What Can American Public Transit Agencies Learn from Europe?

Public Transit WiFi Pictures from London, EnglandTransportation isn’t a single-player game. It involves riders, politicians, transit operators, and contractors. In such a complex schema, it’s impossible for any single group to change the whole game on their own. Transit agencies can’t expect to immediately do away with the deep-rooted infrastructure that supports America’s driving habits. Compared to Europe, American cities have far more space, and we Americans tend to see our land as something to be developed, not something to be shared (as in Europe). Still, transit agencies do have clout. They can lobby for change. Today we’re taking a look at why America’s public transportation systems lag so far behind European models. Here are a few lessons that transit agencies could learn from their European counterparts. With these differences in mind, transit groups can push for transportation improvements.

Lessons U.S. Public Transit Agencies could learn from European Transit

1. Normalize Annual Regular Fare Increases. Many European transit agencies have made it clear that riders should expect yearly fare increases, to keep up with rising operation costs. Politicians and voters in places like London now anticipate annual rate increases, so area transit agencies don’t have to struggle as much with funding. This would be a far preferable funding approach to that commonly used in the U.S.—i.e., putting off funding until dramatic funding crises arise.

2. Make Urban Environments Unfriendly to Cars. Transportation development has occurred very differently on each side of the Atlantic. Many European cities have elected to create car-free zones, pedestrian- and bike-friendly thoroughfares, and onerous fees for drivers. You can’t even drive into London or Stockholm without paying a special a car fee. Trolley drivers in Stockholm can turn upcoming lights green, forcing cars to stop. Across the continent, European cities are adding stoplights and subtracting parking spaces to make driving in city centers unappealing.

Meanwhile, American legislators continue to create a car-friendly infrastructure of highways and parking lots. Planners here are working to synchronize green lights so drivers face smoother routes. Moreover, American drivers pay far lower gas taxes and registration fees, compared to their European counterparts. By changing citizen’s behavior through driving restrictions, European cities have reduced the demand for driving, meaning less congestion and pollution in city centers.

3. Reduce Construction Costs. American transportation projects often cost twice what they would in Europe or Asia. Part of this stems from how agencies hire contractors. Because American cities rarely have in-house experts for transportation projects, they hire out for contractors early in the building process. These private contractors have little motivation to maximize quality while minimizing costs. Consider this: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is forking over $3.8 billion for one subway station, the stop at the World Trade Center. In Europe, that would be enough to build the entire second avenue line, stretching ten miles from Harlem to the financial district. If the Spanish architect who’s behind the World Trade Center project were hired in his home country, he would be required to remove all ornamentation, and design stations only for customers’ needs. Europeans value utility over style, and it helps keep their transit construction costs low.

4. Change Laws that Encourage Driving and Hamper Transit Development. Differing laws on either side of the Atlantic have a major impact on transportation development. For instance, in the U.S., roads are perennially funded with special earmarked funds, virtually guaranteeing ongoing road improvements, and ongoing reliance on cars. In contrast, European road upgrades tend to come out of a general fund, meaning that roads must compete with other interests for upgrades. This makes road funding harder to come by, and politicians even more likely to favor mass transportation.

Another example: Europe ratified the Kyoto Protocol, a worldwide commitment to reduce carbon emissions. As such, European countries are compelled to find new ways to reduce automobiles on the road, as they are a main creator of carbon emissions. The United States never ratified the Kyoto Treaty, and as such there is less pressure to cut greenhouse gas creation.

5. Upgrade Onboard Technology to Improve Operations and Attract Riders. Continual improvements-that’s a big part of why Londoners are willing to pay annual fee hikes for public transportation. American transit agencies can follow their European counterparts toward significant, worthwhile upgrades. For instance, Transport for London has developed contactless ticketing technology; soon the agency will close all its ticket booths, saving sixty million pounds annually. How is this possible?  Bus and train WiFi. Public transit mobile WiFi creates an infrastructure connecting riders to operators. Remote ticketing programs (such as our own SinglePASS) allow customers to purchase and redeem ride vouchers with no printing or labor required. Likewise, technological upgrades can lure new riders to public transit. WiFi availability is a significant draw, particularly for younger riders who would prefer a longer bus ride with Internet access to a shorter drive. Smart investments in technology can shift rider perception and encourage more people to leave their cars at home (or do away with their cars altogether).

Given the entrenched American love affair with cars, one may assume that it’s unrealistic to expect politicians to choose a European model of transportation. Yet in cities like Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, leaders recognize that fewer cars mean a better quality of life: Cleaner air, more livable cities, and less time wasted in traffic. By learning from the European habits of public transit, American transit agencies can improve operations and long-term viability.

[Photo by Justin Norris via CC License]