Can Transit Survive the 21st Century?

I had the great pleasure of presenting a session a couple of weeks ago at the National Planning Conference in New York City, the annual planning conference put on by the American Planning Association.

Working with Shannon Greenwell at MassDOT and Patrick Sullivan at the Seaport Transportation Management Association, we put together a discussion asking the audacious and foolhardy question, what will transit look like in the year 2100? Is transit still going to be around? More importantly, should it?

It ended up being a pretty interesting discussion, with a lot of provocative ideas and a good deal of disagreement, which is exactly what we wanted. A transportation expert once said, “All traffic models are wrong, but some are useful.” That’s how we thought about this long-range planning session – we knew we were going to be wrong about our prognostications, but perhaps we could at least be useful.

Transit Barely Survived the 20th Century

The first point is that transit barely survived the 20th century. If you look at transit ridership in America, it peaked in the late 1940s and has been more or less stable, on a per capita basis, at much lower levels since then.

Source: APTA

At the same time that transit took a plunge, car use soared. Today, in any given area except for some of the largest cities, between 75% and 85% of all work trips are made via automobile.

Many urbanists have been rejoicing at a couple of trends since 2005. Per capita car use has been on the decline, and transit ridership has been going up (if you look at the blue line in the chart above, you can see that absolute ridership has been increasing).

But over the past year many transit agencies, including PVTA, have seen year-over-year declines in fixed-route bus service. At the same time, we are starting to see the trend in car use edge back up.

declinin ridership
A slide from the presentation. 

Our presentation explored three key uncertainties over the next century that are going to have an incredible impact on transportation, and the future of public transit:

  • Autonomous Vehicle Technology
  • Climate Change Policy
  • The Aging Population

These certainly aren’t the only three things that will impact our transit systems, but we focused in on them as playing an outsized role.

Autonomous Vehicle Technology

For those of you unfamiliar with Autonomous Vehicle Technology, it has the potential to change our lives, our cities, and our economy as much as automobiles did during the last century. Google, Uber, Tesla, Ford, and a lot of other firms are working on the technology to render drivers obsolete. The tech side could be complete by 2025.

av tech

This matters for transit a whole lot. A rule of thumb is that about 75% of the cost of operating a bus is paying the driver in the seat. If we didn’t have to do that anymore, then we could run buses anywhere, right?

Let’s take it a step further. Why run these buses all over the place when we can have small sedans or vans buzzing around, a la Lyft, just waiting for the next person to request a ride. Would rubber tire bus service become obsolete?

On the other hand, if we follow a private-ownership model, maybe people won’t mind traffic all that much if they get to read the paper or sleep or work on their way into town. Maybe traffic and air pollution and urban sprawl will get even worse because driving suddenly becomes “me” time or “productive” time. Would commuter rail service become obsolete?

Climate Change Policy

Another major trend in the future is climate change policy. Transit stands to benefit a lot if the US and/or the world gets serious about climate change. The energy needed to move transit, on a per capita basis, is a fraction of what it takes to move a person even in a very efficient compact car.

The wild card is whether we will ever get serious about climate change. In 2016, The Pew Center released a poll showing that about half of all Americans don’t think humans are the source of climate change – despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary.

climate change

I won’t get into how depressing it is that half of my fellow citizens don’t accept climate change as something that we are causing. But the question becomes at what point, if any, will we actually get serious about climate change? And if the answer is “Never,” then will transit ever be able to compete with the ease and convenience of automobiles? Or self-driving automobiles?

Taking it a step further, it should be noted that in major cities subways are especially susceptible to sea level rise and storm surges. As climate change renders transit systems more and more unreliable (like we saw after super-storm Sandy), will we see riders abandon these systems? Will the subways that have served our cities for decades become unusable, and/or unused?

The Aging Population

Finally, the aging of the population is going to play a key role in what our transit system looks like in the future (full disclosure: this was my section, so I’ll do my best to not over-inflate its importance relative to the prior two).

