Can public transit be reinvented to meet America's needs?
September 27, 2008 7:17 AM   Subscribe

Can public transit be reinvented to meet America's needs?

In many of America's regions, jobs are no longer concentrated in central areas but widely spread out. Hence, the old mode of public transit with trains traveling from the suburbs to city centers wouldn't cover the needs of most commuters. But can something better replace it? Has anyone actually theorized about a transit system that could move people to jobs in scattered and far-flung locations that couldn't all be covered by rail-line routes?
posted by gregb1007 to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are we talking public transit or mass transit?

The current solution is carpools, vanpools and shuttles. People get picked up at their doorstep and arrive at a general location. Alternatively people in an area drive to nearby parking lot and get dropped off at a specific location.

In this regard, the changes being made have to do with carpool organization. I forgot the exact term, but there is something being done in Virginia I think for people going to D.C. It's not exactly a carpool. Someone driving has a spare seat and picks up someone from a preset location. Many people could be waiting there. Those waiting people take turns to be picked up. The driver doesn't have a previous relationship with this person being picked up so it's not a carpool. Its just a way to have the spare seats in a car to be used.

I think refinements to carpools and creating a system where people are screened and drivers and passengers trust each other will be the interim solution to transportation. If we can fill a car to capacity or at least eliminate solo drivers, we'd make great progress.

The other solution is to get people living closer to work, but that stands in contrast to the way the housing market works and the way the job market works. People would have to keep moving as they change jobs.
posted by abdulf at 7:35 AM on September 27, 2008

Trains. Trains, trains, trains, trains, trains.

Every single person I've talked to who's been on trains in other countries and then been on trains here wonders what the hell is wrong with us, because our rail system sucks dingo kidneys.

Not that I have any idea for how to fix it, just putting in a word for trains because it always ends up being the bastard stepchild in the American transit system.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:46 AM on September 27, 2008

Best answer: Speaking as someone who lives in an exurb, the solution to me seems like allowing entrepreneurs to use minivans and club vans on a part-time or full-time basis to run taxi routes into the cities in a laissez-faire manner. However it seems the main barriers here are insurance and regulation of taxis and buses. Maybe in this case getting government out of the private sector and forcing insurance companies to be more accommodating would help a lot.
posted by crapmatic at 7:49 AM on September 27, 2008

abdulf: the term you're looking for is Slugging, and IIRC it's being done in more places than just the DC Metro Area.

Also, I think it's inevitable that our current suburban architecture, which was created as a response to cheap fuel and land, will go away and be replaced by denser, smaller, more village-oriented living. When that happens, train stations, buses, light rail and so on will start to make much more sense to "normal" people.
posted by kdar at 7:55 AM on September 27, 2008

Best answer: The answer is: not without changing how (where) we live.

Vanpools, carpools, shuttles...they all stink, because they add enough time to each trip that they can't compete with single occupancy vehicles, at least until the money cost of driving alone outweighs the time cost of riding with your neighbor.

Trains are fine, but they're wicked expensive. They make sense for moving people between densely populated areas (or from moderately populated to densely populated a la commuter rail) but not for moving people around in suburbs.

Among transit folks I know, there's definitely a feeling that they appeal strongly to white, upper class people because of the perception that buses are for poor people, without making much financial sense from a cost-per-trip standpoint. Still, even buses are only viable when you can collect a bunch of people at one point, and move them to another point, en masse.
posted by paanta at 8:00 AM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking as someone who lives in an exurb, the solution to me seems like allowing entrepreneurs to use minivans and club vans on a part-time or full-time basis to run taxi routes into the cities in a laissez-faire manner. However it seems the main barriers here are insurance and regulation of taxis and buses. Maybe in this case getting government out of the private sector and forcing insurance companies to be more accommodating would help a lot.

I agree. There has been a significant amount of rent-seeking over the years by transportation lobbyist groups. For example, consider taxi medallions - they don't signify ANYTHING but serve only to limit the number of cabs on the road, ensuring that supply cannot meet demand and keeping the price of transportation artificially high - a problem compounded by things like "mandatory" gas cost offsets passed onto consumers by law because lobby groups own the city council here in DC.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:10 AM on September 27, 2008

Best answer: I've always thought the TaxiBus to be a good solution to transit problems in some situations. Whether it would work in more spread-out locales is a good question, though.
posted by greatgefilte at 8:15 AM on September 27, 2008

Best answer: No, much of America's planning is hostile to mass transit options. The solution is not to reinvent public transit, but to stop building residential suburbs and build instead dense cores of mixed residential/commercial, as in the East, as in Europe.

