Thursday, January 8, 2009

National Journal Panel: Has Mass Transit Finally Arrived?

"Has Mass Transit Finally Arrived?"

- by Eric Britton, New Mobility Partnerships, Paris and Los Angeles

- Prepared for the Transportation Panel sponsored by the National Journal. See footnote below and for details

The author argues first that this is a dangerous way to frame the issues. The phrase “mass transit” is freighted with implicit and usually untested mental images automatically pointing up the need for building new systems, urban rail, more buses on the road, and all of that heavily deficit financed and paid for by taxpayer contributions. He goes on to point out that this is one of the great historical weaknesses of public policy in our sector, one that we cannot afford to repeat: the tendency to rush to “answers” before having sufficiently probed the key underlying questions. Britton goes on to recommend a more strategic approach to mass transit in cities where it is already in place, but for those cities who do not have heavy systems already in place he argues instead for a broad range of available alternative mobility modes which are . . . better, faster, cheaper. He pleads for greater support of the dynamic partnership role bringing in new services which can often be provided by the private sector and in some cases by well prepared local non-profits, as well as taking advantage of these new services to provide good employment opportunities, combined with programs of continuing education to upgrade the skills of the individuals and the labor force as a whole.

1. Let’s try a better question. 2
2. Mass transit triumphs, limitations and strategies for 2009/2012: 2
3. The target: “Better than a Car” 4
4. The New Mobility Agenda 5
5. It’s all about cities (and land use) 7
6. Entrepreneurship and Operational Models 8
7. Jobs and New Mobility 8
8. Neglected Options for Urban Mobility. 9

"Has Mass Transit Finally Arrived"?

“Mass transit”? I for one certainly hope not. And since I may be the only voice here that expresses this view, I better be ready to justify it.

1. Let’s try a better question.

"Has mass transit finally arrived" . . . is an example of a good kick-off question But as everybody knows one of the most useful attributes of a good question is that it opens the way for something better, for example to a great question. In this case the great question is "Have viable new mobility options finally arrived"? There is a huge difference between these two questions and it is important that we understand what they are. After all, language counts.

To set the stage, a quick comment on that ringing phrase "mass transit". Before rushing out to pour many billions of dollars into this particular concept, we will do well to recognize that as a phrase, as a strategic response, it is a relic of another day, another way of thinking about cities. And indeed another way of thinking about people (mass?).

To the extent to which our mission here is to inform the incoming administration about transportation policy drawing on experience at the leading edge, American and international, we are honor bound to do our best to present the new team with ideas and perspectives that are fully appropriate to the highly challenged situation we face in the last years of this first decade of this very different 21st century.

We have a long way to go. Old thinking about transportation was never weaker, never worse than when it divided our choices into two and only two principal mobility options: that is, either(a) the private car of (b) "mass" or public transportation. It has been this basically binary, either/or, basically no-choice approach which has led to the altogether unsatisfactory situations which exist in most towns and cities across America. It does not have to be that way.

2. Mass transit triumphs, limitations and strategies for 2009/2012:

The largely unseen trap of using a quickly said phrase like "mass transit" to kick off these discussions is that it has the unfortunate effect of immediately narrowing attention to what has to be one of the least appropriate service responses to the challenges of our time. It would be a terrible thing indeed if we were to miss this rare opportunity to bring about much needed change, simply because we chose to call attention to the wrong approach.

Mass transit has indeed had its glory days. But truth to tell it is more a vestige of the past than an instrument of the future. To get a proper feel for what it is all about, let’s focus briefly on the “mass” of mass transit. If our goal for the next four years is to spend great wads of public money to build and operate heavy industrial systems built on 19th century principles and capable of channeling large volumes of people on schedule from a reduced number of origins to a small set of destinations, that might well be the way to go. However if we do that, we are going to be way out of step with the realities of our epoch. One way of saying this is that it offers an industrial solution to a postindustrial world.

The mobility pattern of the places in which more than 80% of all Americans live, work, study and play today has little in common with this kind of outmoded delivery approach of another age. We live in a world not only of many origins and many destinations, but also of many times.

The services we create and reinforce with ever scarcer public money are going to have to correspond with our needs and desires as they are playing themselves out in this new century. A very different pattern than the one that the old mass transit systems were designed to serve.

The word mass transit conjures up a bustling world of crowded subways and metros, screeching urban and commuter rail, chock-full tramways and LRT, and incomplete patchworks of scheduled, fixed -route bus services -- all overseen by public agencies and deficit financed through the ever-mounting contributions of hard-working taxpayers. Did anyone say a "great sucking sound"?

It also tends to conjure up some pretty big numbers: for example new subway systems costing billions, expensive hardware which gets used only a few hours a day, with the whole apparatus heavily subsidized not only for the original purchase and construction but also for day-to-day operation.

