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!

Book Review: Subway Style by the New York Transit Museum

Just before Christmas Susan & I met up with our friend Craig at Rodney’s Bookstore in Cambridge. The plan was that we’d split up and each buy a book for each other person in our trio that we thought the other person should read and then give them to one another across the street at The Field pub. I don’t know how well I did in my picks. I gave Craig a book about the Bulger brothers to help him write his folk ballad about Whitey Bulger. For Susan, I picked out a book about people living on the Falkland Islands among penguins to help her overcome her fear of penguins.

If my giving wasn’t so great, my receiving was bountiful. Susan being the perfect wife gave me the perfect book, Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture & Design in the New York City Subway. This coffee table book is full of pictures from a century of New York City’s greatest public work. While there is a bit of historical text, the book mainly focuses on the design associated with the subways. There are chapters on stations, ceramics, metalwork and lighting, furnishings, fare collection, signage, maps, advertising, and the design of the subway cars themselves. Mostly this book is great for the many large photographs that take one on a trip through history underneath New York.

This book has been my bedtime reading for the past month. Now I may have to just start all over again from the first page. Or maybe the chaper on maps.

This is as good a place as any to promote one of my favorite web pages NYCSubway.org which contains a large collection of articles, history and images of the New York City rapid transit. Lest Bostonians feel unappreciated there is the similar New England Transportation Site although it doesn’t seem to have been updated lately.

Things I learned today

Update on March 13thFor some reason WordPress.com will not let me add a comment on this post, so here is what I would have put in my comment:

ResourceShelf offers further commentary on librarians making the U.S. News & World Report Best Careers for 2007.

Charlie Card is Here

My plastic Charlie Card arrived in the mail today. This is the bold new venture of the MBTA, a reusable debit card of sorts that can open turnstiles and pay for buses with just a tap. This should be great news to people concerned about security (“thieves will steal my card with all that money on it”), conspiracy theorists (“the governments gonna use this chip in the card to track me”), and curmudgeonly types (“wait and see how this one’s going to flop”).

Personally, I’m not as negative as many commuters are regarding the T, and except for some occasional grumbles I appreciate having an effective public transit network. That being said somedays I feel the MBTA is a center of entropy. The 18-month process of installing the new turnstiles abd card readers has several examples of the MBTA creating chaos despite their best intentions.

  • The new turnstiles were first installed at Airport station where vistors to our town could buy passes that didn’t work anywhere else on the system.
  • Replacing reusable tokens with one-time use tickets and the inevitable piles of litter that ensued.
  • Tickets have to be dipped down into the fareboxes on buses, slowing down the boarding process.
  • Naming the new ticket after a satrical political protest song in the first place doesn’t bode well for confidence in the system.

Let’s hope the new plastic cards are the end of these types of problems for the T and not the source of a whole bunch of new ones.

To keep track of things I’ve added Charlie on the MBTA to the blogroll.

For a peek back to Charlie’s MTA, take a look at this sweet scan of an old system map I discovered through Universal Hub.