External Policies and Factors Affecting Transit Use
A central aim of this study is to explore the broader external factors that contribute to higher rates of transit usage in Western Europe and Canada than in the United States. Some of the patterns and policies discussed in the previous chapters have been the result of factors well beyond the control of individual transit agencies. These factors, reviewed in this chapter, include differences in basic demographic and economic conditions, in history and tradition, in public attitudes and institutions, in urban highway and housing programs, and in transit management and funding environments.
To be sure, the abundance of historic cities—settled long before the mass introduction of automobiles—has made the provision of public transport especially critical throughout much of Western Europe. Limited urban infrastructure to accommodate automobiles can make driving costly and inconvenient. Yet there are numerous other reasons why Western Europeans use transit more than Americans. Their governments have a long history of taxing automobiles as luxury goods, tightly regulating urban land use, and controlling the supply and location of housing—policies and practices that have tended to encourage both compact urban areas and limited automobile usage. Moreover, the timing, character, and size of population and economic growth have differed markedly in Western Europe and the United States, having deep-seated effects on urban form, consumption patterns, and travel behavior.
In this chapter, these external factors and their possible role in causing the significant differences observed in the extent of transit-supportive policies and in transit availability and usage among cities in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe are reviewed. In the course of this review, it
becomes evident that far fewer such factors differentiate the United States from Canada than from Western Europe. Yet while the United States and Canada have shared many of the same economic, demographic, and historical trends, Canadians continue to make better use of public transit. More than the countries of Western Europe, therefore, it would appear that Canada can provide insight into how American policies and practices can be made more supportive of public transit. To this end, the salient differences between the two countries are examined in the final section of the chapter.
DEMOGRAPHIC AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
Pressures from Population and Social Change
Basic demographic data reveal major differences in population trends in North America and Western Europe, especially since World War II. Western Europe’s population has been static as compared with that of the United States and Canada during this period (see Figure 4-1). The U.S. population has doubled since 1950, up by more than 130 million people. Nearly all of this growth has occurred in metropolitan areas, placing greater pressure on undeveloped land. Since 1950, the share of the country’s population in metropolitan areas has increased from about 65 to 80 percent (Bureau of the Census 1999, 46).
In contrast, the combined population of France, Great Britain, and Germany (including the former East Germany) has grown by about 40 million since 1950, or about 25 percent. This total has been surpassed by the three U.S. states of California, Texas, and Florida, which have gained more than 45 million inhabitants during the same period.
Other demographic differences are notable and likely to have had an important effect on urban settlement and travel patterns. In Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, more people are over age 65 than are under age 18—a demographic pattern that has persisted for more than two decades. In contrast, nearly twice as many Americans are under 18 as are older than 65. During the 1960s—as millions of young Americans in the baby boom cohort were reaching adulthood—there were three times as many Americans under 18 as over 65. The maturing baby boom generation
entered the workforce, the housing market, and concomitantly the driver population during the mid-1960s to mid-1980s.
During this period, the U.S. economy produced many more jobs than did the economies of Western Europe. Between 1960 and 1995, the U.S. workforce nearly doubled, growing by about 60 million (Bureau of the Census 1971; Bureau of the Census 1998). By comparison, nearly as many people left the workforce each year as entered it in Western Europe. From 1960 to 1995, the combined workforces of Germany, Great Britain, and France grew by only 20 percent, an increase of about 15 million workers (Bureau of the Census 1971; Bureau of the Census 1998). Given these disparities in population and economic growth, it is sensible to question their effects on the differing patterns of urban development that have been observed in the United States and Western Europe.
Another important difference in demographic patterns is that a large share of the newcomers in American cities after World War II consisted of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, as well as African Americans from the rural South. Because many of the urban immigrants were poor and belonged to minority racial groups, social tensions in cities were exacerbated. Seeking better housing and schools, many middle-class whites left center cities in favor of the newer suburbs. Many older cities not only lost residents and jobs, but also suffered declining tax bases, eroding city services, and growing crime and poverty, making it increasingly difficult to retain and attract new home owners and businesses. Such social problems were largely absent or occurred on a smaller scale in Western European cities (Downs 1999, 24).
To be sure, the social and economic stresses that plagued U.S. cities contributed to the continual outward expansion of metropolitan America and to the difficulty of instituting public policies designed to reverse or slow this trend. The many complex and interrelated forces associated with the declining American central city cannot be evaluated here.1 Yet inasmuch as transit systems traditionally have been configured to serve cities, the shift of residents and workers to suburbs, coupled with concerns about urban crime, has exacerbated ridership declines. Whereas Western European transit operators have not been immune to such problems, they have not been as profoundly affected. With so many economic, demographic, and social factors differentiating urban America, Canada, and Western Europe, it is certainly reasonable to question their comparability.
Affluence and Consumerism
Many Americans have long been able to afford automobiles and to own their own homes. Like automobiles, nearly all major consumer goods, from televisions and kitchen appliances to central air-conditioning, were mass introduced years earlier in the United States than in Western Europe.
