A transformative change for American transport

Posted: 25 February 2016 | Andrew Bata, UITP Regional Manager, North America | No comments yet

Americans have had a long love affair with the car, but cities around the country have shown increasing interest in supporting a more multi-modal transportation policy in recent years – even in places long-associated with the automobile. Changes in demographics, technological advances and societal attitudes are all thought to be contributing to this shift. Indeed, after 50 years of ever-increasing reliance on cars, that trend seems to have changed…

A transformative change for American transport

Demographics – social trends The United States is changing rapidly. A recent study by the Department of Transit (DOT) titled ‘Beyond Traffic: Trends and Choices 20451’ warns of an oncoming wave of demographic and technological changes (see Figure 1 on page 41).

Until recently, Baby Boomers represented the largest portion of the U.S. population. They are now aging and by 2045, those over 65 will have increased by 77%. Because one third of older Americans have a disability that limits their mobility, this part of the population will increasingly need to rely on public transit.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Millennials, an even larger segment of the population – 73 million Millennials compared to 68 million people aged 50 to 68. This group is driving even less per capita than the population as a whole. Between approximately 2000 and 2010, Millennials reduced the number of miles driven per capita by roughly 20% (see Figure 2 on page 42).

What is the cause of this decline? There are many variables to consider. In 1998, 64.4% of teenagers had obtained a driver’s license within a year of eligibility. At approximately this same time, statutes regarding the issuance of drivers’ licenses changed to a graduated programme throughout the country. This means that young people only by degrees earn the right to drive independently. As a result, initial access to a driver’s license is not nearly as alluring as it was a generation ago. Only 44% of teenagers today get a license within a year of eligibility.

Technology also plays a strong role. This is the first generation to grow up during their formative years with the internet. Through the use of Skype, Facebook, and many other social media sites as well as the presence of Amazon and other online stores, Millennials are more likely to shop and socialise online than travel to see others in person or visit a bricks-and-mortar store. Technological developments also reduce the need to own a car. Instead, they can rely on the shared economy – the advent of the smartphone has generated services like Uber, ZipCar, Via, and Citibike.

Capital projects

As a country as a whole, values also have evolved, so that the car’s negative impact on the environment is increasingly recognised as something that must be addressed. There is also a more sober attitude about the way cars can diminish freedom as drivers increasingly find themselves stuck in traffic. In fact, the DOT report points to calculations suggesting that the ‘average auto commuter spends the equivalent of five vacation days in traffic each year’. All of these factors may help to explain the resurgence of capital public transit projects, large and small, around the country.

New York

New York always has been acknowledged to be different from the rest of the country with 26 subway routes, 468 stations and over 1,000km of track, not to mention a robust bus network. New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is developing some of the largest capital projects in the country to manage record ridership of 8.1 million customers per day (2014) and overcrowding:

The East Side Access programme

This is a $10 billion MTA capital project that will bring the Long Island Railroad, the largest commuter rail system in the country, to Grand Central Terminal to alleviate the crowded Pennsylvania Station. The next phase of the project has just begun with a $663 million contract to build a terminal station below the existing terminal and to lay down the tracks in the newly bored tunnel.

Second Avenue Subway

The creation of a new Second Avenue Subway2 is close to completing its first phase, a $4.45 billion project to add a new north-south route on the East Side of Manhattan. The project will add three new stations and is anticipated to serve 200,000 daily riders.

7 Train extension

The 7 Train extension3 is a $2.1 billion, 1.5-mile link to the West Side of Manhattan that was completed in September 2015 and has led to rapid development on Manhattan’s West Side.

Along with these ongoing and completed projects, there are a number of proposed future projects4 for New York, including a $3 billion dollar project to rebuild Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. The state governments of New York and New Jersey have pledged to support a $20 billion project for a new rail line under the Hudson River between NYC and New Jersey. This rail line will support New Jersey Transit, the second largest commuter rail system in the country, as well as Amtrak, the national intercity rail service.

New York City is also taking advantage of its expansive waterways. Ferry ridership has gained significant ridership as a highly reliable mode of transit. The city has a number of ferry services5, from the publicly operated Staten Island Ferry providing free service to 22 million riders annually, to the privately-run New York Waterway which has 8.53 million annual riders. Building on this success, the NYC government is planning to establish six new routes6 in 2017-2018 covering 60 miles of water with 21 landings and a projection of 4.6 million new trips per year.

Los Angeles

In the 19th and through the mid years of the 20th Century, light-rail was the mainstay of urban transportation in the U.S., including Los Angeles. Yet, the City of Los, Angeles (LA) has been highly associated with the California freeway with the last century’s shift to an automobile-oriented mind-set leading it to dismantle its trolley (tram) lines.

