In the first part of this series, I tried to make two major points. First, transit systems are struggling, partly from the COVID pandemic and the ongoing ripple effects, but also at a more fundamental level. Second, transit systems are essential to successful urban areas.
This second point may need some clarification. My use of the phrase “successful urban areas” is meant to describe places that have a positive impact on the broad cross-section of our society. Success based not just on size, or economic growth, or number of high-rise buildings, but on the range of people that can live safe, healthy, and reasonably prosperous lives regardless of whether they are old, young, rich, poor, physically fit or physically limited. My underlying assumption is that a city isn’t really successful – and our society isn’t really successful – unless we encourage and facilitate participation by virtually the entire population.
The problem is that we have shaped our cities around the assumption that nearly everyone can drive or has someone who can drive for them. While that may be true for the vast majority, there are a substantial number of people who are unable to drive, can’t afford to drive, or just don’t like to drive. In a car-centric world, those people are left scrambling to find options or to participate less than they would like.
The “unable to drive” category includes over 25 million Americans with travel limiting disabilities. Of that group, more than 13 million are in the 18 to 65 age range commonly associated with the workforce. And yet only 20 percent of them have either full- or part-time work compared with roughly 75 percent of people in that age range generally.  Over 54 million Americans are over the age of 65 and approximately 11 million of them no longer drive – and arguably several million more shouldn’t be driving. According to a recent survey, those unable to drive report limited transportation options, which prevent them from doing all they would like to do and leave them feeling frustrated, isolated and trapped. 
Driving used to be a luxury that only a few could afford. Now it has become a necessity and the vast majority of households have figured out a way to have at least one car. That doesn’t mean, however, that driving is cheap. The average household spends nearly $11,000 annually on transportation costs (primarily auto related). That is roughly a sixth of the average household budget and the second largest expenditure category after housing costs. Poor households find ways to spend less, but it represents a disproportionately larger share of their household budget.  For households struggling with housing, food and healthcare costs, adding the cost of owning a car can force difficult trade-offs.
Finally, many Americans drive a car for virtually every trip regardless of whether it makes sense or is something they enjoy. Roughly 38 percent of all trips are in personal vehicles containing just the driver,  and I would bet that the majority of those trips did not involve heavy packages or the need for highway speeds. In essence, we use a full sized automobile because it is the only transportation tool that we have – akin to using a sledge hammer even if we just want to hang a photograph on the wall. Many of us don’t even like driving, we just do it because we have to. According to a recent Gallop poll, 22 percent of US adults like driving either “not much” or “not at all”.  And even those who like driving find themselves getting so angry at other drivers that we have had to create a new term – road rage – and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has started tracking the resulting fatalities.
Despite the fact that every city has segments of the population for whom driving is not a good option, transit is facing some harsh realities. First, not every one who avoids driving finds transit to be convenient or easy to use. Second, the “non-driving” portion of the population will never be enough, in my opinion, to support anything more than a skeleton transit system. And third, finding public support for capital expenditure and operating subsidies will become increasingly difficult if ridership levels continue to shrink.
In order to have a robust transit system that people perceive as being useful to the community, there must be a large number of riders who are not transit-dependent. In other words, riders who do not have to take transit but who choose to do so because it is an attractive option. In decades past (and to some extent today), this “choice” rider was often a white-collar worker commuting to their office job in the central business district, or service workers commuting to the same place to support the office workers. Transit systems, as a result, were often built with that flow of workers in mind.
As noted in Part 1, the dispersion of office development across most metro areas and the rise of hybrid work schedules has significantly reduced the number of downtown-oriented commuters. This has put many transit systems into something of a death spiral. They are built for a flow of workers that is dwindling and isn’t likely to return anytime soon (if ever). As ridership shrinks, service reductions are put into place to reduce costs. Service reductions make it less attractive to use transit particularly for those who have other options available, thus causing further ridership declines. And on and on.
Perhaps it is time to adjust our mental model of who transit systems should be serving and our physical model of how transit systems should be designed. I have some thoughts outlined below but I suspect that they will be difficult to implement politically. As with many systems that are politically dependent, the pain of a revised approach would be immediately apparent while the benefit of those revisions will build slowly over time. Consequently, I’m pessimistic about how many cities have the political will to change and to give the new system enough time to really succeed.
The Data Behind the Plan
In order to provide some justification for the plan I’m proposing, I am going to once again turn to the rich set of movement data contained in the Replica transportation model that I have mentioned in prior posts (www.ReplicaHQ.com). In particular, I think attention needs to be given to trip length. Traditional transit systems, particularly the subway or rail types of routes, are focused on relatively long trips as evidenced by a fixed cost per trip and stops that are often spaced miles apart. The problem is that the larger a city grows, the more difficult it is to provide good service with the hub-and-spoke layout that traditional rail-based systems typically employ for those long commuter trips. And since dependence on commuter trips to the central business district is part of the current problem, I don’t think it is the key to a new transit solution.
What most people don’t realize is that a large portion of the trips that are taken each day are relatively short. In St Louis for example, more than a quarter of all trips (26.2 percent in the Fall of 2021) were less than 2 miles in length. Over 44 percent were less than 4 miles in length. And St Louis is not an exception in this regard. In Chicago, the numbers are even more striking: a third of all trips are less than 2 miles in length (33.3%) and over half are under 4 miles (52.5%).  If the goal is to boost ridership, why not focus on short trips instead?
The answer to that question is that focusing on short trips is much harder than it sounds because it requires a reversal of many long-standing transit assumptions. In particular, it means acknowledging that building more big-ticket subways and rail lines into the city center won’t make things better. In addition, it would require that long range plans and day-to-day land use decisions be much more coordinated with transit plans. In most cities, major land use decisions are made without any consideration of how they might affect (or be affected by) transit system plans. Hours will be spent discussing the potential for roadway congestion but any other form of transportation is hardly ever considered. This myopic focus on the car has warped urban development decisions, but it is so ingrained in our thought process that it seems totally normal.
Despite the difficulties, what I am going to refer to as “short-trip transit” may be the key to not only revitalizing transit systems but also bolstering the revitalization efforts of midwestern cities. Many of the more successful cities have been focusing on mixed-use placemaking as a way to appeal to the younger generations that are crucial to economic growth. Those placemaking efforts in the midwest, however, are often hampered by conflicts between the necessary density of development and the reluctance of both residents and developers to move away from a reliance on cars as the primary mode of transportation. Short trip transit might be the bridge that allows a “car-lite” lifestyle centered on well designed places to finally take hold.
A New Mental Framework
The prominence of short trips, even in sprawling midwestern cities, seems to validate a relatively new line of thought in urban planning circles known as the 15-minute city. The idea, popularized by Carlos Moreno of Pantheon Sorbonne University in Paris, is that city residents should live near enough to essential services that they can reach most of the places they need to go with a 15-minute walk or bike ride. This puts a focus on access (how many useful places can I reach in a given period of time) rather than on mobility (how far can I travel in a given period of time). The concept is often shown diagrammatically as a city full of 15-minute circles.
Unfortunately, this planning concept fits the compact form of European cities much better than the sprawling form of American ones. Particularly in the midwest, most cities have precious few 15-minute neighborhoods. Rather than reject the concept entirely, however, perhaps it simply needs some modification. To begin with, a more realistic goal would probably be to have a dozen or so 15-minute neighborhoods in each city rather than a city full of 15-minute neighborhoods. While most Americans think nothing of driving 15 or 20 minutes to the nearest Home Depot to buy a new faucet or light switch – and quite frankly have no desire to walk 15 minutes for any reason – a fair percentage might prefer shopping at a neighborhood hardware store that is a 10-minute walk or 5-minute scooter ride away. They, along with the “non-driving” residents, should have at least a handful of residential options that fit their lifestyle preferences. If that 15-minute lifestyle catches on, then developers and city planners are sure to replicate it in other locations.
