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.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

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