My casual observation is that smaller countries just have a lot more good options when it comes to transit because the total distances are much smaller.
In the continental europe most of the urban centers predate the automobile hundreds if not thousands of years, thus the existing infrastructure does not use the private automobile as one of the key design constraints.
Not so in the US, where huge areas were populated and zoned specifically with the support of the automobile as one of the key constraints.
Once the infrastructure has been built using one design constraint, it's really expensive and difficult to unravel it.
(My review, if anyone is interested: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2114423486)
What's more, if you think of the EU as a comparison for the US, with the individual counties as analogues for US states, it seems to explain even less. Belgium and Massachusetts are the same size but over has much better transit options than the other.
Secondarily, Belgium can define it's own national policy, while MA must compromise with the rest of the country, including CA, WY, MT, and NY, all of which have very different economic and practical concerns.
The US's size is not a unique problem, but, it is a problem, and the governmental structure we have chosen does pose some unique problems.
If you want to talk about density or uniform distribution... Why is Australian public transit so much better than American public transit?
America's governmental structure isn't unique either. There are other countries with the same kind of federalism.
And similar rebuttals can be made for virtually all other explanations.
I guess what I'm really getting at is that in the real world there are no easy solutions or explanations to problems despite the penchant in places like HN and Reddit to try to reduce explanations to a single paragraph. America's problems are likely due to a complex interaction between federalism, its geographic size, its traditional wariness of cities, its first mover advantage turning into obsolete infrastructure, and many other factors besides. But it is hard to know that the relative importance of any of those things actually is.
If you say Belgium can make its own policy, you are almost certainly making an off the cuff comment. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of Europe-wide rules and regulations on transit that limit what Belgium can do. Belgium has to work across borders just like Massachusetts does. From Directive 95/19 on safety certification to Directive 2005/47 on the working conditions of workers on services that happen to cross a border. Since 2007 every European railway undertaking
is able to off er rail freight services on every line
in every EU country.
It is a mistake to paint a picture where Belgium has unlimited unilateral decision making powers.
I would guess it's because Australia is, like, 99% uninhabited and uninhabitable or borderline uninhabitable, which probably means they can focus resources almost exclusively on the few densely populated areas. Additionally Australia's urban population seems to be significantly higher than America's (~89% vs ~80% according to 5 seconds of Googling I just did) so there's probably greater political will for investing in urban areas, and that political will probably also isn't resisted/sabotaged by an electoral system that grants hugely disproportionate representation to non-urban areas that have little to gain from realistic/economically sensible investments in public transportation.
american exceptionalism at its finest. :)
My state, about the same land area as France has a population density of 39/sq-km, right at the median value for the states. France has density of 122/sq-km. Population density is lower here, where people actually live, than in many locations in Europe or Australia. This may, in part, explain public transportation issues in the USA.
Totally agreed on the dollars for transit part, though. Still way too much emphasis on making cars' lives easier in Boston at the expense of everyone else.
Every car at the moment contains a person. Objectifying people so it is easier to hate on them is not nice. People should realize by now that it is not just privileged rich assholes that drive cars. A well working personalized point-to-point transport system (cars plus roads) can save the person working 70 hours a week at two low paying jobs much precious time.
So basically if MA wasn't up to it's neck in corruption it would be able to get more done with its dollars.
I assure you. Everyone in MA who pays attention knows this just like everyone knows water is wet. The problem is that nobody in MA pays attention.
Belgium must compromise with the rest of the EU on many topics.
For what it's worth the United States is actually larger in landmass size than China: 9.834 million square km in the US vs. 9.597 million square km in China. But China has over quadruple the population.
Yes, and they are evenly spread out across the country, right?
What you conveniently leave out, and which turns all these kinds of arguments based on a "total area / total population" numbers into absurd exercises in futility in showing anything useful, is that you have some few mega regions:
Even a country like Germany has extremely uneven population, never mind countries like China or Russia. There is nothing special in the situation the US finds itself in at all - especially not since the enormous population shifts of the 20th century from rural areas to cities.
