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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Executive Summary This report was prepared for policy makers searching for ways to boost public transit use in U.S. urban areas and wishing to know what can be learned from the experiences of Canada and Western Europe. With few exceptions, public transit has a more prominent role in Canada and Western Europe than in the United States. This is true not only in large cities, but also in many smaller communities and throughout entire metropolitan areas. Transit is used for about 10 percent of urban trips in Western Europe, compared with about 2 percent in the United States. Canadians use public transit about twice as much as Americans, although there is considerable variation across Canada, just as there is in Western Europe and the United States. A number of factors have contributed to this differential, from higher taxes on motor vehicles and fuel to concerted efforts to control urban development and preserve the form and function of historic cities. Western Europeans and Canadians have devoted considerable attention and resources to ensuring that transit service is convenient, comfortable, and reliable. This report reviews these policies and practices and the historical, political, and economic circumstances that have influenced them. The focus is on comparing the largest industrialized countries of Northern and Western Europe,1 as well as Canada, because their economic, social, and political conditions are most like those of the United States. The comparisons provide insight into why public transit is used more in Western Europe and Canada, as well as ideas on how to increase ridership in the United States.
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 INTERNATIONAL COMPARISON OF TRANSIT TRENDS The United States once led the world in public transit use. Early in the 20th century, American cities undergoing rapid population growth provided ideal settings for the introduction of many faster and more efficient transit technologies. Grid-style street systems, ample land for expansion, thriving economies, mass immigration, and a general willingness by the public to try new transportation technologies fostered a streetcar revolution that swept across the country. By 1920, Americans living in cities were averaging more than 250 transit trips per year, mainly on the nation’s 65 000 km of electric railway. Hundreds of American cities were served by privately operated streetcar lines. In many respects, however, the same characteristics that gave rise to electric traction hastened its decline during the middle of the century. Increasingly affluent and able to afford automobiles, Americans began buying them in droves after World War I. By 1930, one of every four households owned a car, and by 1960 there was one car registered for every two Americans. The faster and more flexible automobile vastly increased the amount of land available for residential and commercial development. Urban development could, and did, take place increasingly farther from the traditional central cities and early suburbs formed along transit lines. Large urban areas—many shaped almost entirely by the automobile—emerged after the streetcar era had passed. Even as these trends were becoming manifest between the two world wars, little attention was being given to the lasting changes that were taking place in American cities, much less to the profound effects these changes would have on urban transit systems. Indeed, the migration of households to the suburbs—seeking better schools, more land, and larger homes—was generally viewed as a positive trend that would strengthen cities by relieving crowding and alleviating traffic congestion. A host of government policies, from tax incentives that fostered home ownership to the construction of freeways radiating out from city centers, would come to reinforce and accelerate this outward migration. Businesses soon joined the flow of people to the suburbs. As central cities lost households, jobs, and shopping places, transit use fell sharply. Not until the mid-1960s, however, did the diminishing fortunes of American cities and the intertwined fate of transit attract national attention, precipitating large-scale federal and state investments in public transportation. By this time, the
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 automobile had supplanted demand for bus and rail transit throughout much of urban America. Though increasingly subsidized, public transit’s market narrowed, in many cases comprising almost entirely the urban poor. Having limited political influence and contributing a dwindling share of operating revenues, these remaining riders endured declining levels of service. Among more affluent travelers with other transportation options, transit usage fell still further. Today transit operators in the United States continue to face significant challenges in attracting and retaining riders. However, transit still plays an important role in the transportation systems of many large American cities, serving suburban commuters and city residents alike. In many other urban areas, transit’s role has diminished, but it remains a crucial public service for those who use it regularly. Although transit’s mode share has continued to decline during the past 20 years, the industry remains optimistic about the future. Renewed interest in its role as a complement to the automobile has arisen with recent increases in bus and rail ridership in several large urban areas; signs of central city rejuvenation; and a widening recognition of the importance of transit to the urban poor, disabled, and elderly. Retaining and Rebuilding Transit in Western Europe By the time electric railways had been widely introduced early in the 20th century, most Western European cities were already quite mature, shaped by centuries of carriage by foot, water, and animal. Seeking to preserve their historic centers, many Western European cities were cautious in adopting new transit technologies—especially private streetcars. Rather than entrust the private sector with supplying this service, many opted to build and operate their own electric streetcar systems. Thus almost from the beginning of the century, transit was treated as a public rather than private enterprise in Western Europe—in sharp contrast with circumstances in the United States. Western European transit systems, both public and private, drew little competition from the automobile until late in the 20th century. Recovering from two devastating world wars, few Western Europeans could afford automobiles before the 1960s, and fewer still could afford new homes farther outside the city. Government reconstruction and housing programs helped keep populations high in the central cities and in nearby suburbs
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 served by public transit. Because so few Western Europeans could afford to drive, more dispersed and decentralized patterns of development would have been both impractical and unpopular in many places. Thus even as U.S. policy makers after World War II were responding to the proliferation of automobiles by building more urban freeways, Western European governments were strengthening their support for public transportation. Although they did add many new highways outside cities, Western Europeans continued to invest heavily in bus and rail transit, providing both capital and operating assistance. Meanwhile, automobiles, long having been viewed as luxuries, continued to be taxed heavily, making frequent driving affordable only for the few. These policies not only boosted demand for transit, but also obliged Western European governments to provide high-quality transit as an alternative to the automobile. Carrying on this century-long tradition, Western Europeans continue to support public transit through a series of policies and programs aimed at making transit attractive to urban dwellers. Although most Western European transit operators receive government financial support, they still rely heavily on revenues from fare collections, and this reliance compels good service and a customer orientation. Much attention is given to the speed, comfort, and reliability of the service. Operating practices ranging from the routing of buses and spacing of bus stops to fare collection are determined not only with the convenience of passengers in mind, but also for the purpose of increasing service speed and reducing delays. Transit is marketed to attract new riders and to meet the needs of existing patrons through the use of many tailored discount passes. And travel is made less complicated through highly coordinated ticketing and scheduling among multiple transit modes and providers (see Box ES-1). In addition, a transit-first approach to traffic management pervades Western Europe. Transit vehicles, whether buses or streetcars, are given priority in city traffic. They can selectively preempt traffic signals at busy intersections, operate on dedicated travel lanes, and move ahead of other vehicles waiting in queues. By all measures, the automobile remains less convenient and more costly to operate in Western Europe than in the United States, especially in cities. High levies on motor fuel—several times higher than in the United States—and high parking charges and taxes on motor vehicles continue to make car ownership and use expensive. Many Western European cities have also taken direct steps to discourage driving, for instance by curtailing parking
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Box ES-1 Examples of Key Practices and Public Policies Favorable to Transit Use in Western Europe and Canada Reliability and Frequency of Transit Service Wide spacing between bus stops to increase operating speeds Passenger loading platforms to ease bus reentry into traffic streams Prepaid tickets and boarding passes to expedite passenger boarding Low-floor buses with wide doorways to speed boarding and alighting Transit priority in mixed traffic (e.g., bus lanes and special signalization) Vehicle locator systems Comfort, Safety, and Convenience of Service Amenities at transit stops and stations Clean vehicles and knowledgeable drivers Convenient ticket purchasing places Sidewalks leading to stations and secure, lighted waiting areas Uniform and simplified fare structures across area transit modes Discounted transit passes tailored to individual rider needs Widespread publication of schedules and color-coded matching of buses and lines Special taxi service options to extend and complete the transit network Means of Making Transit Competitive with Private Automobiles High automobile taxes High motor fuel taxes Parking limits in city centers and uniform policies on an areawide basis
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Restrictions on driving in certain areas, such as popular downtown retail districts Discounted automobile rentals and car cooperatives sponsored by transit agencies Compatible Urban Land Use Policies Land use decision making shared among local, regional, and national governments Regional integration of transportation and land use plans Common rules and guidance on street and site development designs favorable to transit spaces and restricting automobile use in their popular shopping and business districts. Such policies are frequently part of an overall strategy to curb downtown traffic congestion and preserve the traditional role of cities as economic, social, and cultural centers. The higher cost and greater inconvenience of driving in Western European cities does much to explain the higher levels of transit use there. Western Europeans also tend to view their historic cities, as well as the undeveloped land around them, as scarce and fragile national resources that must be protected and conserved. Hence, in contrast with the United States, urban land use is typically planned and regulated at the national and regional levels. Western European land use planners have long encouraged compact and clustered residential and commercial urban development that is accessible by transit. The integration of land use and transportation planning is made possible in Western Europe because national, regional, and local governments often share these responsibilities, or one unit of government—often the national government—has sole jurisdiction over both. By comparison, land use planning is very much a local responsibility in the United States, and it is seldom well coordinated with regional transportation planning. With such diffuse controls, it is difficult to foster urban development patterns that promote public transit use by raising densities and introducing mixed commercial and residential land uses. Residents of established communities often resist additional development, while localities on the urban periphery often seek it out in order to increase employ-
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 ment and raise tax revenues. The end result is that more development takes place in dispersed patterns farther from the central city and traditional transit corridors. A consequence of these differing historical, economic, political, and institutional circumstances is that transit systems in Western Europe have been able to retain much higher ridership than American systems. As Western Europeans have become more affluent, however, they have been driving more, with the number of trips made by automobile having increased substantially during the past 30 years. Concomitantly, transit’s mode share has declined in many places, although its use has remained high in central cities. Systematic Support for Transit in Canada The experience with transit in Canada is especially relevant to the United States, but it has been markedly different in many ways. Nearly all of the external conditions and factors that differentiate the United States from Western Europe—from a history of low gasoline taxes and high rates of car ownership to powerful economic and demographic pressures for urban growth—apply to a large extent in Canada. After World War II, Canada also experienced rapid suburban development and precipitous declines in transit use. In contrast with the United States, however, the Canadian provinces and cities made concerted efforts to improve transit services. These efforts included a transit-first approach to urban traffic management, and eventually higher motor fuel taxes and other public policies that complement transit. Canadians share with Western Europeans many of the same attitudes about the desirability of planning urban land use at the regional, rather than local, level and about the importance of coordinating land use with transportation investments. Transit-accessible designs are required for suburban subdivisions and office parks, and new residential and commercial development is channeled to existing or planned transit corridors. As a result of these integrated efforts, transit has retained an important role in urban Canada during the past three decades. INSIGHTS AND IDEAS FROM ABROAD Much of metropolitan America is now suburban in character and not conducive to public transit operations and use. An abundance of inexpensive
