Why public transportation sucks in the US

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2017/09/27/why-public-transportation-suck.html


I have long pined for a rail system in Northern IL that connected suburbs together, and even the Metra train lines.

It was a shock to learn that this existed prior to the 50’s in the form of the IntraUrban Railway. After cars took hold, the railway was dismantled and turned into what now is the public bike trails.


One big issue is that large, urban areas are frequently limited from controlling their own public transportation infrastructure, with budgeting for buses, light rail, and so forth coming from the state legislature. This isn’t by accident. As a politician once explained to me when I asked by Seattle/KCMetro couldn’t raise its own budget, Seattle is rich. It’s a net-positive revenue generator for the states. Far-flung districts of Washington State have Seattle’s revenue to thank for their paved roads and water treatment facilities.

This gives Seattle a huge amount of moral and financial gravity. This creates deep resentment in rural districts. Forbidding urban regions from controlling their own transportation budgets is how rural districts keep the urban districts on a leash.

As she explained, if you cut off a city’s water supply, people die. If you cut off electricity, people die. Cut off garbage, people get sick and die. But if you cut off public transportation: “Eh.” People will get around by cars. Traffic will be horrible, but so what? You live in the city, you get what’s coming to you. The goal of legislative control of city mass transit is to provide just enough so that cleaners, cooks, clerks, delivery people, and so on can barely make it to their jobs, and to remind the city on an annual basis that the basic labor infrastructure of the city could be snarled and wrecked at the whim of the legislature. A transit budget battle doesn’t sound like a life-or-death issue, so it can be sold as “just another budget issue.”


Yeah, we blind people will just hop right into our cars and head on out.

Seattle would collapse without public transit…downtown simply could not handle the traffic and there isn’t enough parking now for those who do drive downtown and there’s no room to build more…

Far more than the hewers of wood and drawers of water ride buses and the light rail to into work here. Route I used before retired ran every 8 minutes during commuting times and every bus was packed and even standing room was jammed.

For all its faults Seattle is about the more forward-looking US city I’ve seen in terms of public transit and being blind, you notice these things . :slight_smile:

European ones tend to do it better overall but the cost can be horrible. Look at London and how much people are now paying to commute. Not uncommon to cost more for your rail and bus pass than a car would cost.


The interurban streetcar network of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was by all accounts a truly civilised, effective and egalitarian way to travel short and medium distances. We may not see that again, but I do notice that LRTs and old-style streetcars have been making returns in scattered (and usually more affluent) cities in the U.S. over the past 15 years. L.A.'s Exhibition Line is the example I think of most, although the hunger for this commuting alternative is so great that it’s already overcrowded at peak hours. At the same time, L.A.'s roads seem to get more and more potholed every time I visit.

[one minor annoyance about the video is his using what seems to be Great War footage to represent World War II. It’s not like there’s a dearth of public domain footage from WWII available for use in a short documentary that relies on our trusting the creator knows his history]



Whilst I loved SimCity, the strict zoning never really made sense to me having grown up in a suburb of London.

An entire area just for commerce? Well, we have town centres where shops and offices congregate, and sometimes even shopping centres and office towers in the larger towns. But there were plenty of small office blocks and little areas for shopping outside of town centres, like satellites. And then there are the corner shops and tiny offices that were obviously once shops, like satellites of the satellites. We just don’t have hard zones - more of a natural distribution where gravity has pulled things mostly together over time.

I always assumed that the hard zoning was a simplification due to the limitations of the game engine and the computers of the time.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that no, this barbarous idiocy was actually how many American cities did things…



Speaking of Sim City, remember how unfunded roads would slowly deteriorate from asphalt to gravel/dirt? That aspect is also now being replicated in the U.S. for real.

But do we get cool monsters? Noooo…


[quote=“jimp, post:4, topic:108437, full:true”]European ones tend to do it better overall but the cost can be horrible. Look at London and how much people are now paying to commute. Not uncommon to cost more for your rail and bus pass than a car would cost.

