The US is Playing Catch Up in Public Transport: Why?

Is there any good way to start discussing the public transportation system of the biggest economy in the world?

Well, let’s see.

How about we start with Vox’s Joseph Stromberg’s thought-provoking article titled: The Real Reason American Public Transportation is Such a Disaster.

Traffic leaves San Francisco at the beginning of the 4th of July holiday weekend on June 30, 2006 in San Francisco, California.  {Image Source: David Paul Morris via Getty Images}
Traffic leaves San Francisco at the beginning of the 4th of July holiday weekend on June 30, 2006, in San Francisco, California. {Image Source: David Paul Morris via Getty Images}

Coming from a respected American publication, it is tempting not to get sucked into the conversation with the key question being why is the United States so far behind its economic peers including China, Japan, Germany, U.K, France, and Canada as far as public transport is concerned?.

The United States definitely spends a lot of money on public transportation. In that case, why is the superpower’s transport system not where it needs to be?

It is also instructive to note that a huge percentage of public transport costs are subsidized by taxes.

Stromberg is convinced that there are three major reasons for this.

Why is the United States Lagging Behind its Peers as Far as Public Transport is Concerned?

  1. History of the American public transport system.
  2. The United States treats public transport like social welfare and has barred market conditions from dictating the ability of service providers to set their terms and offer quality services in the process.
  3. Endless politics with conservative lawmakers unconvinced the government should spend more on PT as long as it is still operating like a social welfare program.

History of the American Public Transport System

Most of the American cities and suburbs were developed after the 1950s when the car was beginning to become the dominant mode of transport. Currently, the US has a sprawling, auto-centric metropolis that public transportation cannot serve easily.

A United States suburb in the 1950s. Most of the American cities and suburbs were developed after the 1950s when the car was beginning to become the dominant mode of transport. {Image Source: History.com}
A United States suburb in the 1950s. Most of the American cities and suburbs were developed after the 1950s when the car was beginning to become the dominant mode of transport. {Image Source: History.com}

On the other side of the coin, Canada, a country that was in the same trajectory as the US in the 1950s has a much more efficient public transport system compared to the US.

When did the rain start beating?

Other countries did exceptionally well to preserve their existing system and expanded them to suburbs that were coming up. For instance, Canada invested more in light rail and good bus services even as light rail was losing its mojo. On the other hand, the United States was tearing up its light rail as American cities were expanding even as the government failed to match this growth with adequate investment in transport.

Jarett Walker, a public transport consultant commenting in the piece observes that Canada posts better ridership per capita numbers when contrasted with a comparable American city.

“Canada just has more public transit. Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”

Jarett Walker, Public Transport Consultant

The expert however notes that history is only part of the problem and not all of it.

Social Welfare

In most US cities, a maximum of 30-40% of public transport costs is covered by fares with the rest being subsidized by public taxes. This means that transit agencies cannot provide stellar services to American citizens who cannot afford their own cars.

A light rail station in Seattle is virtually empty at rush hour in March 2020. Critics have accused the United States of approaching public transport like a social welfare program. {Image Source: Center for American Progress}
A light rail station in Seattle is virtually empty at rush hour in March 2020. Critics have accused the United States of approaching public transport like a social welfare program. {Image Source: Center for American Progress}

This is where the United States shoots itself in the foot.

Transport systems in Toronto and London operate liberally which makes agencies offer quality services which in turn makes public transport high frequency and efficient.

There is no reason this could not work in the US.

Politics

The American political system is not built to treat public transport with the seriousness it deserves.

An image of The US Congress. Conservative US politicians are reluctant to allocate more resources to urban public transport on grounds that the sector is not liberal. {Image Source:  Anadolu Agency}
An image of The US Congress. Conservative US politicians are reluctant to allocate more resources to urban public transport on grounds that the sector is not liberal. {Image Source: Anadolu Agency}

The Federal government in particular places more emphasis on rural interests than urban priorities. For instance, the post-war decision to bring down urban neighbourhoods to build highways was driven by the Department of Commerce and not individual cities. The order was implemented by the Department of Transport.

Not All Gloom

On a brighter note, it is not all gloom.

A US Department of Transport report shows public transport has contributed immensely to lower crash severity than automotive travel.

Auto accident involving two cars on a city street. {Image Source: Robert Crum via iStock}
Auto accident involving two cars on a city street. {Image Source: Robert Crum via iStock}

“Public transportation has substantially lower crash rates and lower crash severity than automotive travel. A 2014 study found that public transportation travel has less than half the total death rate as automobile travel per passenger mile, and public transportation passengers have about one-tenth the fatality rate per mile as automobile passengers.”

US Department of Transport Research

According to statistics shared by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 34 million Americans use public transportation each weekday which entrenches the dependence on public transport in the United States and how that potentially contributes to fewer accidents on the road.

Falling Ridership Numbers

Another report published by the Congressional Research Service in March 2018 dubbed: Trends in Public Transportation Ridership: Implications for Federal Policy states that despite heavy investment in public transport, transit ridership numbers in a majority of the top 50 American transit markets had fallen.

