portland_streetcarIs there a correlation between successful public transportation systems and white population of a city? One of the most provocative and intriguing pieces of urban theory I have read in a while was posted by Aaron Renn of Urbanophile at New Geography.  Renn’s thesis is that what unites “progressive” cities that are dense and emphasizing public transit, like Minneapolis, Austin and Portland, is that they are incredibly white.

Renn points out that the average American city is 12.8% black, some cities much more so, such as Cleveland (29.3%), Nashville (27.4%) and Indianapolis (25.9%).  These cities are compared to said “progressive” cities, such as Austin (8.8%), Portland (6.0%) and Seattle (6.2%).

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

In fact, lack of ethnic diversity may have much to do with what allows these places to be “progressive”. It’s easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics. Minneapolis-St. Paul, of course, is notable in its Scandinavian heritage; Seattle and Portland received much of their initial migrants from the northern tier of America, which has always been heavily Germanic and Scandinavian.

In comparison to the great cities of the Rust Belt, the Northeast, California and Texas, these cities have relatively homogenous populations. Lack of diversity in culture makes it far easier to implement “progressive” policies that cater to populations with similar values; much the same can be seen in such celebrated urban model cultures in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Their relative wealth also leads to a natural adoption of the default strategy of the upscale suburb: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. It is much more difficult when you have more racially and economically diverse populations with different needs, interests, and desires to reconcile.

Having lived and worked in Philadelphia, New York and Boston I have spent plenty of time pondering the different attitudes and expectations toward transit in those various cities.  Through those experiences I have come to the conclusion that transportation systems work best when there is investment and ridership from the privileged, educated and economically well-off, i.e. white people.

When public transportation is perceived as charity for those who are poor it will never be invested in and respected by those who throw their weight around cities; business leaders, government employees, professors and doctors. Rather, when public transportation is utilized by people throughout a city and when privileged people depend on transit to get them from place-to-place the system will be invested in and respected.

I am frequently taken aback at the differences between the MBTA in Boston and SEPTA in Philadelphia (beyond the propensity to strike).  In Boston public transportation serves such wealthy and privileged places as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts General Hospital, Newton, and Beacon Hill.  In Philadelphia, where most of the wealth resides outside the city or in suburb-like areas within the cities, the public transportation system primarily serves poorer black residents in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.  In Boston I’ve never seen anyone smoke on a platform or leave tons of trash behind on a train, whereas I see it happen all the time in Philadelphia.

Perception and attitude have as much to do with those riding the buses and trains as with those funding the buses and trains.  There must be a correlation between the two, where those invested see the dividends in daily experience.  Perhaps that is why systems like those in Portland and Seattle are succeeding whereas for those in Cleveland and Indianapolis transit may be seen as nothing more as welfare for those not strong enough to pull themselves up by the bootstraps for a car.

The most critical change in thinking that must occur nationwide is that transit is neither progressive nor liberal, but sound policy for all people regardless of race or class.

Red LIne to Alewife

Boston media and popular conversation within the city loves to pick on the transportation workhorse of the region, the MBTA.   The T always seems to be held to a very high standard and praise is hard to come upon, especially in the Boston Globe or Boston Herald.

Sunday, the Globe “investigated” why it costs so much to operate the MBTA.  It was far from a positive article, focusing on the costs of the silver line and all-too-briefly discussing the value of per-mile costs versus per-passenger costs.  The data was haphazardly taken from the National Transit Database run by the FTA.

The federal data reviewed by the Globe focus on operating costs and do not take into account debt, the system’s unmet maintenance needs, or chronic problems finishing projects on time and on budget.

But conclusions based on day-to-day operating costs are controversial in transportation circles. The T can look efficient or expensive compared with other agencies, depending on the type of transportation analyzed and how costs are broken down.

Calculating what it costs to run an hour of bus service, for example, yields a different ranking than calculating the cost of running that bus for a mile. Other variables include differences in trip length, size of train cars, and regional cost of living.

Comparisons between transit agencies are “anecdotal at best,’’ said Jonathan Davis, deputy director and chief financial officer at the MBTA. “Our numbers are certainly in line with our peers for operating in an urban environment.’’

This particular article, while critical, seemed to at least cut the T some slack given all the monetary, upkeep, and transit pressures in moving 1.2 million people a day.

While the issues of debt, choices in vehicles used, services provided and cost of maintenance are beyond my knowledge I do wonder how much of any transit system’s economic and service success is based based on the landscape.

Anne Whiston Spirn, currently a professor at Harvard Business School, has emphasized landscape literacy throughout her urban planning career.  So much of the landscape determines how we build and how we design successfully.  Moreover, when we spurn the will of the land, we frequently pay the price.  Much of that landscape determined in Boston how the roads were laid out and where.  That landscape and those roads define the transit system.  I am convinced that the MBTA is less efficient than it could be because the roads are not straight and there are very few easy ways to get from one part of the city to the other.

