Friday, July 1, 2011

Shaping the American Transit Landscape: A History of How We Got Here

Cities are living histories that are constantly evolving. With nuanced technological changes and sweeping ideological reforms, every generation of urban planners, politicians and technocrats sees new possibilities for our urban centers. One factor of particular dominance in the molding of our cities is transportation, and as technologies evolved, the history of transportation has had a massive impact. Streets and transit-ways compose the majority of the public realm within cities, and thus are critical in the formation and maturation of the urban fabric. Furthermore, cities present unique and challenging situations and opportunities for transportation, often leading to the evolutions of new transit technologies. Therefore, cities play a major role in the evolution of transit, and conversely, transit plays a major role in the evolution of cities. This cause-effect cycle is what has shaped America’s urban transit landscape.
Part 2 of the Transportation Research Board’s “Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual” (TCQSM) discusses current modes of public transit in the U.S. while the first three chapters of Alan Black’s Urban Mass Transportation Planning discuss the importance, impact and history of U.S. transit, explaining how the current transit modes evolved. While Black lays a solid groundwork for understanding the history of transit in America (both technologically and politically), the text only covers the history through around 1990. On the other hand, Part 2 of the TCQSM explains recent (2004) trends in transit, examining data from the 2000 census. While there is a slight gap, taken together, these two readings compose a thorough understanding of the evolution of transit in the United States. When examining a city, as I am examining Pittsburgh throughout my thesis work, these texts not only offer an in-depth examination of transportation history and its current transit capabilities, but they also hint at a possible future.

Public Transit Ridership
TRB, 2004

Current Riders and Transit
Part 2 of the TCQSM asserts that there is a dual role of public transit: to offer transportation both to “choice riders” and to “captive riders.” Choice riders are those “who choose to use transit for their trip-making even though they have other means of travel, in particular, a motor vehicle” (TRB, 2004). The TCQSM explains that these riders choose transit for many reasons including saving money, avoiding traffic, using their travel time productively and helping the environment. The “captive riders” use transit for basic mobility and are those who cannot drive because of their age or “physical, mental or financial disadvantages.” Black asserts that these captives (which he calls “transportation disadvantaged”) include 11.5% of households and over 20% for center city dwellers. While it is extremely important to serve both types of riders, the “choice riders” dominance and heavy flow (during peak hours) tend to push transit systems to greater levels. In analyzing transit riders, TCQSM outlines the basis of solving America’s transport problems. The TRB looks to Transportation System Management solutions that focus on moving persons and not just vehicles. By readjusting our thinking, and focusing on riders, the benefits of public transit become even more attractive in transportation planning. By focusing on whom transit serves, we can understand how to best serve them.
The TCQSM also analyzes the many modes of transport currently used to serve these riders. Current transit modes discussed in Part 2 of the TCQSM include the major modes of transit like buses and rail, as well as some less common forms like ferries and funiculars (See exhibit 2-3). Surprisingly, due to Pittsburgh’s aggressive topography and its three rivers, most of these transit modes are relevant to the city and offer possible solutions for its transportation future. Pittsburgh public transit is dominated by buses much like greater America, where buses make up 62% of passenger transit (TRB, 2004). However, the focus of my thesis deals primarily with BRT and LRT systems in the city. The TCQSM examined both of these systems in Pittsburgh (as well as many other cities), implying the city’s importance regarding these modes of transit. Because of the three busways in Pittsburgh, the city is especially important to understanding and planning future BRT systems. Though I will compare the busway and light rail systems later in this class, the TRB implies that both of these modes are viable for the city and expansion of them offers solutions for future transit within Pittsburgh (See exhibits 2-14 and 2-24).

