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.

 
 
 
 

The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is rising

A man watches wildfires in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

In a warming world, the dangers from natural disasters are changing. In a recent commentary, we identified a number of costly and deadly catastrophes that point to an increase in the risk of “cascading” events – ones that intensify the impacts of natural hazards and turn them into disasters.

Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

This rising risk means decision-makers, urban planners and risk analysts, civil engineers like us and other stakeholders need to invest more time and effort in tracking connections between natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, debris flow, and drought, under a changing climate.

Cascading disasters

Since 1980 to January 2018, natural disasters caused an inflation-adjusted $1,537.4bn in damages in the United States.

The loss of life in that period – nearly 10,000 deaths – has been mounting as well. The United States has seen more billion-dollar natural disaster events recently than ever before, with climate models projecting an increase in intensity and frequency of these events in the future. In 2017 alone, natural disasters resulted in $306bn losses, setting the costliest disaster year on record.

We decided it was important to better understand cascading and compound disasters because the impacts of climate change can often lead to coupled events instead of isolated ones. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNISDR, claims: “Any disaster entails a potentially compounding process, whereby one event precipitates another.”

For example, deforestation and flooding often occur together. When vegetation is removed, top soil washes away and the earth is incapable of absorbing rainfall. The 2004 Haiti flood that killed more than 800 people and left many missing is an example of this type of cascading event. The citizens of the poverty-stricken country destroyed more than 98 per cent of its forests to provide charcoal for cooking. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, there was no way for the soil to absorb the rainfall. To further complicate existing issues, trees excrete water vapor into the air, and so a sparser tree cover often yields less rain. As a result, the water table may drop, making farming, which is the backbone of Haiti’s economy, more challenging.


Rising risk from climate change

Coupled weather events are becoming more common and severe as the earth warms. Droughts and heatwaves are a coupled result of global warming. As droughts lead to dry soils, the surface warms since the sun’s heat cannot be released as evaporation. In the United States, week-long heatwaves that occur simultaneously with periods of drought are twice as likely to happen now as in the 1970s.

Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, which is altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 per cent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster since soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Fluctuations in temperature and other climatic patterns can harm or challenge the already crumbling infrastructure in the United States: the average age of the nation’s dams and levees is over 50 years. The deisgn of these aging systems did not account for the effects of cascading events and changes in the patterns of extreme events due to climate change. What might normally be a minor event can become a major cause for concern such as when an unexpected amount of melt water triggers debris flows over burned land.

There are several other examples of cascading disasters. In July, a deadly wildfire raged through Athens killing 99 people. During the same month on the other side of the world in Mendocino, California, more than 1,800 square kilometers were scorched. For scale, this area is larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.

When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January of this year, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilised in a wildfire. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.

Hurricanes also can trigger cascading hazards over large areas. For example, significant damages to trees and loss of vegetation due to a hurricane increase the chance of landslides and flooding, as reported in Japan in 2004.

Future steps

Most research and practical risk studies focus on estimating the likelihood of different individual extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. It is often difficult to describe the risk of interconnected events especially when the events are not physically dependent. For example, two physically independent events, such as wildfire and next season’s rainfall, are related only by how fire later raises the chances of landslide and flooding.

As civil engineers, we see a need to be able to better understand the overall severity of these cascading disasters and their impacts on communities and the built environment. The need is more pronounced considering the fact that much of the nation’s critical infrastructure is aged and currently operate under rather marginal conditions.

A first step in solving the problem is gaining a better understanding of how severe these cascading events can be and the relationship each occurrence has with one another. We also need reliable methods for risk assessment. And a universal framework for addressing cascading disasters still needs to be developed.

A global system that can predict the interactions between natural and built environments could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Most importantly, community outreach and public education must be prioritised, to raise awareness of the potential risks cascading hazards can cause.

The Conversation

Farshid Vahedifard, CEE Advisory Board Endowed Professor and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mississippi State University and Amir AghaKouchak, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.