If you wish to start up a new subway or metro in most cities today, better be prepared to fork out something on the order of $1000 an inch to bring it to completion. That is a lot of money, and it does not take into account the cost of the years of traffic disruption which inevitably goes with such projects. Nor the steady flow of public subsidies that are going to be needed to keep it in operation for the decades to follow.

Beyond this, all those heavy rail systems not only take decades to plan and bring into operation, but once they have been laid they have of course zero flexibility. This is worrying if we consider that the economic and locational dynamics of our cities are evolving very rapidly and in ways which even our very smartest planners and PhD modelers cannot accurately forecast today.

We live in a world of rapid change and non-stop pattern breaks. So if the idea is to put a system in place which corresponds with our present perception of needs and priorities, the odds are awfully slim that 10 or 20 years hence these will still be the dominant patterns in place. That is likely to be a very costly mistake.

Mass transit was a great 19th-century solution which corresponded with the basic logistics, economic realities and social conscience of that era. Throughout the 20th century, especially as the dynamics started to change rapidly, the formula has been marked by some successes, and more failures. All at very high cost.

There are better ways of spending these hard-earned taxpayer dollars than rushing off to build costly new mass transit systems. And likewise for any strategy which has us pouring more public money into lots more buses which at the end of the day end up spending more time in traffic, as well as being substantially underutilized most of the time.

Of course there is a real role for more effective public transportation services of a more conventional nature, though if you look closely you will find that as a result of a steady flow of technological and organizational innovations these services become increasingly less "conventional" as our cities become ever more innovative and flexible.

Here is what we can counsel with confidence to the incoming Obama team about "mass transit" and its appropriate role for the critical 2009-2012 period.

1. If you have it already in place, your main challenge is to get a lot better at using what you have in a cost-effective manner. Even at the leading edge we're only starting to understand how we can build on existing mass transit systems to create a far lower per passenger cost higher qualities of service than offered by the old operations and funding approaches

2. If you do not have it, forget about using scarce taxpayer dollars to build yourself a new one from scratch, because there are far better ways of getting the job done. Let's have a look.

3. The target: “Better than a Car”

The challenges before the new administration to create transportation systems which correspond to the needs of all Americans and the special circumstances of the 21st century are sufficiently great that we really have to make sure we use all of the available tools in our toolkit. And while the concept of traditional mass or public transportation gives us an initial impetus and a bit of a starting place, if that’s as far as we take it we will have failed in our task.

A radically different approach is needed, one which is increasingly called "new mobility". The critical underpinning of this approach is the acceptance that our goal has to be to create a wide variety of alternative ways of getting around the city which correspond better to people’s actual needs and preferences. New mobility is all about choices, choices made at the end of the day not by governments but by people..

A quick look first though at why so many of us think that having our own car is a great way to get around can help to set the scene. If we abstract from such minor inconveniences as steadily increasing traffic congestion, escalating costs of car operation, and the enormous environmental and social costs of an exclusively, or primarily, car-based transportation system, you have to admit that having something like your own car without all the hassles is a really great way to get around. It is a form of auto-mobility which corresponds in at least one fundamental way to our aborning 21st century, offering as it does a magic carpet of sorts on which you hop, go there, hop off all with great ease and even a certain sort of elegance.

So if auto-mobility is not so much a mortal sin as a decent human desire, the question becomes how can we accommodate this legitimate desire for auto-mobility -- or perhaps we will do better to call it first class transportation -- in our 21st century cities? Now that is an interesting question.

And one to which there is no single answer to it. Specifically in this context what we need and what we have in hand everything we need to create is a rich package, a spectrum of transportation services which combine great choice, sensible economics, greater environmental integrity, and solid business sense. All while working together synergistically to complete and reinforce each other.

4. The New Mobility Agenda

There is a long list of new mobility alternatives which we now need to better identify, improve, and bring to our towns and cities across America. The catalog includes considerable number of variations on services such as ridesharing, car and van pools, carsharing, premium and shared taxis, public and private bicycles, improved systems for safe and agreeable walking, community or small bus systems, smartcard paratransit, and the long list goes on.

Let me quickly sketch out three broad examples among many of how these new policies can be put to work in our cities to see if I can make this clear:

1. New concepts of public transportation.
Building on the traditional concepts of scheduled, fixed route bus services, we are seeing that a great deal can be accomplished if we combine improved access through reserved lanes and streets with the latest in logistical and communications technologies so that these public vehicles are able to move more smoothly and efficiently on our streets. There are in fact quite a range of ways of handling it, of which the most talked about these days go under names such as BRT or bus rapid transit. But what these services really have in common, and what makes them effective, is that they combine new thinking, greater flexibility, new technology, and improved management techniques to get us away from the old syndrome of ever more buses stuck in ever more traffic, to a transportation system capable of holding up its end of the bargain.

