In anticipation of this article being read by a disproportionate number of transit advocates, I feel compelled to point out some things up front. The most important is that, whatever critiques I have of transit, please know that I’ve leveled far more at automobile infrastructure. There is sometimes a rush to lump me in with anti-transit folks. That would be a mistake: I am very pro transit.

My support of transit, however, is more intellectual than functional. I live in a small town whose only transit is dial-a-ride. I don’t use it. I do use transit often when I travel – which is quite a bit – but I’m not dependent on transit nor am I even a frequent user. When it comes to the experience of transit, I try to listen more than speak.

Where I do tend to speak up is the realm of funding transit, which I find as incoherent and, quite frankly, destructive as I find our current approach to highway funding. As was stated in our article last week that set off a mini-firestorm among some transit advocacy circles, I’m don’t support build-it-and-they-will-come transportation investments, regardless of their nature.

I believe we have massively overbuilt our infrastructure. I believe we will have fewer lane miles two decades from now than we do currently... The same brutal math applies to our transit systems.

And let me expound on that: I believe we have massively overbuilt our infrastructure and that we will have fewer lane miles two decades from now than we do currently. And I do believe that the same brutal math applies to our transit systems. We don’t have the money to maintain what we’ve built and, since most of what we’ve built is financially unproductive (it’s a losing investment), a good portion of it will not be maintained.

All this puts me at odds with what I’ve found to be the dominant theory among transit advocates: that transit investments – specifically, large transit investments – are necessary to spur growth of the walkable (dare I say: dense) development patterns that planners salivate over. To be kind, I think that mindset is a derivation of the incoherent and destructive way we fund all transportation. If I were being unkind, I would call it intellectually lazy.

The Wrong Terminology

Where I seem to have crossed paths – and lost credibility – with transit advocates is my use of the term “transit-oriented development” and my juxtaposing it with “development-oriented transit.” As Jarrett Walker of Human Transit stated:

So what is “development-oriented transit”?  To be frank, I’m sure I’m not the only transit planner who finds the term insulting.  What exactly do you think we do all day?  Transit planning is a response to transit markets, which arise from the built form, i.e. “development”.  If development determines where people are and where they need to go, then all transit is development-oriented, and it always has been.

While I didn’t mean to insult with the term, I’m not sure I fully understand how I did. Towards the end of the piece, Walker (of whom I’m a big fan) provides some clarity on his use of the term:

All transport is development-oriented, and all development is oriented toward some transport mode.  If you want that mode to be public transit, then you need to plan development — not just its layout but also its location – with transit in mind, just as all urban planning did before 1945.  That’s all that the term “transit-oriented development” says, and all that it should mean.

This might be the place where I slightly part ways with transit advocates. While we seem to agree that the style of development has a relationship to how people get around, it’s not a high priority to me that the mode be public transit. I’m not against that, but if I were to list my top concerns for this continent’s neighborhoods, financial strength and solvency would be at the top, while the ability to accommodate my preferred mode of transit would rank pretty low.

For me, transit is a means to an end – that end being the financial strength and resiliency of a place – not an end unto itself. That can sometimes feel threatening to the transit advocate that puts providing transit at the center of their universe. I would always start with scaling transit to the place, not the other way around.

And as a side note, the urban planning done in my city prior to 1945 was impressive, but I seriously doubt it was predicated on the future accommodation of transit. In fact, I’m confident it didn't, and that is pretty universal among pre-War cities. The role of the urban planner in designing future developments to accommodate public transit seems to my reading of history to be a fairly modern one.

Build It and They Will Come

I was reminded many times last week of the engineering profession’s obsessions both with projections and a code of efficiency as a mechanism for justifying overbuilding.

Our governments are broke. We’ve made more promises than we can keep. Neighborhoods are falling apart, even in cities experiencing robust growth, and that’s only going to get worse.

Consider a sewer pipe: If we project out from Day 1 the growth we anticipate over the decades, then we should put the biggest pipe we can imagine at the trunk of our system. It’s only common sense. It’s the only efficient thing to do. If we fail to do this, someday we’ll find ourselves digging up the center of town and doing an expensive retrofit to accommodate all the demand. Better to do it from the start, to “plan” for the success we know is coming, and not have those enormous costs later.

In a world of seemingly unlimited resources – like the one that has existed, true or imagined, in this country since World War II – that mindset makes a lot of sense. Every municipal engineer with some experience can point to a pipe that had to be excavated at great expense so it could be expanded to accommodate growth. Of course, every engineer could also point to dozens of oversized pipes in the ground that are being used at a fraction of their capacity, but those don’t become acute problems in a world of seemingly unlimited resources.

But what about a world of limited resources? We can look back at American cities before the Great Depression – when we knew how poor we were – and, with only a couple of notable exceptions, we don’t see the public sector investing in this way. What we see is a lot of retrofitting. In other words, development came first, and it was that development that justified the public expenditure. It might have cost more, but that was the price for not having resources to waste.

But Chuck, what about all the rail lines built to the outskirts of New York City. What about all the miles of trolley lines built in every city back in the day?

Um….everything that I’ve seen (with a couple of notable exceptions, particularly for canals) was paid for by the private sector. These were not public risks. The private sector invested the money in the systems, developers bore this risk and, if it didn’t work, they and their investors lost money. That’s a very different situation.

In 2018, I do not support government planners taking enormous risks on future development using public dollars. And just so that doesn’t sound too Tea Party, let me make clear that I do think local governments need to be proactive in taking a lot more risk—it just needs to be of the incremental variety.