When I lived in the US (for a decade), the area I lived in was the SF Bay Area, several places. This is far more densely populated than area in Germany where I grew up (former East Germany). And yet, I could not do anything or get anywhere without a car. It has next to nothing to do with population density - in the US you are forced to drive for distances where you would walk, use a bike or public transit in areas with less pop. density in other countries.
Even during my brief first visit to the US end of the last millennium, which was a three month tour of the continental US (NY to Alaska, to Arizona, CA to FL) the "must... use... car!!!" bug got to me too. Towards the end I caught myself getting into the car and driving <200 feet to drop some waste into a wastebasket (from the car window of course) on a shopping mall parking lot... it seemed the natural thing to do, I had to deliberately catch myself and consciously think about what the hell I was doing to recognize the absurdity. After only two months in the country.
Not evenly — but the population in the US is in fact much more geographically dispersed than in most of Europe, India, and East Asia. These measurements are not what you claim ("total area / total population"); here is a map of population density per square kilometer over the globe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_density#/media/File...
It's true that there are a few areas in the US that have high density. But from a federal funding standpoint, the US unfortunately has to contend with the fact that its population is widely dispersed over a large area compared to most other highly developed nations.
It also does not explain the car addiction at all, because it would make much more sense to connect wide-spread centers using trains, for example.
Also, most transport is local - and as far as it is not combining it into larger "packages" (train, ship, large trucks) would be more efficient.
I'm also a bit amazed at your response. Your initial comment, the one I replied to, is only about comparing total area and total population. I find it at least a little bit disingenuous how you dug deep to come up with a new version of the argument.
I find the effort in many comments to point out how the US is "special" and "different" from all the rest of the world very weird. I would not find it as weird if it looked like a detached analysis, but it seems to be mostly emotional. Why? So strange. What's the big deal, what do you lose, if you come to the conclusion that it's of course true that all problems are local and none are completely the same, the variability and the base problems are not actually different? What's the big deal? Isn't it enough to look for "exceptionalism" in the achievements and possibilities, why does it have to also be true for such mundane stuff at any cost (e.g. suffering quality of arguments)?
The US is special because its cities were either built to be pedestrian-hostile, or were made so during the Depression years when the transport companies went bust.
Now, in addition to the mindset shift, I think you'd need to rebuild entire cities/metroplexes to make the public transport work.
Case in point: the South Bay Area, where I live now. Sure, you can add trains (at a huge cost). But once you get off the train station, where do you go? The sidewalks are those narrow strips separating the roadway from the parking lots adjacent to stores, they are no joy to walk on, and it will take you forever.
Where in Europe you have:
[store][sidewalk][roadway, 2 lanes][sidewalk][store]
Here, you have:
[business][parking lot][impenetrable hedge][sidewalk][roadway, 3 lanes][uncrossable median][roadway, 3 lanes][sidewalk][impenetrable hedge][parking lot][business]
Then, due to the zoning regulations you don't have stores and cafes right next to place where people live - you have huge blocks with nothing in them but houses, houses, houses.
Ditto for business districts.
It's not enough to have public transport, one needs to rethink entire cities from ground up to make them walkable, bikeable - and accessible by public transport - even if it exists.
Another case in point: Seattle. Lacking a good train system, they made the buses work with dedicated bus lanes, which make the buses fast - faster than traffic.
This works because the city has not been developed in the sad way I described above.
As for the suburban wasteland, which makes up huge chunks of the US population-wise, you can throw all your trains and buses at it, and it will be but a drop in the bucket.
Disclaimer: lived half my life in the US, half my life in urban Ukraine. Big fan of public transport, but drive most of the time - and when I don't, I bike, outrunning public transportation in most cases on distances up to 6 miles or so.
EDIT: see the urban sprawl point below:
> The US is special because its cities were either built to be pedestrian-hostile, or were made so during the Depression years when the transport companies went bust.
The original argument is based on "nature", things outside of human control. Your argument is 100% under human control, a self-made problem. What perplexes me is that the "nature" (inevitability) argument always comes first, but when prodded (like I did here) there is the attempt to shift it it elsewhere. I don't like that style, as I said, this seems to be mostly emotions-driven and I don't quite get why there is this attempt at any cost to paint the US situation as "special". Everyone and everything is "special" if you dig deep enough. The point is, are the difficulties any worse than elsewhere in magnitude and complexity? I don't think so. You only argued about the US, but the point of "being special" here has the meaning of "it's more difficult", and I don't think that is justified at all.