Or hope that places like San Diego burn to the ground in the next wave of fires and is rebuilt with a dense urban center.
posted by beerbajay at 8:53 AM on September 27, 2008

I read one very interesting monograph a while back that argued public transportation can become more attractive if we were to transfer the costs of maintaining single-passenger car transportation infrastructure and environmental remediation away from property, income and sales taxes onto gas and wheel taxes. The argument was that the current system for funding road construction obfuscates the real costs of transportation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:19 AM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Public transit doesn't need to be reinvented. We have all the tools and options we need. If the environment is correct people love their mass transit and use it enthusiastically -- at $1.50 a gallon of gas, to say the least of $4.00.

For the regional mass transit model -- people commuting to big city offices from their suburban houses -- what needs to be reinvented are the costs of doing business in the city. If it weren't far cheaper and more appealing on many grounds to set up shop in office and industrial parks than in core city business districts, then the natural advantages of density would take over and we see a surge of city job creation and regional transit riding.

For the urban mass transit model -- families living in apartments or townhouses, using transit for everything, keeping one car for the weekend or rare big errands, or keeping no car at all -- we need to make living in cities more appealing for middle class people. This means city government oriented to the needs of the middle class, lower taxes, ruthlessly-tough law enforcement, and vouchers or test-selected public schools to reproduce the dilution/exclusion of badly-parented children which the suburbs naturally provide for their public schools.
posted by MattD at 9:20 AM on September 27, 2008

This idea [Flash-y, sorry] has been kicked around here in Cincinnati. I'd really like to see it implemented, but I'm not optimistic taxpayers will bite anytime soon.
posted by Rykey at 9:35 AM on September 27, 2008

I enjoyed reading Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream . One of the many things they discussed was mixed use developments. Instead of only designing a transit system that works moving people from scattered and far-flung suburbs to scattered and far-flung office parks why not try to mix them together?

I have my doubts on this ever happening but some people are trying to pass a beltway metro-train in the DC area. It seems to me that it would be very helpful for people trying to go from one suburb to another as well as making a "reverse commute" possible for people who actually live in DC. It would be called the purple line.
posted by hokie409 at 9:58 AM on September 27, 2008

A lot of people in this computer age, myself included, do work that can be done from home, eliminating the need to commute. If the company has VPN access to the network, and a tele-commute friendly policy, a lot of cars could be taken off the roads. As a bonus, you don't have to work in a cube farm, flexible hours, home kitchen for lunch, fewer distractions from co-workers (although it can take some effort to avoid other distractions like the internet), etc.

Transportation-wise, why do we keep pumping-out 4-5 seater vehicles when most often there's just a solo driver. There should be more 2-seater cars available.

My city has for years been arguing over the transit plans. Government bureaucracy flexing its muscles combined with clueless citizens. Plans are made, then people complain it's too expensive (these things do cost money). New plans are made, people complain it will take too long, inflation will raise costs, and be too expensive. New plans are made, people complain "not in my neighborhood, light rail will be too noisy". New plans are made, people find a reason to firewall those as well, all the time complaining that the existing public transport sucks.

So, IMHO, more tele-commuting, more small and efficient cars for running errands, and less bureaucracy interference with future transit plans.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:19 AM on September 27, 2008

If you're interested in technological pie-in-the-sky solutions, Futurist Brad Templeton makes a very strong case for robot cars. The crux of the argument is that once the software is developed that drives better than humans do, robot taxis will solve a lot of current transportation problems. Since they're controlled by software, you won't need to pay a driver for their time, greatly lowering the cost of riding in a taxi. Just like today, they'll only carry a single rider most of the time, so they can be sized for single occupancy. When several people are riding together, they'll simply order a larger model. Robocars will drive to battery recharging stations by themselves between trips, so the relatively shorter life of batteries isn't such an issue. They won't need to wait outside the front door at the destination, so they won't fill parking lots.

One of the best parts is that very little new infrastructure is needed. The cars can be privately owned and there's little to stop new entrants from building their own fleets of vehicles, so it's hard for a single company to maintain a monopoly status. Robot cars will be cheap, green, and competitive in a free market.

The rub, of course, is developing software that actually drives at least as well as people do. It's not there yet, but it isn't implausible. Here's an NPR interview with Templeton on the subject.
posted by Loudmax at 10:24 AM on September 27, 2008

No. Not a chance. Have worked in public transit for 10 years. There is no economically viable system that can maintain communities planned around private autos. Everyone knows this, most can't face it.
posted by larry_darrell at 11:10 AM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Inspector.Gadget writes "For example, consider taxi medallions - they don't signify ANYTHING but serve only to limit the number of cabs on the road, ensuring that supply cannot meet demand and keeping the price of transportation artificially high"

Wholly unregulated taxi service is a safety horror story. The barriers to entry are so low that the market is flooded and few if anyone makes enough money to cover fixed costs. Wages and maintainence continually suffer.
posted by Mitheral at 11:13 AM on September 27, 2008

I don't know if public transit be reinvented to meet America's needs, but certainly America can be "reinvented" as a place where public transit can work.
posted by flug at 11:17 AM on September 27, 2008

I came up with this idea (see the little video, not mine) in about 1999 by thinking about what the current barriers to public transport use were, why people didn't use it more in Atlanta where I used to live, why I almost never used it... only to find out it had already been thought up decades previous. GRRR! I was going to be the guy that took us into our better and necessary future. Damn it! Anyway, people are working on various implementations of it right now. The general category is known as Personal Rapit Transit. Funding funding funding. They need funding and politicians' ears and pressure from society... like, say... crazy gas prices!

