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How a Century of Transit Choices Courted ‘Disaster’

Decades of underinvestment in streetcar, bus and train service coupled with an increase in public funding and planning priorities to make roads fast, smooth and far-reaching, help explain today's transit situation.

A streetcar line in New Orleans. Once commonplace throughout urban America, streetcar services have become an asterisk in what remains of public transit, which now faces an uncertain future without robust state and local support.
In Brief:
  • Nicholas Dagen Bloom’s new book explores the policies of austerity, auto-centrism and racial segregation that attended the gradual decline of public transit in the U.S. 
  • Political leaders and voters chose not to invest in transit at several key crisis points in the 20th century.
  • Transit is facing another crisis now.

  • One popular strain in the theory of how America came to be the car-centric place it is today is that a handful of auto-industry companies carried out a concerted conspiracy to deprive cities of their streetcars in the crucial years surrounding World War II. National City Lines, a company controlled by General Motors and Firestone Tires, among others, bought up streetcar lines in places like Los Angeles, St. Louis and Baltimore in the middle of the 20th century with the sole purpose of killing them, the theory goes.

    But compelling as they may be, such conspiracy theories aren’t necessary to explain the decline of public transit in the U.S., argues Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College in New York. On the contrary, he writes in his new book, the facts are laid out in daily newspaper reports going back decades, and the culprit is us: “Americans worked hard collectively and openly to destroy their transit systems.”

    The Great American Transit Disaster: A Century of Austerity, Auto-Centric Planning, and White Flight, focuses on transit systems in Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and San Francisco. Bloom shows how decisions made at pivotal moments by political leaders, voters and city residents throughout the 20th century virtually guaranteed that transit would play a diminishing role in urban life. That included decisions to underinvest in streetcar, bus and train service and instead to put the bulk of public funding and planning priorities into making roads fast, smooth and far-reaching.

    Often those decisions were driven by racism: Segregation policies limited the reach of transit service, while white residents fled cities for exclusive suburbs, and white political leaders chose not to invest in transit systems that were increasingly used by people of color.

    The result of those decisions is sprawling cities, anemic transit services, growing pedestrian fatalities, and excessive pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, Bloom says. In the wake of the pandemic, public transit is facing yet another crisis, and the decisions that leaders make now will have long-lasting consequences.

    “If American society is to move beyond a conspiracy-driven transit fatalism and thus reinvest in alternative mobility, a good starting point is getting the national history right,” Bloom writes. The author recently spoke with Governing about the past and future of mass transit. The conversation has been edited.

    Governing: You argue that the rise of cars didn’t have to mean such a steep decline of mass transit. What do you want people to understand about that? 

    Nicholas Dagen Bloom: There is a widespread belief that if you have a dominant car culture then there is no place for transit in society, but that is not true in practice. We can see a number of major cities, like Boston and New York and so forth, which on a regional basis are mostly car-centric places, yet they have sustained mass transit. Even in much of Europe the car is extremely popular but they have mass transit. But it’s very hard to have transit and a car culture if you don’t take steps to moderate, somewhat, the impact of the car culture on urban neighborhoods, on funding streams, on road size — all these things. It’s possible to have cars and transit, but it’s a choice.

    Governing: What are the decisions that local and state leaders and voters made that led to this downward spiral? 

    Bloom: There are so many moments in so many cities when it’s clear to the public and to politicians, and this goes for state governments too, that not stepping in will lead to serious quality losses in urban transit. It’s not just the loss of the streetcar lines, but the loss of the quality bus service that replaced streetcars, the loss of overnight service which was crucial for so many riders.
    Suburban sprawl. "It’s very hard to have transit and a car culture if you don’t take steps to moderate, somewhat, the impact of the car culture on urban neighborhoods, on funding streams, on road size — all these things. It’s possible to have cars and transit, but it’s a choice."
    It wasn’t a secret that this was going on. There were choices: Will we step in and buy out this private company? Will we provide subsidies? Will we relieve companies from taxes which were put on 30 or 40 years previous when they were profitable, so they can continue to offer a public service on a for-profit basis? All those decisions required a little bit of political courage or a different set of values on the part of voters. Unfortunately, in almost every instance in the U.S., the choice was made to stand back and say, “Let’s watch and see what happens,” even though it was very clear where it was going.

