Reason #5 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
Our Cities Aren’t Built for It

Housing, jobs, and other destinations are so diffused throughout American urban areas that they don’t generate the large numbers of people moving from one point to another that mass transit systems need to work.

“Transit worked when American cities were denser,” is the mantra of today’s urban planners. “If we can increase their densities, transit will work again.” Reality is a lot more complicated, and that reality explains why transit can’t work in American urban areas even if their densities increase.

From about 1880 to 1913, transit and cities co-evolved thanks to new technologies that benefited both. The same steam engines that powered commuter and early rapid transit trains also powered downtown factories. The same Bessemer steel that made the rails that streetcars and urban trains rolled upon also provided the structural beams that allowed construction of skyscrapers. The same electric motors that moved electric streetcars also powered electric elevators that gave people quick access to the upper floors of those skyscrapers.

These technologies created monocentric cities by concentrating jobs in urban centers surrounded by residential areas that fed into the centers on transit. Never before in history had cities been like this, yet people today still imagine that cities ought to be monocentric, a myth that drives too much bad policy.

This was transit’s Golden Age, but it was far from perfect. Transit was too expensive for unskilled workers, so they had to live in high-density tenements located within walking distance of downtown factories. To make a profit, rapid transit and streetcar operators used just enough vehicles to carry people but not enough to give them breathing room, at least at rush hour. Many transit lines had been built from the profits of the real estate developments they accessed, and while fares covered operating costs they were insufficient to rehabilitate these lines as they wore out.

Urban and transit evolution parted ways in 1913, when Henry Ford built the first moving assembly line to make his Model Ts. Cheap cars were an obvious threat to transit, but a bigger threat was less visible: unlike steam-powered, belt-driven factories, moving assembly lines required lots of land, so factories moved to the suburbs. When the suburbs refused to be annexed to the cities, monocentric cities became polycentric urban areas.

At least through the 1970s, urban planners and central city officials pretended their cities were still monocentric, and they wrote numerous downtown plans, urban renewal plans, transit plans, commuter-tax plans, and other plans designed to maintain the preeminence of downtown. The construction of the San Francisco BART and Washington Metro systems were among these plans, but were as doomed to fail as all the others.

As both jobs and people left city centers after World War II, most major central cities began to lose population even as their suburbs grew. Since 1950, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have all lost more than half their populations. Cincinnati lost 41 percent; Baltimore 35 percent; Boston and Minneapolis 30 percent; Washington 29 percent; Chicago 25 percent; St. Paul 13 percent; San Francisco and Oakland, 12 percent. Except in New York, one of the few major central cities that had more people in 2000 than 1950, this decentralization greatly reduced transit’s effectiveness.

By the 1980s, planners began to realize that urban areas had become polycentric, and today polycentricity is a fundamental part of the New Urbanism. Too late: cities had changed again with the decline of manufacturing jobs and the growth of service jobs. In 1920, nearly 40 percent of all American jobs were manufacturing, and there was one-and-a-third service jobs per manufacturing job. Today, less than 10 percent of jobs are manufacturing, and there are ten service jobs for every manufacturing job.

Even if they weren’t in city centers, manufacturing jobs were at least concentrated. But service jobs in such fields as health care, education, wholesale and retail trade, and utilities, were diffused throughout urban areas. As noted in Reason #2, less than 30 percent of urban jobs today are located in downtowns or regional or town centers. Other things once concentrated in downtowns, such as shopping, churches, and theaters, also became diffused.

These trends had the least impact on New York, but even in the New York urban area (which includes suburbs in northern New Jersey, southwest Connecticut, and New York state), as opposed to the city itself, transit is pretty marginal. While transit carries 57 percent of New York City commuters to work, it carries just 14 percent of suburban New York commuters.

The diffusion of jobs and other destinations throughout an urban area returned cities to be more what they were like for thousands of years before the late nineteenth century. Simply increasing population densities, as regional governments in California, Oregon, and Washington have done, doesn’t help because those jobs and other destinations remain too diffuse for transit to work for any but a small minority of the population. These changes are not only irreversible, there is no reason why we should want to reverse them.

