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Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S (citylab.com)
94 points by jseliger 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 116 comments

Lesson #1 seems deliberate to me.

Post war, many urban centers in the US experienced white flight, it seems rational to assume that since these folks moved away from the cities to get away from minorities they would be against infrastructure that would allow minorities to "follow them" to the burbs. But these workers needed a way to get to the city for work, leisure, etc.

What better way to circle that square by building massive infrastructure which requires a middle class income (which allows you to buy a car) to use?

Even now we see lots of resistance by suburban communities to public transportation. In the Portland, OR metro area there is a upper middle class community called Lake Oswego, the residents have continuously lobbied against any form of public transportation in the town, lots of folks complaining about the "crime train".

The metro transit authority which designs new lines has succumbed to the pressure and the newly proposed line while in the vicinity of Lake Oswego avoids the town completely.

It's a shame to see people campaigning against new regional transit lines, but I have to be at least a little sympathetic. BNSF runs through my town, and it does bring transients, plenty of whom do bring drugs, needles, & crime. No matter how you feel about train hoppers, that is a matter of fact in our town.

To the downvotes I face, I'd be curious what you feel is incorrect in what I've said.

This is exactly the mentality that makes getting public transit built a problem.

Trains don't cause crime. The crime was already there because of a whole heap of deeply embedded issues in America that, for various reasons, Americans on the whole prefer to completely ignore.

The problem is that trains make these problems visible. If you rip out the trains you're just sweeping it back under the carpet which is how America tends to deal with these things.

If the best economic opportunity afforded by the trains for someone is crime that's saying something about your society, not the trains.

To be more accurate, in this case the crime was somewhere else, and it rode in on the freight rail.

At a muni level, which is where a lot of public transit is done, you are hardly empowered to fix social problems a thousand miles away, so your options are limited. You try to turn away transients, or you don't. SF is in the latter camp, of course.

You describe me as espousing the mentality that blocks public transit. But really, I'm just observing, it is a matter of fact that interstate rail is a source of crime in our town. You can show a crime map of our town, and there is literally a hotspot around the rail line. But I'm still pro-transit, pro-rail, the whole shebang.

If anything, I feel like trying to wave arms, point fingers, & distract from this indisputable fact is sweeping things under the rug. Better we acknowledge it, and include what we're going to do about it in our pitch & plan.

Your point illustrates the problem very clearly. Both sides have some basis in reality and have valid points about the pros/cons of public transportation. Public transit is a huge benefit to the community but also comes with a set of drawbacks.

Like most things in the US, we are arguing past each other instead of working together to find a solution.

"Let's just agree to disagree" and then nothing ever gets done. It's practically the national motto.

Ok, so station a police officer or two in the vicinity of the stations. No need to block transportation for everyone for a few bad apples.

It shouldn't be in the transit planning - it should be addressed at its root cause, instead of trying to paper over the issue by focusing so much on the incidental nature of public transit bringing a shift in location.

Unfortunately, oftentimes people have a very NIMBY attitude about these sort of issues in the US in general, and end up perpetuating the problem through intentional ignorance.

I think we ought to build transit despite the objections, but I disagree with this (frustratingly common) line of reasoning:

Locking doors is just papering over the societal dysfunction that leads people to become burglars. If no one had a door lock, maybe they would be more motivated to fix the underlying social issue instead of just pushing crime elsewhere.

Would you actually support the elimination of locks?


To add more information to my previous point, a lot of the Lake Oswego residents lobbied against the train because they were afraid of homeless folks being in their neighborhood. The light rail in the Portland, OR area does not have turnstiles and fare enforcement is pretty lax, so its not uncommon to see a homeless person on the train.

The train however hasn't caused the homeless issue, that's a completely different story. The train just allows this issue to become more of a metropolitan area issue instead of a city center issue.

> The crime was already there ...

Crime as at generational (multi-generational?) lows. People are solving a problem that no longer exists.

An American friend of mine is terrified of going into cities; it's bizarre. I've spent a lot of time in American cities, in all sorts of neighborhoods; I've never had a problem. (Like other American conservatives I've talked to, he also seems to define himself as being in opposition to liberals, in this case by putting down cities and their residents; so perhaps it's partly a political thing. However, it's a bit bizarre that political rhetoric would be confused with reality.)

I don't think it's a political thing, people in cities just seem to have different expectations than people that don't. I live in the suburbs and there isn't anywhere nearby that I would worry about going. My co-worker who lives in the city says that it's dangerous to go 2 blocks from his house at night, but thinks that's normal. My wife has a co-worker who's had someone repeatedly try and break into her house, but she doesn't call the cops because she just considers it part of city life. There are some things that people in cities put up with that I think they only accept because it's been part of their entire life.

> My co-worker who lives in the city says that it's dangerous to go 2 blocks from his house at night, but thinks that's normal.

It’s probably completely safe. These kinds of stories are normal for people. If you ask indigenous people, the dangerous cannibals are always the tribe living two valleys over from this one, but never themselves or their immediate neighbors.

> My co-worker who lives in the city says that it's dangerous to go 2 blocks from his house at night, but thinks that's normal. My wife has a co-worker who's had someone repeatedly try and break into her house, but she doesn't call the cops because she just considers it part of city life.

I know many, many people who live in American cities, and I don't know even one person with those experiences or attitudes (unless you mean, there is a specific spot within 2 blocks that feels potentially dangerous in the middle of the night - a 4 square block area in a dense city is a large area with potentially tens of thousands of people).

However, I do know people in suburbs or rural areas with those attitudes and stories. In my experience, almost all the scary stories about cities come from people who don't actually live there - and the less experience they have, the more scary stories they seem to tell, similar to other bogeymen like racial stereotypes. Some people in rural areas seem to love to tell these stories these days.

People I know in cities usually talk about how great it is - or at least how they could never live in the suburbs.

I guess we can argue about anecdata, but the actual data shows that crime is very low.