To address increasing urbanisation, support for a green economy, and a new demand due to changing demographics for public transit, LA and other cities around the country increasingly are returning to light-rail. LA now has a pedestrian-friendly downtown accessible by public transit with over a half dozen construction projects in progress. These include the addition of new light-rail lines, the extension of existing routes, and improvements to the regional rail network and intermodal connections. An exciting new possibility is the eventual integration of a proposed high-speed rail project with regional and local transit services. There is also talk of a high-speed connection to Las Vegas, Nevada, with connections to the LA system at key locations.

This greater emphasis on public transit has initiated both a great deal of governmental attention and investment. Recently, the Los Angeles Metro has stated its intentions:

  • To ‘be an innovation leader in the United States
  • By establishing the ‘Office of Extraordinary Innovation
  • To ‘explore and implement new technologies
  • To build ‘strategic partnerships to accomplish agency goals’. 

Light-rail resurgence

Beyond LA, some 30 cities in the U.S. and Canada are either working to preserve existing lines, plan to build new extensions, or launch brand new systems. Even cities like Dallas and Houston7, Texas, and Phoenix8, Arizona, traditionally associated with the car now feature light-rail. Other key examples of similar expansion are Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; San Diego and San Jose, California; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Even in subway-rich NYC, there is discussion of light-rail.

Bus Rapid Transit

American cities are also embracing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s extensive BRT system, handles 200,000 passengers a day; Cleveland, Ohio’s BRT ‘Health Line’ handles 39.5 million annual riders; and Charleston, South Carolina is expanding a new BRT route to handle 1.9 million trips per year. And in NYC, there are currently more than a dozen BRT corridors with more planned.

Among U.S. planners there is a heated debate on the merits of BRT versus light-rail since both provide similar services and can be designed to suit the local environment. BRT is relatively easy to run and has lower initial costs. Light-rail is more exciting and has lower long-term operating costs. It will be interesting to see the choices U.S. cities make between these two options in the coming years.

Bicycle and pedestrian enhancements

Efforts to facilitate bicycle use have also increased. In NYC, the City has built 250 miles of bike lanes since 2006, Chicago’s mayor promised the development of 100 miles in 2011 and Portland has just completed a ‘non-car’ bridge that features light-rail tracks, a dedicated road for buses, and paths for pedestrians and bikers. The availability of shared bike programmes, like Citibike, has sprung up around the country while budgets for biking and walking projects in U.S. cities including New Orleans increased from $261.8 million in 2011 to $292.3 million in 2012.

Investments in pedestrian safety have also gained significantly greater traction. Vision Zero (VZ), the policy introduced in Sweden championing the idea that traffic fatalities and severe injuries are preventable and can be eliminated through the creation and enforcement of better traffic laws and regulations as well as the pursuit of traffic calming measures and education, has been embraced throughout the United States. New York’s current Mayor promised to introduce VZ to the City in his campaign and after his first year in office, the City boasted the lowest number of traffic fatalities in recorded history. In 2015, a new organisation, the Vision Zero Network was formed, to support U.S. cities including NYC, Austin, Texas, LA, and Washington, D.C. Smaller cities such as San Jose, California, where car travel is the primary mode of transportation, has also embraced (VZ) goals.

Maintaining systems

With this new enthusiasm for multi-modal transportation, American cities are both looking to support new investments, but are also increasingly aware of their obligation to finance meaningful maintenance for existing and often ageing systems. The San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission9 (MTC) allocated $494 million to help replace or rehabilitate equipment and infrastructure. New York City has also announced the ‘transformative renovation’ of 30 stations, which are to serve as models for further station modernisation work. Meanwhile, the federal government is also stepping in to relieve some of the maintenance issues encountered by transit authorities around the country with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a five-year, $305 billion bill that was recently; it marked the first long-term surface transportation bill passed by Congress in a decade.

Meeting tomorrow’s needs

With a fixed federal budget, political and local support, cities can begin to plan for the future: updating old infrastructure to meet tomorrow’s needs and building services for a different generation of customers.

Indeed America is changing attitudes toward public transit. Current demographic patterns, demand for a greener and safer environment and the new willingness of states and the federal government to allocate funding for improvements and new starts are promising steps for the future.


The author would like to thank collaborative contribution with this article by Ms Adrienne Kanter and Mr Marc Tuozzolo.




Andrew Bata is the North American Regional Manager for the UITP. He is a career urban transportation professional having served in various executive roles for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority where he led units of service planning, innovation and new technology deployment. His focus is enhancing public transit by championing sophisticated customer service concepts including advanced real-time information systems, ‘21st Century’ station design features and rolling stock design concepts that meet current passenger comfort demands and service throughput requirements. Active in high technology professional associations, Andrew is the former President of the Intelligent Transportation Society of New York. He is also a Professor of Transportation at Columbia and New York Universities.

Eurotransport’s next international instalment will focus on developments in South America, written by Eleonora Pazos, Head of Latin America for the UITP. Make sure you receive Issue 2 2016 published in April 2016 by becoming a subscriber today – visit