Friends, our governments are broke. We’ve made more promises than we can keep. Neighborhoods are falling apart, even in cities experiencing robust growth, and that’s only going to get worse. It’s the epitome of reckless arrogance for any planner (note: I’m a planner) to project increases in future demand as a way to justify large, public transportation investments when our existing systems are starved for funds, even for their own basic maintenance.

Fix what you have. Make it work incrementally better each day. Squeeze more and more productivity out of your ridiculously unproductive city. That needs to be our obsession, and transit can be part of that, but not the tip of the spear. And certainly not the tip of a ballistic missile. 

If We Were Serious About Transit...

I can envision only two viable ways in which the government can make large, speculative investments in public transit that are not merely reckless gambles supporting myopic planning (and, sorry, planners but cities are complex, not complicated, and so the more you know the more you should be humbled by how little you know).

As has been pointed out to me many times, they build great transit systems in China and Japan. Yes, they do, but they finance it in a way that we have proven unwilling to attempt.

Much like the 1800’s railroad companies did here in the United States, before a new HSR stop is built in Japan, the government acquires all the land at pre-development prices. Then billions are spent to construct the line and transit hub.

Our transportation finance system is designed to transfer public wealth into private hands without any recourse or commitment for what happens next.

Then all the land – now worth a fortune due to the government investment – is sold to private developers. This transaction not only pays for the cost of the infrastructure and frees up the fare box to support only operations and maintenance, but all those developers have a pretty significant incentive to make good use of that expensive land they just purchased.

If you think there is no way we could ever do this in America – and on that, we agree – there is another mechanism that we have: the special assessment. Right now, California is making multi-millionaires out of people who own property in the vicinity of where they are building high speed rail stops. Is the public capturing that wealth? Only a tiny, tiny fraction of what those lucky few homeowners enjoy, and then only through – in California’s case – a fatally distorted property tax system.

What should happen is that everyone who has their land increase in value should get a big old direct assessment for that increase in value so that the public can start recouping their transferred wealth. The land owners would make good once they developed the property, as they should.

Note that had we done this in the first place, SB 827 – a California bill trumping local zoning with state mandates to allow more density – would never have been considered necessary. It’s only the no-strings-attached transference of billions in public wealth into the hands of private individuals and businesses that spawned the NIMBY nest of cognitive dissonance that is California’s cities.

This is true everywhere, and I’ll acknowledge that it's doubly true of highways. Our transportation finance system is designed to transfer public wealth into private hands without any recourse or commitment for what happens next.

So, Chuck, why don’t we just assess these improvements?

That's easy: If we did, they would never happen. Assessing would kill all major transportation investments beyond maintenance. No land owner is going to return that wealth to the government, but not because it wouldn’t be fair. No, they won’t return it because they would go broke doing so.

And here’s the trillion dollar catch: They would go broke because the development pattern that dominates North America – whether for highways or transit – is so ridiculously unproductive that the investment would never be recouped. That’s the core of the problem.

As a blanket statement, most transit advocates I know don’t seem to care about this solvency problem (in fairness, highway advocates don’t either). The sad thing is, if Americans could be convinced to make the financial strength and solvency of our neighborhoods an obsession, we’d all become transit advocates. Just not the grand build-it-and-they-will-come kind of transit many dream of.

Where Does This Leave Us?

This is where I’ve found Jarrett Walker to be the most brilliant and inspiring. I’ve seen him in multiple places – most notably, for me, in Houston – take an existing transit system and, with relatively little changes to the budget, get vastly more out of it simply by rethinking the parameters under which it operates. This is exactly what every city in this country needs. It’s sheer genius, in my opinion — knowledge we need to mass migrate to other places.

At Strong Towns, we consider ourselves major supporters of transit, albeit in service of productive land use patterns, not as an attempt to induce them.

So, when I hear the term “transit-oriented development,” I’m hearing "transit first, followed by development that is oriented toward it." That’s an approach oblivious to the current financial state of our cities and our infrastructure. I find it incoherent, and I’m sickened by planning practitioners who, despite all historical evidence to the contrary, believe they can get it right this time.

When I propose the term “development-oriented transit,” what I’m suggesting is that we begin with the development we have now, we walk these places and humbly observe where people are struggling, and we ask: what is the next smallest thing we can do to address that struggle?

We don’t ask: What is the most efficient thing to do? or, What is the grand solution? Those are questions we impose because we like the answers they provide, because we don’t grasp the real insolvency problem we face. No, we must humble ourselves to ask what the next smallest thing we can do is.

Very often that is going to be transit, but it’s the rare place in today’s America that it is going to be an eight, nine or ten figure transit investment. It’s more likely to be: how do we connect this neighborhood to that neighborhood a little better? How do we give buses more green lights? How do we make this stop more accessible? How do we improve the first and last mile of this trip?

This isn’t the stuff that many transit advocates dream of, but then again, there are lot of people out there doing this difficult and often thankless work. Jarrett Walker is one of them, and I will continue to read his blog in the hopes of learning more about these approaches. There are many others too.

Transit is an essential part of increasing the financial productivity of our cities, something we desperately need to happen, and happen quickly. At Strong Towns, we consider ourselves major supporters of transit, albeit in service of productive land use patterns, not as an attempt to induce them. We welcome into our conversation those who consider themselves transit advocates. The common ground we share is considerable, and it can be the basis of a needed shift in transportation spending towards that which you are most passionate about.

(Top image source: Wikipedia)