The reality of transitA couple of recent articles on transit help to put it in context. It's important to move beyond the "transit is the holy grail" vs. "transit is worthless" debate. The first article is a New York Times profile of transit in LA and the incredible difficulty getting traction there despite enormous investments. LA is probably the most important city in the country for Houston to be watching for "lessons learned" because they are also a sprawling, car-based, suburban metro that has more than double our population and density, and they are way ahead of us on transit investments. Why would we not learn from their mistakes? People look to New York for a transit model, but more realistic for us would be to watch a city like LA try to make itself more "New York-like" and see where and how they succeed and fail.
Moving on to the second item, Reason's Out of Control blog does an excellent job with some excerpts that explain the relative magnitudes of transit and car travel and their growth rates - noting that even tiny percentage growth in car travel swamps out much larger percentage growth in transit - and brings potential expectations for transit down to earth.
It may come as a surprise that the Los Angeles area has one of the most extensive public transit systems in the country, with 73 miles of subway and light rail, 500 miles of commuter train lines and 2,670 buses covering 18,500 stops. The problem is that people live and work in pockets spread over an area larger than Rhode Island, and that going long distances on mass transit can mean long waits and frequent transfers that send public-transit newcomers rushing back to their cars.
A bunch of light rail, subway, commuter rail lines and now express buses added in the last 15 years has yielded mixed results, leaving officials scratching their heads over what more to do.
One recent night, Richard Close, president of the politically active Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, warmly greeted Mayor Villaraigosa at a meeting of the group, listened to the mayor's standard exhortation to take public transit and then hours later in an interview declared his devotion to his car. ...
But, he added, "A large percentage of Los Angeles can't use public transit because we are so decentralized. Mass transit is part of the puzzle, but freeways and streets are the main method of transit, has been and probably always will be."
Transportation analysts by and large are not optimistic that the various mass transit proposals will bring anything more than isolated relief. Too often, the experts said, Los Angeles has bowed to political considerations rather than pursuing what works best for the money.
Unpopular but proven solutions like "congestion pricing"— assessing tolls for freeway use at the busiest times to make car travel more expensive — and pre-empting traffic signals for buses do not have the cachet, or provide the perks for the powerful construction industry and trade unions, that come with rail construction and freeway alterations, the analysts said.
"It often comes down to what is politically attractive," said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "And that is often, 'Let's spend more on transit.' It is less invasive than adding highways, and you don't get the objection from environmentalists."
Nearly 7 percent of commuters in Los Angeles County — and closer to 5 percent if surrounding counties are included — use public transit to get to work, a number that stayed flat from 1990 to 2000, according to the census, despite the investment of some $8 billion in new transit lines. (In the New York metropolitan area, 25 percent of residents take public transit to work.)
A simple simulation model shows that if both types of travel start with their 2000 absolute levels, and transit usage increases 5.36 percent per year (its highest recent annual rate of gain) and highway travel gains only 1 percent per year, then the share of transit in total ground passenger miles would not reach 5 percent until 2036. Even if highway driving did not rise at all while transit did, transit would not reach 5 percent of all ground passenger miles until 2029. If transit usage rises at its actual compound annual growth rate from 1995 to 2000 (3.74 percent) and highway travel rises at its similar rate (2.27 percent), transit would not reach a 5 percent share until the next century.One lesson? If you ever hear someone promising congestion relief from transit, ignore them. Moving the trips-needle around in the 2-5% range isn't going to do anything noticeable to traffic congestion. Now, transit alternatives to traffic congestion are perfectly legitimate, but the question is "do they provide a noticeable improvement/value-proposition (speed, convenience, cost) over driving? (or existing transit options)" If not, what's the point? Why would we expect them to attract riders? Too many people believe "well, it doesn't make sense for me and I'm not going to ride it, but everybody else will, which will leave the streets and freeways open for me." Needless to say, this logic is completely incorrect, not to mention financially dangerous to taxpayers. Only when people have a realistic understanding of what transit can - and cannot - reasonably achieve will we make the right choices.