Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Letter to America: Some lessons from Europe

Just back from the USA and have put together a few ideas for our friends at DOT and other agencies and groups in the States who seem to be struggling with these issues. Europe in all its rich diversity definitely has a few lessons of hard-earned experience that need to be examined by US policy makers and researchers more closely. Let's have a look at a first handful that come to mind.

- Philippe Crist from the OECD Joint Transport Research Centre

Laying the base:

Tax base – Having those that benefit most from high quality public transport( i.e., employers) pay for the service is a good start. Why more countries/regions have not put in place something analogous to the long-standing French "redevance transport" (a hefty regular contribution by employers to cover the cost of public transport) is beyond me…. It has to be one of Europe's worse kept secrets. Still a good idea and ones that our friends at DOT and our cities should be looking at.

Land value taxation/value capture: Close the financial circle. Have those that benefit most from improved public transport services -- land owners in the privileged service area -- pay for them. In this way each successive round of improvements can be financed from the land value gains from the previous round. This idea has been around for a long time, but is only rarely implemented in our cities and regions.

Planning: ISTEA and its successive successors have had pretty good planning provisions re. MPO taking account of non-road investments. But nowhere to the extent that the French PDUs (mandated urban mobility plans). So what can be done in order to ramp up these provisions in the name of greater energy independence (since that is what will likely have the greatest traction in the USA)?

Long-term: Clearly, we are talking about planning and infrastructure changes that will take one or two generations to pan out. Having a long term plan and sticking to its key principles is essential. This is still lacking in the USA (and many EU countries).

The USA is not Europe: Paying for public transport of Zurich, Helsinki or Barcelona-type quality in Atlanta is going to be very costly -- even for a wealthy country like the US. Without discounting the role of public transport, in the medium term US responses to reduce traffic impacts will likely be different than EU responses. And they are, if anything, even more needed.

Principles of policy:

There are three fundamental principles which policymakers should be looking at in light of international experience in leading edge:

1st Principle: Do no (more) harm. Look at planning/transport decisions and evaluate them on their GHG/other environment and economic impacts and act on those that that leave people (incl. those that are 1-2 generations down the road) better off. Here, standard discount rate approaches may not be sufficient (see Weitzman’s arguments re. how to evaluate high impact, uncertain probability events: and

2nd Principle: Make places better to live, work, play – This will involve some thinking that involves the communities re. what kind of place they wish their region to be.

3rd Principle: Make sure that administrative structures and money flows are in adequation (sorry for the frenchisism) with what the scale and scope of responsibilities necessary to bring about #2 and #1.

And let's not forget about:

Streets support many non-transport uses – So where appropriate, they should be managed and built to facilitate all uses. Caveat – this may not be possible on many US “streets” which are in fact mono-use facilities that may prove very difficult to retrofit. But still, the momentum is gathering in many places.

Much of US (sub)urban transport will take place in cars for years to come – despite increases in the cost of car use. This is a shame, especially for the young and elderly but one that can difficultly be avoided given the momentum embodied in the built stock. What EU policies likely to work best in the immediate are the type of policies that are being deployed at the periphery of large EU conurbations where many of the conditions are identical to the US. Look here and not at the EU city centers for what can best be copied or modified for US use (caveat – not many EU places are dealing with these spaces well)

Most US buses are substandard. They must be improved (low floors, adequate maintenance, dedicated facilities, extensive network coverage, etc…) in order to become an attractive option for commuting and to open the doorway to the later deployment of light or heavy rail. Starting with rail investment is ass-backwards in most US cases. As long as buses are still essentially the same rattling models (or their most recent iterations) that have plied the roads since the 1960s, there is no hope for large-scale uptake of PT.

Buses must look and feel like something completely new and better. Here, looking to the changes undergone by EU buses can help. Better real-time info, coordinated routes and higher frequencies must also be part of the solution. (I say this as someone who has grown up in the US without driving, relying solely on walking, cycling and bus transportation – so you can believe me when I say that this is important!)