Throughout much of the post–World War II period, the array of consumer choices available to Western Europeans was limited, not only because of public policies, but also because of economic conditions. Few Western Europeans had sufficient income to buy their own home, much less a single-family house on a large lot outside the city. Rationing initiated during the war remained in effect into the 1950s, and by 1960, per capita purchasing power in nearly all Western European countries was only a fraction of that in the United States: 60 percent lower in France and West Germany and two-thirds lower in Austria and the Netherlands. Only Sweden, which escaped significant war damage, had a per capita income (measured in purchasing power) at least half that of the United States (Bureau of the Census 1998).
Not until the mid-1960s did Western Europe begin to close the gap, and by this time American and Western European urban forms had diverged further. Today the income levels of most of the major Western European countries have climbed to within 25 percent of that in the United States.
Household income is positively correlated with automobile ownership and use (Lave 1992; TRB 1997, 65). As mentioned earlier, Germany now averages nearly one car for every two people—equivalent to the level attained in the United States during the 1970s. France is also approaching one car for every two people, as are several other Western European countries. Despite high levels of car ownership, however, Germans still drive, on average, about as much as Americans did in the late 1960s. Although they own many cars, they do not use them at the same high rate as Americans. One would have to go back to the 1950s and early 1960s to find U.S. driving levels comparable with those currently found in Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and France. For the most part, however, Western European automobility and suburbanization are increasing with economic growth. These trends will continue to test the ability of Western European policy makers to regulate urban land use, preserve center cities, and encourage use of public transit.
HISTORY AND TRADITIONS
Tradition of High Automobile Costs
History and tradition have also played important roles in the differing policies that affect urban form and transportation choice in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. As Nivola and Crandall (1995) point out, the origins of high petroleum taxation in Western Europe can be traced to various sources—from centuries of monarchy-imposed excise taxes to the perceived need for greater energy self-sufficiency after World War I. Whatever their origins, taxes on motor fuel and automobiles in Western Europe have been high in comparison with U.S. levels for many decades (see also Chapter 3). In 1960, for instance, the average cost of a liter of gasoline (in 1960 dollars using exchange rates at the time) was $0.15 in West Germany, $0.12 in the Netherlands, $0.13 in Great Britain, and $0.20 in France. Taxes accounted for 50 to 75 percent of these prices. Meanwhile, American motorists paid about $0.08/L, around one-third of which comprised federal and state taxes.2Figure 4-2 shows gasoline prices (indexed to U.S. prices) in several countries from 1955 to 1995. Canada is the only country whose fuel prices have been comparable with those in the United States, although its prices have increased more rapidly since 1980 because of rising taxation.
High taxes predated widespread car ownership and use in Western Europe. Because few Western Europeans owned motor vehicles until the 1960s and 1970s, it is doubtful that many paid much attention to early fuel tax policies. As late as 1960, there were only 4.5 million automobiles in West Germany, or about 1 for every 12 people (see Figure 4-3). Other Western European countries averaged 1 car for every 8 to 12 people. Thus for most Western Europeans, levies on gasoline were probably viewed as being luxury taxes until at least the 1960s, and so perhaps as providing a politically acceptable source of government revenue. In contrast, by 1960 more than 60 million passenger cars were registered in the United States, or about 1 for every 3 persons. By then, most Americans viewed cars as necessities and had grown accustomed to low fuel taxes. Instead of being regarded as a source of general government revenue, these impositions were viewed as user fees to be reinvested in the highway system.
The number of cars has grown dramatically in Western Europe since the 1960s. For instance, in 1995 Great Britain had 1 car for every 2.5 people, while the ratios in West Germany and France were 1 to 2.1 and 1 to 2.3, respectively. As might be expected, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s,
passenger car travel per capita increased greatly throughout Western Europe—tripling in most instances (see Figure 4-4).
Despite these marked increases in car ownership and use, Western Europeans have continued to accept fuel taxes that have raised the retail price of motor fuel to three to four times the levels in the United States. The highly publicized negative public response to recent escalations in fuel prices, however, suggests that this acceptance may be eroding as Western Europeans use automobiles for a growing share of their daily trips. Faced with stiff public resistance, the British government, for instance, abandoned its plan to raise fuel taxes at an annual rate of 6 percent above the rate of inflation. Additional changes in tax policy are expected to ease the burden of sharply higher fuel prices.
Nevertheless, Western European motorists continue to pay fuel taxes that are several times higher than those in the United States, and they pay much higher excise taxes for vehicle acquisition and fees for registration. These levies also have origins that can be traced back many decades—in some cases originating as import duties to protect local automobile makers (Nivola and Crandall 1995). Like fuel taxes, motor vehicle fees have become a source of general government revenue. During the past two decades, however, public concern about traffic noise and congestion, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and other side effects of automobiles have prompted some Western European countries (e.g., Norway and Denmark) to raise these taxes even further.3 For a large and growing number of Western Europeans today, the car is no longer treated as a luxury but as an everyday necessity. Still, few Western European motorists can recall a time when taxes on motor vehicles were low, and most appear to have become accustomed to these impositions.
