The Folly of Go-Big-or-Go-Home Transit


If the U.S. were to learn something from the rest of the world about how to improve public transit, we might look beyond the wealthy cities of Europe and East Asia, and check out South America.

In an un-showy revolution now several decades underway, a number of Latin American cities have developed remarkably effective bus systems. I lived in Quito for a bit shy of a year, and I can attest that getting around town without a car was a dream. It was easier than in any U.S. city I've ever lived in—dense, transit-rich San Francisco included. Latin America is famous for its bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, which deliver much of the experience of a train, at a small fraction of the cost. But in every city I know of, these are also supplemented by a vast network of formal and informal bus lines criss-crossing the city, many of them privately owned and operated.

If even poor countries like Ecuador or Colombia can pull off excellent transit, just imagine what we can do here in North America with vastly more financial resources and better coordination between levels of government!

We can.. uhh....

Well, we can spend 20 years trying to build a single suburban light-rail line! We're the best in the world at that particular approach!

Source: Triangle Transit Authority

Source: Triangle Transit Authority

Transit advocates frequently get the pleasure of throwing our hands up in frustration when our signature projects get bogged down in bureaucracy and stonewalled by interest groups. The latest such saga: Duke University may have just all but killed light rail in North Carolina's Research Triangle because, to quote the New York Times,

"Duke officials.... said construction vibration and electromagnetic interference from the trains might affect sensitive research equipment at Duke’s sprawling medical campus, which the train line would skirt. And they are concerned about the project’s impact on the underground utilities that serve the medical center."

(One wonders how hospitals in New York function, with all the trains rumbling past at all hours. Surely this is a solvable problem. But that's not really my point here. My point is these kinds of objections are the norm, not the exception. Here's just one example.)

All of this endless process adds more time, more cost, and much more uncertainty. Much has been written about why America can't seem to build rail at anything approaching a reasonable cost or in a reasonable time frame. There are plenty of valid points we could discuss.

It's laudable to work to reform our planning and engineering processes and get these costs down. But it's also important, in light of the seeming inevitably that another year will bring another "$2 billion light rail projected delayed amid cost overruns and lawsuits" headline, to be pragmatic and acknowledge this status quo when it comes to which projects we urge our elected officials to hang their hats on.

Latin America's lack of wealth may be more of an asset than a drawback when it comes to transit. There's a discipline that lack of resources imposes. You have to do projects in smaller steps. You have to be pragmatic.

No one forces that discipline on us (yet), so we opt for "go big or go home" transit. And it looks like the Durham-Orange line might be going home.

"Where Should We Be Building Our Light Rail Line?" is the Wrong Question

We shared a link on social media to a CityLab article about the Durham light rail fiasco, and we received far more negative than positive comments. Here's what we wrote:

"After 20 years of planning, the North Carolina Research Triangle’s signature transit project is fighting for its life."

Boy. If this sentence doesn't perfectly capture the folly of our megaproject-obsessed transit paradigm, we don't know what does.

Here's a better idea: Ask transit riders in Durham and Chapel Hill what's the next, small step you could take that would improve their commutes *this* year. Then do it. Then next year, ask the same question. There are so many pressing needs going unmet while our cities focus on shaky silver-bullet efforts like this one; what do we have to lose? 

Let me be clear about some things we didn't say, in case you thought you heard one of these:

  • "It's good news that they might have to abandon this project." Nope, didn't say that.

  • "They should abandon this project now." Didn't say that either.

  • "Rail is a bad investment." Rail can be a great investment. The question is how we identify when and where.

  • "This is a bad project." Not necessarily.

  • "North Carolina should put less money and effort into improving transit." No, they should almost certainly put in more of both.

We've long had readers who perceive our advocacy of incrementalism as kneejerk dogma—as though we're saying "every big project is bad because it's big." That's not something we've ever said or will say (and we've even published a piece in favor of a big suburban rail project in at least one instance), so let's unpack a little.

Every defense of the project I’ve seen is well-meaning. Those who have advocated for 20-plus years for rail transit in North Carolina aren't just looking for a shiny new toy: they're looking for something up to the task of addressing real problems. Up to the task of curbing fossil fuel emissions. Up to the task of improving equity in access to jobs and opportunity for the region's poorer residents. Up to the task of securing a fiscally sustainable future for a region choking on unproductive growth, by weaning it off its disastrous car-dependent development pattern.

From the perspective of those priorities, is this light rail line a good project? It's certainly better than nothing.  It's better than the status quo of cars being the only practical way to get around this area.

But we simply cannot evaluate transit, or any infrastructure project, on the basis of, "Is this better than nothing?" It needs to be better than all the other things we could spend that time and money on. It needs to offer the best return on investment out of the range of things we could do.

We've been conditioned for a long time to think a certain way about infrastructure: some is good. More is better. More is always better than less. Get as much money to build as many good projects as possible. ASCE's "Infrastructure Cult" advocacy is grounded in this paradigm, and so is much of transit advocacy. 

The problem is that we simply cannot do every worthwhile project. We can't even do a fraction of the worthwhile projects on our wish lists. We need to be talking about transit opportunities in terms of opportunity cost, and, when it comes to the problems we're trying to use transit to solve, scalability. That's the conversation that Strong Towns is trying to promote.

Opportunity Cost: What Are We Neglecting?

The opportunity cost of fixating on a "signature" project like this one consists of the local political capital, attention, and staff time that are not being devoted to other transit needs. What is being neglected in favor of the "signature project"? What other priorities are being warped to accommodate the "signature project"? CityLab writes:

Local officials say there’s far more at stake than a single transportation project: A land-use plan approved in 2005 was designed around the future light rail stations. Like many other cities, Durham wants to use the train to spur affordable housing development. “The light rail is a transformational project for our region,” Schewel said....

Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner and chair of the GoTriangle board, put it simply: “We have structured our community specifically to support this.”

"We have structured our community specifically to support this." This quote is revealing about just how many eggs have been in this basket.

I'm not deeply familiar with the region, but some questions come to my mind: How is the bus service in Durham and Chapel Hill? Is it a practical, comfortable way to get around? Are the buses reliable? Do they come frequently on well-traveled routes? As someone who has experienced public transit in the American South, I am pretty positive the answer to every one of those questions is "needs improvement" at best.

How are the sidewalks? Bike infrastructure? Do you have deadly stroads that deter people from walking or biking near them?

Where is your existing stock of affordable housing, and do the people in it have adequate access via existing transit to jobs and services? If not, what are the most troublesome gaps?

Where does your zoning allow mixed-use development that could make it possible for people to meet needs without driving? Where doesn’t it?

And most importantly, what easy fixes to the above could be happening, but aren’t because it’s nobody’s job to identify and implement them, and there isn’t a pot of money to do so? (Note: there could be money. Voters in Durham and Chapel Hill passed a sales tax increase—albeit one which light rail alone, assuming Duke concedes and the project moves forward, will eat up for the next 60 years.)

The arguments I'm hearing in favor of light rail amount to "rail would be nice to have," but they all fail to convince me that spending the same time and effort and money on systematically improving other means of non-car mobility, starting by examining the needs of those who already use transit and expanding out from there, couldn't produce a bigger bang for the buck. 

Scalability: Could We Do This Ten Times Over?

Say we build a rail line at great expense and effort, and it delivers transformative benefits for the areas adjacent to its stations. Are we going to be able to do it again? And again? And again? 

I like light rail. I tend to think it does deliver transformative benefits when built in the right places. And I engaged our president, Chuck Marohn, in this very debate back in 2015 when I was just a Strong Towns reader and member. He quoted and responded to my comments in this post, which has stuck with me:

Even the wildest dreams of transportation advocates don't get us close to serving significant populations of this state with anything but automobiles. [This] is one corridor in a state with tens of thousands of corridors.

Even if a centralized government approach could get this right, it can't work from the top down. There isn't the money or the will to build enough stuff to make it matter. 

At the time Chuck and I had our exchange, the Green Line light rail from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul was new and already a big success. I still think the Green Line has been a great project, and is close to a poster child for what light rail in 21st century America should be. The entire line runs through fairly built-up urban areas with a traditional, pre-WWII street grid and a walkable development pattern. There is a lot of room for denser infill development near its stations to capitalize on the investment, on formerly industrial properties and parking lots. There are many perpendicular bus lines which feed into the Green Line, expanding its reach. It is built for success, and sure enough, it has smashed through all ridership projections.

How much of what I just wrote is true of the proposed Chapel Hill-Durham line? Highly productive, walkable development pattern near the stations? Good connecting bus service?

5 years after opening that lovely exception-that-proves-the-rule, my hometown is bogged down in two controversial suburban light-rail projects. One has endured multiple lawsuits, good- and bad-faith objections, and cost overruns on its way to breaking ground. The other is earlier along but already has its own set of troubles.

Meanwhile, the most successful thing the Twin Cities region has done, transit-wise, in the 5 years since the Green Line opened, is—you guessed it—un-flashy bus service, specifically what it has labeled "arterial BRT." These are buses that make limited stops at set "stations" like rail, and you buy your ticket before boarding like rail. They run in existing traffic lanes along with private cars, but drivers have some ability to push a button and get a green light on demand. These bus lines have been a comparatively small, inexpensive bet that has been wildly successful. At some point in the future, if the political will is there, those lanes can be converted to dedicated bus-only lanes.

As a native Minnesotan who spends a lot of time back there, the biggest tragedy of our endless light-rail headaches, to me, isn't that the Twin Cities don't have more light rail lines yet. It's that we could have had 5 or 10 more aBRT lines by now if we made them top priority, which would meaningfully improve travel for a lot more people.

Even very suburban, car-oriented areas that have made robust commitments to bus service have found it a highly successful model: check out this profile of how Brampton, Ontario doubled bus ridership in barely a decade.

So how about the Research Triangle? If you’re thinking big and you care about weaning North Carolinians off car dependency, is the Durham-Orange line going to move the needle? You might look at Dallas's experience, where one thing light rail has decidedly not done is reduced driving or halted the spread of car-oriented development.

Of course, a few tweaks to the bus system aren't going to wean North Carolinians off car dependency either. But we're talking hundreds of small improvements to the bus system and to sidewalks and to bike infrastructure and changes to land use to allow people to make more of their trips close to home. All of those things together could make a snowballing, accelerating difference that a suburban rail line, or even a handful of suburban rail lines, can't hope to match.

Don't be seduced by the "signature project" that takes 20 years to complete, when there's huge basket of small projects you could hit the ground running on. That's a wildly different approach than anything our transit agencies or federal funding mechanism are set up for. But it's a more promising one.

(Cover image via GoTriangle)