The roads do not define the debt crisis but I will be intrigued to look at whether systems that have an easier time hewing to straight lines, such as the Manhattan portion of the MTA, are more efficient due to the layout of the system.  The lessons of older systems that impose transit upon existing landscapes have much to teach us about building new transportation systems where cities are still flexible and imagined.


This morning’s Boston Globe features an article that Boston’s MBTA has finally been included on Google Maps Transit.  It apparently took a while to make the MBTA’s trip planning system technologically capable of working with Google.

Google Maps Transit offers an amazing array of locations around the world to search for public transit options, 421 of those locations to be exact.  Google spans the spectrum from large systems such as in San Francisco and New York to places you would not expect, such as Flagstaff, AZ and Norman, OK.

However, those from the New York area, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia may also be familiar with the great site hopstop.com.  While hopstop offers far fewer cities in its coverage list the service it offers for each city is far more comprehensive.  Among the features:

  • Point to a location on a map
  • Estimated taxi fare and time
  • Preferences in mode of transportation like subway only or more transfers/less walking
  • Lists of attractions, hotels, restaurants and bars, including rankings of what sites are most searched for.

Google on the other hand tends to offer simply a route as an option compared to walking or driving in its map service.  Overall, I recommend hopstop for the variety of features it covers if you are in one of the cities it is available for.  Google is good, but in reality I think your local transit agency’s website is your best bet over Google because through that site you can learn about the variety of options offered as well as where public transit goes throughout a metropolitan region.

hoover bypass

Montana:  The state has created secure structures, including tunnels, to help wildlife cross US 93.  As evident here.BLACK_BEAR_6 More importantly, the state has an amazing video game on the dangers of crashes between motorcycles and cars.  Most importantly, you get a character and you get to change his “general awesomeness” which means adjusting his mustache; including a fumanchu!

Nebraska:  The Department of Roads has posted the Nebraska road laws from 1898 including the following gems:

  • No person owning any carriage, running or traveling upon any road in this state, for the conveyance of passengers, shall employ, or continue in employment, any person to drive such carriage who is addicted to drunkenness or the excessive use of spirituous liquors …
  • No person riding any horse or mule shall run the same on any public road, except in cases of necessity
  • The term “carriage” as used in this act, shall be construed to include stage coaches, wagons, carts, sleighs, sleds and every other carriage or vehicle used for the transportation of passengers and goods, or either of them.

Nevada:  Certainly the coolest project is the impressive Hoover Dam Bypass being built, as seen in the picture above.

New Hampshire: I need to get a bike up to New Hampshire!

New Jersey: As a one-time NJ resident, I was a frequent rider of NJ Transit and SEPTA.  However, I was unaware of the transit village project, attempting to develop towns around transportation and decrease sprawl.  Go NJ!

New Mexico:  The state has some of the most scenic roads I have ever been on.  The promotional videos for the land of enchantment are lame, but the images are still gorgeous.

New York:  I like the concept behind the GreenLITES program, certifying the green and sustainable characteristics of transportation projects.  Now, NY should make it stick, if it hasn’t already with some sort of economic incentive.

North Carolina: The state apparently has 74 public airports and over 300 private airports.  That seems like a lot, but I do not actually know, and North Carolina was of course first in flight.NC license Plate

North Dakota:  The DOT offers a defensive driving class to drivers 17-24, called Alive at 25.  Seems like a good proactive step, especially by a rural state.

Ohio: 5,484 miles of railroad track crisscross the Buckeye state, operated by 35 railroad companies.  I now want to visit just to take advantage of all the great railroad tourism.   Unfortunately, my railroad vacations have been limited to a solitary trip to the Altoona Horseshoe Curve.

Oklahoma:  A really boring website save for the information on the Heartland Flyer, the 10-year-old project to reinaugurate passenger rail to the state.

Oregon: The state is celebrating its 150th anniversary and the DOT is participating.  Interesting facts include:

  • 1792: Captain Robert Gray enters Columbia River (May 12) and names river for his ship. George Vancouver explores Columbia River to its confluence with the WillametteRiver.
  • In 1913 there were only 25 miles of paved roads in Oregon. In 2008, there are more than 36,000 miles of paved roads.
  • From 1804 – 1806, explorers Captain Merriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled from Missouri across the Rockies and down along the Columbia River, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. By 1833, Oregon’s first shipment of lumber sailed for China.

Pennsylvania:  The Keystone state has a lot of great information on their page, including transportation research.  Most impressive to me are the overall stats, including the 403.3 million annual trips on fixed route vehicles.