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Transit Gloria Urbis

The mindset has to change from “How many people can we cram in?” to “How many riders can we entice?”

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Public transportation—buses, streetcars, light rail, subways, commuter trains—is a city’s circulation system. It brings people into the city, moves them around in the business district, and, if they are suburbanites, takes them home at the end of the day. From a city’s perspective, cars are a poor alternative. Rush-hour traffic jams drive people away, cars take up enormous amounts of valuable real estate, and are hostile to pedestrians, who are a city’s lifeblood. If a city does not have a large number of pedestrians, especially with disposable income, it is a dying city. It is no accident that the first chapters of Jane Jacobs’s magnificent book The Death and Life of Great American Cities are devoted to sidewalks.

Unfortunately, the corona panic dealt a body blow to public transportation. New York City, which has the country’s largest public transportation system, has seen ridership fall to about two-thirds of its pre-Covid level. San Francisco’s BART system is carrying only about one-third of its pre-panic riders. Other big cities are showing similar collapses. The umbrella group of most public transportation systems, the American Public Transportation Association, recently reported that transit carried 883 million fewer riders in the third quarter of 2022 compared to the same quarter in 2019.


That is a problem, because while transit gets federal government money to build new lines or buy rail cars and buses, it does not get federal funding for operations. That is as it should be, because as soon as an entity gets federal dollars, its focus switches from cost reduction to cost justification. That has already happened with the cost of new transit lines, especially rail, to the point where building a new streetcar, light rail, or subway line in this country is absurdly expensive compared to what other developed countries pay. The Federal Transit Administration could fix that by establishing “should cost” figures, with any overruns to be paid by the city doing the gold plating. But it won’t.

Meanwhile, transit systems’ operations depend heavily on collecting fares, and their fare income has dropped with the fall in ridership. State and local government money usually makes up the difference, but those sources of cash are also hurting financially. Transit systems are currently living on federal money from the trillion-dollar slush funds that accompanied the pandemic, but those will soon run dry. At that point, past practice suggests they will cut service. But that drives away more riders, feeding a downward spiral. Is there a way out of that spin?

I think there may be. To understand it, we need to acknowledge that there are two kinds of transit, serving two different markets and two different purposes. The first is transit for “transit dependents,” people who have no car or can’t drive. These people are usually best served by buses, because they need a dense network of service to minimize the distances they must walk. This kind of transit, while used by few conservatives, serves conservative purposes, especially getting poor people to and from jobs so they can work rather than live on welfare.

The second kind of transit is for “riders from choice.” This is high-quality transit, which many conservatives do use. Riders from choice have cars and can drive but choose to take transit instead. In most cases, high quality means rail: commuter trains, subways, light rail, and streetcars. Rail offers faster speeds, more space per passenger, and less of the rollercoaster effect buses create with frequent stops and swerves.

Importantly, transit for riders from choice usually covers much more of its expense from the farebox than do buses for transit dependents. Unfortunately, the drop in transit ridership coming out of the pandemic has hit these transit services hardest, because upper-income riders from choice are better positioned to work from home. The man who works in an office can take his work home more easily than can the woman who cleans the office.


As noted above, transit systems’ normal response to a ridership decline is to cut service. Transit dependents have to take whatever they’re given, but riders from choice do not. My suggestion, since the latter usually pay higher fares, is to do the opposite: improve service.

Rail lends itself especially well to improving service. More trains, longer trains to offer more seats, respacing seats to provide more leg room, adding work tables at some seats, club cars on commuter trains, all these can be done with rail but not with buses. Transit systems’ mindset has to change from “How many people can we cram in?” to “How many people can we entice to take transit instead of driving?”

Because most commuters drive to work alone, a rush hour transit trip taken by a rider from choice is one fewer car heading into the city. It is also one more pedestrian with disposable income on downtown sidewalks.

The title of this piece, transit gloria urbis, means “the glory of the city passes,” which it does without the lifeblood those pedestrians represent. But in fractured Latin (my favorite example: carpe diem means “complain to God”), it translates as “transit is the glory of the city.” So it was in the days of our lost, lamented streetcar systems. So it must become again if our cities are to live.