Thinking Outside the Rails on Transit

October 1, 2013

Traditional transit works best when a large number of commuters work in a central district easily accessible by trains or buses. New York and Washington, D.C., where up to 20 percent of the regional workforces labor downtown (the central business district), are ideal for transit. Even in those metropolitan areas, however, the auto is king, says Joel Kotkin, a Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University.

  • Fifty-five percent of transit work trips are to six core cities: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Washington; 60 percent of those commutes are to downtown.
  • In contrast, in the Los Angeles-Orange County region, barely 6 percent of workers take transit, one-fifth the rate in New York.
  • The Bay Area Plan (an urban planning standard recently adopted by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments) itself says automobile use will still increase by 18 percent over 30 years.

A study by McKinsey & Co. and the Conference Board found that -- largely because of the impact of higher energy standards for cars forecast by the Department of Energy -- sufficient greenhouse gas emission reductions can be achieved without reducing driving or necessitating "a shift to denser urban housing."

But, arguably the biggest reduction can be traced to the rise of telecommuting.

  • Over the past decade, the country added some 1.7 million telecommuters, almost twice the much-ballyhooed increase of 900,000 transit riders.
  • In Southern California, the number of home-based workers grew 35 percent, three times the increase for transit usage.
  • By 2020, according to projections from demographer Wendell Cox, telecommuting should pass transit, both nationally and in this region, in total numbers.

As we attempt to figure out ways to improve both the environment and people's economic prospects, innovative 21st century solutions -- from telecommuting to car-sharing -- may prove more effective than relying on the 19th century technology of rail. We should not blindly follow transit ideology but focus on how to improve people's mobility in ways other than the overpriced, inefficient and often far-less-equitable solutions being bandied about today.

Source: Joel Kotkin, "Thinking Outside the Rails on Transit," New Geography, September 23, 2013.

 

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