With numerous recent articles commenting on my generation’s decreasing use of the automobile, it’s time I started a discussion here about the relationship between cities and transit. Having never owned a car myself, I’ve often relied on public transit to get me where I need to go in a number of cities. Thus, from both a personal and an urbanist standpoint I know how important it is. In this first post in the transit series, I’ll outline the different transportation models that I’ve broadly seen employed everywhere from major metro areas to small towns.
New York City and Washington DC provide some of the most expansive public transit systems in the nation and they are usually pointed to as examples of top-notch public transit. (Chicago is also a notable example of quality transit.) These cities’ transportation systems serve millions of residents a day, taking them to the office, the supermarket, the theater, the park and everywhere in between with relative speed and ease. The webs of their bus and subway lines reach the corners of the city (though both, notably, exclude certain neighborhoods like Red Hook in Brooklyn and Georgetown in DC). Public transit in these metropolitan areas may not be cheap, but it is the quickest method of movement in traffic-logged cities that cost a fortune to park in. In New York and DC, it is completely reasonable not to own a car and if the need arises for an out of town trip or an IKEA buy, one can grab a ZipCar for the weekend. Class differentials seriously effect access to such resources and I’ll speak more about that in a future post.
Mid-size cities are a vastly mixed bag when it comes to public transportation. Some, like Philadelphia, have gone all in with a commitment to maximum accessibility and frequency. Others, like Atlanta hardly try. Still others—Milwaukee, WI for example— have a transit system that quietly links thousands of residents to the surrounding area while whizzing through, unnoticed, by its wealthier, car-bound citizens. I won’t deny that having a car in my mid-size hometown of Minneapolis makes transportation a lot quicker—with the exception of rush-hour wherein a designated highway lane makes commuting on the bus a relative breeze. Ultimately, quality public transit is entirely achievable in these sorts of places if governments and people want to make it happen.
Sprawling metro areas like Los Angeles and Houston have a reputation for terrible public transit, which makes a certain amount of sense because it’s hard to adequately serve such a spread-out population. Nonetheless, the lack of accessible public transit limits employment options for low income residents and can severely isolate certain neighborhoods. It seems unlikely that these cities will suddenly decide to prioritize transit given how costly it would be. I happen to have a friend who used to live in LA and who insisted that the public transit there was workable. This may have been due to her ideal locations of work and residence, but it may also have been due to the fact that she avoided the preconceived notions that L.A.’s transit was awful and only used by those who had no choice (i.e. poor residents). Either way, sprawling cities are far from ideal in the area of public transit.
My small college town of Walla Walla, WA took me by surprise during my senior year. When I got an internship on the edge of the town, I had to figure out how I was going to get there since I didn’t have a car. On a whim, I googled “Walla Walla bus” and to my surprise, I found a rather extensive system that could take me exactly where I needed to go. Now, the Walla Walla system ran infrequently (about every 30 minutes) and for limited hours (about 6am to 6pm) and it was all based around a central transit station to which I had to walk in order to actually get on my bus. However, having this quick, fifty cent ride to my job every week saved my semester. Walla Walla is also connected to a transit line that services several small towns within a fifty-mile radius. I know that many small towns do not provide a bus system like this, but I think this example shows that it’s possible.
So there’s a quick assessment of the ways different sized cities handle public transit.
NOTE: This post is part of a series called Public Transit Trends. Click here for the second post, “What a Bus Ride Can Tell You About Race and Class.”