As discussed next, the older and more compact Western European cities are simply not as well suited to the automobile as the newer, more dispersed American cities. Thus, whether by adopting higher vehicle taxes, promoting public transit, or restricting cars in center cities, Western Europeans have many compelling reasons to take steps that discourage automobile use.
Historic, Preautomobile Cities
The mass introduction of the automobile occurred early in the United States and at a time when many American cities were growing rapidly. Cars
were mass introduced a generation or more later in Western European cities and at a much more advanced stage in their growth cycle.
The escalating use of automobiles in older Western European cities during the 1960s presented urban planners, transit operators, and traffic engineers with challenges seldom faced in the United States. The combination of physical constraints and a desire to preserve historic cities meant that Western Europeans could not build the kinds of extensive freeway systems found within American cities. Even by the mid-1960s—when automobile usage was just beginning to surge—many Western European cities already were suffering from serious traffic congestion in their downtown areas. By this time, recurrent congestion also was becoming a problem in small towns and villages.
In response to these problems, many Western European cities have taken steps to restrain the automobile and to promote other transportation options (Vuchic 1999, 128–130). Some of their actions are described in the preceding chapter. For instance, large, medium, and small cities alike—from Leeds, England, to Freiburg, Germany—have banned automobiles in portions of their historic centers and on some of their busiest downtown streets, converting the streets to pedestrian malls and transitways (Hass-Klau 1993). In some cases, the automobile-free zones cover several square kilometers and encompass entire commercial districts. In the largest cities, such as Paris and London, such areas are limited to small enclaves; however, more extensive pedestrian zones have been established in some German, Austrian, and Dutch cities, aided by postwar “ring” roads and bypasses that direct traffic away from the historic downtowns.
That Western Europeans are willing to accept such limits on city automobile use is often regarded as the manifestation of a strong urbanist mind-set—one that leads them to preserve their historic cities and move closer to the city center as they become more affluent (Fishman 1990). Conversely, Americans are often portrayed as lacking such preferences and being more experimental and consumer-oriented, quick to adopt new technologies even if doing so leads to frequent relocating or refashioning of their surroundings (Rybczynski 1996, 235; Goldberg and Mercer 1986, 12–32). The contrast in the way American cities eagerly introduced electric streetcars at the end of the 19th century while Western European cities remained cautious (see Chapter 2) is sometimes cited as an example of these underlying cultural differences (McShane 1988; McKay 1988).
The notion that Europeans have a longer history or stronger culture of living in cities is not well supported by the data. Table 4-1 shows that even by 1900, a higher percentage of Americans lived in center cities than did all Western Europeans except the British, Danes, Dutch, and Belgians. France remained agrarian with a mostly rural population well into the 20th century. Only 15 percent of Germans lived in cities with more than 50,000 people in 1900, compared with 21 percent in the United States. In 1930, about 28 percent of Americans lived in center cities with more than 100,000 people, which was about the same as the percentage in Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany, and much higher than the percentage in France. Although definitions of “city” and “urbanized area” vary among countries, it is reasonable to assume that all areas so defined in 1900 (and even 1930) were compact and “city”-like because of the need to travel locally by foot, horse, and transit. Hence if a European preference for living in cities does indeed exist today, it would appear to be a relatively recent phenomenon.
Of course, the countries of Western Europe have many more historic cities than does the United States. Certainly the older, medieval Western European cities provide settings that are well suited to urban preservation policies such as restricting city centers to pedestrian traffic. Not only are the meandering streets and small buildings naturally amenable to strolling, but the historic character of many Western European downtowns attracts many pedestrians. Although such pedestrian conversions have been tried in the United States, many have failed because of a decline in downtown shopping and sometimes because a city’s wide streets and long buildings have been poorly suited to travel by foot.
It is noteworthy that after the destruction resulting from World War II, many Western European cities were rebuilt on their original foundations, suggesting the importance Western Europeans place on preserving urban history. Such decisions reveal how public policies are influenced not only by historical factors, but also by public attitudes.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES AND INSTITUTIONS
Public Concern About Land Use
In seeking to explain why Western European governments are more inclined than those in the United States to intervene in urban land use decisions, Downs (1999, 16–17), Heidenheimer et al. (1990, 270–278), and
Table 4-1 Historical Comparison of Central City Populations in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe (Bureau of the Census 1999, Tables 1414 and 1415; Showers 1989, Tables 1b and 2F)
others4 have observed that Western Europeans and Americans have different attitudes about the appropriate intensity of land use. More prevalent in Western Europe is the notion that open land is a scarce national resource and that if development is to occur, it must be sufficiently dense to lessen the need for further loss of open land. As a corollary, open land that remains free from development must be preserved for ecological, agricultural, or recreational purposes. As Downs (1999) and others have pointed out, one impact of the physical vastness of the United States and its low average population density is a willingness to entrust individual landowners with considerable authority to use the land as they see fit.
