Why Public Transit Sucks in the United States: Four Videos Tell the Story

Many dif­fer­ent words could describe the state of pub­lic trans­porta­tion in Amer­i­ca today. In recent decades, more and more of a con­sen­sus seems to have set­tled around one word in par­tic­u­lar: that it “sucks.” Giv­en its “anti­quat­ed tech­nol­o­gy, safe­ty con­cerns, crum­bling infra­struc­ture,” and often “nonex­is­tence,” says the nar­ra­tor of the video above, “it’s not hard to argue that the U.S. pub­lic trans­porta­tion net­work is just not good.” That nar­ra­tor, Sam Den­by, is the cre­ator of Wen­dover Pro­duc­tions, a Youtube chan­nel all about geog­ra­phy, tech­nol­o­gy, eco­nom­ics, and the infra­struc­ture where all three inter­sect. He believes not only that Amer­i­ca’s pub­lic tran­sit sucks, but that the coun­try’s “lack of sol­id pub­lic trans­porta­tion almost defines Amer­i­can cul­ture.”

This would make a cer­tain sense in a poor, small, strug­gling coun­try — but not in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, described not long ago by Anne Apple­baum in the Atlantic as “accus­tomed to think­ing of itself as the best, most effi­cient, and most tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced soci­ety in the world.”

As any­one mak­ing their first vis­it will expe­ri­ence, Amer­i­ca’s still-for­mi­da­ble wealth and pow­er does­n’t square with the expe­ri­ence on the ground, or indeed under it: whether by sub­way, bus, or street­car, the task of nav­i­gat­ing most U.S. cities is char­ac­ter­ized by incon­ve­nience, dis­com­fort, and even impos­si­bil­i­ty. This in a coun­try whose pub­lic trans­porta­tion once real­ly was the envy of the world: at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, its cities boast­ed 11,000 miles of street­car track alone.

In the mid-2010s, by Den­by’s reck­on­ing, “the com­bined mileage of every tram, sub­way, light rail, and com­muter rail sys­tem” added up only to 5,416. What hap­pened in the hun­dred or so years between? He cites among oth­er fac­tors the pro­duc­tion of the first wide­ly afford­able auto­mo­biles in the 1920s, and lat­er that of bus­es, with their low­er oper­at­ing costs than street­cars — but as com­mon­ly oper­at­ed today, their low­er-qual­i­ty tran­sit expe­ri­ence as well. (Resent­ment about this large-scale replace­ment of urban street­car sys­tems runs deep enough to make some con­sid­er it a con­spir­a­cy.) The U.S. “grew up as the car grew up, so its cities were built for cars,” espe­cial­ly in its more recent­ly set­tled west. Indi­rect sub­sides low­ered the cost of gas, and from the 1950s the build­ing of the Inter­state High­way Sys­tem made it easy, at least for at time, to com­mute between city and sub­urb.

As point­ed out in the Vox videos “Why Amer­i­can Pub­lic Tran­sit Is So Bad” and “How High­ways Wrecked Amer­i­can Cities,” these mas­sive roads ran not around or under cities (as they do in much of Europe and Asia) but straight through their cen­ters, part of a larg­er process of “urban renew­al” that iron­i­cal­ly destroyed quite a few of what dense urban neigh­bor­hoods the U.S. had. More than half a cen­tu­ry of high­way-build­ing, sub­ur­ban­iza­tion, and strict zon­ing lat­er, most Amer­i­cans find them­selves unable to get where they need to go with­out buy­ing a car and dri­ving them­selves. The sit­u­a­tion is even worse for those trav­el­ing between cities, as exam­ined above in Wen­dover Pro­duc­tions’ “Why Trains Suck in Amer­i­ca.” As an Amer­i­can, I take a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion in hear­ing these ques­tions addressed — but I take an even greater one in being an Amer­i­can liv­ing abroad.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Sub­way Ride Through New York City: Watch Vin­tage Footage from 1905

Design­er Mas­si­mo Vignel­li Revis­its and Defends His Icon­ic 1972 New York City Sub­way Map

Archive of 5,000 Images Doc­u­ment the His­to­ry of San Fran­cis­co and the Vehi­cles That Put It in Motion

Trips on the World’s Old­est Elec­tric Sus­pen­sion Rail­way in 1902 & 1917 Show How a City Changes Over a Cen­tu­ry

A Brief His­to­ry of the Great Amer­i­can Road Trip

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • WW says:

    The video did­n’t men­tion the biggest, and most uncom­fort­able rea­son peo­ple don’t ride mass-tran­sit, any­more; and it does­n’t fit The Nar­ra­tive, let’s put it that way. We all know what that rea­son is…the only time I’ve ever been robbed at gun­point, was on an Oak­land pub­lic-bus, and it caused me to wise-up quick, about the real­i­ties of pub­lic-trans­porta­tion. A shame, our soci­ety can do bet­ter.

  • Ray Collins says:

    And the sec­ond rea­son: It’s. Run. By. Gov­ern­ment. Amaz­ing how Closed­Cul­ture nev­er con­nects the dots, but it won’t, since it’s an inher­ent­ly sta­tist site. We’re walk­ing around with mega­com­put­ers in our pock­ets because of the free mar­ket, but the gov­ern­ment can’t even fig­ure out how to set up bus sched­ules and keep drug­gies from ruin­ing “pub­lic trans­po­ra­tion.” It’s like the scam­dem­ic; no amount of proof right in front of a sta­tist’s eyes will change his mind.

  • Jim Reardon says:

    With few excep­tions, tran­sit “agen­cies” in Amer­i­ca exist only to gath­er fed­er­al trans­porta­tion sub­si­dies. The trans­porta­tion of actu­al peo­ple is a mere incon­ve­nience.

    Where I live, the region­al bus ser­vices are rout­ed away from areas of need. Stu­dents and young peo­ple are dis­cour­aged from rid­ing bus­es, and com­pe­ti­tion from pri­vate ser­vices who seek to respond to actu­al demand is polit­i­cal­ly opposed. The result is a fleet of hun­dreds of most­ly emp­ty, under­uti­lized, and spot­less­ly clean bus­es run­ning emp­ty at all hours of the day, assid­u­ous­ly avoid­ing pas­sen­gers.

    When the sub­sidy is insuf­fi­cient, the agency does end routes. A city near­by (San Clemente), stripped of its only local bus route by the region­al bus agency, went along its major streets and placed “Lyft” signs on the sign poles aban­doned by the bus agency.

    The absur­di­ty of bus trans­porta­tion in Orange Coun­ty, CA is stun­ning.

  • CF says:

    Chick­en, meet egg.

  • Phil says:

    Most pub­lic tran­sit in Amer­i­ca is pri­va­tized. It’s usu­al­ly not run by the cities, they pay third par­ties to run them. They just approve new lines and things like that.

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