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Why We Can Fix Big-City Transit — and Why We Need To

Unlike many serious urban problems, this one is eminently solvable. There’s a growing body of useful research of what works to operate a well-functioning transit system.

One of Boston's subway trains crosses the Charles River. Transit is the lifeblood of the city, but today the system is struggling with equipment problems and management mistakes.
Public transit reform should be at the top of the priority list for superstar cities and the states where they are located. Not only is it a genuinely critical need, but it’s an area where tangible progress can be made and the public will see it right away. Transit success can re-credentialize the entire public sector by proving that positive change is possible.

Transit in most American cities is provided as an essential service for low-income residents and others who can’t drive. But in a handful of cities, notably New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, transit is the lifeblood of the city. It enables the dense, large-scale agglomeration of workers that gives central business districts the highest economic output in the country. With key industries like finance and biotechnology concentrated in these cities, they are regions of far more than local significance, critical to America’s global competitiveness.

Yet the transit systems in these cities are facing severe problems, ably documented by Governing’s own Jake Blumgart. He’s detailed how ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels. Unlike most U.S. transit systems, these big-city systems depend on passenger fares for a material portion of their revenue. This will bring some of them to the edge of a fiscal cliff when federal coronavirus relief money runs out. Washington’s Metro is in deep trouble because of equipment problems and management mistakes. Boston has similar issues, with federally mandated reductions in urban rail service due to dispatcher shortages. All these major systems are having problems with public safety and disorder on their vehicles and platforms.

The problems compound longstanding issues. Construction costs in the United States, particularly for rail transit, are the highest in the world – far out of line with other countries. Much of the infrastructure has been poorly maintained, and some of it is seriously obsolete, like the New York subway’s 1930s-era signaling technology. The US has lagged in adopting global best practices, such as fare integration across connecting systems.

The problems are serious, but transit has a number of characteristics that make it a great place to focus governance energy on fixing. For one thing, a wide range of well-functioning transit systems around the world provide models of what to do. Agency reformers and elected officials don't have to speculate about what works. There’s a growing body of useful research, such as that by Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn at NYU’s Marron Institute, on global transit costs, that can directly help reform efforts here. Perhaps most important, the problems are tractable, primarily matters of management, engineering and money. Apart from public order, in which there are conflicts over the appropriate vision, transit reform doesn’t involve solving intrinsically hard problems like poverty, climate change or inequality. That’s not to say transit reform isn’t difficult, but the problems involved are qualitatively different from many socio-economic dilemmas.

Most of the states where these systems are located have little if any anti-transit sentiment. New York, Illinois and California are dominated by Democrats. They do not have significant blocs of conservative Republicans who oppose transit for ideological reasons and can block change and investment. Even the federal government, though it may not provide a great deal of increased funding in the near future, will have pro-transit leadership for more than two years. During that time, the U.S. Department of Transportation is not going to slow down transit funding approval as it did under the Trump administration. Obviously, politics is always a major obstacle to reform, but for now at least, it won’t be party politics.

All of these factors make transit an area where game-changing improvements are possible. It may take many years to fully transform the big-city systems, but it is not just wishful thinking. As inspiration, look at the transformation of the decrepit terminals at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, which had seemed permanently doomed to Third World status. Transit is very different from airports, but the story of LaGuardia shows that the Gordian knot can be cut.

Just now, there’s not a great deal of movement in the right direction. But there’s a real, achievable prize out there waiting to be seized. If we can make progress on transit, we can create momentum for dealing with the more difficult urban challenges that remain.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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