Few cars make their way to different destinations on American roads. {Image Source: Thoughtco.}
Few cars make their way to different destinations on American roads. {Image Source: Thoughtco.}

“If strong gains in the New York area are excluded, ridership nationally declined by 7% over the past decade. Although there has been a lot of research into the factors that explain transit ridership, there seems to be no comprehensive explanation for the recent decline.”

US Congressional Research Service report

The report attributes the falling numbers to:

  1. National trends in national public transport ridership numbers are not factored in at local level.
  2. Competitive factors such as the drop in the price of gasoline and the rising popularity of ridesharing services.

How to Get Around the US

You probably might have heard it by now but public transport is not the best way to get around American cities. Having your own car is recommended.

With that in mind, there are multiple public transport options in both US cities and rural areas including bus transport, rapid transit, trains, cars, light rails, and trams.

In this article, we will have a look at some of the most popular means of transport in the country.

Car

As stated earlier in this piece, a personal car is the most reliable mode of transportation in the United States, especially in cities.

Owning a car allows a commuter to be flexible and drive to areas that are not adequately covered by public transport.

It also gives a person the advantage of travelling long distances if the need arises.

However, the biggest advantage of owning your car in the US is because American public transport is arguably not extensive enough to be able to serve the commuting needs of its citizens to a tee.

Cars move in one direction on an American road. Car transport is the most reliable mode of transport in the US. {Image Source: Mario Villafuerte via Getty Images}
Cars move in one direction on an American road. Car transport is the most reliable mode of transport in the US. {Image Source: Mario Villafuerte via Getty Images}

On another note, asking strangers for a ride (hitchhiking) is not a good idea.

Below are some important tips for driving in the United States:

  • Cars drive on the right side of the road in the US.
  • Do not text or use your cellphone while driving.
  • Always be on the lookout for special weather conditions such as (snow, flooding, fog).
  • Stay on marked roads.
  • Be careful near school buses, large vehicles and trucks.
  • Be aware of cyclists and pedestrians.

The agency responsible for granting driving licenses is the Department of Motor Vehicles.

On its website, the agency also has useful resources for new drivers and those seeking to expand their driving knowledge.

Technology for Safety

How can technology be used to improve road safety?

That question is answered by a report published by the International Transport Forum dubbed: Big Data and Transport: Understanding and Assessing Options which observes that road safety improvements can be made and emergency preparedness bolstered through harmonization of vehicle data elements.

“Road safety improvements can be accelerated through the specification and harmonization of a limited set of safety-related vehicle data elements Technologies like E-call, E-911, and vehicle data black boxes provide post-crash data well suited for improving emergency services and forensic investigations. Much more vehicle-related data is available and, if shared in a common format, could enhance road safety.

Further work is needed to identify a core set of safety-related data elements to be publicly shared and to ensure the encryption protocols necessary to secure data that could compromise privacy.”

International Transport Forum report

Bus Transport

There are two broad categories of buses in the United States namely: City buses and interstate buses.

City Buses

The name is self-explanatory but just to elaborate, city buses operate within the precincts of a city and its outskirts. They make frequent stops to allow passengers to board and alight.

A city bus operating in a major US hub. {Image Source: Next City}
A city bus operating in a major US hub. {Image Source: Next City}

The quality of buses across different states is not homogenous. The cities known to have the best city buses include San Francisco, Honolulu, Seattle, and Pittsburgh.

Interstate Buses

Interstate buses ferry passengers between states and cities across the country and are operated by private companies.

They operate in a wide range of cities in every state. They also offer passengers direct routes between many of the major cities.

A RedCoach bus offering interstate travel from Tampa to Miami in the US. {Image Source: Shop19}
A RedCoach bus offering interstate travel from Tampa to Miami in the US. {Image Source: Shop19}

Interstate buses are built to be comfortable because of the distances they clock. Most of them are clean, have good air-conditioning and have on-board bathrooms. Some companies even offer free Wi-Fi.

Since the United States is a vast country, interstate journeys are long and tedious hence all companies have put in place policies to make sure their drivers stop at specific points during the journey to allow the passengers’ refreshment breaks, to stretch themselves, and to buy snacks.

Because of these breaks, interstate travel by bus takes much longer than it would with a personal car.

Below are average trip lengths for some widely used interstate bus routes:

New York to Boston — 4.5 hours (3.5 hours via personal car)

Boston to Philadelphia — 7 hours (5 hours via personal car)

Los Angeles to San Francisco — 8 hours (6 hours via personal car)

Futuristic Technology in Bus Transport

According to a policy brief published by the American Public Transport Association (APTA) titled: Leveraging Big Data in the Public Transportation Industry, bus companies in the United States are using Big Data for predictive modelling to monitor asset condition and performance.

“In this case, the agency focused on bus breakdowns. By feeding performance information into a predictive model, the agency has been able to predict bus breakdowns and act to remove buses for maintenance before they break down in the field. This type of predictive action has the potential for significant cost savings.”

