Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
To Create Jobs, Build Public Transit, Not Highways (wired.com)
28 points by prat on Jan 22, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

In the U.S.A, public transit is not feasable. I was in Texas a while back - compared to Europe, things are just way too far apart to make trains or subways feasable.

I also lived in China for a while, and in China you mostly travel by bus. And it is my experience that the Bus is very inconvenient transportation mechanism.

If it does not make sense to build a local train transportation network, then build the highways, because the people will use cars.

How fast can you drive? Even on the open highway in Texas, it's probably unreasonable to assume you'll be doing more than 90 mph. A train could easily do 200 mph over the same terrain and probably push 300 mph if we put in the effort. If you could get from Dallas to Houston in an hour on a train, why would you want to drive?

> If you could get from Dallas to Houston in an hour on a train, why would you want to drive?

Because once you got there, you'd need a car again.

Texas is a bad example though. I think public transportation can work just fine if you look at where it's being applied. It's insane, for instance, that the BART stuff in the bay area (which is fairly densely populated) doesn't go down and around through San Jose.

I guess you could compliment it with a service like Zipcar, but you're right, it makes a lot more sense going city to city in a place like the northeast.

In France you can do Paris to Lyon in a little under 2 hours, and a similar system (a relatively slow one at that) would get you between NYC and Boston in about 1.5 hours. The current options are 4 hours (no traffic) on a $15 Chinatown bus, or 4 hours on a $100 Amtrak train.

When you're stuck on a bus in a gridlock in Manhattan trying to get to Boston, and it takes you 1.5 hours just to get out of Manhattan and over the bridge, is really the time you start to wish the public transit infrastructure wasn't so far behind every other modern nation in the world.

That's my point: why waste time trying to make places like Houston work with public transport. Concentrate on the places with a high enough population density to make it function.

Well if you are Houston and you don't want to end up like Detroit when the cost of owning and operating a personal car becomes out of reach for most people, you'll want to do something to ensure people will still want to live there.

BART was always planned to go to San Jose, but one of the municipalities down there didn't want to pay for it 20+ years ago, so it didn't pass through. These days everything seems more expensive and voters are leery of bond measures. It probably will eventually go to San Jose, but not in the next few years.

Why would you want a car there when you could, from anywhere, hop on a train or bus and get where you're going without having to worry about parking in the city?

Having your own car is extremely convenient. It can carry all your stuff and be reasonably secure against theft. If you're worried it's going to rain, toss an umbrella in the trunk. If it turns out not to rain, you didn't have to carry an umbrella all damn day, etc.

In most Texas cities, there's ample easy and free/cheap parking. Parking in NYC or DC is a nightmare. Those two cities also have very high densities and reasonably good public transit systems.

It seems there's a naturally inverse relationship between parking convenience and public transit convenience. I believe that's driven from environmental factors (cutting it back to only one factor, it's probably the cost of land as #1 driver). If your public transit system has to cover all of Dallas/Fort Worth at the same transit density/convenience as Manhattan is covered, you're going to spend an ENORMOUS amount of money on that infrastructure and that's not likely to be paid back by the moderate/low level of usage that would occur. (Because parking would still be plentiful and convenient in those cities...)

Plus to pay for a system like New York's or D.C.'s in Dallas, the fare would be astronomical, such that people simply wouldn't ride it.

Most systems in the country have flat-fare daily, weekly, monthly passes. $5.75 for a daily pass here in Chicago. That is an AMAZING value considering that pass allows unlimited rides on trains and buses.

Which is true.

Don't know about Chicago's, but the ones I've seen have restrictions on time of usage, usually after rush-hour, which makes those types of fare systems unusable to the majority of riders.

I can't remember if NYC also raises rates during rush hour, but D.C. does as well.

I think I stopped taking the D.C. system when a single day's transit and parking started topping $13/day.

I don't know Houston very well but a cursory look at Google Maps indicates that it's extremely spread out, which would make what you describe difficult.

Texas also happens to have the biggest city in the US without any form of public transit (Arlington).