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16 thoughts on “Reason #5 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
Our Cities Aren’t Built for It

  1. alexfrancisburchard

    San Francisco had a 1000 more people in 2000 than in 1950, and today has nearly 100,000 more :https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco#Demographics

    Oakland: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakland,_California#Demographics

    You just straight lied about both cities, Oakland and S.F. have grown substantially since their 1950/60’s peaks.

    Seattle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seattle#Demographics

    Portland: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland,_Oregon#Demographics

  2. OFP2003

    The WMATA trains are in tunnels beneath townhouses! and elevated above parking lots! Ride the thing and count the number of people getting off at the townhouse neighbor stops. A few token passengers. Everyone else is either going to a park and ride station or the two stations in the poor residential neighborhood with bus hubs. No, of course the city is not built for it. Especially since the city (Washington DC) can’t build up.

  3. CapitalistRoader

    Cheap cars were an obvious threat to transit, but a bigger threat was less visible: unlike steam-powered, belt-driven factories, moving assembly lines required lots of land, so factories moved to the suburbs. When the suburbs refused to be annexed to the cities, monocentric cities became polycentric urban areas.

    That’s interesting. I never thought of factories changing size when power was decentralized from a single steam or water driven engine transmitting power to work stations via belts to electrified work stations. With the latter only small electrical conductors are needed, so engineers were free to lay out factories to be more spacious and adaptable.

    Looking ahead, I can’t help but think that self driving cars and even self driving aircraft will result in even more dispersed populations in the US. Abundant natural gas supplies and decreasing photovoltaic solar costs (especially in the West/Southwest) should allow more people to move further away from metro areas.

  4. OFP2003

    To Capitalist Roader: Also, virtual work places, telecommuting, and other electronic connections could mean the cities and urban areas will ultimately balkanize between extroverts (city) and introverts (rural). Then what will happen, especially if the extroverts are the only ones willing to be politicians????

  5. JOHN1000

    The number of Americans living in cities did not surpass the number in rural areas until around 1920.

    The population dominance of cities was relatively short-lived but it has been romanticized as if it lasted forever. Nothing wrong with romance, but it should not control public policy affecting the lives of tens of millions of people and trillions of public dollars.

  6. LazyReader

    Laying myths to rest…..the only city where dense transit makes sense is in….dense cities. New York. Now other city is like New York because of a very unique feature of geography, it’s an Island which means that the island is permanently set in the amount of land it’s capable of developing on (well that’s not technically true, Manhattan has reclaimed land from the sea to extend it’s ports and property). But transit is really only applicable in the older denser city, The Grid style city.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grid_plan
    http://www.conemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/9-Eixample-District-Barcelona.jpg
    the city that was developed and pioneered for millennia. The kind of city that came about before the invention of the automobile. Unlike Atlanta or Houston or Phoenix, those are just places where people drive to skyscrapers and leave empty at the end of the day. Once a city is built to accommodate the car it loses it’s advantage of transit or energy efficiency.
    http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4145/5207389090_f04b592c7a.jpg
    Which manifests itself in some of the most ugly cities in the Country, Phoenix, Houston, the monoliths of concrete and asphalt, once those cities get the reputation for hideousness they go on spending sprees to make themselves look like the cities of yesteryear.

  7. The Antiplanner Post author

    alexfrancisburchard,

    I should have been more explicit. The population declines I quoted were from 1950 to the decennial census with the lowest population for those cities. Yes, some cities recovered, but most did not. New York’s population decline was one of the least, at 10 percent by 1980, but then it recovered.

    Of the cities I mentioned, you are right that San Francisco and Oakland recovered their lost populations. Boston, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Washington also recovered a small portion of their lost population, but still remain well below their 1950 population. The rest are still losing.

  8. Ohai

    The diffusion of jobs and other destinations throughout an urban area returned cities to be more what they were like for thousands of years before the late nineteenth century.