American Public Transport Association (APTA) report

Subway Transport

Just like in all other countries with similar facilities, subway systems are only available in major cities in the United States.

Subway systems are the lifeline of many people who work in big cities. Millions depend on this mode to get to work and return home in the evening.

The New York City Subway. Authorities are mulling over modernizing it over the next years. {Image Source: Railway Technology}
The New York City Subway. Authorities are mulling over modernizing it over the next years. {Image Source: Railway Technology}

Fares vary from city to city and customers have the option of purchasing weekly or monthly plans.

All transit agencies that run subway systems maintain apps that are a one-stop-shop for subway system information such as schedules, maps, and service disruptions.

Subway systems operate at a high frequency due to high passenger flow.

As mentioned above, only huge cities have subway systems/ metros in the US, they include:

CitySubway name
New YorkNew York City Subway
ChicagoChicago “L”
AtlantaMARTA Rail
MiamiMetrorail
WashingtonWashington Metro
BostonMBTS Subway
BARTSan Francisco

Since the United States’ subway systems are nowhere near the level of the economy’s peers, how can the country’s rapid transit systems be made better?

Authorities have already toyed with that question and identified Big Data as the most efficient way to improve services.

According to the American Public Transport Association (APTA) policy brief, Big Data is being applied in various modes of transport in the US including subways to monitor, manage, and react to potential operator absenteeism.

“By using historical personnel data along with information about weather and other events, the predictive model provides information on where operators are likely to be absent. This has allowed the agency to more efficiently station backup operators and limit service disruptions.

Furthermore, additional Big Data sources (on-time performance, vehicle location) can be matched with schedules to show operators how they are performing compared to peers within their division and to themselves from week to week, leading to overall improvement.”

American Public Transport Association Policy Brief

Taxis in the U.S.

Taxis are a very good alternative to public transportation in large cities.

New York City in particular is popular for its signature yellow cabs (largely due to films, music videos, and hit TV shows). The yellow cabs are omnipresent in Manhattan.

Taxis in New York City are headlined by their trademark yellow colour. {Image Source: NextCity}
Taxis in New York City are headlined by their trademark yellow colour. {Image Source: NextCity}

In big cities, taxis are a convenient alternative to public transportation, especially if you are heading to or coming from somewhere far from a rail station or bus stop.

In most cities, identifying an available cab, all one has to do is check on the lights at the top of the car. If the lights are not on then it means that cab is off duty or already engaged.

Raising your hand is a signature way of hailing a taxi in the US.

Most taxis are metered and are open for engagement for a starting rate of $3. Every mile covered costs an additional $2- $3.

Digital Taxi Apps (Ridesharing)

In the US two players dominate the market: Uber and Lyft.

When ride-sharing apps came into the scene in 2009, the taxi industry was definitely disrupted but not at the magnitude seen in Africa and other markets such as Europe and South America.

An Uber cab parked in a taxi stand. US digital taxi-hailing apps have not yet warmed up to cash payments. {Image Source: eNCA}
An Uber cab parked in a taxi stand. US digital taxi-hailing apps have not yet warmed up to cash payments. {Image Source: eNCA}

This is largely because ridesharing companies have made it impossible to pay in cash. Customers are required to input their credit card information to pay for the service.

Uber recently launched a payment option known as “Uber Cash”. The option does not translate to its literal sense in allowing customers to pay in cash but rather helps riders create a “cash budget” to avoid overspending.

Most people in the US prefer traditional taxis to ridesharing apps because;

  • You can pay in cash
  • They are more reliable in remote areas

Taxi companies and owners lose a lot of revenue due to idle periods and disinterest in picking passengers because of reasons such as inconvenient locations and traffic jams.

The wasted time is a resource that could potentially be deployed much more efficiently.

How so?

As per a research report published by the International Research Journal of Engineering and Technology (IRJET), dubbed Decisive Taxi Booking Model Using Big Data, it is possible to study traffic patterns and increase profitability by avoiding empty rides and cutting down on the time passengers spend waiting for a cab.

“The polynomial-time algorithm can be used to create graphs and the probabilities of idle times of drivers can be plotted on a graph-based of the time of day of the day. This will better help a centralized organization to create a dynamic path for any driver.

Big Data can effortlessly analyse the thousands of GB within a fraction of a second and expedite the procedure. This information can be analysed for several purposes like avoiding traffic, lower rates where services are not functioning, more frequency than a cab on jacket crown location, and many more.”

IRJET Report

Closing The Gap

The United States is light years behind its rivals as far as public transportation is concerned. Closing that gap will take a lot of political goodwill and commitment of resources.

The right question to ask now is what can be done to make US public transport more efficient and competitive at the moment.

How can that absentee New York subway operator be monitored or how can assets be monitored to avert breakdowns before they happen?

The United States certainly needs this as it is competing with countries like Japan and China who are showing the hunger to improve public transport every other year.

Big Data is America’s best bet.

Related Posts

Categories: