Urban Transit Round-Up

Suggestions are floating around the blogosphere that public transit systems should be free. Environmentalist Theodore W. Kheel made the suggestion at a conference in New York as documented by Streetsblog.

Why make the subway free? First, Kheel said it would save the city money overall. (He didn’t elaborate on how, but I imagine that savings would come in terms of reduced costs for road maintenance, fewer vehicle accidents and hence emergency services, reduced asthma cases, etc.) Second, the city is in the habit of offering public goods for free. Fire and police protection come at no cost to their beneficiaries, for example. Why should safe, efficient transportation?

Phillip Greenspun makes a similar suggestion for the MBTA in Boston on his blog (albeit with a snarky comment about MBTA bus driver salaries. Why shouldn’t bus drivers be paid well and have good benefits? If private industry offers less, shame on them).

The deeper question for me is why the subway and bus system in congested Boston charges riders at all. Anyone who rides the subway instead of driving is doing the rest of society a huge favor by reducing pollution, global warming, and traffic congestion.

Free public transit makes sense to me. Both public transit and roads for motor vehicles are both heavily subsidized by the government, but except for some toll roads, one rarely pays to drive. Tolls seem to be coming fewer and fewer and are a source of outrage where they persist. Yet paying fares for subways, trains, and buses are rarely questioned.

In my experience the only place I know of that has free public transit is Portland, OR where part of downtown is known as the Fareless Square. In Munich, there is a fare on the U-Bahn, trams and buses, but they’ve cut costs by not having any turnstiles and pretty much operating on the honor system. This being Germany people value their public transit highly and comply with paying even though no one may every check. I remember buying a week long Isar Card, sticking it in my wallet, and enjoying the satisfaction of boarding the subways and trains all week.

On the other end of the problem, as suggested by both Kheel and Greenspun there is the idea of charging motorists to drive in dense cities. This is already occurring in places like London where drivers must pay a congestion fee to drive in the center city at certain times of day. Manhattan would be a good place to try this both due to the benefits of limiting congestion as well as the bridges and tunnels that serve as natural access points. Boston would be harder, but what a great benefit it would be to America’s walking city.

The way to make things work best for everyone — public transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists — is through good urban design and planning. Newton Streets and Sidewalks recently published this great quote from Allen Jacobs as a thought for the day:

The reason great intersections work is because of the creation of a pedestrian realm where the cars know this. When streets become unsafe, it is almost always when the pedestrian realm does not exist.

In the history of urban planning New York City’s Robert Moses is everyone’s favorite villain for his emphasis on highways over aesthetics and dense, historic neighborhoods. Alex Marshall writes an article in rebutal to an exhibit of Moses’ models currently touring New York. Two interesting segments:

f Moses had had his way, Manhattan would be crisscrossed with freeways and studded with new parking lots and garages. Which not only would have destroyed many people’s homes and businesses, it would have made the city less prosperous, and ultimately put less money in both private and public pocketbooks.

It all comes down to capacity. Like many people of his generation, I’m convinced, Moses essentially didn’t understand the different capabilities of different modes of transportation, despite his learning and education. A freeway at top capacity can move only a few thousand vehicles per hour, and all those vehicles have to be put somewhere once they arrive where they’re going. That means many lanes of freeways and many parking lots and garages chewing up prime real estate.

By comparison, a subway or commuter train can move tens of thousands of people per hour, and they all arrive without the need to store a vehicle. This essential fact is why Manhattan can have dozens of skyscrapers, which not incidentally produce millions in salaries, profits and taxes, crammed right next to each other without any parking lots.


Moses thought he was modernizing Manhattan and the boroughs by adjusting them to accommodate the car and the highway. It’s true that on a conceptual level, he was acting similarly to those of the 19th century, who had put in train lines into New York and other cities, adjusting them to that then new mode of transportation.

But what Moses apparently didn’t see is that the car and the highway operate by different rules than modes of transportation past. Despite its behemoth-like size, a highway is actually a low-capacity mode of transportation, particularly when compared to trains.

Moses can’t be forgiven his intellectual errors by the observation that “everyone was doing it.” For one thing, everyone wasn’t. Lewis Mumford, who in the 1950s was a prominent and respected critic, laid out in painstaking fashion just exactly why plowing freeways into cities would not improve overall transportation, even while destroying so much of what was worthwhile in urban centers.

Secondly, Moses was not just part of the pack; he led the pack. Before World War II, the general plan was to put freeways beside major cities, not through them. Moses helped convince the federal government otherwise.

Finally, an effort to reduce driving fatalities. Not by making stricter safety standards for cars, but by addressing the root cause of most crashes: the drivers. The effort to improve driver behavior originated in the Netherlands and is now spreading to the United States.

The “traffic justice” initiative in the US, which is fueled by local groups, aims to shift the national discussion from “car accidents” to “car crashes,” says Mr. Chauncey. Americans accept limitations on personal freedoms in exchange for airplane safety, he says. “Now we expect just conduct from all players in the road transportation system: the planners, the engineers, the drivers, and the car companies.”

Safe travels everyone!

4 thoughts on “Urban Transit Round-Up

  1. Charlie on the MBTA reports that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom exploring the possibility of eliminating fares on the Muni. San Francisco has a fun and interesting public transit system. The cable cars are the most famous but they also have historic trolley cars running along Market Street and the Embarcadero, including one from Boston. The Embarcadero trolley replaced an elevated highway destroyed in the 1989 earthquake and has been quite a success. I think a trolley in Boston running along the Rose Kennedy Greenway where the Central Artery used to be would be a great idea. San Francisco also has modern light rail vehicles with spiffy adjustable steps that can convert into a floor level with a raised subway station platform as well as act as a lift for people with disabilities. I’d love to see these kind of trains in Boston too.


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