Elon Musk is wrong about public transport. But transit in the US is still in trouble

The LYNX light rail line in Charlotte, North Carolina. Image: Getty.

Tech tycoon Elon Musk recently declared that public transit “sucks,” and is riddled with serial killers. In the Twitter storms that followed, there was much talk about Musk and his unconventional solutions to the mobility crisis.

We shouldn’t be talking, though, about Elon Musk. Instead, we should be talking about transit: what kind we have, who and what it’s for, and where it’s likely to go in the future.

Like almost everything else in 21st century America, transit is divided by class, and sometimes by race. Buses in the United States are thought to be for poor people, and the statistics largely bear that out. The people who ride buses are different from those who ride light rail and subways, and they are even more different from those who ride commuter trains.

Buses, however, also account for nearly two-thirds of all transit journeys to work outside New York City. And yet, most of the attention – and the funding – goes not to buses, but to their far more glamorous cousins, light rail and trolleys. And a lot of those projects, like Detroit’s much-heralded Q Line, actually have more to do with promoting redevelopment through real estate investment than with moving people around.

Instead of being defensive about people like Elon Musk, who – as others have pointed out – has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about, we should recognise that public transit in the United States is in serious trouble. For all the hype and the billions in investment, it’s still an exotic taste.

Outside New York City, only 3.5 per cent of work trips (and an even smaller percentage of non-work trips) take place on transit. Transit accounts for 10 per cent or more of work trips in only nine of the nation’s top 60 urban areas, and 10 per cent of total trips only in New York.  Despite the fact that transit is heavily subsidised, many of our biggest systems are in poor shape or worse. Deferred maintenance, inadequate capital investment and fiscal woes are taking an increasing toll, as stories from New York, New Jersey, Washington DC and elsewhere over the past year or two have made abundantly clear.


While there is plenty of blame to go around, the most fundamental problem is that, for 60 years or more, we have systematically spread our population around our metro areas – yes, I’m talking about sprawl – in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with efficient, cost-effective mass transit. Many of our older cities have thinned out, while suburbia has spread further afield.

The city of Cleveland, for example, has only 40 per cent of the people it had in 1950, while ever-spreading development has formed a blob spreading 25 or more miles east and south of downtown. 

This triggers what transit people call the ‘last mile problem.’ It’s a serious problem, and possibly insoluble by transit, despite a lot of creative thinking. People live – and their jobs are located – in such a dispersed fashion that, outside of high-density central areas, no plausible network of transit lines can get close enough to them to make transit preferable to simply getting in one’s car and driving off.  And no, the solution is not getting people to walk more; that might work on a beautiful spring day, but not the rest of the time.

This problem is further complicated by two big developments in transportation: ride-hailing systems like Uber and Lyft, and the imminent arrival of autonomous, self-driving vehicles. Whatever else they may or may not do, these changes have already made it easier for more people to use cars, whether theirs or someone else’s, and will make it even easier in the future. After all, if solving the last mile problem through transit involves taking Uber to the bus, and then another Uber from the bus to the workplace, why not just take one Uber to begin with?

Transit is important, but I think we have to take a step back and ask ourselves why it’s important. Public transit systems serve a variety of different policy agendas, including:

  • Enabling financially-constrained people to get to jobs and take other necessary trips;
  • Reducing congestion in dense urban areas and corridors;
  • Promoting redevelopment of disinvested urban cores or transit hubs, and maintaining the competitive edge of urban centers;
  • Reducing vehicular emissions;
  • Enhancing mobility for people whose ability to use individual vehicles is limited, such as teenagers, the elderly and the disabled.

All of these functions are relevant, and important. But they are sometimes in conflict – and even when they’re not, we may not have enough resources to address all of them. If we invest hundreds of millions in light rail systems whose primary role is to foster redevelopment, we will have fewer resources to help people with limited options get to jobs with reasonable efficiency. With the majority of urban residents today working in the suburbs, that’s not an insignificant concern, and in my opinion, should be the highest priority.

We need to start thinking differently about transit. For example, we assume that transit should be a monopoly, run by the MTA in New York, the CTA in Chicago, SEPTA in Philadelphia, and so forth. Yet a monopoly can be a very inefficient way to achieve the many different goals that transit is called upon to serve. 

A few years ago in CityLab, Lisa Margonelli pointed out that “America's 20th largest bus service – hauling 120,000 riders a day – is profitable and also illegal.” She’s talking about the hundreds of what New Yorkers call “dollar vans,” which cater to people and areas inadequately served by public transit.

Most cities have something similar. Most or all are illegal. Why not allow anyone with a properly licensed, insured and inspected van to pick up passengers on street corners and take them where they want to go?

In the end, it’s not about Elon Musk. Indeed, if his words encourage us to think more about what transit is for, and how to achieve those goals – plausibly, not through imaginary tech ‘fixes’ – that would make this entire Twitter spat worthwhile.

Alan Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a US non-profit organisation which focuses on urban America. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America.

 
 
 
 

Mexico City’s new airport is an environmental disaster. But it could become a huge national park

Mexico City’s new Norman Foster-designed airport, seen here in a computer rendering, is visually striking but environmentally problematic. Image: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/creative commons.

