Part B: Why Commuter Rail Grows So Slowly And How These Policy Principles Can Improve Journeys Within Each Metropolis

One Sentence Summary 

The 3 generalized problems of commuter rail (left column) can be solved with each’s respective Policy Principle that, in turn, will make it possible to update U.S commuter rail so our global cities compete better in the 21st Century.

a) (yellow) Train commuting has limited growth because it is infrequent and inconvenient at non-peak hours. And the six major systems studied have at-capacity terminals that limit growth at peak hours. Terminals also prevent the convenience of one-seat journeys through the downtown to another destination. Converting terminals to through-stations will Fix Growth by leading to higher Capacity through-networks.

b) (red)  Ridership also is suppressed by poorly-meshed and expensive transfers. Agency bureaucracies resist proven solutions such as universal cards and higher levels of Fare Integration. To implement these solutions quickly, we first must Fix the Politics so transit operators Collaborate. In most instances, federal authority must help shape an effective metropolitan authority.

c) (blue) The auto’s true environmental and household costs are insufficiently considered in mid-range journeys. Nor are the comprehensive benefits of trains calculated. However if these costs and benefits were applied — if we were to Fix the Economics of metro journeys — then trains should be able to Compete in building alternatives to the auto.

Conclusion: Appropriate metropolitan responses using these 3 Principles must be supported by a federal Policy that encourages metros to convert 20th Century commuter rail into 21st Century Metropolitan Rail. (Note that MR replaces the term “regional rail” so as not to be confused with an active inter-city program of the Federal Railroad Administration called Regional Rail.)

The following more detailed Analysis of 3074 words largely re-synthesizes my 12 article series “What Stations Teach” and 6 articles in my “Pre-Reauthorization Series.”  (At the end of this article, an Annotated Bibliography discusses some key sources of this Analysis.) To overcome the resistance to re-organizing metropolitan transportation, this Analysis couples with Principles that help improve the chances of updating trains. This process should lead to a breakthrough… after two decades of just talking about through-routes.

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Background on difficulties in changing metropolitan transit and why we must.    For the better part of the Obama years, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) were on the agenda. MPO Reform initiatives got frustrated and the effort was scaled-back to rationalizing MPO areas via the Rule-Making process. Even that limited push died in late 2016. A lesson was learned about local interests. And a new trend emerged that more carefully distinguished each region’s needs for better governance. 

The lesson was that if MPOs could resist something as rational as rationalization, then metro transportation requires a separate strategy. This is particularly true for transit since it lacks sustained funding and, thus, is subjected to chronic budget woes at all levels of government. All this (and more) has put transit in a hole with decades of deferred maintenance.

The trend of targeting the transportation governance issues in each metropolis started for me with the 2015 publication of “Getting To The Route Of It: The Role of Governance in Regional Transit.”  This think-tank/do-tank collaboration between The Eno Center and The Transit Center had six case studies; selected to reflect the diversity and different evolutions of transit in U.S. metros. With frank analysis of individual metros, the study tied together threads giving me a first glimpse into how a new federal policy could stimulate metropolitan answers. (Other studies have improved on this trend and are explored in the Annotated Bibliography at the end of my article.)

But today, I detect only a minor impact on the transit establishment; politics largely unwilling to alter 1970s caretaker agencies and, instead, seeing bureaucratic ossification and resistance to reform. In part, this is because urban transit is controlled by mayors and, realistically, no other body wants to be responsible for urban transit’s multiple woes. Less monolithic, suburban rail is under the decentralized control of suburbs. But, this is institutionalized in state law and politics; with central cities being Democratic and suburbs historically Republican. In almost every instance of the ten plus systems I studied, I’ve concluded that reducing the state’s role will be the most efficient way to stimulate suburban alternatives for mid-range journeys. And if the Democratic in-roads made in the 2018 elections are to solidify, then those suburbs need higher capacity trains. To cement those suburbs in a governing coalition, trains become a priority for innovating federal transportation policy.

