Will billions of Washington bring back transit users? Not necessarily.
The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill that won passage in the Senate on Tuesday includes $ 39 billion for transit systems through 2026. This is in addition to the $ 70 billion the Congress has already allocated to transport agencies in the three COVID-19 relief plans.
Ultimately, these new federal spending on public transit could mean faster, cleaner, more reliable, and more buses and trains. But unless state and local governments pair new transit spending with a bolder agenda – encompassing measures such as ensuring low-income residents can afford to live in central cities, removing parking. many urban streets and reduce or eliminate transit fares – these buses and trains could be even more empty than they have been.
“Quality matters, but people make decisions in context,” says Kate Lowe, associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “When it’s so easy to drive and park, commuting becomes much less competitive. “
With opinion polls on infrastructure spending finding a comfortable margin of support that includes a majority of Republicans, passing the infrastructure bill appears to be a victory for President Biden. But it could also put state and local decision-makers in a precarious position: For federal transit spending to work, they will have to make decisions about land use and affordable housing that will be far less popular.
Go where the runners are
Lowe divides the transit market into two categories: “preferred” and “dependent” riders. Notably and perhaps not surprisingly, only a quarter of users with an annual income above $ 100,000 fall into the latter category. Two trends are now working against Washington’s plans to push more urban residents into public transportation. First, preferred riders are unlikely to welcome a targeted effort to make public transit more efficient by removing parking spaces near their grocery stores, playgrounds, places of worship and, most importantly, their places of worship. work.
The second counter-power is that dependent users move to the suburbs. Thanks to census data, we can see that the growth of cities that characterized the early 2010s was only temporary. The growth of suburbs began to overtake urban centers in the middle of the decade, and this trend has only accelerated. In 2020, the suburbs of 55 U.S. cities with more than one million people grew five times faster than urban centers, according to data analyzed by William Frey of the Brookings Institution. In short, the movement of “back to the cities” is over and seems to be reversed.
Most understand that this trend is, at least in part, the product of city residents being taken away from the price of urban housing. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that poverty in the suburbs increased by more than 50% from 2000 levels. While low-income residents are more likely to be dependent transit users and As these residents migrate out of areas served by public transit, the result should be obvious. It may not be a coincidence that the use of public transportation in the United States has declined every year since 2014.
If there is indeed a direct relationship between the remoteness of low-income residents from urban centers and the decline in public transport use, local authorities will need to redouble their efforts to ensure sufficient affordable housing nearby. public transport. Yet efforts to encourage “transit-oriented development” – strategies that support commercial and residential land use near transit hubs – can have a series of unintended consequences if dependent riders are forced to leave their homes in what critics call “transit-oriented displacement”.
A toolbox to increase traffic
There is more reason to doubt that simply pouring federal dollars into public transit would transparently increase ridership. American mass transit, especially rail transportation, requires buy-in from all stakeholders. But the “vetocracy” continues to delay plans to extend rail lines in places like Boston, Montgomery County, Maryland, and Buffalo, NY, and litigation has proven to be a way of leaving massive cost overruns.
Rather than fighting difficult battles, policymakers have too often turned to more achievable plans that can be counterproductive to get residents off the road. The construction of more and wider freeways, always with the aim of relieving traffic jams, instead attracted more commuters to the freeways, exacerbating congestion and removing passengers from commuter train lines.
Yet an available toolbox of effective measures exists.
Designating lanes to allow bus rapid transit service to race by other vehicles, for example, has the benefits of lower capital costs, little or no public opposition, and the ability to respond rapidly to demographic shifts. If dependent riders move, BRT can move quickly with them.
Another way to potentially increase ridership is to snatch the fare. Cities across the country have experimented with free public transit during the pandemic, and some have seen their ridership increase. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is set to offer free rides to low-income passengers starting in January and then expand free service to students later in the year. Boston is piloting limited free transportation, and in Virginia, state lawmakers are providing $ 40 million to support local free-ride initiatives.
Lowe, however, cautions that the evidence for the effectiveness of free public transit is mixed: while it can clearly benefit low-income riders whose journeys tend to be shorter, it has not been proven. effective in attracting more commuters on longer trips. “I think free public transit would be great, but by itself it’s not enough to tackle congestion and climate change unless it’s part of a policy package,” she says.
Such a policy suite could target what Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, calls “the cycle of auto addiction,” in which city development plans that increase parking supply ultimately increase car ownership. private, reducing the demand for public transport. Breaking the cycle, Litman notes, could involve a plethora of unpopular options: additional fuel taxes, congestion pricing and reducing parking supply while increasing fees for remaining parking spaces.
Litman and others have found that reducing free parking makes traffic easier by up to 30 percent. But are local elected officials and transport administrators ready to couple investments in public transport with land use planning decisions designed to make parking inconvenient?
If, however, urban leaders are prepared to move forward with policies that have a real chance of getting riders back to transit, the new infrastructure spending program could transform American cities and dramatically reduce emissions. of carbon. Otherwise, the legacy of the Biden infrastructure bill will be measured in empty seats – a lost opportunity that is unlikely to happen again in our lifetime.
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