    It’s true. Ancient Sumerian cities were virtually indistinguishable from the exurbs of Atlanta, Georgia. Along with irrigation and the wheel, they also invented SUVs, big box stores and freeways.

  9. alexfrancisburchard

    Also, seeing as people have generally left the cold miserable weather of the rust belt for the more pleasant weather of the Sun belt, you should consider San Francisco being the most desirable city in the country in your narrative of people hating cities. There’s a reason housing prices there are more expensive than anywhere else in the country.

    New York bucked the trend early because it was well managed, and had the big infrastructure to save itself.
    Also what’s helping D.C., Boston, and Philly Recover, but places like Buffalo, baltimore, St. Louis, and the Ohio cities are still falling. They don’t have the redeeming urban amenities that the bigger East Coast cities built and maintained. Chicago’s urban core is also growing very fast, but its surrounded by the middle ring, and that’s still struggling. The denser, more accessible northside is continuing to grow while the more sparse, more depressed south and west sides continue to empty out. When I lived in Chicago tower cranes were starting to rise like weeds in 2014-2015. But also people in Chicago are combining older smaller units, and having smaller families and that’s dampening the growth a little.

    A large part of the emptying of cities though is the general average decrease in household size in the U.S. People don’t really have 4 kids anymore, and as a result, cities with relatively unchanging housing stock lost large chunks of population simply due to fewer people in each home.

  10. Billll

    A big reason for the disappearance of the concentration of workers is the disappearance of the “one big factory” which was originally required to make anything. All the components required in an assembly were made in the same building as the final assembly, greatly enlarging the number of people needed at any one manufacturing site. Today sub assemblies are all made at unique sites that serve multiple manufacturers and being specialized, need fewer workers as automation does the repetitive jobs.

    The exception to this is government. In Washington you can find single buildings with the population of small towns working in them. When you have 5000 people in one place it’s easy to find a near neighbor to share a ride with you and it works for a mass transit system to make a few stops in suburbia to deposit thousands at the Department of Redundancy building. Unfortunately, since it works for huge bureaucracies, the model gets imposed on places that don’t even remotely resemble that model and we get 25% of our roadways dedicated to carpools and the same percentage of our road and bridge money diverted to buses and trolley cars.

    Somehow it always seems to be a mystery to the transit wonks why the roads are jammed and the bridges are collapsing.

  11. CapitalistRoader

    Also, seeing as people have generally left the cold miserable weather of the rust belt for the more pleasant weather of the Sun belt, you should consider San Francisco being the most desirable city in the country in your narrative of people hating cities.

    The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.
    attributed to Mark Twain

  12. Frank

    “the cold miserable weather of the rust belt for the more pleasant weather of the Sun belt, you should consider San Francisco being the most desirable city in the country”

    What a load of shit. Is your head so far up your ass that you’re unaware off the two feet of snow dropped on the Portland area and the resulting 700 accidents and lightrail derailment in one day?

    And yeah, SF weather in the summer is brutally cold.

  13. alexfrancisburchard

    Frank, you might like the winters in the rustbelt, but 2 feet of snow is not that rare in the rust belt, in Portland, it happens once in a century maybe. It might snow every winter, but only an inch or two normally, Same with Seattle, and I don’t know how often S.F. or LA see snow at all (or Phoenix etc). One, once in a century event is not indicative of the regular weather of a place. I lived in Chicago for 6 years myself, -40F/C you will never ever see in Seattle or Portland, or in actual sun belt cities. Minneapolis, Chicago you’ll see that.

    I think Seattle’s lowest recorded temp is 0F, That’s your daily high in Chicago for parts of the winter. I “enjoyed” and entire week where 0 was the HIGH temperature. And a month where it did not break 32F A whole month IIRC.

    That compounded with corrupt and poor administrations of rust belt cities has caused people to move away to where there’s better job opportunities, and better weather. The rust belt let their infrastructure crumble, and their populations have too. The cities that didn’t totally let their infrastructure crumble, have bounced back and started to come back to life. But slowly, because while they crumbled, nicer places built theirs out and become more urban and pleasant places to live.

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