Demographic data lend support to these explanations. The contiguous 48 U.S. states have a population density of slightly less than 35 persons per square kilometer. The five most densely populated states (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland) average between 200 and 400 persons per square kilometer; however, these states contain less than 9 percent of the country’s population. California, the state with the highest proportion (nearly 97 percent) of its population residing in metropolitan areas, averages fewer than 80 persons per square kilometer. Half the U.S. population resides in states averaging fewer than 70 persons per square kilometer. Thus for most Americans, the availability of ample land to live on, work on, and enjoy for recreation is expected to continue for some time to come, even as the nation’s population is projected to grow by more than 20 percent during the next 25 years (Bureau of the Census 1997,25).
Low average population densities—viewed at the state or national level—mask the variation in densities across regions and the extent to which land scarcity is a concern in specific regions, states, and localities. Spreading urban development is a prominent public concern in many places in the United States, such as coastal California, northern Oregon, southern Florida, and the Chesapeake Bay Basin. However, there is considerable regional and local variability in this concern. During the past half century, most urban growth in the United States occurred in the South and West, where there were few economic or regulatory constraints on the supply of land for development on the urban periphery. Metropolitan Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, and Las Vegas—among the fastest-growing urban areas in the United States—have expanded outward at a rapid pace but remain surrounded by semirural counties containing thousands of square kilometers of agricultural and undeveloped land. Although public concern over urban land
use has increased in many of these areas during the past 20 years, this is a relatively recent phenomenon by Western European standards. The availability and use of land has become a more prominent public issue in some states (e.g., Maryland, Florida, New Jersey, Oregon), but it has yet to emerge as a national concern, as it has been for many decades in Western Europe.
Western European countries—many physically smaller than a single medium-sized U.S. state—have had high population densities for centuries. Today the Netherlands and Belgium together average more than 350 persons per square kilometer, Germany averages 230, and Great Britain averages about 245 (Bureau of the Census 1998, Table 1343). But even as early as 1850, Belgium and the Netherlands averaged more than 100 persons per square kilometer, and both Germany and Great Britain exceeded 90 (Showers 1989, Table 1b). By comparison, only 13 American states had population densities of more than 60 persons per square kilometer as late as 1960 (Bureau of the Census 1971, Table 12). Except in a few very large cities, crowding has not been a chronic problem in the United States.
Given the historically high population densities in the countries of Western Europe, their citizens’ long-standing preference for a strong and centralized government role in land use planning and decision making might be expected. Most of the central governments of Western Europe have taken steps to influence local land use (see Chapter 3). In the Netherlands and Great Britain, all land use policies are guided, and largely determined, at the national level. The federal government of Germany establishes land use guidelines and requires individual states and local governments to adopt land use plans that conform to these guidelines. Indeed, the German constitution mandates such a national role (Konukiewitz and Wollman 1982).
Land is not viewed as especially scarce in the United States, and so undeveloped land on the periphery of urban areas is often treated similarly to most other private property, with relatively few government restrictions on its use by owners. In such areas, local governments responsible for regulating land use are more inclined to accept and seek development as a source of employment and tax revenue. Conversely, in established communities, additional development that threatens to increase employment and population densities is often resisted by local governments and residents concerned about incompatible uses and property values. Together these two interests can make regional coordination of land use difficult, especially if the goal is to concentrate new development in existing communities.
Whereas interests and attitudes can change, the decentralized political framework in the United States is likely to continue to impede the planning of land use at the national or regional level in a manner similar to that of Western Europe and Canada. Political decentralization, coupled with wide variability in population densities within the vast United States, makes national and state land use planning more difficult to implement than in the smaller and more uniformly dense nations of Western Europe, such as the Netherlands.5 For regional planning to work, the public must agree on a common set of planning approaches and goals. Even at the local level in the United States, commonly accepted visions of how land should be regulated are unusual. Although a few states, such as Florida and Oregon,6 are involved in local land use planning, their influence is minimal by Western European standards.
Collectivist Attitudes and Hierarchical Political Systems
Berry (1973, 180) observes that Western Europe’s “hierarchical social and political systems—where the governing class is accustomed to govern, where other classes are accustomed to acquiesce, and where private interests have relatively less power—can more readily evolve urban and regional growth policies at the national level than systems under the sway of the market, local political jurisdictions, or egalitarian political processes.” Goldberg and Mercer (1986, 17) make similar observations about the “collectivist” outlook of Canadians, in contrast with the “more private entrepreneurial and individualistic tenor of social and economic life in the United States.”
Such differences in social and political attitudes, if real, are relevant for understanding how Western European and Canadian governments have succeeded in adopting and retaining certain policies that have been supportive of public transit. For instance, they help explain how Canada and many Western European countries have been able to control local land use at the national and regional levels, repeatedly raise national taxes on motor fuel, and take other actions to deter the use of private automobiles—policies widely viewed as politically infeasible in the United States.
A common perception is that Western Europeans are more willing than Americans to accept government intervention in the marketplace and to favor policies that promote the public welfare, even if they impose significant limits on private activity. Having more homogeneous populations, feudal histories, and hierarchical political traditions, Western Europeans are commonly
viewed as being more accepting of public planning and top-down administrative or bureaucratic decision making. Likewise, the high percentage of Canada’s immigrants originating from Great Britain and France is seen as reinforcing these Western European attitudes (Goldberg and Mercer 1986).