Second, there is no reason to exclude transit from the 15-minute neighborhood, particularly if it is focused on short trips. This adjustment, however, changes the shape of the 15-minute neighborhood from a circle to more of an oval with the long axis parallel to the transit route. A five-minute walk and 10-minute transit ride might now get me closer to four or five miles rather than a one-mile walk or three-mile bike ride. Using transit to expand the size of the 15-minute neighborhood expands the number of useful places that can be easily reached, but it does come with several important caveats:
Frequent. Transit service has to be frequent, particularly during the day and early evening. Every 10 minutes would be great, every 15 minutes would be tolerable. The current headway standard in many midwestern cities of 30 to 60 minutes is absolutely not workable. In addition, a smartphone app with real-time locations and ETAs to the stop nearest the user is mandatory.
Free. Rides should be free, or at the very least dirt cheap. If you want to encourage short rides of half a mile or even two miles, charging a fare is a major disincentive. Mobile payment technology is improving to the point where you might be able to charge riders a virtually frictionless fare using their smartphone, but free is ideal. The goal is to have people hop on and hop off whenever it is convenient without having to buy a ticket or think about how much it will cost.
Predetermined stops. Stops should be at predetermined locations and they should be every two or three blocks. Frequent stops slow things down, but remember the focus is on access to the places along the route not on maximizing the distance that is covered. Short-trip transit is in some ways a faster form of walking rather than a long-distance transportation mode. Simple shelters with minimal signage will be fine, everything else will be on the smartphone app.
Dense routes. Routes should be along dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented corridors and should be relatively short (maybe 3 to 8 miles) so that they are easily understood and remembered. Subways, light rail, and even traditional bus routes often zigzag across the community with a length of 15 or 20 miles. Consequently, only frequent users understand where they are going and how to use them effectively. That is not what short-trip transit is about.
This final point about “dense routes” deserves a bit more explanation. Density is needed because the goal is to have many people be within reach of many useful places without the need to travel a great distance. A pedestrian orientation is needed because the assumption is that many trips in a “car-lite” environment will involve walking for either all or part of the trip. Finally, a mixed-use corridor is crucial because it turns out that the variety of trip purposes for short trips is just as diverse as for longer trips. This is illustrated by Replica data for Chicago in the chart below. 
Facing the Hard Choices
The first part of this series started with the words “transit is in trouble.” Most transit systems are desperately trying to hang onto what they have and are probably not even thinking about adding some new type of service. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so maybe a solution that seems out in left field is just what is needed. Below are four steps that I think cities (working jointly with transit agencies) need to take.
Add residential density to target corridors. Most cities have numerous commercial corridors, but the focus for short-trip transit should be on those that have a strong mix of residential, retail, services and employment opportunities. In my experience, the piece that is most likely to be under-represented is residential. Short-trip transit needs to be driven by residents doing day-to-day activities, so the more residents the better. Cities need to encourage property owners and developers to increase both residential density and the diversity of unit configurations and price points.
Innovate. To change the attitude that transit is for “other people,” new transit initiatives need to stress innovations aimed primarily at the younger generations. Using autonomous bus technology would be awesome (and it is not as far away as you might think), but even color schemes, bus stop designs, music and social media branding could be re-imagined.
Commit to the long haul. People’s assumptions and habits regarding housing, transportation and lifestyle options don’t change overnight, so any new transit initiative needs to be given at least 10 years to prove itself. Funding commitments need to be firm enough that property owners along the corridor are willing to invest millions of dollars in new projects or major upgrades.
Narrow the focus of transit service. Many transit routes will remain unchanged because the “sunk costs” are too high, but the emphasis should shift toward a high level of service to a small area rather than a low level of service to a large area. Bus routes that run at 10 or 20 percent of capacity should be dropped even if it means that outlying suburban areas have no service at all. People who want transit service should move to where transit service is available, not insist that empty buses be routed to their neighborhood. Connections between transit routes should also be emphasized. Short-trip transit should connect with longer-haul routes whenever possible. In fact, the eventual result might be a handful of long-haul, subway/rail types of routes that connect a myriad of mixed use districts and corridors served by short-trip transit lines.