I have been in touch with this guy about his version (he also engineered the famous jetpack!), which so resembled mine down to even the pod car schematics that it made me howl (he had a much better propulsion idea though, and thought of it a lot earlier). His idea is a wholly elevated-track-based model, which ostensibly violates one of your requirements (but the tracks are comparatively inexpensive to even light rail), but that first video link above, at about 3:30, shows an adaptation to his model, which I think addresses your exurb needs. Gotta have an open mind about the ways in which people can and do and would be willing to adapt over decades given the right pressures and opportunities.

That same concept is demonstrated a bit differently here, as one implementation of dualmode transport.

As long as you're solving the exurb problem, you might as well solve others, which the above systems do to one degree or another. Answer why people don't take public transport and you'll have your better mousetrap:

-It's not near me, so I have to drive to it.
-I'm packed in with the great unwashed mass of strangers (discomfort, awkwardness, danger, etc.) - I'd rather have privacy
-It smells/ it's dirty
-It's not ready when I am - I want to go anywhere anytime right away, as I can in my own car
-It doesn't go everywhere I need
-It (often) takes me on routes that go out of my way
-It's (sometimes) too slow (depending on the system and route)

I think these all add up to independence and control of one's environment, which is what we all want. But our current implementation of that, our gas guzzling cars on choked streets, is not sustainable and isn't preferable to potentially better alternatives.

Along the way to solving the above issues, you solve the problems of environmental impact, traffic, cost, etc. I believe one or more of these systems will happen because the world is demanding them in multiple converging ways. I want to be in this industry!

As others have mentioned, city planning, distance, geography, and culture also play a role in these issues. But take the USA for example - our entire system of cities and roads won't be re-engineered in the next even several decades, and meanwhile we need solutions right now. I'm telling you, these systems are the future.
posted by Askr at 11:56 AM on September 27, 2008

I've no idea how much redesign is truly necessary for "public transit", but that seems quite ambitious. I suspect that safer electric motor cycles will gain popularity soon, especially in Europe.

If you're talking longer term, then : Electric & hybrid cars eventually usher in ground-level power supply to extend their range (previously). So then you've got everyone is small vehicles that don't need to carry much fuel or battery. You also have a separate progression towards self driving cars, first the cars handle small tasks, next they handle slightly bigger tasks, and finally some roads become self-driving cars only.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:31 PM on September 27, 2008

Any proposal based on a single change is wrong. Nothing will happen without several complementary forces. Also, cars and sprawl happened because the financial and legal environment allowed and encouraged it. Change the financial and legal environment to encourage different solutions.

Some possibilities:

1. Cut all federal funding for new roads and new lanes to zero. The roads offer sufficient bandwidth for now and into the future, but the vehicles are inefficient carriers.

2. No new parking lots taking up acres of ground around shops and offices. Require businesses to build employee and customer parking under or over the place of business.

3. Double US gasoline prices.

4. Reduce commute distances (especially private automobile commute distances) for employees and students. Make up any rules you like that encourage this. Adjust corporate taxes based on the average employee commute distance (to put a little pressure on employers to set up shop in sensible places and to offer telecommuting). Adjust private income tax based on the average household distance from work or school. Use zoning laws to encourage people to live near or even in the buildings in which they work or go to school.

5. Base car registration and parking fees (and other costs of car ownership) on vehicle size, weight, and top speed. Forcing the average car size and weight down makes more room for parking, more room on the streets for other cars, and more room for buses. Forcing the top speed down discourages people from running wasteful overpowered vehicles on grocery runs and bumper-to-bumper commutes. The goal should be that people drive vehicles suited to their daily needs, not built to do 200 mph with a ton of concrete in the back. Take a lot of the recreation angle out of driving.

6. Make suburbs more accessible to all incomes and less dependent on cars. Make multifamily dwellings legal everywhere, so that income levels are better mixed. You want blue-collar workers living next to white-collar workers, and you want all of them living near the buildings where they push pencils or push brooms, or you want them all riding the same trains and buses there every day. Locate all new housing developments on or near existing mass transit routes -- if there's no daily train or bus commuter service, you get no new building permit.

In the end, you'll get fewer, smaller, cleaner cars on the road, shorter commutes, and more people taking trains and buses (or walking).
posted by pracowity at 8:42 AM on September 28, 2008

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