I am 32 years old now; in one year, I will either be 32 years old – or dead. Those are my options; those are everyone’s options. So the average age of the population is relatively easy to forecast, using some assumptions about mortality rates. And Census Bureau has done that, showing that we’re going to increase from about 40 million people age 65 and over today, to about 80 million in 2050.

The wildcard is immigration. The Pew Research Center estimates that without immigrants, the US population will plateau at around 338 million people. Furthermore, non-native-born women are much more likely to have kids than native-born women, meaning that the 338 million Americans in a no-immigration scenario will also, on average, be pretty old.


This becomes important because older Americans are more likely to need door-to-door (paratransit) service (think those wheelchair accessible vans you see going around, “The RIDE” in Boston for example). This is due to dementia, vision loss, or any number of other impairments which make driving impossible. But as more people use paratransit service, the budget for regular “big bus” service dwindles.

As some communities become more and more dominated by senior citizens, could we imagine a transit system that only provides door-to-door service? And if the vehicles are self-driving, why not? Will big bus service even exist anymore?

Final Thoughts

I should finish by saying that I’m actually very optimistic about the future of transit. As Jarrett Walker has written about extensively in his blog and book, the simple geometry of cities and cars dictates that transit is a necessary attribute of density (just like transit depends on density, density too depends on transit). In our biggest cities, rail transit will probably never go away nor be replaceable. Cars, even self-driving cars, just take up too much space.

But on the other hand, this is an important discussion to have, especially for those places smaller than our biggest cities. In a very real sense, we as planners must be good stewards of public funding. Put bluntly, what if we build a commuter rail line that no one ever uses because they are in self-driving cars? We will have wasted millions of dollars that could have been better spent.

The discussion didn’t provide too many answers, but it did provide a lot of good questions. And if the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught us nothing, it’s that finding the right question can often be the more important than the answer.


Three Take-Aways From TRB

In early January I went to the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting. For transportation nerds, it’s a truly magical conference: 13,000 researchers and practitioners, experts and neophytes, all crowded into the Washington DC Convention Center discussing hyper-technical aspects of transportation. Bombast and pontifications flow alongside paper-cup coffee and greasy hors d’oeuvres – ideas spread, findings shared, and collaborations begin. 

The conference is complemented with the DC Transportation Camp, a one-day event guided by the participants, typically skewed younger and more technology-focused than the TRB conference. 

Between the TRB Annual Meeting and Transportation Camp, I gleaned three main take-aways from my week in DC.

1. Electric Vehicles Won’t Fix Climate Change

As you know from prior blog posts, I’m extremely concerned about and interested in climate change. Since electric vehicles (EVs) promise to cut down society’s carbon footprint, I attended a couple of sessions on them. 

I left these sessions disillusioned. While I think corporate and public transportation fleets will continue to electrify, the household consumer market is going to be slow-going. One set of researchers looked at characteristics of everyone who bought an EV in 2013 – income, ethnicity, housing type, etc. They used that demographic profile to estimate the maximum percentage of the total car market for EVs under peak conditions – if everyone like these people bought an EV. The results? A whopping 2.44% market penetration. The other 97.66% would still drive gas-powered cars. (Understanding Potential for Battery Electric Vehicle Adoption Using Large-Scale Consumer Profile Data by Rubal Dua, Kenneth White, and Rebecca Lindland.) 

Another researcher, Dan Welch from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, discussed how EVs tend to be more expensive up-front but cost less to operate than regular internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, the break-even point is after about 8 years. That’s a time frame which, in my opinion, isn’t short enough to attract any but the most far-sighted consumers, who are already motivated to buy an EV.  However, that leads to another set of research showing…

The cost isn’t even the biggest obstacle to getting EVs into the market. The biggest concern is “range anxiety,” that drivers will have to go more than 50 or 100 miles sometimes, turning their car into a really expensive hunk of useless metal in their driveway.


Axsen, Langman, and Goldberg from Simon Fraser University dived into this and other consumer concerns in their paper Confusion with Innovations: Mainstream Consumer Perceptions and Misperceptions of Electric Drive Vehicle Technology. Beyond range anxiety, there are fears about:

  • Resell value
  • Pace of technological change (and speedy obsolescence)
  • Poor understanding of battery maintenance
  • Obstacles for those urbanites without garages (and, thus, without a spot for a charging station).

Put differently, most people will look at them and see an inferior, risky product that costs more than the alternative. So without one of two necessary conditions:

  1. Even more massive government subsidy or
  2. Dramatic reduction in the cost of batteries

I am skeptical that EVs will ever do anything more than just scratch the household consumer market, especially in the time frame needed to put a dent in climate change.

2. Autonomous Vehicles Will Increase Congestion (Probably A Lot)

Transportation Camp had a session where Robert T. Milam from Fehr and Peers used regional Transportation Demand Models to look at how autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is going to affect traffic congestion (notes here). Assuming all vehicles in the region are automated (a big assumption, I know, but bear with me), the result was an increase in VMT between 12% and 68%, and a reduction of transit trips between 16% and 43%.


That’s huge. Aside from the environmental catastrophe, the congestion impact from even the low-end of the prediction is likely to be dire.

Then there’s the blow to transit. One reason so many cities like Seattle and LA have been able to pass referenda on increasing transit funding is because higher-income people are finally starting to use it. If those high-income riders are siphoned off from the system into autonomous vehicles, then transit is likely to re-enter the death spiral of the 20th century.

Boosters of the technology will dismiss these findings, arguing that if we use AVs as a shared service (like autonomous Uber or Lyft), then VMT might actually go down at the same time that costs go down. Sure, it might work that way in a few places like New York or San Francisco; the rest of the country is in for another spurt of autophilia.

3. Autonomous Vehicle Boosters Are Too Dismissive of Automation’s Economic Impacts

In numerous interactions I had with those lovers of AV technology, a common thread was a disregard of the economic impacts. Those bullish on automation insist that the people whose jobs will be taken can just go on to do other, more meaningful work.

Perhaps I am especially sensitive to economic dislocations right now – underemployed Rust Belt voters just installed a president with empty promises to bring back manufacturing jobs, many of which were lost to automation. Looking at transportation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 3.6 million workers drive a truck, taxi, school bus, or transit bus for a living. We should all take a moment to think about what it will mean when 3.6 million more people are forced into lower-skilled, lower-paid work.

Most Common Job in 2014. Source: Planet Money

With so much news about what’s real and what’s fake, about truth and lies, TRB struck a special chord for me this year. Truth is hard to find, and often even harder to accept. I wanted to hear that electric vehicles are our savior, that vehicle automation will fix all of our problems. The truth is messier, more complicated, and takes work to uncover. TRB reminded me that there are literally thousands of smart people dedicated to revealing the truth, just in my tiny corner of the research world.

Godspeed, I say, and keep fighting for the truth – no matter how inconvenient.  

Warming Ourselves, Warming the World

Yesterday morning, I woke up to the pounding knock knock knock of our steam radiator’s discontent. After two hours of youtube, random DIY websites, and twisting knobs and pulling levers, I figured out how to clean the water level sight glass (ew) and drain/flush the boiler (also ew). All in the pursuit of warmth.

Daylight is scarce, snow and ice cover the grass, and my wife is perpetually wrapped in blankets; it must be that time of year when I’ve started obsessing again over the windows, doors, the attic, and any other areas where hot air is escaping and cold air creeping in. Part of this is to avoid the kind of shocking triple-digit heating bills that pain my bank account so terribly, but just as important is a matter of climate change.

In case you missed it, the Arctic has been screaming this winter with temperatures up to 60 degrees above average. Sea ice in the Arctic, as a result, is way below the historic average extent.