As for your question:
>are the difficulties any worse than elsewhere in magnitude and complexity?
I firmly think that this is the case - a century of bad urban planning is hard to undo. You don't have that in Europe (cities are old, the layout makes public transport viable and necessary), you don't have in 2nd world countries (a lot of growth happened under central planning that bet big on public transport because it couldn't provide enough cars for its citizens).
Huge cities in the US are different from cities in Europe. Even when a European city has suburbs, taking a train to the city center makes sense because you can get around the city center without a car. That is not the case in Houston or Dallas, for example. You wouldn't want to walk there.
Yes, these problems are man-made - but they are entrenched and systemic to a scale that I'm unaware of.
I guess what I am saying here: we need to understand the scope of the problem. It's not that it's more difficult to make trains running in Dallas than it is in Paris.
It's that we need to rebuild Dallas from ground up for that train to make sense there due to the way it grew in the past 70 years.
TL;DR: screw-ups are hard to undo.
There is plenty of research around public transit indicating the opposite: higher density increases transit viability, because public transit requires high demand per kilometer in order to be financially viable. For example, to quote this  highly cited paper:
"There are well documented empirical thresholds of density below which transit is unpractical for users and financially unsustainable for operators."
Or even just the opening line of the introduction:
"The counterpoint to the correlation between low-density sprawl and automobile dependence is that between high density and more transit use."
Connecting through "nothingness" is not an advantage: it costs actual money to build transit even through "nothingness" — labor and materials are not free, and even what you term "nothingness" is typically owned by someone and land rights still need to be acquired — and no one wants to go there. It would be cheaper to build transit between Popular Point A and Popular Point B if the vast "nothingness" between them was removed altogether — aka, high density.
> They still are just as distributed
You're taking the "sparse population distribution" argument pretty far out of context. The point is that they're sparse, not the total landmass size.
> I find the effort in many comments to point out how the US is "special" and "different" from all the rest of the world very weird. I would not find it as weird if it looked like a detached analysis, but it seems to be mostly emotional. Why? So strange. What's the big deal, what do you lose, if you come to the conclusion that it's of course true that all problems are local and none are completely the same, the variability and the base problems are not actually different? What's the big deal? Isn't it enough to look for "exceptionalism" in the achievements and possibilities, why does it have to also be true for such mundane stuff at any cost (e.g. suffering quality of arguments)?
Thanks, but I think my posts in here have been pretty data-focused and detached.
> You're taking the "sparse population distribution" argument pretty far out of context.
May I suggest a mirror?
> Thanks, but I think my posts in here have been pretty data-focused and detached.
Not at all, unless you think that going out of your way to find any "data" at all and then pretending that it shows what you say it does (which it doesn't do - at all!) is "data-focused and detached".
There is nothing in the US situation that makes it any more difficult than for the rest of the world. No, the US does not have "special" problems that make transportation more difficult than elsewhere, apart from self-inflicted wounds (another commenter mentioned car-oriented city designs). Of course everybody and everything is "special" if you look deep enough, but this was about "special" (as in more) difficulty compared to other places.
Also you keep moving your target. I still take your ridiculous very first comment as setting the tone - after all, it is what you yourself first brought up: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16918557
In response to being called out on that argument you came up with ever more elaborate attempts to disguise what you said and pretend you had a different argument. Own up to having made a very bad "argument" and stop this nonsense. We have a "paper trail" of what you said, stop pretending it ever made sense.
The US's urbanization rate is 82% which is higher than Canada, Norway, Spain, France, Greece, Taiwan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Ireland, and 150 other countries.
The US doesn't have much of its population distributed outside of urban areas compared to most countries. The US actually has few people outside of urban areas compared to most countries.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Popular_Vote_Intersta... is one step towards sanity.
Unless you have some data to prove otherwise?
All of this obviously leads to much higher density. Planning rules effectively ban detached houses in many suburbs, as a minimum density is enforced. The higher density you have, the more effective public transport systems are.