In comparing urban planning traditions in the United States and Western Europe, Heidenheimer et al. (1990, 270) observe that “the use of public power to regulate urban growth was common in Western Europe much earlier than in the United States, and so the scope of public intervention in land use, transportation, and housing is today considerably wider in Western European cities.” Furthermore, the authors (1990, 217) note that in Western Europe, “land is considered a resource which is subject to strong government regulation, a view that can be traced all the way to feudal times, when all land tenure was enmeshed in a hierarchy of rights and obligations descending from the sovereign to the peasants. This tradition bred a degree of public acceptance of government intervention in and regulation of land use that is far greater in Western Europe than the United States.”
Whereas Western Europeans are often portrayed as having stronger communal or collectivist attitudes, Americans are popularly characterized as being more inclined to favor policies that promote private welfare and interests. Local governance, seen as most democratic, is generally preferred, and the majority of local officials, from school board members to county judges, are popularly elected. In his historical study of Philadelphia’s growth, Warner (1968, 214) points to “privatism,” defined as individual interests and private institutions, as the single quality that best characterizes American cities, shaping their public institutions, productivity, and growth.
The importance and verity of such characterizations are debatable, and whether they are rooted in fundamentally different public attitudes is unclear. Sociologists have long noted differences in how Western Europeans and Americans respond to surveys of public opinion about the environment and community. For instance, in polls conducted as part of the International Social Survey Program (1985–1993), 65 to 82 percent of surveyed Germans, Britons, Austrians, Dutch, Swedes, and Canadians responded that they felt “close” or “very close” to their neighborhood or village, as compared with 55 percent of surveyed Americans (see Figure 4-5). Similarly, when respondents were asked how often they cut back on driving for environmental reasons, 36 percent of Americans replied “sometimes” or “always/often,” compared with 45 to 60 percent of Germans, Dutch, Norwegians, and Canadians.
Although such surveys can be revealing, it is also important to observe how people behave to gauge true attitudes and preferences. The fact that Western Europeans have been driving more and moving to suburbs as they have become more affluent is viewed by many analysts as evidence of a growing similarity with Americans that is not well reflected in opinion polls (Lave 1992). Likewise, the American public’s earlier acceptance of unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters—required many years before similar steps were taken in Western Europe—is portrayed as inconsistent with the weaker environmental values expressed by Americans in opinion surveys (Nivola and Crandall 1995, 57–58).
Differing political structures also may explain why Western European and Canadian governments have gone further in adopting policies that favor public transit. As discussed in the preceding chapter, Canada and many Western European countries are governed in ways that enable national and regional bodies to exercise more direct influence over land use plans and the provision of many local services, such as schools, parks, and policing. In some countries, such as Great Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, local governments are largely administrative agents tasked with supplying the prescribed services, which are paid for by the larger national or provincial governments (Mackensen 1999; Heidenheimer et al. 1983, 274–310). Even in federalist Germany, where local governments have considerable legal autonomy, their policy-making ability is limited by their dependence on funding from state and national governments—aid that is often accompanied by regulatory requirements (Mackensen 1999, 299–301).
National actions that are unimaginable in the politically fragmented United States are commonplace in Western Europe. For instance, during the 1970s, Sweden cut the number of local governments by 90 percent; likewise, the British Parliament has created and terminated local governments on a number of occasions since World War II (Heidenheimer et al. 1983, 274–310). In Western Europe, there is variability in the sovereignty of local governments; however, in general such top-down restructuring of local governance has been accompanied by relatively little public protest—far less than would be expected in the United States.
Government policies reflect this hierarchical political structure. For instance, the British government has introduced a “sequential test” that requires developers proposing new commercial or residential projects to determine whether other existing and underused development in the city could provide suitable alternatives. Only if the developer demonstrates a
lack of such alternatives can the new development proceed. Similar policies have been adopted in the Netherlands, where the national Ministries of Land Use and Transportation have identified areas of the country that are served well by public transit. When new developments are proposed, preference is given to those planned in such areas (Hamerslag et al. 1995). In the United States, there is certainly no precedent for the national government preempting private-sector and local government planning in this manner; likewise, few states do so, and then only on rare occasions.
URBAN HOUSING AND HIGHWAY PROGRAMS
Postwar Housing Policies
The destruction and dislocation of World War II and the ensuing acute shortages in housing, food, and building materials had lasting effects on the shape of Western European cities (Downs 1999, 20–21). Much of the housing stock in Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Belgium, and France was destroyed, and the overcrowded units that remained were incapable of meeting the need. Rebuilding and alleviating the acute housing shortages became a main priority of local as well as national governments, which planned and financed most of the needed new housing and infrastructure (Rothblatt and Garr 1986, 55–57).