That depends. In London by the time you’ve added on insurance, MOT costs, fuel and so forth a car can be incredibly expensive to own. A yearly zone four travelcard (which covers many commutes) costs £1,892 - but you’re buying that anyway. So even if the car only costs you a grand a year, you have to ask yourself - would 52 minicab hires from the supermarket to home with that heavy shopping really be more expensive than the car?

Most single people or childless people I know in London do without a car. It’s a luxury item, whereas that travelcard is a cost of working.

And although London’s travel is subsidised, it’s still expensive. When I went on a work trip to Vienna in 2010, a week long U-Bahn ticket was 14 euros. The UK equivalent would have been over £40. Granted, that’s for the U-bahn only and doesn’t include trams or buses. But Vienna clearly sees its transport as an infrastructure that allows people to do business, and funds it accordingly.


They certainly glossed over the role that GM played in the decline of the streetcars. They were hardly as innocent as this article made them out to be. If you’re interested you should look up the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, for which GM, Firestone, Standard Oil (Chevron), Mac Trucks and other corporations were convicted of conspiracy to monopolize the transportation industry through the sale of buses to the one company that owned the streetcar systems, National City Lines, after they had loaned NCL money to expand. If this sounds somewhat familiar it’s because it was the basis for the main plot point behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit.


The reason is simply what it always is - money. Public transportation was allowed to pretty much fall apart after WWII because politicians saw there was more money in personal autos. Nobody has made a serious effort to reestablish it because no politician can figure out a way to get richer from doing it. Shortsighted fools vote against bond issues for it because they think that roads somehow don’t cost them anything. Worse fools and racist assholes vote against bonds for it because they don’t want to have to pay for “free” transport for those dirty <<insert bigot’s favorite target group here>>.

Downtown connector… ATL…




Originally, most US cities had fantastic trolley systems. Whether horse-drawn, electric, or cable systems…the were dependable and efficient.

Then the Age of the Automobile entered. Ford Motor Co. drafted an agreement with the US Government & State Governments to replace the trolley systems with automobiles. Ford paid federal and state governments large sums of money to make sure to “grease the wheels of progress.”

Likewise, the US decided that since rail trolley systems are obsolete, so were Train systems…except for moving freight. So now we have the Freight Rail Companies OWNING All Train Tracks and Passenger Trains needing to Lease the Right to Use the rails for passenger traffic. The US government decided that they weren’t going to invest into Rail Transportation…and leave it in the hands of Private Firms…who make all their Profits on Freight.

Some US cities have invested into Trolley systems to help reduce automobile congestion…and most have met or exceeded expectations. They are much more cost-effective and efficiently deliver passengers to their destinations. But don’t hold your breath…the US loves their cars too much to change.

BTW: I was almost arrested for walking 1 mile to the local Tax Office to get my Registration Tags for my truck. The police questioned WHY don’t I just drive there, like everyone else?

The Circle is Complete.


I appreciate that this comment is capitalized like it’s a Horrible Example from The Systems Bible.

There was never really any money in transit to begin with. LA’s famous Red Cars were rarely profitable, and between WW1 and WW2 only turned a profit one year, if memory serves. But they were loss leaders: Samuel Huntington developed a robust private rail system so that he could sell his subdivisions. The real money was in real estate development, not rail.


Because personal exceptionalism sells lots of soap.

And when energy (I mean petroleum) runs low, we’ll put the streetcars back in like we had until the 50s and share again. But we won’t want to. But we will have to.


…which is why natural monopolies like public transit should not be managed on a for-profit basis.


Yeah I was going to mention that…

I am still not happy with the what passes for “public transportation” in the U.S. especially since I have used plenty of it in Germany, England, The Netherlands, Mexico and China as well as the U.S.

Yeah traffic in ATX is pretty bad these days too.

183 on any weekday morning

Molly Ivins always said the key to happiness in Austin is to never drive I35 (above) and I know she was right about that (and so many other things).


Sheesh, we get at least twice as many cars in our bumper to bumper traffic around here! Just last week I got told I must have been making it up that a drive home took me 2 and a half hours, but then I showed my boss the google traffic estimates for the place I had to go - and he’s learned to budget for that next time. I’d appreciate an apology for his insinuation, but whatever, he is not that guy.

1 Like