Suburban apartment blocks also seem to be somewhat rarer in the US.
Sure, China is huge. But the vast majority of it's population is concentrated on or near the east coast. Most of China's western interior is sparsely populated, even compared to the US.
Even including the interior, the overall population density of China (137/km2) is much higher than that of the USA (35/km2).
However, it has nothing to do with the size of the country, it's in the way towns and cities are laid out.
For one thing, discrete residential and commercial zones separated by vast distances and linked by highway are the norm. This makes it impractical to walk or bike to work or shopping. In suburbia, there is no such thing as a corner deli...
https://www.strongtowns.org/ is about the best org discussing these issues and isn't coming from a left- or right-wing perspective but a sane, critical-thinking, research-based perspective.
I'd almost think it is bottom-up not top-down. Top down would imply some central planning, allowance for more space, livable communities, more trees, more parks and trails, mixed zoning etc. I grew up in a Soviet Union and towns and cities were designed top-down. Nice wide streets, electric trolley buses in the city that ran regularly. For all the ills and terrible things it was actually not as a bad as far as the general layout was concerned.
In US it is bottom-up because every developer buys land then tries to maximize their profit by shoving as many houses and cul-de-sacs as they can. Or as many office buildings etc. Every town wants to maximize its property taxes so they have their own interests at work. People who bought the property also now have different incentives so you have zoning and NIMBY. Ideally all these self-interests would somehow magically align to produce something great. But it often doesn't.
Bottom-up planning example would be post-USSR where people converted community gardens into suburbs on their own. Without any central planning or viable infrastructure.
Yeah but they didn't directly design cities the way a top-down developer would do. They are some planned communities in US. I live next to one, and it is a different feel to it definitely. But it is not a common thing at all.
At the federal level there are tax incentives and credits and subsidies and those affect everything but it is still very much a local "maximize my profit" kind of deal. Uncle Sam doesn't care if there are enough play grounds or parks for given area and population density.
I think that you are trying to say that the incentives (say cheap mortgages) and subsidies for oil and car manufacturers resulted in suburban sprawl? But that's more of a nasty side-effect than a direct policy or law. In other words we got the bad part of top-down influence without the good part of it.
> Bottom-up planning example would be post-USSR where people converted community gardens into suburbs on their own.
I jokingly say that overnight they become more capitalist and laissez faire than most countries in the West.
Top-down developer can design it any way he wants. Top-down just means it's planned and not anarchistic like in ex-USSR.
Even policy of not enforcing parks, playground or allowing lesser population density is top-down development. Policy of building highways to accommodate sprawl is top-down as well.
Meanwhile bottom-up in ex-USSR style means ex-community gardens converted into suburbs without central water/sewage, no proper road network etc. While some developers put in over-the-top density highrises in questionable locations. Again, without proper infrastructure to support them. In both cases, it's incentives from people or developers without any support and sometimes even acknowledgement from the government.
> I jokingly say that overnight they become more capitalist and laissez faire than most countries in the West.
I'd say that with 100% straight face. We're definitely much more capitalist than western europe and definitely competing with US on many fronts.
There can be even more structure, but when a town or city simply blocks medium density residential structures, that's pretty top down.
Also, these big developers are sorta top-down too. They are big powerful entities setting things up for the people who actually use the developments instead of iterative development.
There's a ton of ridiculous patterns built into development that relate to the way it is financed etc. and that along with zoning etc. creates insane sprawl.
https://www.strongtowns.org/ does a remarkable job at addressing all these issues, not taking a dogmatic top-down or bottom-up or whatever view.
You need to redesign American cities. The most obvious thing to change is zoning laws. Residential areas, offices and stores need to be more mixed.
Another issue is that many problems exist simply because it is too easy to drive. With easy driving you end up with donut cities where anything of importance is located in a ring around the outskirts of the city. That kills the ability to utilize public transport effectively.
If you discouraged driving more activity would be forced into neighborhoods and into the downtown area, which would make public transport functional. It is much easier to feed people with public transport into a downtown area than into a ring on the outskirts.
In the US, we are forced to drive because we force ourselves to drive.