In many respects, this need to rebuild represented a rare opportunity—unknown in the United States—for national governments to exercise a powerful and direct role in urban planning and policy making, siting new housing and subsidizing its construction and occupancy (Downs 1999, 20–21). By the time rationing and other emergency conditions created by the wartime damage subsided during the 1950s, Western Europeans had become accustomed to their governments’ assumption of a prominent role in the planning of residential and commercial development. In some cases, this role encompassed the wholesale creation of new communities. The Swedish national government and the city of Stockholm, for instance, purchased large tracts of land and created more than two dozen fully planned towns outside the city boundaries—towns that had not existed before World War II (Heidenheimer et al. 1990, 270–278). These new towns were located along urban rail lines designed to serve Stockholm commuters. Other new towns were created in France, Great Britain, and several other Western European countries.
Coupled with prolonged rent control rules that discouraged private investment in rental housing, public housing construction programs effectively displaced market forces as the main determinant of Western European housing access and location. As an example, after providing virtually no public housing before World War II, the British government built more than 100,000 new public housing units per year from 1946 to 1976 (Heidenheimer et al. 1983, 88–121). By the mid-1970s, more than a quarter of the British public was living in council homes built and owned by the government. In Scotland, more than half of households were in publicly subsidized housing (Maclennan 1999, 519). In the Netherlands, 80 percent of the housing units built between 1954 and 1979 were either financed or heavily subsidized by the government (Rothblatt and Garr 1986, 68–69). By 1970, a quarter of the housing units in France and West Germany were publicly owned or subsidized (Heidenheimer et al. 1983; Downs 1999, 20). These figures compare with 5 percent in the United States. Moreover, in contrast with the situation in the United States, public housing served a fairly broad spectrum of households in Western Europe—from the destitute to the middle-class (Downs 1999, 21).
The combined effect of these postwar policies in fostering denser cities and transit demand in Western Europe is difficult to gauge. That private market forces alone would have produced similar outcomes appears unlikely, however. From the Swedish new towns to the war-damaged German and British cities that were rebuilt in place, Western European planners were presented with a scale and range of opportunities for directly shaping urban form that did not exist in the United States.
Although the United States avoided significant wartime damage and prolonged shortages of consumer goods, it was faced with millions of returning military personnel who were reentering the private workforce and setting up households. There was an evident preference for single-family homes, and the federal government responded with a number of housing finance and tax incentive programs intended to make home ownership more affordable and to spur new construction. While these market-oriented policies may not have had the same direct effect on urban development patterns as the massive public housing programs of Western Europe, they are often cited as influencing American settlement patterns—mainly by fostering more dispersed, rather than compact, suburban development.
Among the many policies thus cited are federal and state income-tax deductions on mortgage interest and property-tax payments, as well as exemp-
tions on capital gains earned from the sale of a home when used to purchase another. These policies are intended to make home ownership more affordable; for instance, the interest payment deduction reduces the effective after-tax mortgage interest rate. A frequently claimed side effect, however, is that these allowances subtly prompt home owners to buy larger homes, often on larger lots, which they are more likely to obtain on the outskirts of cities (Katz and Bradley 1999). Local property-tax deductions (coupled with tax exemptions for investors in municipal bonds) are seen as reinforcing this outcome by making it easier for new suburban communities to raise local property taxes (which are also deductible) to pay for attractive new amenities, infrastructure, and services, such as public water, parks, and schools (Nivola 1999, 24–26; General Accounting Office 1999, 3).
Several other government-initiated programs designed to make mortgage financing easier and less expensive for home buyers are often cited as contributing to low-density development (Nivola 1999, 22). These include federal home mortgage insurance (e.g., administered by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration)7 and federally chartered loan purchasing programs (i.e., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac).8 Because these programs increase home affordability, they are presumed to boost demand for larger, single-family homes in suburban neighborhoods. These programs have also been criticized for having buyer and property qualification rules—including strict construction standards and reluctance to insure rehabilitation work—that have tended to favor lending in new, single-family subdivisions.
Gyourko and Voith (1997, 1998) found a correlation between some of these incentive programs and higher rates of urban decentralization, but mainly when combined with exclusionary zoning practices (e.g., setback standards, minimum acreage, architectural controls) that preclude multifamily housing and other high-density development. Less well known is the extent to which these tax programs truly make home ownership more affordable since the tax savings can lead to higher demand, causing housing prices to rise when supply is tight (Gyourko and Voith 1997; Gyourko and Voith 1998). Also, it is unclear whether single-family homes are favored disproportionately by these incentive programs, since affordability is presumably increased for all home types, including clustered suburban townhomes, city row houses, and downtown condominiums.
Despite the limited empirical evidence, some observers have ventured that these federal and state policies, taken together, have had an important role in prompting the low-density urban environment found throughout
much of the United States. Katz and Bradley (1999, 27) maintain that it is the cumulative effect of these policies that has “boosted the allure of suburbs and put cities at a relentless disadvantage.” Cervero (1986) and Schimek (1996) maintain that the refusal of Canadian provinces to pursue similar policies—for instance, by not providing tax subsidies for new public water systems on the outskirts of cities—has fostered a lower rate of detached, single-family home construction (usually about 50 percent of new housing starts in Canada each year as compared with about 70 percent in the United States) and more compact urban development patterns generally.
