselves in providing dependable, good-quality service, which is relevant to all American transit systems interested in satisfying the needs of existing riders and attracting new ones. Table 5-1 lists several approaches examined in this report that have contributed to high levels of transit use in Western Europe and Canada. Also presented is an assessment of when each approach is likely to be most feasible to implement and to be effective in increasing transit use in the United States. Some of these approaches have the potential to be applied relatively quickly, whereas others present longer-term challenges. Early Opportunities The experiences of Western Europe and Canada offer insights for improving service quality and operating performance in ways that can both benefit existing riders and attract new riders. In these countries, serious attention is given to service speed, comfort, and reliability. Operating practices ranging from the routing of buses and spacing of bus stops to methods of fare collection are designed not only to enhance convenience for passengers, but also to increase service speed and reduce delays. Riding is made con-
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 venient through ubiquitous ticket purchasing points and coordination of schedules and fares among multiple transit operators. Transit is marketed to attract new riders and meet the needs of existing users through various forms of discounted passes and inclusion of transit fares in the price of admission to concerts, sporting events, and other large public gatherings. This emphasis on service quality has been instrumental in retaining and attracting new riders and in generating public support for other policies that further promote transit performance and use. These policies include local zoning and land use controls that permit new development contingent upon transit access and limited parking availability. A transit-first approach to city traffic management pervades Western Europe and Canada. Transit vehicles, whether buses or light rail, are given priority in mixed traffic; they can selectively preempt traffic signals at busy intersections, operate on dedicated travel lanes, and jump ahead of other vehicles waiting in queues. To be sure, many of these policies and practices—summarized in Box 5-1—have been successful in Western Europe and Canada because they have augmented already high levels of service provided to a relatively large ridership. They have also been adopted in urban areas characterized by strong central cities, compact urban land use, and strong efforts to direct development into areas well served by transit. To the extent that U.S. central cities can be revitalized and urban development conditioned on transit access, transit ridership gains may follow. Many of the specific policies and practices described above have been tried on a limited and often temporary basis in American cities. In the current urban environment, few such measures can be expected to generate large increases in passenger demand by themselves. However, it is through a series of such policies and practices, consistently and incrementally applied, that Canada and Western Europe have enhanced transit’s performance and broadened its constituency and support. Challenges Dependable, safe, and convenient service is an essential condition for the success of all policies aimed at making transit a more widely available, attractive, and well-used means of travel. The Western European and Canadian experience indicates that the provision of good transit service is an imperative regardless of market size. It also indicates that much more must be done if the goal is to raise transit demand substantially. Although many
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Table 5-1 Possible Approaches for Increasing U.S. Transit Use Possible Approach Preconditions That Foster Successful Implementation Examples of Conditions That Will Increase Effectiveness in Boosting Transit Use Transit operational and quality-of-service enhancements Flexible transit workforce; management autonomy, including latitude and incentives to innovate; regional coordination of transit fares and services; public expectations of dependable and convenient service Existing significant ridership base; complementary traffic regulations that favor transit operations Transit priority in traffic Integration of highway and transit management and policy making; limited street space and suitable street geometry; latitude and incentives for transit operators to innovate Large ridership on buses; chronic urban traffic congestion; commitment to enforcing priority measures; priority given to transit over a large area Transit-oriented site design in land use zoning Tradition of strong government regulation of development and land use; commonly accepted standards and guidelines for site design Well-performing and ubiquitous transit network; safe and sufficient pedestrian access ways; large commercial complexes with significant ridership potential
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Parking restrictions Regional governance that allows for parking coordination across a metropolitan area Adequate transit availability, especially rapid transit that provides an attractive alternative to driving for access to major activity centers Increase in cost of automobile use Acceptance/tradition of high taxes on vehicles and fuel; public concern over pollution, noise, traffic, and other adverse side effects of driving; good alternatives to driving, including walking, biking, and transit Persistent high costs, prompting fundamental changes in settlement and commuting patterns Regional coordination of land use and transportation planning Regional governance, including revenue sharing; government land ownership; tradition of strong regional governance; public concerns about environment and land scarcity Attractive city centers; high residential and employment density; complementary policies that discourage driving, including tax policies