How trains add to effective metropolitan governance is seen in comparison to Europe’s global centers. Almost all western European metros have modernized their trains. 

* They converted terminals so through-networks significantly increase train capacity.

* Most systems converted to electricity in the previous century. And…

* Most coaches were made in this century. 

Europe’s metros have an authority that also integrates fares, makes transfers more efficient and disciplines operators. (For this, I think American advocates struggle to use a good term and I defer to Chris Spieler’s term, Fare Integration. See item 5 in his article on Munich.)  With Through-networks and Fare Integration, most major European metros grow their transit and could counter the forces of wealth and sprawl that accelerated U.S. car usage and train decline.

Against Europe’s commuting standard, U.S. global cities are competitively disadvantaged. Only Philadelphia converted its terminals into through-stations; and 36 years later, even that system lacks the authority to create a higher capacity network.  All ten of the terminals in my study failed to tunnel as a first step to making higher capacity Through-Routes possible. Also well behind the European standard, the related innovation of Fare Integration is primitive for U.S. trains. Our key cause for these failures are weak metropolitan transit authorities. 

General Findings: Policies restrict Auto-Alternatives.

Solutions need Principles that lead to alternatives with far superior cost-benefits.

Analysis Overview. My six-year inquiry matured from merely enjoying central stations to actually understanding them as fulcrums so a metropolis can develop competitive auto-alternatives. So we can break the auto’s ‘de facto’ monopoly, I often sketch a Big Picture to see clearer how commuter trains must evolve. Created to take trains out of bankruptcy, our caretaker agencies rarely show innovative forethought. So, commuter rail has gotten mostly minor updates over the last 50 years. Without updates or new business models, trains were unable to compete during the auto’s golden age. Three major problems emerged that we must now solve before we get on a path to sustainable transport.

  • a) Ridership has slowed dramatically… when it should be increasing steadily.
  • b) Agency and operator collaboration is poor… when modes need to be integrated tightly. 
  • c) Car usage since 1991 has grown much faster (50%) for non-work journeys than for work (20%). This indicates commuter rail is poorly positioned to help reduce either road congestion or the transportation costs that have escalated to 29% of income for households in the lowest quintile. (This same article indicates bottom quintile households pay 7% in EU nations, or 3/4 less than America’s poor.)

In brief, trains’ commuter market share is near-stagnant and needs greater Capacity methods. As an under-used asset, trains require various agencies to Collaborate before trains can serve as a backbone for metropolitan journeys. To slow the car’s 50% overall growth that clearly is stressing the environment and lower income households, trains must Compete on a level economic playing field.  Let’s look at each of these three issues in more depth and see how each’s proposed Principle offers a breakthrough.

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Problem a) Low Growth in ridership correlates to outdated terminals and routes.

The aggregate statistics indicate train ridership in the U.S. has been growing half as fast as it did from 1990 to 2007. That period averaged 7.5 million additional rides a year. Since then through 2018, increases averaged 3.75 million. (Data is courtesy of link contained in “Transport Politic”, 4th graph.)  Instead of a declining growth, U.S. metros should be accelerating growth; particularly if we want to catch our European competition. 

Since aggregate numbers tell us less of what each metro needs to progress, let’s look at two of the simpler metros needing a through-route. Chicagoland’s Metra has had zero ridership growth between 1996 and 2019. Yet, the metro’s population has grown 11.5%; so obviously Metra has not served that growth and is not competitive with the car’s conveniences. 

Boston’s MBTA Rail since 1996 has grown 20%; slightly faster than the metro’s 16.7% population growth. Although, this is not fast enough to satisfy some of the nation’s most colorful complainers of car congestion.

LA’s Metrolink has small ridership declines recently, despite its legendary road congestion. And while LA also needs to expand its capacity with a through-run, its problems and cures are comprehensive. Metrolink covers about 18 million residents, but has less than 40,000 daily riders. For perspective, the New York Metro with 20 million residents has almost 1 million riders on three systems. (Other metros ridership changes are addressed in Part C, Solutions.)

Stagnant ridership has many causes; but two must be led by federal policy.

First, terminals are antiquated and restrict ridership growth. Peak hour over-capacity is a chronic condition of terminals. Not only do these dead-ends create a human jumble when trains are un-loaded and reloaded, they also complicate single-seat destinations through the center because the passenger faces delays and costs in the transfer. 

Second, the consensus that the inconvenience and cost of the First & Last Mile must be reduced significantly is rarely done quickly. The difficulty of transferring between other modes and trains can be greatly reduced if operators cannot dictate fare policy and, instead, must collaborate with other operators to improve each journey. Because states are reluctant to resolve this, Uncle Sam must. 

Both these growth barriers have been solved in Europe and set the standard under which global cities will compete in this era of more sustainable mobility.

a) Principle: To solve No Growth, set stricter Goals for Federal Investment. Capacitate.

Through-routes are strategic investments with great long-term returns. While Paris sets a standard for U.S. metros, it is particularly analogous to Chicago since population size is similar, both were the nation’s train center and each’s center is ringed by legacy terminals.  Paris changed in the mid-1970s when the RER tunnel connected five terminals and made a new central station to facilitate transfers. Note the jump in the RER ridership from 565 million trips in 1976 to 936 in 2000. Chicago should shoot for that success.

Through-Routing terminals are a first step to higher-capacity networks. But, metros will need U.S. money and authority. Twelve terminals are good candidates in the U.S. To start that transformation, we need to construct a Deal for more federal capital and loans. In that deal, states will delegate more authority to metros so they generate enough fare revenue to pay these loans. This metro authority also must capture the Value of the buildings served by trains.

Since Through-routes are nearly universal in Europe’s global metros, we should not need more proof of their benefits. But for skeptics that Europe’s standard will work here, review three quick lessons from Philadelphia’s Center City Connector (CCC). First, Through-routes actually could work better in the U.S. given that our zoning encourages high-rise downtowns and a through-route could multiply those land values. To see this, take a quick look at the photos before and after the CCC. (Find them in the middle of my article (“What Have We Learned?”)  Philly’s CCC clearly led the Center City’s impressive redevelopment. Second, the region’s (SEPTA) commuter rail ridership increased 86% since the CCC opened in 1985 to today. While SEPTA rail had large problems and fluctuations these last 35 years, the CCC probably stabilized the rail so it could grow. Third, SEPTA’s Key Card (a first phase fare integration) recently was applied to commuter rail and its ridership has grown dramatically.  This introduces advocates’ consensus on another tool.

Fare Integration also increases Capacity. Limited progress in universal cards correlates with no-growth ridership. Through-routes and integrated cards improve together and support one another. Card improvements reduce transit costs and inconvenience so transit can approach net revenue. Again, the long-term examples are European. As described above, Paris RER’s growth was dramatic for 25 years as the initial through-routes filled during peak hours. Yet after this easy growth, the graph shows RER could grow steadily from 2001 until today. Why?  Good credit must be given to Navigo, Paris’ universal card introduced in 2001. And note that trains grew along with all transit modes; steadily as fares and service were integrated.

Proven throughout Europe, integrating transit vendors into one system requires effective metro authority. But since RER was a project of a centralized national government, a better analogy to the U.S. is Germany’s federal structure. This analogy is the central theme of my article on “Munich Loves Cars, But Uses Trains To Compete With Cars. Can The U.S?”  And if you encounter skeptics in this Paris/U.S. analogy, refer them to a detailed study of how metro authorities work in three different federal countries (all German speaking); see Buehler et al. (This article’s importance is discussed in The Annotated Bibliography at the end of my article.) Their key point is collaboration is key to the German system. 

Inspired by comprehensive metropolitan authorities in those German republics, this article next explores how to overcome governance problems in U.S. metros.

Problem b: Poor Agency Collaboration prevents solutions to transit dysfunction. 

As the political subdivisions of states to build local roads for an agricultural economy, the nation’s 3,142 counties (pictured above) still structure what needs to become multi-modal transportation for a nation in which 85% now live in metropolitan areas.  County activities range from selecting Boards of Metropolitan Planning Organizations to collecting transit sales taxes to managing stresses on key arterials. Having delegated most land use to suburban municipalities, counties are positioned poorly to coordinate tightly the land use/transportation interface the future requires.

Add it up: counties are not suited to serve the most mobile, entrepreneurial economy ever. This is doubly so for updating commuter rail; given its proven high-capacity in other nations. Worse, tensions between cities and suburbs get reinforced in state/counties regimes when these tensions now must be moderated. The resulting poorly-coordinated local services cannot compete with the car. Complicating relations further, two federal agencies (Federal Transit Administration and Federal Rail Administration) often are at cross-purposes.

But the core problem for commuters is no metropolitan body is in charge. The graph below illustrates a key problem in metro transportation: a diffusion of planning authority that helps perpetuate often uncoordinated operations that undermine auto-alternatives.

This September 2015 graph (Creative Commons via WikiPedia) helped motivate the last effort to rationalize Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Note that Florida has twice more MPOs than New York, yet the states have nearly equal populations. Texas has a MPO for every 1.2 million while California has a MPO for every 2.3 million. Despite having two decisive electoral mandates, Obama’s USDOT could not consolidate these federal creatures using administrative procedure. This failure indicates metropolitan governance needs a different strategy; one that re-organizes the county-state regime and, instead, is driven to serve each metropolis’ priorities.

Since MPOs are likely to remain unreformed and since federal capital almost dropped by half in two decades, today’s focus should mine new revenue from properties benefitting from transit. Given that so few Value Capture deals actually have worked outside of New York City, there needs to be a body that helps make these deals work. To solve this in the metros I studied in “What Stations Teach,” I often proposed re-organizing trains by corridor to make central through-stations and extend that corridor out the other side to make a functioning through-route. These Through-Corridors will improve service and expand ridership. With a temporary corridor council to govern this transformation, this provides a prototype so the metro has a decade to evolve how it will govern transit and transportation.

Generally speaking under the current regime, competitive alternatives cannot emerge because transit’s planning and its operating budgets are run by agencies dependent on the state. If this state/county regime were to delegate transit to a metropolitan agency, we again need models and look to how federal governments of Europe helped their global metros separate the planning and operations. Basically, their agencies collaborate because a metro body is in-charge and a national railroad does the heavy lifting. 

So while we may have a hopeful consensus among American train advocates that greater frequency will get us closer to the Parisian RER or German S-Bahns, we next need realistic proposals to govern trains so they increase frequency and capacity within U.S. metros.

b) Principle: Require Collaboration by Right-sizing Authority.

My studies indicate American train advocates are close to a consensus about a key tool. Fare Integration is a key Collaboration that improves transfers and journey efficiencies. In making this tool, perhaps the nation’s most advanced major metro is the Bay Area; but their chief advocates also emphasize how operators’ divergent fare policies restricts ridership.

So before Fare Integration can help ridership significantly, key activities must evolve into a metro authority. As a leading example, U.S. policies for performance/investment should right-size authority. Because rail already has more federal leverage to build upon (than, say, buses), rail should be an effective start so U.S. policy encourages agency collaboration at all levels.

To highlight the importance of the Collaboration Principle and the scholars’ work who supports it, refer to the second to last paragraph (page 13) of Buehler et al that discusses the relevance of German transit governance to the U.S.  First, they emphasize both countries have federal structures. Second, the lack of coordination in the U.S. leads to higher subsidies and reduced rider revenue. In a nutshell, those two conditions are the case for greater U.S. guidance in commuter rail.

How collaboration gets applied so metros are empowered by states is detailed in the final article of this series. Part of that proposal explores using corridors — how trains run and were built — as the starting point to evolve metro governance.

