We Get What We Ask For: Why America’s Transit Experience Lags Behind

by Mariia Zimmerman


For those in America who rely on transit either by choice or necessity, the experience can be a challenging one at times. You may live in a metro area with limited service that doesn’t take you where you want to go, when you need to get there. Or you may live in a metro area fortunate to have a tapestry of transit options but traveling on different systems requires an incredibly smart phone and a good deal of patience to navigate the different providers’ systems and timetables. In both instances, money  -- both the lack of it and the strings attached to it -- is a key reason as to why transit in the United States isn’t better.  

At the federal, state and local levels we are simply not funding transit sufficient to the need and demand that exists.  The impact of this is obvious when transit service is insufficient to conveniently connect people to jobs, schools, and regional opportunities. Three years ago the Federal Transit Administration calculated $24.5 billion as the total annualized investment needed to maintain the nation’s current transit systems and keep pace with ridership growth. Yet across all levels of government, only $16.5 billion was spent on transit capital investments in 2010.

A growing number of campaigns have arisen to tackle the fight for increased revenue. Federal transportation policy still predominately favors roads over transit, despite analysis showing that it wastes taxpayer dollars. Our collective failure to adequately fund transit (and passenger rail) at the national level puts the burden on localities to try and fill the gap. And many are responding with new tax and bonding measures to do just that. Groups like Transportation for America and the Center for Transportation Excellence track the bevy of local and state transportation funding measures.

But even when such local transit funding campaigns are successful, the end result can be a patchwork of transit rather than a coordinated or comprehensive system that best serves the regional economy and those who voted in its favor. As noted in a recent blog by Greater Greater Washington, the incentive to manage buses close to home in order to maintain local control has led to a “transit hodgpodge.”

Over the past year, I joined with Professor Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech to study regional transit coordination efforts in the Washington DC and San Francisco Bay Area regions.[1] We compared the experiences in these two regions with several European transit regions and found, among other things, that the wonderfully-American preference for “keeping things local” results in less cost-effective transit operations, lower ridership and a poor riding experience for the customer.

Among the report’s key findings:

·       In the United States, the federal transit program was established and cities took over private transit companies or amalgamated them into regional transit authorities. Today, funding for transit operations in urban areas primarily comes from local revenues. Federal funds are generally only available for capital investments either for new service, vehicles and facilities, or to improve the state of good repair. Local funding is critical, but reinforces parochialism and makes regional coordination of service, fares, and marketing a challenge. A potential limitation for US systems may be that the majority of federal transit funding flows directly to transit agencies and not through local or regional governments. This may reduce the willingness of agencies to innovate or take risks. The European experience suggests there may be benefits from moving towards a model where local government assumes this risk and guarantees revenues, but requires agencies to collaborate.   

·       Coordinated fare collection in the US is challenged given the myriad of revenue sources and service requirements. This undermines the ability to share revenues or coordinate transit service, especially among transit agencies who receive funding directly. The US case studies examined, and most transit agencies in the country, do not offer special discounted fares beyond reduced fares for seniors, or offer annual passes. Some regions including San Francisco are starting to explore special fares or reduced ticketing for low-income riders including youth, but this experience is limited. Marketing and branding budgets for transit agencies are limited. In Arlington, VA a combination of local, state and federal funding is used to more broadly market the benefits of transit and support commuter programs.

·       In the US, regional collaboration is most dominantly focused on capital planning through the federally-required metropolitan transportation planning process overseen by MPOs and state DOTs. Planning coordination on transit service and operation funding needs is much more limited and largely the domain of individual transit providers. Land use planning is almost an entirely local government effort. Our federal policy choices – to only fund capital and to not interfere with local  land use or service planning – means that transit may not be feasible to serve neighborhoods or job centers in low-density or sprawling areas; and it also means that no one is responsible for thinking about how well the regional transit system serves the riding customer.

 The full study is available to download from the Mid-Atlantic Universities Transportation Center. It includes detailed discussion of ridership trends and regional transit coordination efforts in Berlin, Hamburg, Zurich, Vienna and Zurich, in addition to the Washington DC and San Francisco Bay case studies.

[1] The research project also involved Kyle Lukacs and Andrea Hamre, two amazing graduate students at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs. Kyle co-authored the report with Professor Buehler and Mariia Zimmerman.