Mexico City long ago outgrew the two-terminal Benito Juárez International Airport, which is notorious for delays, overcrowding and canceled flights. Construction is now underway on a striking new international airport east of this metropolis of 20m. When it opens in late 2020, the LEED-certified new airport – whose terminal building was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster in collaboration with the well-known Mexican architect Fernando Romero – is expected to eventually serve 125m passengers. That’s more than Chicago O'Hare and Los Angeles’ LAX.

But after three years of construction and $1.3bn, costs are ballooning and corruption allegations have dogged both the funding and contracting process.

Environmentalists are also concerned. The new airport is located on a semi-dry lake bed that provides water for Mexico City and prevents flooding. It also hosts migrating flocks and is home to rare native species like the Mexican duck and Kentish plover.

According to the federal government’s environmental impact assessment, 12 threatened species and 1 endangered species live in the area.

The airport project is now so divisive that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist winner of the country’s 2018 presidential campaign, has suggested scrapping it entirely.

An environmental disaster

Mexico’s new airport sits in a federal reserve. Image: Yavidaxiu/The Conversation.

I’m an expert in landscape architecture who studies the ecological adaption of urban environments. I think there’s a way to save Mexico’s new airport and make it better in the process: create a nature reserve around it.

Five hundred years ago, lakes covered roughly 20 percent of the Valle de Mexico, a 3,500-square-mile valley in the country’s south-central region. Slowly, over centuries, local residents – first the Aztecs, then the Spanish colonisers and then the Mexican government – built cities, irrigation systems and plumbing systems that sucked the region dry.

By the mid-20th century, the lakes had been almost entirely drained. In 1971, President Luís Echeverría decreed the area a federal reserve, citing the region’s critical ecological role for Mexico City. The smattering of small lakes and reforested land there now catch and store runoff rainwater and prevent dust storms.

The new airport will occupy 17 square miles of the 46-square-mile former Lake Texcoco. To ensure effective water management for Mexico City, the airport master plan proposes creating new permanent water bodies to offset the lakes lost to the airport and cleaning up and restoring nine rivers east of the airport. It also proposes planting some 250,000 trees.

The government’s environmental assessment determined that the impacts of the new airport, while significant, are acceptable because Lake Texcoco is already “an altered ecosystem that lost the majority of its original environmental importance due to desiccation and urban expansion.” Today, the report continues, “it is now only a desolate and abandoned area.”

Environmentalists loudly disagree.

Make Mexico’s airport great again

I see this environmental controversy as an opportunity to give Mexico City something way more transformative than a shiny new airport.

Nobody can entirely turn back the clock on Lake Texcoco. But the 27 square miles of lake bed not occupied by the airport could be regenerated, its original habitat partially revitalised and environmental functions recovered in a process known as restoration ecology.

I envision a huge natural park consisting of sports fields, forests, green glades and a diverse array of water bodies – both permanent and seasonal – punctuated by bike paths, walking trails and access roads.

The airport will come equipped with new ground transportation to Mexico City, making the park easily accessible to residents. Extensions from the surrounding neighborhood streets and highways could connect people in poor neighbourhoods abutting the airport – dense concrete jungles like Ecatepec, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and Chimalhuacan – to green space for the first time.

The nine rivers that empty into Lake Texcoco from the east could be turned into greenways to connect people from further out in Mexico State to what would become the area’s largest public park.

Space could also be reserved for cultural attractions such as museums, open and accessible to passengers in transit.


New master plan

This idea is not as crazy as it sounds.

As early as 1998, Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and the late Teodoro González de León proposed rehabilitating the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. Their book, “The City and its Lakes,” even envisaged a revenue-generating island airport as part of this environmentally revitalized Lake Texcoco.

Under President Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s National Water Commission also proposed building an ecological park in Lake Texcoco, which was to include an island museum and restore long-degraded nearby agricultural land. But the project never gained traction.

Granted, turning a large, half-constructed airport into a national park would require an ambitious new master plan and a budget reallocation.

But in my opinion, evolution and change should be part of ambitious public designs. And this one is already expected to cost an additional $7.7bn to complete anyway.

Toronto’s Downsview Park – a 291-acre former air force base turned green space – has transformed so much since its conception in 1995 that its declared mission is now to “constantly develop, change and mature to reflect the surrounding community with each generation.”

Local communities neighboring Mexico City’s new airport were not adequately consulted about their needs, environmental concerns and their current stakes in the Lake Texcoco area. A revamped park plan could be truly inclusive, designed to provide recreation and urban infrastructure – and maybe even permanent jobs – for these underserved populations.

Presidential race

Three of the four candidates in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election wanted to finish Mexico City’s new international airport. But eventual winner López Obrador was not so sure.

Early in his campaign, he said he would cancel it if elected. Instead, López Obrador suggested, a former air force base could become the new international terminal. It would be connected to Benito Juárez airport, 22 miles south, by train.

López Obrador has since said he would support completing construction of the new international airport if the remaining financing came from the private sector, not the Mexican government. Currently, some two-thirds of the project is funded by future airport taxes.

The ConversationLópez Obrador’s promise to review and likely upend the airport plan could open the door to its wholesale transformation, putting people and nature are at the core of a plan ostensibly designed for the public good.

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.