    Governing: Newspaper editors and editorial writers and journalists shared in the creation of these anti-transit sentiments. What do you see the media getting wrong about the way it covers transit today?

    Bloom: There’s always a lot of focus on individual transit agency problems. With things like deferred maintenance. Look at Boston — there’s a lot of attention to the MBTA’s problems. With transit, as with a lot of other local news, there’s a lot of “if it bleeds, it leads” reporting. The problem is that the structural story gets lost. And the structural story is often complex. If you have decades of austerity and underfunding, it’s going to impact the ability of a transit operation to attract and retain talent and to invest in infrastructure. But those stories are less compelling.

    There’s often a narrative about a particular person: This particular manager is the problem, or this particular manager is the savior. Look at the Andy Byford stuff coming out (New York City's former subway chief). And there are better and worse managers, but the truth is, if you look at anything in American society that has cash behind it, it usually has a pretty good reputation. And all the things that don’t have money are where we’re like, 'There’s problems in that agency.' I’ve seen a lot of this in studying public housing.

    Recently there’s also a lot of focus on crime on transit. There’s been a certain kind of reporting of that type over the years that has created a heightened or exaggerated threat to personal safety on transit.

    Governing: You mention that states should take on a bigger role in supporting transit agencies. Why states, and how favorable are the politics of that likely to be? 

    Bloom: There’s a lot of ways that states can do this, and the reason that states are the likeliest sources is, one, that cities don’t have a lot of money. Especially now with the downtown real estate markets in crisis, cities don’t have the cash to do it. States have the ability to do broader sales taxes to raise more money on a smaller per capita basis. Two, almost all transit systems cross city and county or suburban lines, so there’s a rational responsibility for states to take a bigger role. Plus states have targets for carbon reduction, environmental goals and things like that. Transit is one way to reach those. But you’re right, politically, because suburbanites take transit in tiny proportions, and even working-class and poor suburbanites aren’t taking transit much, there’s a big political lift there.

    Governing: You describe “downward spirals” in several chapters of this book, and now we’re talking about “doom loops” and so on. The phrasing is getting darker. How low does it really go? There seems to be a parallel to the climate crisis where people are just like, “Oh, we’re doomed,” and there’s a resignation to it. But it’s not like transit is going to disappear — it’s just going to get worse. 

    Bloom: We’re at a low point and there’s no question about it. But if a lot of related policies move forward about rezoning, upzoning areas, ending single-family zoning, ending parking minimums, then neighborhoods are going to end up pretty full of cars pretty fast, and there is an opportunity there for a transit option that is separate from roadways or has exclusive lanes to offer a competitive product. Not today or tomorrow, but you think about the Atlanta region and so forth, there’s a lot of people dealing with pretty awful traffic.

    There would have to be some new vision for transit, but that to me is the possibility — the aggravation factor. The environmental thing doesn’t seem to get very many Americans concerned. The social equity piece does not seem to be motivating Americans that much. But I think aggravation does. And particularly if these other things go forward — these combinations of road diets, highway elimination, ending single-family zoning, densification — could create an opportunity for transit in the future.

    Governing: These anti-transit decisions you describe didn’t make transit disappear but they did transform the city somewhat. How do you see the continued decline of transit transforming cities further? 

    Bloom: We’re at the result of a lot of that. We have these massively sprawling cities, so getting transit to scale up to serve these areas is a challenge. We’ve allowed for such enormous areas of low-density growth that developing even bus lines that serve them is possible, but it has to be very highly subsidized.

    Looking historically, what didn’t happen is that we didn’t keep up with the outward growth of the American city in the crucial decades. Transit didn’t follow people. The bus is an important part of it. In the post-1960s settings in Baltimore and Atlanta and so forth, we put a disproportionate amount of effort and talent and capital into creating these fairly limited rapid transit rail systems, while ignoring that most people were still bus riders, and that buses had the opportunity to address the metropolitan scale of development which had taken place.

    And I think that was problematic, because then you had whole generations of people who maybe saw a bus once in a while but it wasn’t a part of the teenagers’ lives, it wasn’t part of old people’s lives who didn’t drive anymore, it wasn’t even part of poor people’s lives. Once you have the vast majority of people in a metro area who don’t experience transit as something they might see or as part of their lives, we do have a very different kind of city. That is the disaster, if you will. How do you rebuild from that?
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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