EDIT: Many edits, mostly reorganization

I wouldn't go that far. When we lived in downtown Baltimore, we definitely told our nanny that there were neighborhoods where the crime was high enough she probably didn't want to go there: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandtown-Winchester,_Baltimore. And when we lived in Wilmington, DE, if you went a few blocks south from our apartment (across an underpass beneath the highway), you got to a neighborhood where the crime rate was so high that the EMTs once refused to pick up a dead body after a shooting. Also in Wilmington, someone was shot at the Nike on Market street waiting for a new shoe to be released at like 6 am. Someone was mugged outside my wife's office (in the nice part of the central business district) at 5 pm.

In the city, crime is low enough where you will probably not be a victim of crime (especially if you're wealthy). But it's happening around you, you're aware of it, and property crimes are a real risk if you're not careful.

Meanwhile, now we live in the Annapolis suburbs, and I don't even lock my car when I park it.

> An American friend of mine is terrified of going into cities; it's bizarre. I've spent a lot of time in American cities, in all sorts of neighborhoods; I've never had a problem.

Speak for yourself. I lived in downtown Atlanta from 2008-2012. In that time, someone broke into the building I lived in and robbed the person in the room below me at gunpoint. I also saw someone get bashed in the head with a rock. And my sister in law’s neighbors were robbed at gunpoint while trick-or-treating. There were two children in that group. She also had a lawyer acquaintance who was taken out by someone for hire on the sidewalk in the middle of the day. Oh, and my friend’s boyfriend was robbed on the sidewalk at gunpoint at 5:00 PM right next to rush hour traffic.

I’ve been in San Francisco for a little while now and don’t feel significantly safer. It’s easy to say there are no problems when nothing has happened to you personally.

> It’s easy to say there are no problems when nothing has happened to you personally.

That's why anecdotes are not very helpful.

> Crime as at generational (multi-generational?) lows. People are solving a problem that no longer exists.

Crime rates are decreasing, but they're still very high.

Glasgow at its worst had a homicide rate of 63 per million.[1] In America, homicide rates are generally reported per 100k - so that's 6.3 per 100k.

In 2015, San Francisco had a homicide rate of 6.1 per 100k. Pittsburgh, which I hear is trying to become a tech hub, was at 18.6 per 100k. Pittsburgh! We don't think of Pittsburgh as a hotbed of crime. But Glasgow was notorious - with a third the homicide rate!

[1] https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12447424.Murder_rates_at...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_b...

American cities are astonishingly dangerous compared to their European and even Canadian counterparts.

This isn't just a big city problem. Many small towns are absolutely rife with violent crime. Suburban areas are, per-capita, not exactly safe either. It's vastly more dangerous to be in suburban Alabama than in pretty much any European city.

It's like Americans prefer to solve their problems with guns and guns alone.

You can get shot at for simply passing someone in some states, road rage all too often ends with shots fired.

Wait a minute, 18.6 per 100k is a per-year statement. So if you lived in Pittsburgh all your life, you have something like a 1.5% lifetime chance of being murdered? Is that right? One in sixty-ish?

That is correct, though it would be more correct to observe that this rate is only about 0.3% for white Pittsburgers but nearly 10% for black men. (Black males make up 12% of the population but about 80% of murder victims.)

Usually people kill people that they already know. So you would have to condition the probability on people you know and where you usually are.

>Crime as at generational (multi-generational?) lows

Crime rates were much lower before about 1960, and are often argued to have been similarly low in the early 20th century and late 19th century.

There are a variety of suggested causes, but the most obvious one is heroin, which became a drug of abuse in the '10s, disappeared during WWII, and then came roaring back. It's difficult for modern Westerners to imagine a time before heroin, but it makes sense to me that crime rates would have been lower. The feelings associated with being a good person are usually enough to motivate people to be good, but they don't hold a candle to heroin's flamethrower. This hypothesis also explains Japan and Australia's relative safety, since geography is on their side.

These sorts of folks are often afraid of travel of any sort and are hooked on fear-based television.

When I was younger I traveled a lot and found that the things people think about other countries (or nearby cities) are mostly false.

The general assertion that mass transit brings crime is very common but isn't supported by evidence [0].

Not to mention the prejudicial undertones it carries...

[0] https://www.citylab.com/equity/2014/12/the-myth-that-mass-tr...

I live in Boston. The Orange Line mostly runs through neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go to at night (or even in broad daylight), but recently they put in a new stop with a lot of development aimed at the upper middle class. Assembly is within walking distance from Sullivan, but somehow the crime doesn't bleed over.

I did live for a few years in an... exurban, if not quite rural, Southern county that had been successfully resisting commuter rail for a long time, but I think that was about keeping the yuppies out as much as anything else. And it's hard to object to that. I was there for college, and a lot of both the professors and the students came in from the Northeast and hated the townies.

(I went the opposite direction - grew up around there and then figured I'm in the same country as the Yanks and may as well go see what they're about.)

Thanks for the link. Perhaps my core mistake here is speaking from a context of rail freight, when this is really about mass transit.

People who downvote have never had this sort of behavior anywhere near where they live. It's easy to complain about NIMBY's hating public transit when you have no idea what it's like. Tell me their public transit and food kitchen access is more important than my wife being able to walk to the supermarket without getting hollered at by some bum.

Give me a break, people who oppose these aren't heartless, they're facing a reality the keyboard warriors here don't have to face, and a reality that would flip any of these downvoters to the other side in a heartbeat.

Their public transit and food kitchen access is more important than your wife being able to walk to the supermarket without getting hollered at.

I'm happy you feel that way, let them pollute the sidewalk of your neighborhood instead.

We're talking about human beings who are neglected by civic institutions and are often mentally ill, using affordable transportation to access food they need to survive. Yeah, great way to show that people who oppose these aren't heartless.

There has to be a better way to help the mentally ill, than simply giving them cheaper transportation.

I feel that is just a bandaid to the gaping wound of a problem.

The wife being hollered at isn't a problem with homelessness; I would consider it a problem with the way women are viewed in society. I don't see the correlation between homelessness and the harassment of women in public spaces. I also have lived by public transport and far from public transport and haven't really noticed a difference in terms of the population of crime or homelessness. The vast majority of the homeless people I met were polite, sitting away from pedestrian traffic with a cup or a cardboard sign, or just verbally begging for money going from train to train. The harassment of women can and does occur anywhere and from any class of people.