For most of the land area of the US, indeed population density is probably too low to support any meaningful public transit, at least for commuters. I tend to think that public transit in the city with spokes leading out to major suburbs (with park-and-ride lots in the suburbs to account for the sparsity you mention) should be applied more widely. I've only been to New York a couple times, but I'm a big fan of this model there.

What are your thoughts on high-speed rail between major cities?

High Speed Rail between cities make a lot of sense, but what if the city you are arriving at does not have a public transportation system? For example, what would be the point of a high speed rail between Dallas and Houston? How would you get around once you arrive?

In Europe high speed rail makes sense because when you arrive there is a dense network of trains and buses you can use. In the U.S there is none.

> High Speed Rail between cities make a lot of sense, but what if the city you are arriving at does not have a public transportation? For example, what would be the point of a high speed rail between Dallas and Houston? How would you get around once you arrive?

You're right that this is an issue for those that might drive as an alternative. However, anyone who flies has the same issue of needing a car. In fact, it's often worse since airports are never in the city center, whereas train stations almost always are.

I agree that short-haul and long-term public transportation systems are very complementary, and as you allude to, there may be a chicken-and-egg problem with building one over the other. However, I think of long-haul rail networks as an alternative to air travel, and in the short term, can't people get around in their destination city the same way they do now when they fly? Rental car, taxi, friends, family, public transport such as it is (you're right that the US is far behind Europe in this respect, but most major-ish cities at least have buses).

You could always rent a car.

Or I could just drive my own.

This is the perpetual problem of public transit in the U.S. If you build something, say a metro system. It has to be sprawling, with large parking areas at the outlying stations. And then significant infrastructure upgrades to handle the traffic to/from the station parking decks.

See, http://www.fakeisthenewreal.org/subway/

The D.C. metro system for example, is about as wide across geographically as the Seoul Subway (in other words, its service area is very similar). But its daily ridership is something like 1/10th the amount (800k vs 8million). On the long arms of the system, adding more stations won't necessarily increase the ridership because the population density of those areas is too low, a station in one of these outlying areas with parking decks might only see a couple thousand riders a day. At any rate, in most cases it's actually faster, cheaper and more convenient to drive all the way to your destination than to drive through rush hour to a station, fight for the limited parking then take the metro in.

"Just move further into the city then!" Is a sentiment I've heard quite a bit. But D.C. is not able to handle much more growth in density. By law no building can be higher than the Washington Monument, and even if that law were to be relaxed, it's unlikely to spur lots of tall, high density residential apartment buildings because there is a major airport right next door. So outlying areas like Silver Spring, MD and Arlington, VA end up with lots of high density growth. But at exorbitant pricing. Apartments 10 miles apart, in a relatively low density area like Northern Virginia or Southern Maryland can be as much as 3x the rental price of each other. Housing can be even worse.

While the East Coast of the U.S. is generally low density, it's almost all owned by someone. Lots and lots and lots of suburbs. Nearly any additions to a mass transit system requires heavy handed uses of eminent domain laws, which are always unpopular.

All of this to encourage people to ride mass transit.

But from the rider's perspective the equation makes no sense:

- Parking is expensive at the outlying stations, and even worse closer in

- Fare is expensive, I'm always surprised at how cheap mass transit is in other countries

- Added up, a single trip on a U.S. mass transit system can cost 2-3x the cost in gas and wear and tear on your vehicle.

- Many systems are relatively unreliable, the New York system is pretty good, and tends to route around problems pretty well, but later systems like D.C.s suffer from daily breakdowns, and single tracks, so a breakdown in one part of the system literally brings the entire system to a screeching halt. Resulting in hour long delays getting home.

- A trip on mass transit usually takes longer than just driving anyways, and in more crowded less pleasant conditions

- American cities tend to not be terribly walkable once you do get dumped off of a mass transit system. With few exceptions, like New York City, or Most of D.C. and Boston, walking in a typical American city is walking with a death wish. Crossing highways and major arteries full of high-speed traffic, few sidewalks, few pedestrian rights-of-way and on and on.

- Buses are also generally unpleasant, usually populated by people with vast, on-display, personal problems like drug addiction, homelessness, mental health problems, etc. Mostly because people without these problems have cars and simply drive.

Expanding on this basic idea for local mass transit, rail also stands a similarly poor chance. Outside of the Middle and Northern East Coast, rail is generally poor, and transit times are incredibly long. New York to Chicago for example is basically a 1-day trip by rail (overnight). But only a 3 hour flight. And those are relatively close cities by American Standards. By European standards that's further than London to Munich!

New York to Miami, on the same Coast, is a 31 hour trip by rail! But only 20 hours by car and 3 hours by plane. Which would you take?

New York to LA, across the continent takes several days. That's like taking a rail trip from Barcelona to Minsk.

The solution to the problem is thus usually phrased as "just throw down some more rail lines and start counting the jobs". Even more realistic people consider that, in an idealized world that would cost billions. But really, with the eminent domain considerations, massive restructuring of cities, de-suburbanization, rerouting of existing lines to be more efficient, easy transit to and from the system, parking, etc. we are more likely talking trillions of dollars.

So instead we get more limited visions like

- 1 more line on the D.C. metro over the next 20 years

- and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/18/map-of-potential-hi...

Which, while really fantastic, and a great start, won't affect the vast majority of the country.

I think the best point here is that American cities are not walkable. We tend to prefer long main roads with lots of business off of them to central areas where all important businesses are in walking distance. Main squares are more conducive to public transit than main avenues, because once you get there, you can walk. This is, in my mind, one of the hardest problems to solve for American public transit.

The expense and environment I think would both almost solve themselves if public transit became more common. If it were the main way to travel, then the distribution of people on buses would match the overall distribution of people.

I agree, that's the main barrier. A subway line might cost a few billion, but reorganizing a major urban area to be walkable takes decades.

Part of it is that most American cities are very new in comparison to their European and Asian counterparts.

London, Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul, etc. all have Ancient, Roman and/or Medieval cores which by default are designed for walk-ability. The modern cities are by and large extensions of those cores. The only American cities that have similar levels of walk-ability are ones that were founded and largely settled before the car like New York, Philadelphia, D.C. -- basically mid and north atlantic cities. Otherwise you simply can't walk by design.

Fixing that requires essentially rebuilding an entire city, which really isn't going to happen anytime soon. Imagine rebuilding something like say, L.A., at ~500 sq miles of broken sprawling urbanity, to be mass-transit ready.

> reorganizing a major urban area to be walkable takes decades

It seems to take about 15 to 20 years. The dense walkable urban areas in Northern Virginia and Maryland grew up around the metro system in that time frame.

Large areas don't actually need to be reorganized, just refurbished. Many cities including philadelphia, baltimore, and DC to some extent have loads of developed space that's just low rent and crime ridden. Just put back in the streetcars that were ripped out in the 60s, fix-up the buildings, and price out the gangsters from living there. That's basically the story of NYC's rehabilitation in the 90s, except they didn't need streetcars.

I think that your point about places like Philly and Baltimore being easy to rehabilitate in 15-20 years makes sense. But there are still large areas along the D.C. orange and red lines that are virtually unwalkable without putting your life in danger. For example, I used to live what would have been a 15-20 minute walk to the Vienna station on the D.C. Orange line, but to get there, most of the trip was next to fast roads, with no sidewalks, and a trip over two overpasses. I made that trip twice before giving up (and after almost getting hit by a handful of cars both times).

There are parts on the blue line that are pseudo-walkable once you get off the system, but places like Franconia-Springfield are death traps.

I do agree though that even those areas are better than they were when those stations were built. However, outside of a very limited "walkable" area of a couple of blocks in the best cases (like Dunn Loring or the Two Falls Church stations), you'd be hard pressed to live anywhere but immediately next to the station and not drive.

I really think that it's because most of the D.C. area grew up post-automobile and is designed as a vast urban sprawl. Things that might have a positive influence, like new lines on the system, have taken 30 years to get started on (Silver Line).

I'm however, happy to see new developments along that line, where those lessons have been learned and they are basically rebuilding parts of the urban infrastructure to make it more downtown, like Tyson's Corner and Reston.

Everything in from East Falls Church on the orange line is walkable. It was car dealerships and gas stations 25 years ago. Silver spring on in on the red line is walkable.

My point about DC was more that the district itself has tons of ghetto that could easily be re-gentrified. The middle class left the row-houses in the 60s in many cities, they turned to ghetto, but this is not necessarily a permanent state of affairs.

To repeat, this is basically what has happened in NYC. The former ghetto inhabitants are now driving up the crime rate in northern Pennsylvania and other areas.

As a denizen of northern Virginia I'll note that I'm a huge fan of the VRE. Driving within the beltway is miserable and I prefer public transit whenever I can.

I have to reach the Madison building every few weeks and I can generally make it by driving down the street to the Manassas Park station and riding to L'Enfant Plaza, where I can jump to the metro. The whole trip takes hour: I can leave at 7:45 and be sure of getting there before 9:00. In contrast, my boss leaves the house at 6:30 and heads to the Vienna metro (the westmost point of the DC metro) and arrives around the same time I do. He has to leave early because there is no parking at Vienna after 7:30. Both of us live near enough to each other that our commutes comparable.

The worst traffic in the US is caused by commuters and most of that is due to the vast amounts of sprawl. It's not always feasible to live within reasonable distance of your place of work and that leads to people needing drive farther and longer, leading to more traffic over-all. Things like commuter trains help a lot because the infrastructure is mostly in place and they can go faster and cover more ground than metros but it won't help until people start living a little closer together.

Having spent quite some time in NoVA, I can attest that the inside the beltway traffic makes even my colleagues from the Bay Area heads spin.

New York to Miami, on the same Coast, is a 31 hour trip by rail! But only 20 hours by car and 3 hours by plane. Which would you take?

The train. Flying is too much hassle, and the highway uses up my attention which I would rather delegate to a professional driver while I do other things.

> Buses are also generally unpleasant, usually populated by people with vast, on-display, personal problems like drug addiction, homelessness, mental health problems, etc. Mostly because people without these problems have cars and simply drive.

Some say car dependent suburbs are in large part a means for the middle class to self segregate from the underclass. In other words, avoid the people who can't afford to drive everywhere.

Arguably, the really good public transportation systems are all in fairly homogeneous societies with little to no social underclass. This might even hold within the US. Portland is one of the most homogeneous cities in America and has the densest middle class neighborhoods and decent transit.

> Some say car dependent suburbs are in large part a means for the middle class to self segregate from the underclass.

I'm starting to wonder if suburban zoning wasn't actually designed with segregation as its goal. It seems implausible that zoning laws chosen for other reasons would just happen to have negative effects that compound to result in such effective class stratification.

Buses work admirably, even in the USA. They're more economical, faster to deploy, and actually have a smaller carbon footprint. But bus systems tend to be underfunded, and there's a stigma for those who ride them -- essentially, many believe buses are for poor people. What a mistake!

The article gives the exact reason it is not being spent on public transit: Second, all those buses, trains and subways need people to operate them and maintain the infrastructure.

The stimulus is based on moral hazard. States spend federal money on projects that they don't feel are worth spending their own money on. Spending on mass transit would force states to spend more of their own money on projects they feel are not worth it.

I don't follow your first point, would you mind breaking it down? Governments are scared of a lot of things, but swelling their own ranks by creating more civil service jobs usually isn't one of them, is it?

There is definitely some serious game theory afoot; states have a perverse incentive to not spend on important things, lest they not receive federal money to cover those things. It is similar to the perverse incentive in large companies and government to spend one's entire budget at all costs, lest you get allocated less next time.

The big problem is that most cities, states, and the US are bankrupt. The amount of money they are in debt is ridiculous and way out of proportion to the services they provide and the taxes that they can collect. For instance the city of cambridge, MA has over 1.2 Billion dollars of debt/unfunded liabilities for 70,000 people.


I have an idea: how about we give them a big chunk of money? :)

Seriously, this point doesn't work. No state is going to turn down a transit project, certainly not because of the operating costs (most of which are funded in these kinds of bills -- it's not a one-time check). And in any case, in most urban environments transit is required to pay its own operating costs. Where do you think that bus fare goes anyway?

There's a huge lag between building transit and it being able to cover its own costs.

Truly, it's our zoning laws that have sunk the American city. There are no good transit routes because everyone is living in cul-de-sac neighborhoods a half-mile from one another. There's no mixed-use zoning, so home, work, food, entertainment -- essentially everything -- is miles away from everything else. Thus the routes are intractable to build gradually and a critical mass of ridership disinterested until you have effectively a complete network on offer.

Most US cities simply can't afford to run a money-losing transit system for two or three years. Even if you gifted them the money to build it.

Fares often pay only a fraction of the cost of mass transit. For example, my local light rail costs about $8/ride. The fare is only $1.90.

(Sorry, the source is the dead tree version of one of my local rags.)

Right, because it's including construction and infrastructure costs (the things being subsidized!) in the "net cost" of the ride. The actual operating expenses are almost precisely borne by the fare structure, and in fact many cities have laws to this effect prohibiting them from funding things like salaries for transit companies.

The MBTA is bankrupt; it has over 5 Billion dollars in debt. The transit fare for the subway is the same as NYC but in Boston we don't get 24 hour service, nor the scope of service.

And yet the MBTA employees are being, y'know, paid. It's in debt because of infrastructure investment. And the proposal in the linked article is to subsidize that investment. I don't see how your point does anything but support the linked article.

The majority of the MBTA budget is paid for by sales taxes.

It has $1,037M for operating expenses.

Revenue Sources: State Sales Tax $756M Fares $430M Municipal Assessments $143M Parking, Real Estate Tenants, etc. $37.4M Real Estate Sales and Misc. $20.8M Advertising $11.0M Federal government $8.0M Interest $3.8M Utility reimbursement from tenants $2.8M Total $1,413M


It looks like the study just analyzed the direct employment effects of the construction projects -- how many ditch diggers, bus drivers, etc. would get paychecks either from the project or from the system the project creates.

The headline numbers, 16,000 job-months for transit, 8,000 job-months for highways (per billion dollars spent), show how small the direct employment is -- 16,000 job-months is about $60 million, or 6% of the investment.

The real question, which is apparently unaddressed, is which transportation infrastructure produces a greater benefit for the regional economy. The economic differences there will likely dwarf the direct effects.

But the Wired article doesn't even go there. There's a statement that transit "allows people to get to work", implying that highways don't, but that's all.

But that's okay. We know cars are evil and transit is good, so there must be numbers out there somewhere to show it.

I think the point about "allowing people to get to work" is that people with no car (a much larger proportion of the jobless than of the employed, presumably) have more limited employment options, and improving public transit gives them access to more jobs. It seems a pretty good guess to me, at least, that public transit does more to give more people access to more jobs than highways costing the same amount.

The basic premise, the government can create jobs out of thin air, is flawed. Rest is gravy.

Jobs are created out of debt, not thin air. The gov't does indeed have the ability to create more debt and more jobs.

We're betting that the stimulus' net effect on the economy is more growth than the debt's interest, so it'll be more productive to borrow, spend, and repay than not to.

You'll note that the private sector does this all the time. Student loans are a perfect example: create a professor's job today for a higher salary tomorrow.

Looks to me like that's a conclusion, not a premise. What actual assumption that Smart Growth America et al actually made are you disagreeing with, and on what grounds?

That depends on what it spends money on.

Infrastructure spending _may_ increase efficiency such that the increased tax burden is less than the efficiency gains enjoyed by tax payers. In this situation the government has indeed created jobs by expanding the economy.

Of course if they pick the wrong projects then efficiency won't rise as fast as the impact of taxation, the economy will shrink, and jobs will be lost. This isn't a special characteristic of governments though - companies (and individuals) can torpedo themselves in the same way (investment ROI is too low), albeit usually on a smaller scale.

Building transit doesn't fix the trade imbalance.

Actually, as long as the US is importing oil it does in part.

We need to export more goods, not import.

Or import less. If the transit was more energy efficient, or just less reliant on oil, it could have some impact.

Irrelevant... neither does building public roads.

Exactly, building infrastructure doesn't improve our trade imbalance, that's my point. China loans the US money and pegs the yuan to the dollar so we can buy their goods. That's not a sustainable model. Building transit doesn't affect this model.

Monorail, monorail!

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact