Why Is American mass transit so bad?

Friday, December 14th, 2018

Why Is American mass transit so bad? It’s a long story:

One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world. Today, outside a few major urban centers, it is barely on life support. Even in New York City, subway ridership is well below its 1946 peak. Annual per capita transit trips in the U.S. plummeted from 115.8 in 1950 to 36.1 in 1970, where they have roughly remained since, even as population has grown.

This has not happened in much of the rest of the world.


What happened? Over the past hundred years the clearest cause is this: Transit providers in the U.S. have continually cut basic local service in a vain effort to improve their finances. But they only succeeded in driving riders and revenue away. When the transit service that cities provide is not attractive, the demand from passengers that might “justify” its improvement will never materialize.


[The Age of Rail] was an era when transit could usually make money when combined with real-estate speculation on the newly accessible lands, at least in the short term. But then as now, it struggled to cover its costs over the long term, let alone turn a profit. By the 1920s, as the automobile became a fierce competitor, privately run transit struggled.

But public subsidy was politically challenging: There was a popular perception of transit as a business controlled by rapacious profiteers—as unpopular as cable companies and airlines are today. In 1920, the President’s Commission on Electric Railways described the entire industry as “virtually bankrupt,” thanks to rapid inflation in the World War I years and the nascent encroachment of the car.

The Depression crushed most transit companies, and the handful of major projects that moved forward in the 1930s were bankrolled by the New-Deal-era federal government: See the State and Milwaukee-Dearborn subways in Chicago, the South Broad Street subway in Philadelphia, and the Sixth Avenue subway in New York. But federal infrastructure investment would soon shift almost entirely to highways.


It is not a coincidence that, while almost every interurban and streetcar line in the U.S. failed, nearly every grade-separated subway or elevated system survived. Transit agencies continued to provide frequent service on these lines so they remained viable, and when trains did not have to share the road and stop at intersections, they could also be time competitive with the car. The subways and els of Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are all still around, while the vast streetcar and interurban networks of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Detroit, and many others are long gone. Only when transit didn’t need to share the road with the car, and frequent service continued, was it able to survive.


All of these [systems introduced in the 1970s] featured fast, partially automated trains running deep into the suburbs, often in the median of expressways. With their plush seating and futuristic design, they were designed to attract people who could afford to drive.

But these high-tech systems were a skeleton without a body, unable to provide access to most of the urban area without an effective connecting bus network. The bus lines that could have fed passengers to the stations had long atrophied, or they never existed at all. In many cases, the new rapid transit systems weren’t even operated by the same agency as the local buses, meaning double fares and little coordination. With no connecting bus services and few people within walking distance in low-density suburbs, the only way to get people to stations was to provide vast lots for parking. But even huge garages can’t fit enough people to fill a subway. Most people without cars were left little better off than they had been before the projects, and many people with cars chose to drive the whole way rather than parking at the station and getting on the train.


Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Go over to The Antiplanner, and read his archives. He has many posts on transportation.

    In general what kills mass transit is trains. Their operating and construction costs, energy consumption and emissions when calculated on on a passenger-mile basis are much higher than any other form of transit, including specifically private automobiles. And if the train is actually a trolley (how 19th Century) operating on streets, it significantly increases traffic congestion and traffic accidents.

    Moreover, these costs force transit authorities to actually reduce available transit capacity by cutting bus service. There are only about a half dozen cities in the US that can make good use of rail transit. Nearly every city is best served by buses.

    In addition, trains are the very definition of inflexibility and inconvenience. They cannot respond to changes in passenger sources, and passengers are dumped off away from their actual destination. That is something Uber and Lyft don’t do.

    One might also note that in major cities travel on public transit of all type is actually dangerous, and passengers are subject to attack and robbery by black and hispanic gang bangers.

  2. Senexada says:

    That Antiplanner site is good.

    The failure of transit, and rail in particular, is simple economics.

    Is it cheaper to (a) hire unionized labor and a massive piece of capital equipment maintained by monopoly labor, or (b) use your own labor in a small piece of capital equipment maintained by competitive bidding?

    For all but the densest of dense source & destinations, (b) is far, far cheaper. And that’s true even for young, single, healthy people traveling with minimal luggage. For a families or other situations it can be up to another order of magnitude less economical.

    The only real counterargument is that the roadways themselves are massively subsidized. Whether that is actually true is hard to tell; I’ve tried & failed to compute road spending vs gas tax revenues from Fed & State budgets; and I haven’t found a believable summary. My instinct is that road costs are born mostly by users, but who knows. If such a subsidy exists, it would need to be truly massive to change the economic calculation (since the structural costs of rail travel are so enormous).