That is to say, I don't actually understand what is trying to be correlated here, and I feel the dismissive attitudes of people who are pro-transport as to simply not have experienced transport, as if transport itself is so terrible that the only people who would support it are the people who never lived with it, to be disingenuous and not conducive to a productive conversation on the subject. Is it really so unbelievable that I can live in a place with mass transit and actually enjoy the experience?

We've had similar problems in the areas around Baltimore. A nearby mall used to be a nice place to go until they added bus stops that go back and forth between the mall and the city. Afterwards, they're starting being a problem with drugs, assaults, and 1-2 murders in the parking lot before they had to put up guard towers throughout the parking lot. There's also a nearby train stop that the county is trying to get closed because people ride the train in, steal stuff from the houses and stores in the surrounding area, then hop back on the train to get away.

The Anne Arundel county stuff is BS, same old fear and segregation, crime remains low, and there's basically no evidence the rail is bringing people in to do more crime[1]. This isn't even the first time this has come up over the years. Similar things happened in the ATL 'burbs back in the day, before MARTA was built out, and they successfully stymied its expansion.

[1] https://ggwash.org/view/68549/some-anne-arundel-county-wants...

Commuter rail doesn't bring a crime wave. It brings lots of eyeballs and foot traffic that unsavory types would rather avoid.

Yes, it is definitely true, commuter rail is a different story from interstate freight.

^^ key point, I'm glad to see it came from you actually! I'd add that it's rare to see well-used transit systems where stations end up being hotbeds of crime; it's mostly the poorly designed and barely utilized ones where that becomes the case.

For example, where I grew up, Cleveland, the stations definitely have a pretty grungy vibe, but I'd attribute that largely to the fact that RTA is super slow and infrequent, there are so few lines for such a large geographical mass that you can't do most trips with RTA, and many of the stations dump you in pretty unwalkable, economically dead neighborhoods. Even if you rode it somewhere, there's a very high probability you'd continue a journey on a bus for a crazy long amount of time or need a car to get you to your destination somehow. Even in the well-positioned spots like Ohio City, the station design dumps you next to a bridge on the opposite side of a crazy intersection with no crosswalk that takes like 5 minutes of walking through parking lots and past the garbage-smelling loading dock of the West Side Market to get to any of the businesses there. What a joke lol.

There seems a like a simple fix to that.

Charge more money for people to get off at certain places.

Make it 10 dollars to stop off at a high income area to avoid undesirables from taking transit there.

Use that extra money to subsidize even further for where you want the undesirables to transit to.

So, if all the grocery stores are in "high income" or even "mid-income" areas... folks are taxed a bit extra to do their shopping?

It also seems a bit counter-intuitive. The point of public transit - a good system, anyway - is to encourage folks to ride it. Having a high fee for certain areas would actively discourage folks from using such a system and might actually reinforce a stereotype that mass transit is for poor folks.

> BNSF runs through my town, and it does bring transients, plenty of whom do bring drugs, needles, & crime.

Why does this not happen in the EU? Almost all the pictures of the US public transport I've seen show dirty interiors filled with people looking poor and/or dangerous while in the EU (not in every EU country or city perhaps but what I've seen so far) trains and stations look and feel almost like planes and airports, cost very cheap (about a dollar to travel within a city), all the normal people use trains, trams and buses actively and people you'd prefer to avoid are rare.

You can't equivocate transients with working class people or even the anti-social people that hide in working class neighborhoods. And in any event there are ways to keep undesirables at bay that focus on anti-social behaviors and conditions, not income status.

Transit also cuts both ways in that it allows low-wage workers to commute into an area without necessarily having to live there.

For both these reasons you won't find many homeless in the Pacific Heights or Marina neighborhoods of San Francisco, despite their proximity to the Tenderloin and Western Addition.

The problem with your viewpoint is that its only looking at transit in isolation. Transit is just one piece of creating a safe, livable cities. The city/state/province/country needs to and should invest in crime prevention, poverty alleviation, job creation etc at the same time to create great cities.

How many stowaways still travel via freight trains in the US?

I also don't see any real comparison of freight and public transit via rail other than they are both trains...

Hi, NJ native chiming in here. We have a vast majority of our state served by regional and light rail services, as well as a bus system that supplements it to areas where it would be difficult to get added rail lines.

Anecdotally, you can find drugs, needles or crime just about anywhere if you want. There are amazingly safe suburbs with train stations as well as less safe suburbs with train stations and city stops on both side of the spectrum. These people aren't riding the rails to get to some juicy soft targets out in the wealthy burbs.

Crime is a law enforcement problem, not a transportation problem. Your whole post is NIMBY nonsense. I promise you, there's plenty of poor drug addicts and criminals in areas that aren't served by any sort of mass transit. Your thesis that they'll come ruin a perfectly good thing is just as flawed as my thesis that they'll magically all stop behaving that way if we gave them mass transit which allowed them greater access to different job opportunities (there's elements of truth in both, but they're both more complex then just a quick summary)

TL;dr- What's incorrect about your statement is basically everything in your statement, or at least your perception of cause and effect.

An addendum: crime isn't just a law enforcement problem, it's reflective of broader societal ills like wealth inequality, poor education, and lack of access to opportunity. In my opinion, law enforcement is a bandaid for those symptoms, but does not strike at the underlying issues, and defining crime and poverty as that domain is also probably counterproductive to reducing them long term.

My experience in most of East Asia is that the police are extremely unintimidating [1] when you see them but generally invisible otherwise, perhaps indicating that strong law enforcement is not a requirement for managing crime rates.

[1] Tokyo: https://imgur.com/a/FGstZJ3

> strong law enforcement is not a requirement for managing crime rates.

There are strains of American culture that have long been violent and confrontational. These strains are perpetuated by "polite" society that has used violence and segregation to keep them at bay. IOW, we're an altogether violent society.

Addressing these dynamics is difficult to say the least, but it's why we can't simply import strategies from abroad. So, for example, we can't simply take guns away from the cops without also refactoring our criminal and mental health systems to comprehensively deescalate things. Our inability to holistically change (independent from ideology) is why drug decriminalization and lessened property crime punishment have created such spectacular social failures.