I already posted about climate change and the contribution that the transportation sector makes to greenhouse gas emissions. However, when combined together, heating and electricity are actually the two largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions in the Pioneer Valley.


I thought I would take the opportunity of plunging temperatures to look at how we heat our homes in the region, mostly because I was curious, but also as a way to think about how we can transition away from fossil fuels. All of the below maps are taken from the 2015 five-year American Community Survey. 

The History of Heating

My home was built around 1922, and demonstrates the history of using fossil fuels to heat buildings. When it was first built, there was a coal furnace. I know, because I can still see bits of anthracite coal scattered around the side of the house. At some point, it was converted to oil heat – again, I only know this because there were two holes in the side of the house where intake pipes used to be. Finally, the heating oil system was replaced with a natural gas furnace.

I was pretty surprised to find that gas is the most popular heating fuel category for Hampden County – a little under half of all households heat their homes using natural gas.


Looking at the town-level map, it looks like natural gas is a primarily urban amenity. I guess that makes sense, because you need to have the pipe infrastructure delivering the natural gas into people’s houses, and that’s a lot easier when houses are closer together.


Going back a step in time for my house, there are still a lot of homes heated by oil. There are a bunch of reasons why heating oil isn’t very good:

  1. You have to truck the fuel around, making the environmental impact that much worse.
  2. A lot of the heating oil tanks were installed underground and ended up leaking and contaminating the soil, creating brownfields.
  3. On a personal note, the one time I had heating oil I was a broke 20-something living with a bunch of other broke 20-somethings. We would always run out of fuel on a Friday afternoon and were too cheap to pay the extra $20 bucks for a weekend delivery, meaning that we would just be freezing until Monday morning.


Shockingly, there are also a handful of homes still heated using “coal or coke” according to the Census Bureau – talk about old school! The question becomes, where do they even get coal?


The Future of Heating

As we transition away from fossil fuels (because we will, we must), the future of heating must be mostly electric, with geothermal almost certainly mixed in. Holyoke is a great example of what the future of home heating should look like, since 95% of its electricity is generated from renewable sources (hydroelectric and solar primarily).

Surprisingly, electric heat is not that that common in the region – no town exceeds about a quarter of households using electric (except Sunderland which is almost 40%!). This could be partly the inertia of past heating systems, or the fear of losing heat in the event of a power outage, or a little bit of both.


In the future, I’m hoping that we can leverage more solar power for passive heating. My house has a giant tree on the south side that substantially diminishes the ability to install solar panels, but that’s not true for a lot of homes. You can see in the map below that very few homes right now have solar heating, but, surprisingly, Holyoke is leading the way!


A Path Forward

Unfortunately, converting heating systems to more efficient or planet-friendly fuel sources can be very costly. Even though a homeowner might save a bunch of money in the long run, the lumpy expense of replacing the heating system can be prohibitive. And unlike the vehicle fleet which, eventually, turns over cars from old dirty ones to newer cleaner ones, houses (and their heating technology) tend to stick around for decades or centuries.

We’ve started looking at converting to more efficient steam heating systems, and I’m also getting interested in a geothermal exchange system. I would also like to convert from natural gas to an electric system and take advantage of all that green electricity Holyoke produces. These are all big expenses, though programs like Mass Save could help.

In the end, any serious climate action must include getting rid of all heating oil-fueled houses and, eventually, natural gas heated homes as well. Even though the federal government is unlikely to do anything about climate change (other than deny it) over the next four years, the future of the planet literally depends on small things like furnace upgrade programs. In the meantime, I’ll look to state governments to lead the way.


It’s pretty hot, which reminds me that the climate is changing

Like most people, climate change is something I prefer not to dwell on. But with multiple days in a row near or above 90 degrees, I’m compelled to remember that the climate is getting warmer, and the number of days above 90 degrees is expected to increase dramatically over the next several decades. According to one estimate, there may be 90 days over 90 degrees in Boston by 2070.