The operational models and technology for are there and are already working just fine in many and diverse places. We know how to do it. So we should

2. New concepts of "intermediate transportation"
Here we have a considerable range of service types but just by way of example let us think in terms of something like 21st-century taxis. The great advantage of taxis is that in principle at least they provide highly flexible demand responsive systems which will pick you up where you are and take you to where (or near to where) to you want to go. There is no reason that such vehicles need carry only a single passenger, and indeed if they are to be part of a sustainable transportation system they must be able to respond to the need for affordable and convenient small group transport as well as offering premium service to those who are ready to pay for it. There are two tricks to making this work. The first is to create a fully flexible system of regulation, ownership and operations which will be able to respond to these new service patterns. The second is to load in state-of-the-art technology into these operations so that they can do the job that is needed. Every city will have its own way of approaching these challenges.

The operational models and technology for are there and are already working just fine in many and diverse places. We know how to do it. So we should

3. New concepts of automotive transportation.
No this is not about electric cars or hybrid engines or new fuels. It is about new ways of using cars both in cities and in lower density areas as well. There are number ways of going about this, but for the moment let us consider just that of carsharing, but only as one example among many, mind you.

Carsharing is one alternative system of car ownership, access and use. The costs and troubles of vehicle purchase, ownership and maintenance are transferred to a central group. One way or another you join a club and as a member have the right to take one of their cars and use it when and as you need it. Today there are more than a thousand cities in the world in which you can walk out on the street and pick up a carshare vehicle. What is most interesting about carsharing is not that all by itself reduces traffic -- after all there is still a car and a driver out there in traffic -- but that people who choose for their own reasons to use shared cars also tend to make considerably more use of public transportation, cycling, walking, taxis, and yes, believe it, even rental cars.

So what of the end of the day is most interesting about the carshare option is that it gives us a trigger or pattern break and that it thus facilitates the move from a no-choice car-only transportation system, to a new mobility system which is more appropriate to the 21st century. And all that based on people's personal choices together with low or even no public investment. The operational models and technology for are there and are already working just fine in many and diverse places. We know how to do it. So we should

But finally and to keep this in context, we need to bear in mind that carsharing per se is no more than what we call a “one-percent solution”. Which means that even if we get it right, there are still remaining 99% which we somehow need to figure out and working to the total solution package.

A parallel path combining an array of technologies and private cars which has yet to be fully engaged has to do with ways in which the system can be extended to help drivers get to where they are going with far fewer negative environmental and resource impacts. This is a rich path of innovation thought and if we were to single out just one example of how this can work, consider the use of communications technology to facilitate guaranteed no-fooling parking in advance so as to rule out the endless searching for that free parking slot.

4. The hard technology core
if you step back and look at these three basic pillars of the new mobility system of the future, you will see that they all have some very important common points, of which can be the most striking is that the only way that any of them can realize their full potential is through extensive and imaginative use of technology in all senses of the phrase. Both information and communications technologies combining to bring on an age of new logistics, important because the transportation system of the future is going to depend as much on getting information to where it is needed both to make the systems themselves work to their full potential, as well as smoothing the interface between user and service. If you're looking for a striking example of how this is probably going to work its way out in the next year is immediately ahead, let me suggest that the main interface between the user and the system will quickly become the mobile telephone or something very much like that.

It is hard for me to try to bring together all of the key confidence of this new and very different approach to the challenges of the sector in a few pages, but I hope that this plus materials that you have access to on our several websites treating all of this will serve as a reminder that there really is something of value here.

5. It’s all about cities (and land use)

A successful city is a place in which people live, work, play and get about in a vibrant and choice-rich environment. And a first class mobility system properly adapted to its unique environment is an essential ingredient of the city's success.

At the outset of this piece I repeated the well-known point that a bit more than 80% of all Americans today live in cities. True and not quite true with the same time. While there is a certain overall statistical justification for such a statement, anyone who spends any time traveling around in that 80% area of our cities is going to see only a relatively small proportion of what one might call legitimately urban environments ,and a far greater proportion of sprawl or suburban environments. From a transportation perspective these present very very different kinds of challenges for public policy and investment decisions. There is no one size fits all approach possible, especially when it comes to well-working 21st-century transportation systems.

The other indispensable half of the new mobility coin is the underlying issue of population density and mixed-use, which brings us right up against that critical building block of land-use policy.

Over the second half of the 20th century our transportation choices combined to gut much of to the urban quality of daily life for many Americans. This however need not be irreversible and so if we combine wise transportation policies on the one hand with a better understanding of what makes city life attractive and economically viable on the other, we can have the makings of a full and interesting future ahead of us.