That said, to be fair East and Southeast Asian countries tend to have very strict and swift criminal punishments, particularly for drugs and violence. Even in Japan--https://www.tofugu.com/japan/drug-laws-in-japan/ In some key ways Asia practices more violence and segregation than the U.S.

I think it's mostly Western Europeans and South Americans that are all-around softies.

I'll concede that describing it as a "law enforcement" problem is a bit of a broad stroke (what is the purpose of these laws? who made them? are they just and fair? etc.)

My point was that trying to blame trains for importing criminals is a weak, unsubstantiated argument lacking true causation. OP later posted that "if you look at a crime map, you'll see a hot spot around the train stations". This is an objective fact, but the conclusion is only one of many possibilities (criminals are more likely to attack people in transit because they carry more valuables, people are more irritable after travel and likely to engage in crime, train stations have higher concentrations of people than other sectors and therefor see a higher number of criminals, there's more enforcement, etc). I was mostly attempting to address that point.

Crime is, ultimately and simplistically, a law enforcement problem. Preventing criminals from turning to crime is a social services/educational problem. What things constitute crimes is a societal/cultural issue. Poverty is a whole OTHER ball of wax, although many behaviors of the most impoverished are criminalized.

FWIW, Japan has plenty of problems when it comes to policing and crime due to their culture of expected police success rates.

> BNSF runs through my town, and it does bring transients, plenty of whom do bring drugs, needles, & crime.

That's the equivalent of asking the cops to kick all the homeless people out of your neighborhood, into the one next door.

You haven't fixed the problem, you just used your political power to make it someone else's problem.

I live near a DC Metro station that opened just a few years ago. Any time some minor crime is reported on Nextdoor (and it’s usually a minor theft of items from an unlocked car, the blockheads), people come out of the woodwork to say how everything has been awful since Metro came and it brought all this crime.

It’s especially funny since I’ve never seen anyone who remotely looks like an unsavory character at that station (whether by bigot standards or otherwise) and it’s a typical suburban station with not a whole lot around it, so it would be a dumb destination for criminals looking for new territory to exploit.


"This summer, as New Yorkers head out to Long Island’s beach towns and parks on the Southern State Parkway, they’ll pass beneath a series of overpass bridges made infamous in Robert A. Caro’s monumental 1974 biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

In one of the book's most memorable passages, Caro reveals that Moses ordered his engineers to build the bridges low over the parkway to keep buses from the city away from Jones Beach—buses presumably filled with the poor blacks and Puerto Ricans Moses despised. The story was told to Caro by Sidney M. Shapiro, a close Moses associate and former chief engineer and general manager of the Long Island State Park Commission."

This article says that the story is not necessarily that straightforward, but this does speak directly to your comment.

Marin County is the same way. Main reason BART doesn’t go there is because they don’t want “those people” to be able to get there.

This seemed like the #1 obvious reason to me. Race should've played a much larger part of that explanation. It has dictated so much of American civil life, especially the organization of neighborhoods, that it seems like the most obvious reason we have different transportation options than European cities.

1. Low overall population density

2. Newer cities designed when cars were already king

3. Redesign of cities with the car in mind, due to fierce lobbying by car industry.

4. Hidden subsidies for cars, like untaxed carbon, untaxed smog leading to respiratory illnesses in cities, and of course free ubiquitous parking in so many areas.

5. Continuing lack of innovation, policy hold-ups, partisanship leading to gridlock, not to mention a public disinterest in using public transit.

> Figuring out how to improve transit isn’t like curing cancer or inventing a quantum computer, either. There are good, viable models of transit systems that already exist in cities that look a lot like U.S ones. They are successful both at attracting riders and at being financially viable, from places that have more in common with American cities than one might expect

If that's the case then you'd think some company would step in to grab that "financially viable" market

Tokyo's transit system is run by multiple companies. There are at least 10 different train companies many of which also run bus services. AFAIK they are hugely profitable. Many of them also open retail spaces and office spaces in and around the stations they run.

The value of transit isn't the fact you rode on it, but the fact you get somewhere you want to go. Tokyo rail companies, and those of many other countries as well (Hong Kong comes to mind), also hold the ability to build shopping and apartments on the stations they build (if you've been, you've probably been to Atré, Lumine, Kirarina, Tokyu etc. station malls, and you've probably spent money in them), which more than reimburses the cost of the rail itself, because ultimately the point of riding a train is to get somewhere—and if the transit companies get the ability to own that "somewhere" themselves, it becomes immediately obvious how valuable transit is.

In the case of San Francisco, hopefully the State of California Bill AB 2923 [1] passes—that's one step in realizing this model of integrated transit, housing, and commercial development, that just makes sense.

[1] https://sf.curbed.com/2018/8/24/17778648/ab-2923-bart-housin...

Germany's Hauptbahnhofs are awesome. I saw a circus troupe preform inside one. They setup on the bottom floor and did acrobatics and you could watch them from the main floor a couple levels up.

The problem is that transit has huge upfront capital cost and regulatory risk. Even Tokyo Metro told investors that it would not build new lines after building the Fukutoshin Line.

You need lots of capital, for a payoff that is quite a long time away, and face potential litigation from any busybody (at least if you're in America), not to mention your competitor is usually the free public roads, run by an entity who also regulates you. There are simply better investment opportunities elsewhere.

Is it possible that's because Tokyo Metro is not run like say Tokyu or Seibu or Tobu where those companies have the more diversified system where they invest in the retail space around the station? AFAIK Tokyo Metro has none of that which could be one reason why they are not doing as well.

Are there really? Some tech companies have hundreds of billions in the bank and nowhere to put it. And probably have the lobbyists and political connections to grease the wheels and get things done for a favorable environment.

Hell, even conservatives might go along as long as the government is giving tax breaks to "job creators".

Tech, so far, has not demonstrated any interest in actually investing in things outside the tech sphere. There's private philanthropy going on (Gates Foundation), but very little in the way of interest in domestic civics. No one has done anything comparable to the Vanderbilts and Carnegies launching universities.