90 degree days

Climate change, and the fear of it, was what inspired me to go into public service to begin with. I still believe it to be the most intractable existential threat to civilization we face today, and perhaps have ever faced before (though the nuclear arms race would be a close second). I decided to focus my career on transportation in particular because it is the largest contributor to climate change of any sector.

transportation ghg
Source: PVPC Climate Action and Clean Energy Plan

We here in the Pioneer Valley are mostly shielded from the rising seas that threaten to eventually flood much of Boston and New York. However, we are susceptible to extreme weather events like flooding from the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene or the tornado that tore through Springfield. And more than that, it is totally possible that increasing numbers of climate refugees, possibly even from inside our country (drought-stricken southwest, flooded Florida, disappearing Louisiana) could relocate to our relatively water-rich, inland oasis.

ma heatin up
The climate in 2070 could be the same as S. Carolina’s climate today – really hot. Source: PVPC Climate Action and Clean Energy Plan 

Of course, the thing that really motivated me to dedicate my career to arresting climate change was this fact: as the winters get warmer, sugar maples aren’t going to be producing maple syrup anymore. The idea of New England without wintertime sugaring is a horrible, wretched thought – and enough to scare anyone to action.

Lighting a Single Candle

Rather than wring my hands harder and harder as I stare into the abyss of a Mad Max-esque future, I thought I would go through a list of three pretty easy things I can try to do to reduce climate change over the next two weeks:

  1. Get a Mass Save home energy audit: Mass Save is a free state program which provides home energy audits and educates home owners about available incentives and credits to make your home more energy efficient. Special bonus – lower utility bills!
  2. Eat less meat: Meat is really resource intensive, mostly from raising all that corn and feeding it to the cows. Plus, it’s not very good for you.
  3. Drive less: OK, I don’t really drive all that much right now, but there’s always room for improvement. Especially now that I have an e-bike, I really don’t have much of an excuse to drive less than three miles.

Some Closing Thoughts

It’s worth pointing out that Massachusetts is a leader in combating climate change, from the Global Warming Solutions Act  to the state’s GreenDOT sustainability initiative. Furthermore, Holyoke is a leader in the state for renewable energy use; only a little over 5% of our electricity is generated from fossil fuels. A lot of it is thanks to our hydro-power.

holyoke energy
Source: Holyoke Gas and Electric

And nationally there is a growing recognition that climate change is a real problem and one that needs to be addressed. So I have hope that enough people will take a look outside, wince at the oppressive heat, and accept that even more progress needs to happen. If we don’t, we have to ask ourselves seriously – will our children thank us for the decisions we make today? In a New England without maple syrup, my guess is that the answer will be no.

The Poetry of Pavement Preservation

I guess I’m too poetic for the pavement preservation crowd, or at least their journal.

Back in January, I went to the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, where I met a staffer from the Pavement Preservation Journal. So far as I can tell, the journal mostly concerns itself with issues like cold-mix versus hot-mix asphalt, different varieties of bitumen, and methods for testing pavement durability.


Don’t get me wrong, from an intellectual perspective I understand that these issues are important, urgently so, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Furthermore, cement is responsible for around 5% of global CO2 emissions (that’s crazy!), which is reason enough for everyone to care about pavement. But as compelling as the arguments are, fly ash content and tensile strength just doesn’t ignite my passions.

So when I stopped by the Pavement Preservation Journal stall at the TRB Annual Meeting, I thought to myself, “Now here’s something I don’t think about hardly at all,” and started chatting with the booth staffers. I mentioned that as a bicyclist, I really do appreciate high-quality pavement (though didn’t mention that’s generally as far as my thoughts on pavement go). After saying this, I was invited to submit an article explaining why bicyclists – not just car commuters and truck drivers – care about pavement preservation.

Challenge accepted.

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