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Box 5-1 Examples of Key Practices and Public Policies Favorable to Transit Use in Western Europe and Canada Reliability and Frequency of Transit Service Wide spacing between bus stops to increase operating speeds Passenger loading platforms to ease bus reentry into traffic streams Prepaid tickets and boarding passes to expedite passenger boarding Low-floor buses with wide doorways to speed boarding and alighting Transit priority in mixed traffic (e.g., bus lanes and special signalization) Vehicle locator systems Comfort, Safety, and Convenience of Service Amenities at transit stops and stations Clean vehicles and knowledgeable drivers Convenient ticket purchasing places Sidewalks leading to stations and secure, lighted waiting areas Uniform and simplified fare structures across area transit modes Discounted transit passes tailored to individual rider needs Widespread publication of schedules and color-coded matching of buses and lines Special taxi service options to extend and complete the transit network Means of Making Transit Competitive with Private Automobiles High automobile taxes High motor fuel taxes Parking limits in city centers and uniform policies on an areawide basis
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Restrictions on driving in certain areas, such as popular downtown retail districts Discounted automobile rentals and car cooperatives sponsored by transit agencies Compatible Urban Land Use Policies Land use decision making shared among local, regional, and national governments Regional integration of transportation and land use plans Common rules and guidance on street and site development designs favorable to transit of the means by which Western Europeans and Canadians have generated lasting demand for public transportation—from high taxes on motor vehicle use and ownership to regional control over parking, transportation, and land use—are widely viewed as having little potential for implementation in the United States, these prospects can change over time. In particular, raising the cost of operating motor vehicles is widely viewed as an impractical option for the United States. Americans have come to depend on their cars and are reluctant to accept increases in motor fuel taxes or other constraints on motor vehicle ownership and use. Western Europeans have also become increasingly dependent on the automobile for much of their travel. Despite very high taxes on motor fuel and vehicles, Western European car ownership and use have increased rapidly during the past half century as incomes have risen. Regional controls on parking, and especially limits on parking supply in city centers, have proven to be important means of fostering the use of public transit. Parking is already scarce in the downtowns of many large urban areas of the United States. Policies that limit the supply of new parking space could further increase demand for transit, provided the service is convenient, fast, and reliable. However, many people believe parking limits would encourage new development outside the center city, exacerbating the outward migration of retail and work places. Because most urban areas in the United States comprise scores of local jurisdictions—each competing for tax-generating businesses—the incentive has been to ensure ample parking rather than risk relocation of businesses and loss of revenue.
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Canadians share with Western Europeans many of the same attitudes about the desirability of planning at the regional, rather than local, level and about the importance of coordinating parking controls and transportation investments on an areawide basis. Not only do Canadians limit downtown parking and require transit-accessible designs in new developments, but they direct development to existing or planned transit corridors. A similar attitude about the importance of planning land use at the regional level and coordinating land use with transportation does not prevail in the United States. Nor do most locales currently have the institutional or political frameworks needed to develop and implement such plans. Many transit agencies in the United States operate and are administered on an urbanwide basis. Only rarely, however, have metropolitan-level governments been formed and granted authority to make integrated decisions about land use, taxation, and transportation that affect the entire region. Environmental and traffic congestion concerns in major metropolitan areas have prompted some states to gradually place limits on local control of land use, particularly on major land use decisions. Pressures to address wide-ranging issues such as these may prompt further coordination of land use and transportation at the regional level. The experience in Canada suggests that the advent of such regional land use planning, however difficult to achieve in the United States, is a critical complement to regional transit service. CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS What becomes clear from the committee’s international comparison is that no single factor can explain why transit tends to be more popular abroad than in the United States. A number of policies, practices, and conditions have combined to elevate public transit’s role in both the cities and suburbs of Western Europe and Canada. By no means do these experiences offer a panacea for transforming the role of public transit in the more automobile-oriented urban areas of the United States. They do, however, offer insights into ways of making transit a more effective and attractive alternative for urban travel in the future.
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