There are fundamental differences, anyways. Tech can be scaled up without much interference or perceived negative impact to neighbors, and tech's main roadblock has been tech itself. Transit's main roadblock is politics, not technology; people are loath to raise more taxes, people don't like "those characters" having easier access on the train, they'd never ride a train so why should they pay taxes for one, etc.

TX Central has been trying to launch a high speed rail project for years now, and they've mostly received a never-ending stream of lawsuits for their troubles.

> There are at least 10 different train companies many of which also run bus services. AFAIK they are hugely profitable. Many of them also open retail spaces and office spaces in and around the stations they run.

These things are not incidental; a pretty huge chunk of their revenue is their property portfolio, which also reinforces transit demand, because people want to get to the properties around their stations.

In America, this integrated approach was not really a thing for major rapid transit systems. Where it was tried, it was the streetcar systems that built out low-density suburbs, but these suburbs did not generate enough money to recuperate the lifecycle cost when the streetcars reached EOL and needed replacement. And "fixing" it for current rapid transit systems would need ridiculous amounts of eminent domain, since all that land is now owned by other people; and the transit agencies with barely any capital to maintain their physical plants simply don't have the means to provide fair compensation to property owners.

Japan's rail system was made profitable by transferring all of its debt to the Japanese taxpayers.

> By 1987, JNR's debt was over ¥27 trillion ($280 billion at 2009 exchange rates) and the company was spending ¥147 for every ¥100 earned. By an act of the Diet of Japan, on April 1, 1987 JNR was privatized and divided into seven railway companies, six passenger and one freight, collectively called the Japan Railways Group or JR Group. Long-term liabilities of JNR were taken over by the JNR Settlement Corporation. That corporation was subsequently disbanded on October 22, 1998, and its remaining debts were transferred to the national budget's general accounting. By this time the debt has risen to ¥30 trillion ($310 billion in 2009 dollars).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_National_Railways#His...

> Tokyo's transit system is run by multiple companies. There are at least 10 different train companies many of which also run bus services.

I find this interesting because it's a stark contrast to NYC. NYC is of the only cities in the country where PT is so pervasive that most people can get around on PT alone, but they tried that same exact model back in the day, and it failed miserably leading to the creation of the MTA.

The special thing about Tokyo's rail system is not that it's private, but that the railroads are the primary landowners around the rail stations, which was never true in New York.

Rail infrastructure benefits both the passengers who ride it, and the businesses whose workers and customers ride to their premises on the infrastructure. Traditionally, rail systems can only recover from the passengers. That leaves a large positive externality accruing to the businesses, which the rail operator cannot recover.

The Japanese model solves that problem by allowing the rail operator to capture value from both ends of the transaction. It charges fees to passengers, but also charges rent to all the businesses built near rail lines.

> The special thing about Tokyo's rail system is not that it's private, but that the railroads are the primary landowners around the rail stations, which was never true in New York.

They also don't have the TWU, whose unchecked corruption would be capable of destroying the public transit system of any city in any country, given the opportunity.

NYC's system was (partially) developed by two private companies. It was quite successful for a while, although they did make the choice not to also be property developers, which is how Tokyo's companies make an income.

Then a populist decided that he should build a municipal subway system to drive the other two out of business so that the city could buy them out, and the rest is history. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_Subway_System

To be fair, it failed in part because fares were frozen without being subsidized.

Of course, the fare freeze happened for a good reason: a city where people can't afford to get around is a city whose economy can't operate. (Let that be a warning to today's MTA leaders.)

But if you freeze fares without subsidy during a period of inflation, the operators can't afford to operate, and the system fails.

I'm not knowledgable about this, but does New York MTA own/commercialize the land above their stations or just the tracks/right of way? I always felt like in NYC it was really odd how the stations are usually really tiny and don't really have any stores or vendors except those tiny convenience stores on the platforms, and a few really crappy looking shops sprinkled in big stations like Times Square. Stands in stark contrast to the ones in Tokyo where I'm living now, where the station malls are amongst the nicest and the vendors within the fare gates are plentiful, name-brand businesses (think stuff like Muji and Kinokuniya) and quality restaurants.

Is the Port Authority owned Oculus at WTC an exception to the rule, or am I misinterpreting how the MTA works?

If my understanding is correct that MTA doesn't own that land, then imagine how fast and efficiently they would have built the 2nd Av subway if they also knew they could funnel millions of people to whatever revenue machines they built on every station along the way.

The MTA generally doesn't own the land above the tracks, and your last paragraph succinctly explains the differences in financial incentives to build rail between New York and Tokyo.

We should try shutting down most bus systems outside major dense metro areas and start over. For example, I used to live in Orange County, California. There is no rail there, only buses. But whenever I saw the buses on the road, they were empty. And I rarely saw anyone at bus stops. But they have a huge budget, $290 million per year (https://www.octa.net/News/About/OCTA-Board-Approves-$1-3-Bil...) for bus operations. What a waste of money, empty buses driving around in circles.

Imagine if that money went to this instead:

* Estimate of $15 round trip per day for Lyft Line/Uber Pool for commuting to/from work. That's $300 per month. Create special Lyft/Uber cards and distribute to low income residents. $290 million/$300 = 966k low income residents. Note that the population of OC is 3 million. And this would be free for low income residents. Whatever they spend on commuting now can be spent for other non-commuting transportation.

* These MUST be used with Lyft Line/Uber Pool. Also these rides will be only pickup/drop off at bus stops. These requirements allow for massive routing efficiencies and the bus stop infrastructure is already designed for a lot of pickup/dropoffs.

Eventually Lyft/Uber will notice that certain stops are very popular. They may start asking drivers of minivans to cover these. As demand increases more, they may run shuttles. And some extremely popular bus stops may even have high capacity buses. But this will be a natural growth that reacts to demand. Ironically, the end result is a functioning bus system for some popular stops. But the key is that we get there by growing the system and the demand, instead of just throwing buses out there and hoping someone will use them.

You're mixing per-month and per-year.

* $300 (/person /month) -> $3.6k (/person /year) for your estimated Lyft Line.

* $290m (/year) bus salaries / $3.6k (/person /year) lyft subscriptions = 80.5k people.