Busway Peak Traffic
TRB, 2004
LRT Systems
TRB, 2004

Transit History’s Impact
It is important to place current transit modes into the historical context of urban transportation. In the first three chapters of Urban Mass Transportation Planning, Black outlines the technological and political history of transit in America. He recounts the humble beginning stages of transit (horse-drawn Omnibuses and Street Railways), which were born from private sector entrepreneurs. Rather quickly, newer technology led to the dominant forms of transport we have today. Black emphasizes that the evolution in transit in the 19th century was a very rapidly changing scene, where in “75 years, the country went from the horse-drawn omnibus to the motor bus and electric subway trains” and that most of the current technology in transit was being used by 1900 (Black, 1995). 
This burgeoning period has shaped our cities. The development of each mode of transport has given a defined character to its urban environment. Trolleys and streetcars still offer a taste of historic character in cities like San Francisco while continuing to serve the public. In Pittsburgh, the two remaining funiculars (known as inclines) retain the memory of the city’s past (there used to be 15 inclines in the city). The effect of past history of public transit systems goes beyond the physical remnants still found in cities, but also includes the evolution of the city’s fabric itself. In Black’s conclusion of chapter 2, he reflects on how the history of transit has affected the growth of major cities in our nation:
“One can speculate on what would have happened if the automobile had been invented earlier. If it had preceded the electric streetcar, instead of coming later, perhaps U.S. cities would never have developed the centralized, high-density form characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We’ll never know.” (Black, 1995)
Though we cannot be sure, it is safe to assume that focusing on the automobile, rather than more tightly woven forms of transport, would have created less centralized urban fabrics. For example in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, which was designed with automobiles as the dominant form of transportation, the city is completely spread out, with a very loose urban fabric. Thankfully, the automobile was not widespread until after the bones of our older American cities were already in place.
Perhaps the only historic element more important than technological advancements in shaping our transit systems is political influence. Black’s examination of past transit legislation offers insight to why and how the transit systems evolved the way they did. Originally, private individuals owned public transport, but as the systems grew and started to fail, government began controlling ownership. Transit systems were seen as indispensible to urban life and therefore could not be left to fail. First, capital costs were subsidized by the federal government, but by 1974, the overwhelming burden of operating costs also began to be federally subsidized as well.
Black explains that certain presidential administrations affected transit in the U.S. through acts of legislation and budgets. The federal government largely affects Pittsburgh’s Port Authority (PAT) because of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Act 76 of 1986, which states that Pennsylvania’s cities must have balanced budgets for their transit authorities. According to Steve Bland, the PAT’s CEO, the city is currently facing massive budget shortcomings and must “cut service and increase fares” to cover rising costs (Budget 2011). There is little room for capital investments without the aid of the federal government and thankfully, the stimulus package has invested the necessary funds for the current “North Shore Connector.” Many cities around the U.S., faced with budget crises much like Pittsburgh’s, rely heavily on federal funding for the expansion of their transportation systems. The timing and quantity of such funding greatly affects how the transit is built.

Conclusion: Planning Future Transit
Because we understand transit’s past, we can better plan for the future. The importance of transportation in shaping a city is paramount, and every decision we make must be carefully examined and planned. Today, planning has become an integral part of the transportation systems in our cities. The federal government formally recognized transportation planning in the Hayden-Cartwright Act of 1934. Black extols the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) for mandating all urbanized areas with 200,000 or more inhabitants to have 20-year transportation plans that focus on energy conservation, land use, intermodal access and social, economic and environmental effects. As I investigate expanding Pittsburgh’s public transportation systems, it will be critical for me to follow the tenets outlined in the ISTEA in order to better serve transit riders and the greater metropolitan community.
Transit Trends
Black, 1995

Trends in Black’s Urban Mass Transportation Planning show that public transit in the U.S. has been slowly and steadily rising since the 1970’s (See figure 2-9).  The TRB’s data confirms this rise as 9.4 billion annual unlinked passenger trips on public transit were recorded in the 2000 U.S. census (See exhibit 2-3). Furthermore, in the first quarter of 2010, APTA estimates nearly “2.5 billion trips were taken on public transportation,” which would total 10 billion trips for the year (McKendrick, 2010). Moving forward, as cities and transit systems expand, it seems clear that transit will play an ever-increasing role in our urban centers, perpetuating the cause-effect cycle that shapes America’s cities and their transportation systems.

Black, A. Urban Mass Transportation Planning. New York: McGraw Hill, 1995.

McKeendrick, Joe. “Public transportation ridership weathers slow economy, tight budgets.” Smart Planet. June 7, 2010. Accessible online at:

Port Authority of Allegheny County. “Operating and Capital Improvement Budgets: Fiscal Year 2011.” 2010. Accessible online at:

Transportation Research Board: “Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual (TCQSM), 2nd Edition.” TRB Publications, 2004. Accessible online at:

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