Next US fact finding tour to Europe:

If DOT or any city or agency in America is planning a fact-finding tour to Europe – I would plan one for them that spends 80% of the time outside of city centers… no Vélib, no Amsterdam tram, no anything except what seems to be working in the low-density suburbs of cities over here. Not only will they learn more, they might also feel more at home!
Philippe Crist, Administrator,
OECD International Transport Forum, Paris, France

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  1. This is an excellent wide ranging guide as to the major issues facing the US if they are to ever achieve long-term decent public transportation.
    One or two cities are trying to achieve improvements but the sound and sensible financing from land value tax and employer funding is lacking.
    I spent a year in the US and one of the fleets I came into contact with had vehicles that on the face of it were reasonably 'attractive', but in reality were badly engineered, poorly constructed and expensive.
    The US DOT ought to use a small team from Europe to help them draft an overall ten year plan on how to get the necessary step change, broadly in line with what good practice actually works here. I know they compare their rules for crash protection with Australia and Europe for motor coaches but there is so much more that could be done.
    They would do well to use Philippe's observations as a starting strategy document and work from it.
    At least 80% of what they are in dire need of is already out there!

  2. Christopher Hart, Boston, Massachusetts USAWednesday, 05 August, 2009


    Fabulous, just fabulous!!!

    Christopher Hart - Director of Urban and Transit Projects
    Institute for Human Centered Design
    [formerly Adaptive Environments]
    200 Portland Street
    Boston, Massachusetts 02114

  3. Ron Richings, Vancouver, BC CanadaThursday, 06 August, 2009

    Well worth a read. Most of it is applicable to both Canada and the United States.

    Ron Richings, Vancouver, BC Canada

  4. John Kaehny New York, New YorkThursday, 06 August, 2009

    Pieces like this "Back from the USA" prescription do not exist in the same political, factual or cultural universe inhabited by Americans. What US policy makers and advocates need from Europe are ideas which can work within our very car and suburban oriented political system. The best European imports are local, incremental policies like Safe Routes to School, bike share or BRT.

    In the U.S., by far the greatest innovation is in cities and towns, not states/provinces or at the national level. That's not likely to change soon. The national political establishment is all about wooing disgruntled suburban motorists: cash for clunkers just got another $2B, while the ten largest transit systems are on the brink and receive no federal operating help.

    Lastly, European visitors need to understand that the MPOs and their plans are politically irrelevant. Don't waste your time on them. They don't actually control anything. A local planning board, with their minimum parking requirements has more influence on the real world than the MPO. A second at the MPO is a second wasted.

    John Kaehny
    New York, New York

  5. Philippe,

    I thought you might want to see what happened to your fine “Letter to America: Some lessons from Europe” article posted yesterday.

    Your piece was posted early yesterday morning and by the end of the day had been picked up by a grand total of 606 readers, a full third more than on an average weekday. (Of course we never know exactly what drives the numbers, but RSS feeds and those summaries have to have something to do with it).

    53% of our visitors came in yesterday from US; the remainder (and in order of frequency) from Italy, United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, India, Canada, Singapore, Denmark, France, Australia, Portugal, Netherlands, Israel, Philippines, Mexico, New Zealand, Ecuador, Spain, South Africa, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Iceland, Chile, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russian Federation, Thailand, and Japan.(Most of these are old friends, but for the first time yesterday we had someone in from Russia. May they multiply and prosper.)

    I am sure you will be hearing from some of these people, and a handful have already added comments, while more than that have mentioned to me by phone, email or Skype that they appreciated your contribution.

    As do I.

    Eric Britton, Paris, France

    PS. Just in case you might wish to see who else thus far is pitching in here, a click to should do the trick.

  6. Where I live, Seattle's new light rail to the airport is well funded and boarding 12,000 per day.

    Seattle urban area buses are boarding over 400,000 per day and are in deep financial trouble.

    The tax for light rail equals or exceeds the tax for buses depending on which part of the urban region here.

    So the line from Mr. Crist, "Starting with rail investment is ass-backwards in most US cases" resonates in my town.

    Actually, here it's more a matter of strangling existing bus service to build and operate light rail that will carry mostly existing bus riders.

    We have a rail-supportive urban elite that's pissed off that our buses aren't air conditioned and carry some folks not like those who are going to live in the $1000 per month studio apartments near rail stations. We need to be a World Class Real City like Amsterdam or Zurich.

    A bus riders union is now under discussion aborning in Seattle. Send me suggestions on how to do this.


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