A Crisis in Motion: America's Transportation Dilemma

Federal policy, and other factors, are disrupting efforts to improve transit and forcing urban planners to make tough choices.
November 2018
Rendering of high-speed rail in California.
Only California is seriously attempting to build high-speed rail in the U.S. (California High-Speed Rail Authority)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

A couple of years ago, on a barge trip in France down the rivers and canals of Burgundy, my wife and I were surprised to find that the highlight of our excursion was the train ride south to get to the barge.

The high-speed train carrying us roughly 250 miles from Paris to Lyon took less than two hours, yet the ride was incredibly smooth and quiet. It was one of 33 such trains making that trip every day.

It sure wasn’t Amtrak. It was SNCF, the French national rail company founded 80 years ago that now operates an extensive network of trains traveling at speeds that can reach 200 miles an hour and interconnecting with lines throughout Europe. France and several other European countries, as well as Japan and now China, are far ahead of the United States in rail service.

The reasons are numerous: Our lower population densities spread out over a much larger terrain, our extensive air traffic system serves even cities of modest size, and our rail lines generally are owned by private freight companies and not the public. But in the end, the overriding reason is our undying attachment to automobiles, which makes it hard for transportation planners to superimpose rail, bus, or even bike and pedestrian infrastructure along the roads and highways that serve cars.

Now, however, we are approaching a policy crossroads because of changing economics, environmental and safety concerns, new technologies, and diminished funding streams. If I were a public transportation executive at any level of government, I would be both perplexed and nervous. I would be especially worried about the federal help that seems to be drying up. The U.S. Department of Transportation has been reluctant to release funds for projects it endorsed months and even years ago.

Ridership on public transit is declining in most of the country. There is reason to believe that improved service can reverse this trend: Subway systems in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., are being substantially overhauled, both because they have been so poorly maintained and because they need to expand to meet needs. Bus systems are being carefully studied and restructured to try to make them more competitive. But all these efforts will take large amounts of money -- something that local governments on their own do not have. 

Meanwhile, technology threatens to disrupt the entire enterprise, allowing Uber and Lyft to supplant buses, thus contributing to the number of cars clogging the highways and roads. Even in Los Angeles, famously overrun by traffic congestion, ridership on public transit has declined in recent years, and car commuting has picked up. According to Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, “the investment in new vehicles by new arrivals to Southern California is far greater than all of the investments in new public transit infrastructure by Metro and Metrolink. [The investment is] in personal vehicles through individual decisions.”

The only serious attempt at building a high-speed rail line is happening at the state level in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has been tenacious in his effort to construct a $100 billion, 800-mile bullet train system from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Twenty-one construction sites are now operational, employing some 2,000 workers, but completion is still far from certain. And the truth is that the project will be very difficult to finish without help from Washington. Republicans in the Trump administration and Congress are unsympathetic, making significant funding in the near future all but impossible. 

The bottom line is that transportation planners throughout the country face a dilemma. Even as their research shows that improving transit service will increase ridership, it is looking like serious improvements in frequency and reliability could come with unsupportable cost burdens.           

For evidence of how quality service can lead to more riders, city officials in L.A. and elsewhere need only look at Seattle, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. The rapid increase in its population does not fully explain the expansion in ridership; most cities, including many that are fast-growing, are seeing declines. Rather, it has more to do with attitude. The Seattle area’s bus service takes an unapologetic “make room for the bus” approach, relying on an increasing number of dedicated bus lanes to ensure efficiency.

There may not be many Seattles emerging anytime soon. But there are some encouraging factors that transportation planners can keep in mind. First, polls continue to show that the public strongly supports investment in public transit. Second is concerns about safety. The obvious chaos on urban streets with masses of young people biking and scooting around town, dodging both auto traffic and pedestrians, is taking a toll. No national data is yet available, but emergency rooms in large cities all over the country are reporting a spike in serious injuries from scooter accidents. It turns out that most scooter users don’t bother to wear helmets.

One has to think that eventually this will all sort itself out. Ideally, the sorting will take place before driverless cars invade the highways en masse and disrupt the whole system yet again.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com