To summarize these two Principles, they fit a rough consensus. Through-routes increase capacity and can facilitate greater frequency. To grow ridership, Fare Integration is needed; but will only happen if federal policy (funds) encourages Collaboration. But one more Problem hangs over all this: car usage continues its growth unabated, despite complaints of chronic congestion and pollution. The Principle we next sketch employs economic competition so that transit is a viable alternative to the car.

Problem c: Car Commuting grew 15%, but car usage grew 50%. This graph indicates a comprehensive mobility problem. Work traffic peaked in 2005 at around 15% per capita since its 1990 baseline. Yet overall vehicle traffic increased over 3 times faster. Many factors contribute and it will take lots of research to develop remedies. To reduce that growth, we often propose increased frequency of train service during off-peak hours (like the RER or S-Bahns.)  I  also think the data can argue for an authority to advocate against the car’s unfair advantage in overall subsidy. It presents an opening to have cars pay usage fees for their overall costs. This economic leveler is needed because merely increasing train frequency by itself most likely creates a larger deficit.

To evolve U.S. policy, we should note when it fails. The above graph’s benchmark was 1991; also the year the first major reform of surface transportation (ISTEA) sought to start an intermodal policy.  Rather, that framework helped escalate the usage of cars other than for commuting. While amended modestly since, federal policy still will continue to fail metros seeking to improve auto-alternatives.  Overcoming this failure of three decades raises the issue of realigning authority so metros can minimize overall traffic growth. In so doing, our goal must be like Munich’s Core City transit. It broke even in 2016 (Buehler, p.12 table.)  For a broad political consensus, investing in American infrastructure should project smaller subsidies. 

While applying macro-economics to transportation is important for U.S. stimulus, Uncle Sam’s paternal side also must develop a formula that helps households make smart daily micro-economic decisions that reduce traffic and costs. Options are particularly important for U.S. households in the lowest quintile who spend 29% on transportation and their European counterparts spend only 7%.

c) Principle: Advocate for Transportation Economics so trains support auto-alternatives.   

As we unravel the problems created by mid-Century transportation policy, we also begin to understand why trains stagnate; despite serving as congestion’s proven cure. Because each metro needs a balanced policy in which cars and trains can compete as equals, both the temporary re-organization (corridors) and the mid-term re-organization (a real metropolitan authority) should advocate for balanced policy across all modes. To achieve this balance, metros must develop flexible political and economic levers. For example, gradual highway tolling only works well if there is an alternative such as a high-capacity through-route.

This last Principle eventually either goads or replaces our bureaucracies. Either they are partners in the future for through networks or to integrate fares, or they are replaced. Such should be the strict criteria for the public investing in sustainable infrastructure if we are ever to catch our European competition.

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Preview of Part C,  “The Proposal: Test These Principles On 3 Through-Route Prototypes and Synthesize Results Into A Federal Policy To Benefit Other Metros”    

Let’s look at the Big Picture. After water and stormwater management, daily transportation will be the key service in a metropolitan social contract; a deal for the 80% who live in metros. Lowering transportation costs are a key factor in a more sustainable American Dream.

For the current Reauthorization, transportation has had two nascent social contracts proposed. The governing coalition’s sketch was made February 2020 by the House Transportation Committee as the Moving America Forward framework. It was, in part, a response to the Green New Deal launched a year earlier. Both need a Metropolitan Rail (MR) policy to solidify the emerging urban-suburban governing coalition. 

Both also need symbols backed by proven policy. Consider Through-routes potentially as today’s Golden Spike. In 1869, rail vastly improved mobility by connecting the continent just as its industrial economy was emerging. Today as each metropolis converts its previous-era terminals into through-stations, the resulting though-networks will connect municipalities so they can redevelop themselves as part of a more sustainable metropolis. As shared infrastructure between suburbs and cities, MR helps seal the new era’s deal.

That’s a nice thought.  Better yet, the start of its reality is closer than we think.

Part C sketches specific proposals to study converting terminals into through-stations in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Through-routes increase system capacity; hence meeting the MR Principle, Capacitate. The federal role will vary based on how complicated the states’ politics are, how much the U.S. lends and its risk of being paid back. A key variable is each metro’s commitment to Fare Integration and its potential to generate net rider revenue.  

Fare Integration requires agencies to Collaborate so modes transfer riders with ease and less cost. The proposed studies detail this progress along with the feasibility of reorganizing a Through-Route as a corridor; possibly to have a temporary governing Board. It works with participating municipalities to redevelop properties that will benefit the most from the Through-Route and develop Value Capture deals.

Finally… to grow to its potential, MR must be allowed to Compete fairly against the car and its actual costs. Each study will propose the corridor’s role in advocating for a level playing field with car subsidies and its overall costs that impact households and the environment. This, too, is factored into Through-Routes’ ability to repay loans. 

These three studies are supervised and consolidated by a new U.S. agency that will develop a federal MR policy. Included in it will be a formula that weighs rising transportation costs for households (including the car’s hidden subsidies and costs) and how trains lower those costs. These specific uses of transportation micro-economics help shape each metropolis’ social contract to its households. Since federal loans make most of the Through-routes possible, this new U.S. agency also helps negotiate how to re-size authority between states and metros. 

And that is the rub.

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Annotated Bibliography

Why Is This Here ?  In a diffuse way, many of this blog’s conclusions are supplemented partially by articles I find in the blogosphere. My writing project, now six years old and largely full-time, has grown to 24+ articles.  As ideas have coalesced, I link more attributions; probably averaging over twelve times for each article in this third series. But, I rarely use traditional footnotes. I also am one of the few writers in this very narrow niche of governing commuter rail. Nonetheless, I should attribute more to those few. That said, I offer these annotations organized by the three stages of how this project developed: Problem analysis; general findings and Principles that lead to solutions; proposed policy evolution (What’s the Deal?)

1) Problem Analysis Background

Getting To The Route Of It: The Role of Governance in Regional Transit.” published in October 2014 by The Eno Center and the very active participation of The Transit Center. This extended report remains seminal for understanding how my narrow area of commuter rail applies to all transit. Equally, it was reassuring to know that these long-time researchers and activists had concluded what an outsider like me suspected about transit governance. Suddenly I felt I could write more forcefully. Also note that three of their six case studies are the same three in this proposal: Chicago, New York and The Bay Area. 

Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit, Christof Spieler, Island Press. October 2018. This book is my go-to; certainly if I need a quick reference on a U.S. metro’s transit and how it serves employment centers. His chapter format expands suitably to the 47 largest U.S. metros (by population.)  So for example, #1 New York has 14 pages, but #12 Detroit with a much shorter transit story has only 2 pages; yet #13 Seattle needs 6 pages to cover its progress.  Useful data and precise, thoughtful commentary cover all modes. A highly recommended must-have. Saved me time. Thanks !

The Transit Metropolis, Earth Island Press. 1998. Robert Cervero  

I’ve heard several stories about how this classic is a career companion. My story started 12 years ago when I was one of the land use guys on The Citizens Advisory Committee for CMAP, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. We were charged with the new agency’s first long-term plan; having just merged the metro’s transportation and land use staff. It was a heady time. The Burnham Centennial was that year and we thought of the Plan to be published in 2010 as a similar milestone. Upon confessing that I knew too little about transit, a staffer told me to get Cervero’s book. I read the two chapters relevant to the U.S.  But for the next decade, this book was my companion as I visited eight of its nine case studies abroad. Viewing foreign stations as microcosms gave me the perspective to understand how much global cities have progressed and how much those in the U.S. have not. Most important, the classic’s theme of balancing land uses and transit structured how I investigated a strategy to help U.S. metros compete in this sustainable service.

2) General Findings about how metropolitan transportation governance might work.

While my visits to at least three dozen global cities also was a survey and synthesis of salient governance issues, inferences to U.S. global cities were rarely tight enough to be useful. To understand how far the U.S. is behind the global standard, I took one deep dive into Munich. Besides Cervero’s chapter and case study as reference, I found great insights from this work below. 

Verkehrsverbund: The evolution and spread of fully integrated transit in Germany, Austria and Switzerland”  The article is useful in many ways as a literature review and for its original research that served as a capstone for at least a decade of work from Professor Buehler and his colleagues. But most important, the article focussed me on two strategies that could be relevant to the U.S. First, the article emphasized that collaboration was key to German metro success and this posed a serious obstacle in the growth of U.S. transit (page 13, second to last concluding paragraph.) Second… in the insight generated by this article, I saw federal power as the only way through the collaboration dilemma of U.S. metros. Federal power should ebb-and-flow. During major projects (Munich’s Olympics or Berlin’s Re-unification of the S-Bahn), Germany’s federal agencies lead; and as updates get completed, the region reasserts itself and the state supervises.  

Differences in U.S. federalism — and the destruction sown by today’s politics — probably requires a stepping stone to our metropolitan regime. Hence, the corridor authority is derived from states but is supervised by the lender, Uncle Sam. The residue urban-suburban tension will best be resolved if state institutions — usually infused with that tension— play a bit part in the transformation to Metropolitan Rail. And since using federal authority is temporary, the region has time to evolve its governance.

3) Proposed Metropolitan Rail Policy (and The Sustainable Micro-Macro Economic Deal) 

One task of the fourth federal study is to summarize the three Through-route prototypes and make good projections on how much MR will save American households; particularly those in the lowest quintile. An article from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy gives us a clue.  While the average European household spends only 11% on transportation (including much higher usage fees), costs are 13% in the U.S.  But the striking difference is that the EU’s poorest quintile pays only 7% of household budget while their U.S. counterparts pay a whopping 29%. Not having transportation options is making America’s poor even poorer; having to invest in depreciating assets, the auto.

I recognize there will be institutional resistance to T-R proposals that require re-organizing by corridors. So, I make a few inferences to the larger political power of a sustainable deal for transit. This Big Idea, this social contract, has barely been broached for transportation. In early 2019, a Green New Deal was proposed by a fringe element in Congress. Its policies are making progress, particularly two important questions for mobility.  

First… What is transit’s strategy? Can it overcome the powerful policies and agencies that facilitated a 41% increase in single occupant commuting in the last 3 decades of the 20th Century and held that during this century?  How will those policies and dominating forces allow competition from alternatives ?  It starts with good policy. To helps orchestrate changes in the upcoming Reauthorization, three groups in April 2020 published a good summary of the flaws in federal policy and proposed Principles and, then programs to fund. Entitled “A New Green Deal For City And Suburban Transportation” takes a comprehensive approach.    

Second… What does today’s car driver give up and get in return tomorrow? That social contract needs to get articulated within every policy debate. It will reduce the resistance from the petroleum order.

In the meantime, two important trends have, I hope, started in federal transportation policy.

The first emerging trend is to reform the federal transportation lever while giving taxpayers their most bang for their bucks. While it appears subtly in some discussions, I saw this most clearly in the pronouncement from the civic/public interest coalition Transportation For America “Why We are No Longer Advocating For Congress To Increase Transportation Funding.” It was followed up with their Three Principles for Federal investment… which has inspired my proposal for commuter rail and improving its 5% of transit journeys.

The second trend… I am a bit less hopeful of it producing actual policy. But, the trend offers a cross-fertilization of ideas. And this is needed if we are to have policies that reduce transportation emissions enough to make a difference. One such cross-fertilization was when The Eno Center and staff from the libertarian Reason Foundation produced a report from their meetings entitled “Reforming America’s Transportation System.”  Give it a read. I was surprised by a few commonalities… and even more by the possibility of adapting others’ ideas.

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