But Will It Actually Work?
Maybe. When it comes to predicting transit and lifestyle changes, there are no guarantees. Recent efforts to implement something like I’ve described have met with mixed results. In places like Kansas City (KC Streetcar) and Cincinnati (The Connector Streetcar), results have generally been positive with ridership levels bouncing back from pandemic lows faster than most transit systems. But in other locations like Charlotte (CityLynx Gold Line) and St Louis (Delmar Loop Trolley), the results have been disappointing.
The Kansas City example is probably closest to the ideal that I have described. The initial 2.2-mile line has been successful enough that it is now being expanded to roughly 6 miles in length. Ridership has rebounded to approximately 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels and is growing. Local funding comes primarily from a Transportation Development District that assesses properties within roughly a third of a mile of the streetcar route so that riders pay no fare. The streetcar line has helped attract hundreds of millions of dollars of new construction activity taking place within the TDD boundary. Most importantly, the land uses along the route are widely varied and the city has shown a willingness to increase densities where appropriate.
The potential payoff has multiple aspects. The most obvious, of course, is the ability to choose an urban lifestyle that is focused on the places in a neighborhood, not on the streets, highways and parking lots that a car-oriented lifestyle demands. That place-oriented lifestyle is going to be increasingly in demand, even in the midwest. Second, the popularity of this combination of invigorating urbanism and multi-modal transportation is spawning redevelopment investments on a substantial scale. At a time when much of the real estate industry is struggling, this niche is booming and it is fueled by both large, established developers as well as numerous small entrepreneurs. Third, the best and the brightest of the younger generations are going to gravitate to cities where these types of places exist. If cities want to compete in the new tech-enabled economy, this very well might be the price of admission.
Finally, if this type of development catches on, cities would benefit in numerous ways. The increased density would produce more tax revenue per square mile without a proportional increase in infrastructure maintenance costs, which would improve municipal finances. The reduction of trips by car would allow parking lots to be converted to more productive uses, improve air quality, and reduce accident related injuries and fatalities. Finally, I’m not so naive as to think that cars would go away, but it might move the pendulum back toward an urban form more focused on people and the places that people like to be. Again, my focus is on giving people choices. No one would have to sell their large-lot, single-family home or their prized SUV, but I think a significant number of people would willingly opt for a slice of urban life where cars are optional and the landscape is not dominated by 6-lane streets and vast parking lots.
Bureau of Transportation Statistics; “Travel Patterns of American Adults with Disabilities”; January 2022; https://www.bts.gov/travel-patterns-with-disabilities
National Aging and Disability Transportation Center; “New National Poll: Inability to Drive, Lack of Transportation Options Are Major Concerns for Older Adults, People with Disabilities, and Caregivers”; December 2018; https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-national-poll-inability-to-drive-lack-of-transportation-options-are-major-concerns-for-older-adults-people-with-disabilities-and-caregivers-300761774.html
Bureau of Transportation Statistics; “Household Spending on Transportation: Average Household Spending”; 2021; https://data.bts.gov/stories/s/Transportation-Economic-Trends-Transportation-Spen/ida7-k95k/
Bureau of Transportation Statistics; “Daily Passenger Travel”; December 2011; https://www.bts.gov/archive/publications/highlights_of_the_2001_national_household_travel_survey/section_02#:~:text=About%2038%20percent%20of%20all%20trips%20were%20personal,personal%20vehicle%20trips%20with%20more%20than%20one%20occupant.
Megan Brenan; “83% of US Adults Drive Frequently; Fewer Enjoy It a Lot”; Gallop; July 2018; https://news.gallup.com/poll/236813/adults-drive-frequently-fewer-enjoy-lot.aspx
Replica “Places” data model for the St Louis and Chicago metro areas in the Fall of 2021; statistics are for all trips excluding pass-through trips; www.ReplicaHQ.com.
Replica “Places” data model for the Chicago metro area in the Fall of 2021; statistics are for all trips excluding pass-through trips, where “short trips” are less than 4 miles in length; www.ReplicaHQ.com.