> When transit service isn’t good, few will choose to use it. [...] improving American transit doesn’t necessarily demand multi-decade, hundred-billion-dollar infrastructure projects

Yes, but it's not free either. Americans, for better or worse, just don't want to pay for public services they might not use. You see the private sector entering into agreements with localities to build toll roads knowing there is profitability. You don't see the private sector looking to enter mass transit presumably because of lack of profitability. One can argue for the social good to be borne by all, but surely there is a limit. Like it or not, you need majority support for public works projects, and it's not coming.

Many of those who have flown to the suburbs have done so because of the propensity for their smaller city governments to not spend money on projects like these (or their increased voting influence to prevent it). So, unlike what the article states, you either have to give up on the suburbs or risk being voted out for giving up on the citizens' wants there. So your left with dense-urban-only transit because they are the only ones that want it. And it's ok. The want for quality mass transit outside of dense urban areas should be subject to the will of those that live there despite the objections by the ones that don't. If you want to tackle pollution as a matter of policy, so be it, but you can't make people ride a bus without doing so regressively.

Blame it on the auto industry they created the idea "jay-walking" which was introduced in the 1920's by them part of a propaganda campaign to claim the roads for cars and shift the blame in accidents from cars to pedestrians. They forced other countries some in the middle east to abandon public transport to promote cars. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26073797

We also have a strong first-adopter problem: our rail systems were among the first, so we're stuck with some inherent design limitations that weren't an issue in 1890 but sure are now.

For example, if you want high speed rail between major cites in new england, you're out of luck; the rails were laid out with curves and shapes that will not allow you to go fast. You can solve this, but the solution is to straighten out the rails -- and that means eminent domaining several billion dollars worth of Connecticut. I don't see that happening.


We had rails sooner yet we did not get stuck. Do you think that the size of US is limiting here?

That's the other big problem, yes.

See also the Netherlands. In the 70s they decided that bikes were good, and that paving over canals to let big trucks and cars take over was bad, and it was time to stop doing that and move to a better way.

They got away with it because the Netherlands is 19 times smaller than the state of Texas.

There were other rails which ran between NYC and Boston which have since been shuttered, but were far more efficient. Problem is that there isn't a populated, straight line between NYC and Boston. So the curved rail road won out due to where people live. But that's not even the real problem. The real problem is that passenger trains do not have right of way on these lines. That belongs to the freight companies. So, on average, even Acela ends up averaging 65-70mph.

To your first point: yes, that's part of why worcester and springfield have been dead since before the Civil War. And it's part of the context for "Ethan Frome". For better or worse, CT port cities proved better than rail to the hudson, especially once farming moved west.

Right of way is another big issue, but even if it wasn't, Acela can't hit full speed north of NYC. It'd derail if it tried.

We have the same thing in actual England, our rail system was the first and now we have to live with tunnels and bridges not high enough for double decker trains. Most of our railways are limited to 125mph due to lack of in-cab signalling rather than because of track curvature though, tilting trains handle tight curvature problems.

Certainly doesn't help that car companies actively worked to dismantle the public transit systems and promote personal vehicles.

It doesn't help, but it probably doesn't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Why is the D.C. Metro or Atlanta's MARTA so bad? I don't think car companies had anything to do with it. Americans are just bad at transit. The people don't care, and the people running it have bad taste, are bad at management, etc.

I'm not sure about DC, but for Atlanta at least it's really a question of density. Atlanta's one of the least dense major metros, so outside of the major corridors that MARTA already runs on, there's not a lot of big wins to be had by adding more stations.

In my opinion, Atlanta's actually pretty well-built in a lot of ways. While MARTA is awful for commuter/everyday use, MARTA is effective for a lot of other things like getting to major events downtown, or getting residents and tourists to/from the airport. I'm not sure you could really make it all that much better without some fairly insane investment.

As a Marta daily commuter, it's all about where you choose to live and where your work is. Training from Midtown to Buckhead is easy, it's 5 miles (half the length of manhatten), getting to the airport is easy, exact times of 27 and 37 minutes, getting to Decatur for dinner is easy. Getting to Dunwoody and Sandy springs are easy, except when you get there everything except for State Farm is a long outdoor walk away though 4 lane car traffic and inadequate sidewalks.

I used to even ride from Alpharetta to Buckhead when the buses had priority in the shoulder; it was much preferable to morning Rush hour(s) if you got on the highway after 7am

Oh, I definitely agree and Atlanta's generally done well recently at building more things nearer to the stations. That said, unless you live in one of the areas you just mentioned, there's not a lot you can do. There's a ton of Atlanta along 85/75 that's mostly unserved by MARTA, let alone a lot of stuff outside of 285.

Atlanta has a pretty rough last-mile problem just due to its density. Outside of midtown/downtown, a lot of the stations are pretty far apart by NYC/Euro standards. You mention Midtown to Buckhead, which is 3 stops on MARTA, being half the length of Manhattan. That's more than the length of Battery Park to Penn Station, which is 12 stops on the 1/2/3 line. MARTA is fine if you're mostly going from major area to major area, but if you want to go to somewhere like Little 5, you're kinda out of options in a way that the MTA seldom has issues with.

I don't so much see this as something MARTA could really fix, but more just innate to Atlanta's sprawling geography. It's getting better, but MARTA pretty much cannot be what people want it to be.

Some people don't think the beltline is a panacea; but that is the hope in the original plan and on the city planners; that by having a tighter perimeter that connects to the 4 spokes, we can focus the next 500k people in a smaller, denser area. Here's hoping.

Atlanta is finally hitting the tipping point, though. They've been building more and more condos and high rises along two lane streets inside of Interstate 285 for far too long.

The traffic is extreme now, even on a Sunday evening when I normally fly in. compared to back when I left, around 2013. It's so much so I generally take MARTA to the nearest neighborhood to my usual hotel and call an Uber.

Renting a car from the airport for 4 days costs more than than even taking Uber Black from the airport and back. Even then, it's faster to just take MARTA to the nearest neighborhood and grab a Lyft/Uber.

So much of Atlanta is now stacked to the point that if you can get away with it, Zipcars, Uber, Lyft, and MARTA can combine to be cheaper than the cost of owning a car.