  3. Freddo says:

    The author is a Ph.D. candidate in urban planning, so of course he does not mention the role of unions, red tape and public policy in making mass transit too expensive as well as a horrible experience.

  4. Eli says:

    On roadways, highways, and Interstates, operators are free to explore technologies bound only by Highway Transportation Safety Standards.

    On rail, the government aids in chaining operators to the technology that matured over a century ago.

    If rail were seen as an opportunity, and rights-of-way matched the Eisenhower Interstate System, except operators bought rail slots in the manner air operators buy terminal and route time, competition would quickly catch up the technology to autos.

    Imagine for a moment, all the package and freight operators putting automated cars on rails, replacing the tractor trailer routes for local and regional operations. In 25-45 years, the technology would be caught up to the point operators were running red-eye sleepers on regional runs, safely.

    Most of the focus I have seen on “solving” transportation issues revolves steadfastly on the micro operators: people. Maybe individual transports for individual routes is the most efficient, for now.

    But there is great opportunity just in separating the types of operators, and freight looks to be a “safe” way to get the ball rolling. Except that rail is resolutely bound to the 19th century and will not move.

  5. Bruce says:

    Thanks for the Antiplanner recommendation.

  6. Albion says:

    The unions, as always, don’t help the cause. The people who rely on public transport are very much the target of the unions, who (especially in the richer part of the UK, London and the South east) frequently call strikes in ‘support’ of some relatively small issue (and all the while being paid handsomely, so they can afford irregular days off, particularly at say Christmas time)

    The rider and user is the victim of many strikes, no matter how expensive their fares. the unions always claim they are ‘on the side of the traveller’ but if they are naively aiming at the bosses, those are the people who always travel by car, not by public transport. It is the public who pays again and again and again for unionised public travel.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    When I go overseas, I love to ride the trains. I wish we had nice trains in the US.

    The thing is, I hate driving in traffic. If they ever get the bugs out of self driving technology, that might work for me.

    Driving in Boston is a nightmare. The subway is a bit of a shambles, but it’s still better than driving.

    I understand all the reasons why the US doesn’t have decent trains and probably never will. But I’m not happy about it.

    City buses overseas can be… scary.

    Oh, and… why no decent coach bus service in the US? Greyhound is surly. The whole franchise seems to have a bad attitude.

  8. Kirk says:

    Mass transit got abandoned precisely because of what it was–Nobody wants to be beholden to the schedules of others, and the raw fact is, the systems as a whole are not as efficient or responsive as one would like.

    The most telling thing about mass transit? How many of the people running the damn thing make use of it in their daily lives. They mostly… Don’t. There’s a reason for that, and one should pay attention to it. Mass transit has become an expensive vanity affair in most US cities, and would have become such no matter what, given the economics. Once people could afford to go where and when they liked, in their own affordable vehicles, mass transit was doomed. And, I will continue to assert that it should be–The infrastructure waste and the amount of time/money dedicated to mass transit solutions would have been better utilized by improving cars and roads.

    Mass transit is mostly something we think would be good for other people, and we behave accordingly. Seattle, for example? They could have gotten the same result, in terms of ridership and utility for the less-well-off by subsidizing things like taxis and Uber for the poor. In terms of dislocation, excess cost, and under-utilization, the mass transit systems are an utter waste, just as ever single “mass” solution is bound to be. Why run a train for three people…? And, that’s what you’ll often see on a lot of systems.

    It would, just like the high-speed train system in California, be cheaper and more effective to just subsidize other solutions for the poor. But, just like with most of this other communal BS, the real agenda isn’t to provide services, but to acquire control. That’s the real story of mass transit, and one you should pay attention to. If the only way of getting around is the train, then the people that run the trains get to decide where and when you’ll go places. If you own your own transportation, they have no effective control over you, and that’s the whole point of taking away cars…

    Mass transit had a place, back when the automobile didn’t exist, and the technology wasn’t yet in place for it. Once that changed, the economics and personal choice efficiencies intervened, and you’re where we are today, despite the atavistic goals of the control freaks.

    It’s going to be interesting watching the effect of mass automobile ownership in places like China. My guess is that there are going to be lots and lots of unexpected effects, out in the culture, that the Chinese Communist government isn’t going to like, or be able to adapt to.

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