This brings us right smack up against the challenges of balanced mix use and redensification, the challenge for which Americans are uniquely qualified because we are a mobile nation in all respects. Each year something like 20 % of all Americans change either the place they live or work, which means that if our planning horizon is four to five years for short-term impacts, a properly devised public-policy along with taxation and other incentives will help us integrate this critical portion of the solution package.

There was a time in which public policy was made with much tighter links between those agencies responsible for transportation on the one hand , and cities and their development on the other. As we look ahead to a new era of public policy at the federal level, it would, I submit, be desirable to tighten this link considerably.

6. Entrepreneurship and Operational Models

These new systems are sharply from the traditional models of management and operations which have generally characterized the transportation sector in the past. There is going to be a greatly expanded role for entrepreneurship and flexibility, and much of this is, if we are lucky, likely to come from the private sector.

But the private sector alone is not going to be able to come up with the right solutions for our cities by itself. It is one, a critical one at that, of at least three partners who need to be engaged and brought together to make these new systems work at their best. The now-old concept of public-private partnerships gives us the beginning of our model, but in the future we are going to have to step well beyond practices in this area as well.

If we look carefully at the leading examples around the world, we will see that there is on the one hand an expanded role for governance (and strategic thinking), which in most cases will devolve to local and regional government. There is also a greatly increased role for user and public interest groups of all kinds, who in our modern cities are becoming ever better organized and ever better prepared to participate in these partnerships.

What national and state organizations can do to help in this process is to use their legislative and financial means to provide a rich supportive environment for innovation and adaptation in the field. They can be at the leading edge, or lagging edge. It will be their choice.

7. Jobs and New Mobility

Let’s not forget about this aspect of the transportation challenge as we move toward record levels of unemployment which are being taken by the incoming administration as a major target for public policy.

For most of the last half-century the primary goal of innovation in the transportation sector, particularly in cities, has been to reduce costs. And since more than two thirds of all of the cost of running a city service relate to labor, the consistent trend has been to introduce technology and organizational techniques so as to "save labor". With the results that are there for all to see.

As the new administration sets out to "reinvent transport in America" to correspond with the special circumstances of this new century, it is worth drawing attention to the fact that a modern high-performance transportation system need not be "job-free" or "job-lite”. In fact what these various new mobility modes have in common is that not only are they loaded to the gills with new technology -- indeed to a system their performance keys on new logistics and medications technologies -- but they also need people to support those technologies and offer possibilities for higher skill, appropriately compensated jobs.

This is a rich area of public policy which until now has not been sufficiently explored, but with the incoming administration accepting the challenge of creating millions of new jobs for Americans, our sector is one in which there are not only many new ideas but also the potential for many new jobs. I very much hope we will explore this opportunity together.

8. Neglected Options for Urban Mobility.

We are now starting to get a feel for what the transportation systems of our cities are going to have to look like, and with it a number of clues as to what the new administration and transportation policy and to make it happen at its best.

The question that we have reflected on here asks about a transportation option that has “finally arrived”? This give one the impression that there has been something we were perhaps supposed to have done.

A report was published a full generation ago by a team at the Urban Institute in Washington DC under the title Paratransit: Neglected Options for Urban Mobility. It is interesting to think about it, a book that came out in 1974 which already set out many of these ideas. What is happened in all these years since?

While this concept has never entered into the mainstream of public policy in the United States, I am happy to be able to report however that there are quite a number of programs and projects around the world that are showing the way in terms of these innovations. (For more on this you are invited to consult the materials that have been gathered into the New Mobility Partnerships and website at And from there to be extensive catalogues of programs and sources all over the world.)

And though there are large numbers of projects and services, businesses and technologies that correspond quite nicely to this title, the fact is that they have not as yet entered into the mainstream of American transportation policy and practice. So now is the time to start.


The above was my second invited contribution to an ongoing "insider policy discussion" sponsored by the National Journal In Washington DC , which has as its intention to provide counsel to orient and guide the incoming Obama administration on matters involving policy and investments in the transportation sector. This piece specifically in response to Discussion Topic: “Has mass transit finally arrived?” which opens with the statement (Lisa Caruso) : “With mass transportation ridership at record highs (even as gas prices plummet) and public concern growing over greenhouse gas emissions and energy security, has the time come to devote significantly more federal funding to mass transit relative to highways? And do public transit supporters have the political clout needed to make that happen in the next surface transportation bill?”

• To access the discussions

* The author's panel page is at

* You can contact the author at +1 310 601-8468 in the States or +331 4326 1323 in Europe. In either place for email or Skype: newmobility work just fine.

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