Who's Really to Blame for America's Lousy Transit Systems?Historians in the News
tags: infrastructure, urban history, urban planning, mass transit, Public Transportation
American transit agencies are standing on the brink of a devastating fiscal cliff. Covid-era emergency dollars are dwindling, and revenues remain well below pre-pandemic levels. Without new funding, transit leaders could be forced to close budget gaps by cutting service or raising fares – and likely both.
Dire though the present situation is, this is hardly the first time that transit officials have been locked in a Sisyphean struggle to maintain service levels with shrinking funding and ridership. As Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College, describes in his new book, The Great American Transit Disaster, US public transportation has lurched from one crisis to the next throughout the past century.
The ascent of the automobile tells only part of this story. Public officials’ reluctance to subsidize transit — even as car owners enjoyed publicly funded roads and free parking — made it virtually impossible for streetcars, buses and trains to compete. Racism played a role too: As higher-income white residents decamped for the suburbs, transit’s core ridership was increasingly composed of the Black and Latino communities left behind. Their needs were often cast aside in the suburbs and at state capitols.
Focusing on the histories of Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco, Bloom rejects the idea that there was anything preordained about the descent of private transit operators into bankruptcy or the decline in service offered by the public agencies that have operated buses and trains ever since. “The case studies foreground the wide range of policy options available to citizens and leaders, now mostly forgotten, that might have led to a better balance between transit and automobility,” he writes. “Americans ignored transit problems and created cities favorable to cars thanks to public policy choices rather than inevitability or secret conspiracies. The same mobility, planning, and social decisions are before Americans today as they face the challenges of meeting equity goals and a global climate crisis.”
Bloomberg CityLab contributor David Zipper spoke with Bloom about American transit’s tumultuous 20th century history and the lessons it offers today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s mind-blowing to consider just how good transit service once was. You wrote about how 100 years ago, dozens of Chicago’s streetcar lines operated throughout the night, often with 8 to 10-minute headways. What was the rationale for streetcar companies to provide so much service?
Well, the streetcar companies had the customers. They had an effective monopoly on mobility because people either had to use their feet or the streetcar. The motorcars were still for the elite at that time, and there wasn’t a lot of space for them. So the streetcar companies could profitably collect nickels and dimes, running service all through the night at those kinds of levels.
In the United States, we’re used to thinking of transit as requiring ongoing and substantial taxpayer subsidies. But in the book you explained that a century ago, transit was mostly privately provided. And it was quite profitable. How was it such a moneymaker?
Yeah, it was a very profitable business. But the money was never really in the mobility, per se; the money was in the aligned real estate investments. The streetcar lines shortened the time it took for people to travel from city centers or industrial areas and residential areas. By shortening that time, you opened up an empire of land around cities.
The big money was always in the land development. Once the transit lines were built, the land was basically developed around them. At that point, the transit companies had declining interest in the lines and let service deteriorate.
Was there a perception that the streetcar companies were making money off the backs of commuters? If so, I imagine that when streetcar companies started struggling, people might say, “Screw you guys. You don’t deserve our help, because you’ve profited at our expense for a long time.”
Absolutely. It was hard to shift away from the popular view of the transit company as this evil empire. In an era of skepticism of big business, it was very hard to see the public utility side of transit service. Also, city governments became very reliant on the taxes coming out of transit companies.
In the book you wrote, “It's uncomfortable to admit it, but American political representatives have kneecapped mass transit.” So transit’s decline was not inevitable?
Correct. You didn’t have to build systems of parkways and highways that were so comprehensive that you sacrifice neighborhoods. You didn’t have to completely demolish your downtowns, create massive federal programs that paid for parking ramps and give tax breaks on downtown parking. These are political choices.