There's a mood shift taking hold in the northern OTP neighborhoods. They see ITP folks not owning cars and spending that money on other things and they want a piece of that pie.

It's still decades out but the change is at least finally starting. Just hope it isn't too late. Most everyone I know is either in the process of or already has left with traffic being the primary reason they're leaving.

Depends on what “grand scheme” you’re speaking to.

Liberal and conservative think tanks have both concluded that the Interstate and road projects have never paid themselves off.

The oil and gas companies have been hiding studies that there has been significant environmental impact due to burning those fossil fuels in all those vehicles for decades.

And you seem to be waving away lobbying and concluding “America is just bad at it.”

That’s a naive take on the history.

You're thinking of a common misinterpretation of the GM streetcar conspiracy. Everyone's heard of it, and it did happen, but there are two big misconceptions most people have of it:

Misconception 1: GM and their cohorts bought out and shut down all the streetcar lines because they wanted to destroy public transit and promote personal vehicles. Reality: GM and their cohorts wanted to promote buses as a replacement for streetcars, because GM and their cohorts were the largest suppliers of buses and bus parts in the country. They stood to get filthy stinking rich off the replacement of streetcars with buses.

Misconception 2: Streetcar lines were doing just fine and dandy before GM came along. Reality: streetcar lines were failing, and GM was able to do what they did because the owners of streetcar lines were desperate to sell before the bottom falls out.

And keep in mind that GM was successfully prosecuted for this, too (and they absolutely deserved it).

Now we have Uber and Elon Musk's batshit stupid tunnel project nibbling away at it again.

If they ever make a new Roger Rabbit for the 2020s I've got a villain for you...

I think to discuss it as a technical problem is to put their heads in the sand. It's a political problem - one of the two major American political parties opposes government spending on principle and also opposes public services in particular; they favor policies that increase profit to big business. In this comment I'm not saying that the party is right or wrong, but that these are the consequences of their policies, for good or ill.

I understand that many would like to avoid politics. Citylab wants to focus on technical issues; Bill Gates cares about education, but AFAIK ignores how the same problem is one of the largest obstacles to improving education in the U.S.; people on HN are the same - they don't want to discuss politics.

Don't discuss it then, but then the discussion you do have is as pertinent as talking about technical solutions to your overloaded bandwidth, which are well known, when the real problem is that the CIO intentionally underfunds it.

Does public transportation always work better outside the US? Metra in Chicago is a heck of a lot more reliable than the likes of South West Trains and Govia in the UK.

Metra even works in the snow! And in the 15 years I've been using it has not had one strike. Whereas London suffers rail and tube strikes every few weeks.

Add to that commuting from the Chicago Burbs costs about 1/3rd of what commuting from the London suburbs does.

UK public transport is a disaster in its own right. It turns out that privatisation doesn't really help that much, especially when it's done in a way that basically gives you the worst parts of state ownership combined with the worst parts of private ownership. If you look to the continent you'll find systems that work a whole hell of a lot better.

I rode the Virgin East Cost Line a few times and it was only OK.

When they lost it to LNER, though, it turned into a complete nightmare. I've done 4 round trips now between London and Edinburgh on LNER and have had air conditioning in my car a total of 0 times, and the already long 4.5 hour ride delayed by an hour or more each time.

Maybe I've just had terrible luck, but 8 separate legs and 0 comfortable rides leads me to believe it is completely mismanaged, and that regular maintenance isn't occurring.

The east coast mainline has been a mess for years. Virgin were the second franchise to collapse and the only one that seems to have worked was the nationalised franchise that came between them.

Yes, a few American cities have good public transit, probably rivaling Europe. Chicago and NYC are at least two, there may be others. But once you get outside of those kinds of major metropolis areas, it's pretty bleak.

My town (pop. about 80,000) has a bus system. It's a college town, and a few routes that run between campus and student apartment neighborhoods are heavily used. But otherwise most of the buses drive around empty especially mid-day and at night.

It's not anywhere close to self-sufficient.

It contributes to a lot of people who don't use the bus themselves to think the whole system is a waste of money. Especially when you see a large diesel bus driving around with zero, one, or two people on board.

We'd keep 90% of the benefit and cut a huge amount of cost if we just killed off all the routes that the students don't use. But the system is more political than pragmatic so it doesn't happen.

Empty buses do create a wasteful perception. However I would argue that most cars you see on the road are single occupant, i.e. mostly empty, and thus hugely wasteful as well.

You just perfectly described my hometown, Davis CA. The busses are nice but besides the heavy student traffic in the morning and afternoon they are pretty empty.

Some American cities get it, but even those are struggling because their systems are full of legacy problems that are expensive to fix yet don't provide any visible benefits.

Changing the wiring on your subway so it doesn't catch on fire is really expensive, but nobody's going to notice if the subway doesn't catch on fire.

London and New York have subway systems that are extremely complex and on the verge of self-destruction most of the time due to budget constraints. Other, newer systems have decades to go before they face the same crunch.

Except it's on fire really frequently—track fires caused by garbage are a fairly common cause of NYC subway delays.

NYC is also riddled with inefficiency and corruption that bloats the price of everything they build, which create and exacerbate those budget constraints. Costs per mile of new track and maintenance are consistently an order of magnitude or more higher in NYC than in other parts of the world, with higher rates of encountering problems; this may be partially due to the complexity of building there, but given that fantastically busy and complex cities throughout the world don't have these same problems, I'm much quicker to blame it on the political and economic system (which, tangentially, is why I think stuff like Musk's Boring Company are targeting the wrong issue when it comes to urban development, unless he's just trying to use that as a trojan horse for municipal influence).

It's odd to see that such an extravagantly lucrative city can't seem to put together the money to maintain a core part of its infrastructure, that much much much poorer cities are able to achieve in other parts of the world.

> It's odd to see that such an extravagantly lucrative city can't seem to put together the money to maintain a core part of its infrastructure, that much much much poorer cities are able to achieve in other parts of the world.

It's really not odd at all once you understand just how pervasive the corruption inside New York government is.