In addition to the direct provision of housing units, most Western European governments have many other programs and policies affecting housing demand and supply. Sweden and Great Britain, for instance, have at one time or another allowed home owners to deduct mortgage interest, as has been the policy of the United States for several decades (Heidenheimer et al. 1990, 123). Likewise, Denmark has provided taxpayers with credits for home purchases. Although in recent years these policies have been revised and in some cases scaled back, they were instituted to promote new home ownership. The plethora of government policies and programs that influence housing demand, supply, and location throughout Western Europe and North America makes it difficult to assess their relative roles in shaping urban development and related trends in public transit.
Urban Highway Programs
Some analysts believe the means by which public highways are funded and administered in the United States has led to a disproportionate amount of highway building (Pucher and Lefevre 1996, 190–200). Some even suggest that the government’s emphasis on highway construction has exceeded what the public truly desires and demands (Mowbray 1969). They contend that state and federal fuel tax revenues that are dedicated almost exclusively to highways, coupled with the local political benefits derived from highway construction projects, favor highway programs to the detriment of funding for public transit. Others point out, however, that highways are paid for largely from taxes generated by users (motorists), whose continued willingness to pay these taxes suggests a strong preference for automobile travel (Altshuler et al. 1979; Meyer et al. 1965).
Federal involvement in road building can be traced back to the 1916 Rural Post Roads Act, which authorized federal grants to help defray the
cost of building rural roads for mail delivery (Small et al. 1989, 3–5). For the most part, however, road building remained the responsibility of state and local governments. Roads were initially funded almost entirely from general government revenues, although by the 1930s many states had created trust funds in which revenues from gasoline taxes were reserved for highway construction and maintenance (Rose 1979). After World War II, the federal government boosted its role through the creation of the National Highway Trust Fund and Interstate Highway Program. Federal and state fuel tax revenues remain the chief means by which highways are funded today.
The gradual expansion of the federal role in road building did not become controversial until the construction of urban highways in the 1960s. The Interstate Highway Program was originally conceived as a means of connecting populated areas across the country—not as a means of improving intraurban travel. Many city mayors at the time, however, believed that new high-capacity freeways would relieve city traffic congestion and revitalize downtown commercial districts and neighborhoods. The federal government soon expanded the program to include urban freeways (Rose 1979, 59; Rybczynski 1996; Tarr 1984).
Federal aid covers as much as 90 percent of the cost of building urban freeways and other major arterials. This financing formula has been especially controversial. Critics claim it skews investment in favor of freeway building, since few local entities are likely to pass on the opportunity for significant federal aid when so little local funding is required (Rose 1979, 96).9 Another concern is that the central role of federal and state government in paying for and building urban highways has spurred urban highway construction without proper consideration for local impacts, including changes in urban form and public transit demand. This imbalance led to federal grants for public transportation, funded in part by the Highway Trust Fund, beginning in the 1960s.
Canada has a different process for providing urban transportation infrastructure, one that is frequently cited as more neutral with respect to transit and highways. In Canada, where the powers of the national government are limited, the provinces and municipalities share responsibility for funding most urban transportation infrastructure. Cervero (1986) believes Canadian cities have built fewer urban freeways as a result, largely because the process compels local governments to weigh the benefits and costs of such investments along with their other funding demands. Pucher and Lefevre (1996, 171) maintain that the absence of a nationally funded urban highway pro-
gram in Canada has led to more local discretion in transportation spending and more integrated transportation planning of highways and public transit.
TRANSIT POLICY-MAKING AND FUNDING ENVIRONMENT
The decision-making authority of public transit managers in the United States is often highly circumscribed and subject to regulatory and political influences that impede innovation, add to management and labor inefficiencies, and otherwise complicate efforts to respond to the demands of customers. The American preference for electing officials to direct nearly all local government activities—from school boards to public safety commissions—is evident in the structure of most transit agencies, which are usually governed by a large and active board of politically appointed or elected officials. By and large these oversight boards concern themselves with transit policy matters, such as fare levels and route structure, but they can, and often do, become involved in the most routine personnel management, operations, and planning functions of the agency. Transit boards often reflect the differing views of many constituencies, making it difficult to reach a consensus concerning a consistent and well-defined set of goals. Because these boards are frequently composed of representatives from jurisdictions that contribute funding (as opposed to at-large members), transit agencies must often provide services on an equitable basis to all jurisdictions, not necessarily according to where the concentrations of riders reside. This situation can lead to a too-thin distribution of services, which are often underused, to remote and low-density areas within the transit funding district.
The multitude of public funding sources can further reduce management autonomy. Most transit agencies receive financial aid from federal, state, and local governments. Each funding source carries with it various legislative and regulatory stipulations that compel transit managers to balance an assortment of goals, requirements, and interests, some of which are mismatched or conflicting. For instance, as public agencies, transit operators may be directed to reduce the cost and increase the speed of their services while also being obligated to extend service out to lightly traveled areas that have a politically active constituency, to maintain rigid labor
agreements, to reduce noise and air emissions by upgrading equipment, and to accommodate the special needs of elderly and disabled riders.
