(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on why most American don’t ride transit. The first in the series is available here, the third is here, the fourth is here, the fifth is here, and the sixth is here).
There’s a myth that Americans don’t ride transit because they have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas, and transit’s limited destinations is one of them.
The Portland urban area, for example, has around 15,000 miles of roads and streets. The region’s 80 miles of rail transit don’t begin to reach the number of destinations that can be reached by car. Adding the roughly 1,000 miles of bus routes helps, but still requires many people to walk long distances to and from transit stops.
Worse, almost all of the transit in the region, along with every other major urban area, is oriented to downtown. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically worthless. For example, the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College is about seven miles from Beaverton. But taking transit from one to the other requires a trip downtown and back, nearly tripling the number of miles of travel.
Transit systems started their downtown orientations in the late nineteenth century when almost all urban jobs were downtown. Today, however, only about 7.5 percent of urban jobs are still located in downtown areas. In the New York urban area, 22 percent of jobs are located in downtown Manhattan, another reason why transit ridership is high in that region. But elsewhere, the percentage is much smaller.
Transit planners try to compensate for this by designing transit systems that connect regional and town centers with the downtown areas. Such a policy might have made sense sixty years ago when most jobs that weren’t downtown were located in such centers. Today, however, less than 30 percent of urban jobs are located in either downtowns or regional and town centers.
For example, Denver is spending billions of dollars building a rail transit system that aims to connect all of the regional and town centers in the area. Yet, when it is done, planners predict that only 26 percent of the region’s jobs will be within one-half mile of a rail transit stop. (Of course, most of the people working those jobs won’t live within a half mile of a rail stop.)
The reason for the decline of regional and town centers is the growth of service jobs. In 1920, nearly 40 percent of all American jobs were in manufacturing, which tends to be concentrated, and there was just one-and-a-third service job for every manufacturing job. By 2010, there were ten service jobs for every manufacturing job, and those service jobs tend to be finely spread across the landscape.
As a result, transit just doesn’t work for most people. Making transit systems work for more people would require using more small-box transit: small buses, vans, and so forth. Instead, many transit agencies want to emphasize big-box transit: huge buses, railcars, and trains. This just shows how out of touch transit agency leaders are with the people they are supposed to serve.