Why mass transit is doomed

Metra over traffic

Mass Transit in Chicago. Source: Steven Vance @flickr

I can’t recommend reading Alex Pareene’s article enough on why mass transit is doomed. Sure, it’s true that politicians don’t use it. Let’s put this into a Chicago context. How often do you think Rahm Emanuel rides the CTA, despite living a couple of blocks from the Montrose Brown Line? What about Pat Quinn, who could commute from his northwest side neighborhood in Galewood on the Metra? Before you answer – consider this fact. There exists, under the James Thompson Center (aka Illinois Capitol Building north), a non-public parking garage restricted to select public employees. A similar parking situation exists in the Daley Center, next to City Hall. When parking is free in places it shouldn’t be, what are the incentives for politicians to drive?

Another example. Several years ago, when I was an intern with the Chicago Transit Authority, the Board of the CTA took a tour of the Block 37 cavern. (Let’s neglect the fact that this behemoth was sprung from the brainchild of another politician known for never riding the CTA, Richard Daley. And let’s neglect for the moment that a $200 million basement makes a difference to precisely no one. Imagine a $200 million investment in trains and buses). How did they get there? Not by the Green Line Clinton Station, right outside CTA headquarters. No, there was vehicle transportation arranged for them. Keep in mind that this is the Board of the Chicago Transit Authority.

This is despite the fact that 27% of workers within the City of Chicago take public transportation to work. One in four.

And now, when the CTA is proposing a bus rapid transit solution along Ashland Avenue that speeds up travel times on one of the busiest bus routes in its system, it runs into vehement opposition because it makes driving a car slightly more cumbersome. Because, you know, driving is a god given right also enshrined in our constitution. And everyone drives (except for those 27%).

The problem is, Chicago’s mass transit system, combined, is the third largest in the country. It faces a significant capital shortfall of $18 billion to address state of good repair needs and needs an additional $12 billion over 10 years for normal capital reinvestment. Yet, the system’s sources of funding are not stable and subject to economic swings (sales tax receipts, real estate transfer tax, etc.).

You know when the State gets its way on a ridiculously flawed highway proposal that it cannot afford, and it steamrolled the transit agencies to vote in support of it, against their interests, that mass transit is doomed.

Planning Politics

So who watched the elections on Tuesday night? I was up until 1:30 AM watching the speeches. If you are an urban planner, it’s likely that you pulled the lever for Barack Obama. Because, sadly, the ideals and principles that planners hold dear are more often than not represented by the Democratic Party. And that is really a shame.

It is a shame that the Republican Party has effectively removed itself from concerns about urban affairs, the environment, and competent governance – all key factors in urban planning. Let’s face it, America is a metropolitan nation; no longer a rural agrarian society. And our metro regions have big problems and bigger governments to deal with those problems. So when you have guys like Grover Norquist saying that he “wants to drown government in a bathtub”, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in competent government. And sound planning needs competence.

It’s time that we look closer into our urban affairs – our crime, heath care, infrastructure, education, and environmental issues that are so important to cities. It’s time that we seriously devote ourselves to adapting our cities to climate change (and stop denying its existence) and our infrastructure to the needs of a 21st century economy. It’s time that we improve our environment: air, water and land, and that we refocus our limited financial resources on the infrastructure we’ve got rather than building something new that we won’t be able to afford to maintain later. And all of this takes two parties.


House Plan Would End Dedicated Transit Funding, Overturn 30 Years of Transportation Policy

Sorry to have to start this blog on a bad note, but our friends in the U.S. House of Representatives believe that transportation policy should go back to the 1970s.

You know, that era of gas shortages and rampant urban sprawl. Look, there is a reason why the Highway Trust Fund is used to fund transit. It has long been recognized that “if you build it they will come” when it comes to highway building. We’ll never build our way out of congestion and therefore, transit is a vital component of an urban area’s mobility. Forcing everyone to rely on the private automobile is unsustainable, not practical in most of our oldest cities and deeply un-conservative.