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 land available for development outside cities, burgeoning metropolitan populations and economies, and inner-city economic and social strife have combined with the automobile to create decentralized urban areas that are difficult to serve by public transit. Transit works best in areas with high concentrations of workers, businesses, and households. Even dramatic changes in transportation investments, land use controls, and public attitudes—including the acceptance of much denser settlement patterns and Western European–style disincentives to driving—would take many decades to reshape the American urban landscape in ways that would fundamentally favor transit use. Still, there is ample opportunity for transit to play a more prominent role in the urban transportation system of the United States. Although it is unreasonable to expect American transit use to rise to Western European levels, there are many places in the United States that are now well suited to transit where its use could be increased. Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington (D.C.), and several other American cities have retained high levels of central city employment, population densities, and public transit mode shares. Many of the policies and practices in Western European and Canadian cities—from an emphasis on channeling new development into areas that are well served by public transportation to creative transit marketing and fare policies—are especially relevant for these places. Table ES-1 gives several of the approaches examined in this report that have contributed to high levels of transit use in Western Europe and Canada. The potential for successful implementation is greatest in those American cities that have retained significant, broad-based transit usage. To the extent that American central cities can attract more residents and workers and urban areas can condition new development on transit access, transit ridership may be boosted further. Yet experiences abroad also offer insights into how transit can be improved in those American cities where it plays a smaller role. In particular, Western European and Canadian transit systems distinguish themselves in providing dependable, good-quality service. Indeed, Western Europeans and Canadians have come to expect and insist upon such service. Although the reliability, convenience, and comfort of transit service are enhanced in many different ways, what is perhaps most important is that a strong commitment to good service is viewed as critical, regardless of the scale and scope of the ridership base. In short, what becomes clear from this international comparison is that no single factor can explain why transit tends to be more popular abroad.
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Table ES-1 Possible Approaches for Increasing U.S. Transit Use Possible Approach Preconditions That Foster Successful Implementation Examples of Conditions That Will Increase Effectiveness in Boosting Transit Use Transit operational and quality-of-service enhancements Flexible transit workforce; management autonomy, including latitude and incentives to innovate; regional coordination of transit fares and services; public expectations of dependable and convenient service Existing significant ridership base; complementary traffic regulations that favor transit operations Transit priority in traffic Integration of highway and transit management and policy making; limited street space and suitable street geometry; latitude and incentives for transit operators to innovate Large ridership on buses; chronic urban traffic congestion; commitment to enforcing priority measures; priority given to transit over a large area Transit-oriented site design in land use zoning Tradition of strong government regulation of development and land use; commonly accepted standards and guidelines for site design Well-performing and ubiquitous transit network; safe and sufficient pedestrian access ways; large commercial complexes with significant ridership potential
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 Possible Approach Preconditions That Foster Successful Implementation Examples of Conditions That Will Increase Effectiveness in Boosting Transit Use Parking restrictions Regional governance that allows for parking coordination across a metropolitan area Adequate transit availability, especially rapid transit that provides an attractive alternative to driving for access to major activity centers Increase in cost of automobile use Acceptance/tradition of high taxes on vehicles and fuel; public concern over pollution, noise, traffic, and other adverse side effects of driving; good alternatives to driving, including walking, biking, and transit Persistent high costs, prompting fundamental changes in settlement and commuting patterns Regional coordination of land use and transportation planning Regional governance, including revenue sharing; government land ownership; tradition of strong regional governance; public concerns about environment and land scarcity Attractive city centers; high residential and employment density; complementary policies that discourage driving, including tax policies
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Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States - Special Report 257 A number of policies, practices, and conditions working together have elevated public transit’s role in both the cities and suburbs of Western Europe and Canada. By no means do these experiences offer panaceas for transforming the role of public transit in the more automobile-oriented urban areas of the United States. They do, however, offer insights into ways of making transit a more effective and attractive alternative for urban travel. NOTE 1. When describing the experiences of Western Europe, reference is made primarily to Great Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden; in some cases the discussion encompasses Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland.
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