A common observation of U.S. transit professionals returning from study tours abroad is that Western European and Canadian transit managers are given more freedom and time to implement the long-term policy goals of elected officials. This situation may reflect differing political processes and public values. Western Europeans and Canadians are frequently characterized as more trusting of, or even deferential to, public bureaucracies for the provision of a wide range of services (Goldberg and Mercer 1986, 13–32; Heidenheimer et al. 1983, 274–310). German municipalities, for instance, have a long tradition of operating museums, theaters, warehouses, markets, utilities, and even slaughterhouses (Heidenheimer et al. 1983, 274–310). The public administrators of these enterprises are given wide latitude to manage as they choose.
Methods of Financing
With few exceptions,10 both transit capital and operating expenses are paid for in large measure with government subsidies. Most American transit systems have been subsidized for more than 30 years, since the introduction of federal aid in the mid-1960s. As discussed in Chapter 2, private ownership was the norm in the United States for most of the century (Lave 1991).11 In Western Europe and Canada, public ownership and subsidization occurred much earlier in the century. Today, nearly all public transit agencies in industrialized countries—Great Britain being a notable exception—rely on public subsidies for 25 to 75 percent of their operating revenues and 100 percent of their capital funds (Pucher and Lefevre 1996).
Both the size and the source of public subsidies are often associated with declining transit productivity and performance (Bly and Oldfield 1986; Pucher 1982; Jones 1985). Since the U.S. federal government began providing capital support for transit in the 1960s, this effect has been the subject of much academic study. One observation is that the federal emphasis on capital, to the exclusion of operating costs, has led to overcapitalization, as evidenced by the proliferation of urban rail projects (Wachs 1989; Richmond 1998).
Cross-national differences in funding methods warrant consideration as a possible cause of disparities in transit use across countries. Pucher
(1988), for instance, has found that government subsidies whose use is not constrained by highly prescriptive spending requirements can lead to more local decision making about how funds are to be used to meet local needs. The approach taken by Germany is to provide state and local governments with block grants for spending on transit, highways, or other modes of transportation. State and local officials can thus decide on the appropriate allocation of the funds, for instance, between capital and operating expenses. Likewise, local governments in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden bear the main responsibility for allocating subsidies to meet transit capital and operating needs (see Table 4-2).
As mentioned, there is virtually no federal involvement in transit funding or planning in Canada. The provinces and municipalities share responsibility for determining and implementing urban transport policy and are thus responsible for allocating subsidy funds. Some believe this arrangement instills greater spending discipline, reduces bureaucratic delays, and gives local governments the flexibility to meet their own particular transportation needs (Soberman 1983; Pucher 1994; Cervero 1986).
WHAT DIFFERENTIATES CANADA?
The many factors that help explain why public transit has enjoyed much success and favorable public policies abroad are most salient when contrasting the United States with Western Europe. Many of these same factors, however, do not offer a satisfactory explanation for the marked differences in transit use observed between the United States and Canada.
Like Americans, Canadians enjoyed early economic prosperity, the mass introduction of the automobile before World War II, ample land on which to spread out, and dynamic population growth for many decades. And unlike the countries of Western Europe, Canada does not have a long tradition of high motor fuel and automobile taxes; its housing policies have been largely market driven; and its cities are relatively young, most having been formed during the 20th century. Still, Canadians average about twice as many transit rides per capita as Americans, and they have a record of transit-supportive government policies.
There are, however, some notable differences. Some observers suggest that political values and other cultural factors differentiate Canadians from Americans (Goldberg and Mercer 1986, 11–31). Canadians, like Western Europeans, are portrayed as having a strong collectivist spirit
Table 4-2 Sources of Transit Operating and Capital Subsidies in Selected Countries
and thus being more willing than Americans to accept regional or national restrictions on the use of private land if they are deemed to be in the interest of the public as a whole. Americans are viewed as being wary of national or regional governments curtailing local government autonomy over land use regulation, education, and various other public functions and services.
It is also true, however, that political institutions in Canada are more centralized than those in the United States. Although the national government of Canada has little influence on urban planning and transportation, the 10 provinces exert considerable control. Most have established metropolitanwide governments that have been able to integrate tax, land use, transit, and highway programs across regions. In contrast with the United States, where most state governments have ceded land use controls to local government, the provinces have retained this authority, along with controls over transportation decision making.
The ability to raise tax revenues, guide land use, and plan transportation at the regional level has proven to be a powerful tool in Canada; however, having the institutional capability for such regional governance does not ensure that this capability will be used to promote compact urban areas favorable to public transit. In a democratic society, the public must desire such an outcome. Canadians have evidently accepted, and presumably demanded, regional planning that fosters more compact cities, fewer urban expressways, areawide parking policies, and a transit-first approach to traffic management.
In short, the Canadian experience suggests that public policies complementary to transit can be implemented and prove effective in the absence of a wide array of transit-supportive historic, demographic, and economic factors. That experience also suggests, however, the importance of political institutions and the fundamental values and attitudes of the public.
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