Reason #2 Why Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
It Doesn’t Go Where You Want to Go

Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to anymore. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless.

This week, the Antiplanner is exploring the myth that Americans don’t ride transit because they have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas, and transit’s limited destinations is one of them.

The Portland urban area, for example, has around 15,000 miles of roads and streets. The region’s 80 miles of rail transit don’t begin to reach the number of destinations that can be reached by car. Adding the roughly 1,000 miles of bus routes helps, but still requires many people to walk long distances to and from transit stops.

Worse, almost all of the transit in the region, along with every other major urban area, is oriented to downtown. For example, the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College is about seven miles from Beaverton. But taking transit from one to the other requires a trip downtown and back, nearly tripling the number of miles of travel.

Transit systems started their downtown orientations in the late nineteenth century when almost all urban jobs were downtown. Today, however, only about 7.5 percent of urban jobs are still located in downtown areas. In the New York urban area, 22 percent of jobs are located in downtown Manhattan, another reason why transit ridership is high in that region. But elsewhere, the percentage is much smaller.

Transit planners try to compensate for this by designing transit systems that connect regional and town centers with the downtown areas. Such a policy might have made sense sixty years ago when most jobs that weren’t downtown were located in such centers. Today, however, less than 30 percent of urban jobs are located in either downtowns or regional and town centers.

For example, Denver is spending billions of dollars building a rail transit system that aims to connect all of the regional and town centers in the area. Yet, when it is done, planners predict that only 26 percent of the region’s jobs will be within one-half mile of a rail transit stop. (Of course, most of the people working those jobs won’t live within a half mile of a rail stop.)

The reason for the decline of regional and town centers is the growth of service jobs. In 1920, nearly 40 percent of all American jobs were in manufacturing, which tends to be concentrated, and there was just one-and-a-third service job for every manufacturing job. By 2010, there were ten service jobs for every manufacturing job, and those service jobs tend to be finely spread across the landscape.

As a result, transit just doesn’t work for most people. Making transit systems work for more people would require using more small-box transit: small buses, vans, and so forth. Instead, many transit agencies want to emphasize big-box transit: huge buses, railcars, and trains. This just shows how out of touch transit agency leaders are with the people they are supposed to serve.

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6 thoughts on “Reason #2 Why Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
It Doesn’t Go Where You Want to Go

  1. Sandy Teal

    Well the Antiplanner explained today some of my comments from yesterday. He is taking these issues separately.

    The transit advocate theory has been that western cities grew up with the auto and people don’t like it, implying that it would further develop along transit lines if they were available. Transit has been around now for many decades. Is there any evidence that transit lines greatly alter development patterns in western cities for all those people who long to not have to use a car?

    My observation is that transit lines did connect some more dense areas of a city that had more apartments and maybe condos, and that did help those apartments prosper, but that there still is not any significant change in further developments after decades of having transit lines.

  2. prk166

    I like breaking these out into separate reasons. I like this series doing this. What I’d love to see is to sit down and build up what things people want and how they value them.

    For example, if I don’t have a lot of money not having the high capital expense of a car would be appealing. The problem is, it means I’d spend 3 hours a day on transit to and from work. Since I don’t have a lot of money, being able to have a part time job for extra income isn’t an option if I don’t’ have a car. et al.

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