Unfortunately, New York exists as a democracy in name only. The party leadership wields full control over elections (and therefore the state government), which means that voters have literally no electoral option for pushing for change. That's why the MTA and TWU are able to get away with corruption and outright fraud that would be astonishingly illegal anywhere else in the country.

It's about motivation. NYC already has a subway and while it desperately needs upgrades, fixes, and expansion, doing anything is unbelievably complex. You've got to be really, really motivated to cut through all that.

In "poorer cities" they can just get things done because they don't have the same layers of process. Building a subway line in Nigeria is trivial compared to dealing with the multitude of parties, all of which have significant political clout, that is Manhattan.

> It's about motivation. NYC already has a subway and while it desperately needs upgrades, fixes, and expansion, doing anything is unbelievably complex. You've got to be really, really motivated to cut through all that.

It's not that it's "complex"; it's that you would literally have to take on the entire political machine of both political parties in New York, along with the TWU itself[0], in order to push for the meaningful investments that the transit system needs.

[0] The MTA and TWU literally spent the last several months actively campaigning for politicians who would block the plans for upgrading the transit infrastructure. Welcome to New York!

> ...it's that you would literally have to take on the entire political machine of both political parties in New York...

That sounds pretty complex to me. There's a considerable number of moving parts there all of which inter-relate in intractably complicated ways.

> There's a considerable number of moving parts there all of which inter-relate in intractably complicated ways.

I guess by that view, all (stable) corruption is inherently complex. Which I guess isn't wrong, but I'd prefer to call a spade a spade: the problem is rampant corruption that is essentially impossible to address.

I'm just saying if it was easy to address it'd have been addressed, but it isn't, so that's why the situation is what it is.

I think it's also a cultural thing. Americans do _not_ like public transit. They'll tolerate it maybe (though they will complain about how taxes are too high, the transit itself costs too much, and how it's inconvenient).

If you are successful, if you're happy, you own a car and you drive. As a example, if you've lived in LA just imagine how humorous it would be if a successful person you meet at a party or dinner said "yup, I took the bus to get here".

Only the low income and undesirables are forced into using public transit. So station locations, and transportation that feeds into the public network will always be second or third tier.

In Japan they have the ridership and society generally thinks good thoughts about their public transit.

This is because LA is basically a giant suburb with a few city-like areas.

USA have very few "proper", dense cities, in the European sense of the world. In these cities, like NYC and Chicago, public transit does quite OK. A lot of successful people don't own a car exactly because they can afford not to.

Of course, most of the US territory, including most cities, and areas as important as major cities (see Silicon Valley) are suburbs, if not outright countryside. At a low density, public transportation makes much, much less sense, so it's not get built.

> But there was a big difference between America’s approach to big urban metro projects and that of Canadian and European cities: Even when the United States built expensive rail systems, it never took care of the basics.

This is a really important point. In many U.S. cities, even the public transit is more of an adjunct to driving.

Here's the eastern terminus of one of Munich's S-Bahn lines: https://www.google.com/maps/search/munich++erding+train+stat.... Despite being about 25 miles outside the city, the area around it is developed and you can walk to the train station.

In contrast, here's the eastern terminus of D.C.'s orange line: https://www.google.com/maps/search/new+carollton+metro/@38.9.... Even though it's only about 10 miles from downtown, you can't walk to anything from there. You can't even get a cup of coffee except at the little shop in the Amtrak lounge. Like much of the D.C. Metro, it was designed primarily for people to drive there and park.

And somehow, even for people who drive there and park, it's off putting. There's a vast expanse of concrete you have to traverse just to get to the train from the parking lot: https://www.google.com/maps/search/new+carollton+metro/@38.9.... It's so bad I actually started driving to a slightly further station on the blue line to get to one that doesn't make me want to kill myself every morning: https://www.google.com/maps/search/morgan+blvd+metro/@38.893.... It's still got this completely unnecessary vast swath of pavement out front, but at least there's some trees.

Compare those monstrosities to Munich, where the parking is right next to the tracks: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=image....

A lot of the post-1960s "public transit" development is like the D.C. Metro's. These concrete edifices surrounded by vast swaths of concrete sidewalks and surrounded again by highways.

Some of it isn't that bad. Here's Lockport, Illinois Metra station.


Most of the suburban Chicago stations are similar.

(Edit: I'd agree that most of Chicago's rail system is not "post 1960s" though). Chicago is a rail hub and most of the suburbs developed along the rail lines.

Yeah, Metra (Chicago) and Metro North (New York) are the exception, as a lot of those systems were built before the 1960s.

Arguably the El trains have the same humane attributes as well (though the closest easily-parkable one to me, in Forest Park, has a big parking lot schlep; but I mean, I should just walk to the Green Line on Austin.)

Is it really bad in the US or really good in Canada? I have a friend who has moved to Canada from Europe some time ago and he was complaining how it's not so efficient and you need a car eventually.

Because U.S. cities treat transit as a business or a utility rather than as infrastructure.

I think treating it as vital infrastructure is one way to get it to work properly (assuming federal, state, and local gov't can get their act together enough to do a good job of it), I don't know much about the historical precedent but I would imagine a lot of public systems in Europe work that way.

But private companies seem to have done a good job of making Tokyo's system work well (see my comments above about how since they own the land on stations, they have a huge incentive to make it painless to get to them and derive profit from that); I wonder if given the general ineffectiveness of American bureaucracy right now, if a private approach with the right incentives would be more politically feasible.

That all said, I think the article brings up plenty of good points about how transit has been hobbled in the USA, that aren't entirely attributable to the business vs infrastructure mindset.

>Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S.

Well, I have a much simpler answer than the article:

1. In US, the skill of public administration is not high enough to handle a complex system of public mass transit.

2. Any effort to just bring the transit to level of material parity with Europe is done the Soviet way: "I pretend to work, and you pretend to spend money"

And explanation on point 2: why it takes a public transit authorities from two to three times more money to buy a bus than its market price? A bus costs more in paperwork, services, and interest than the price of its hardware to them!

This is why American cities can't have clean new busses that say Germany have. It will need them a multiple of their budgets to do something a German city can do at 1/3 the cost.

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