EconSouth (Third Quarter 2005)

Southeast Transit
Inches Ahead

Despite the headaches brought on by gridlocked car commutes, Southerners have been reluctant to hop on public transportation’s buses and trains. Neither rising gas prices nor clogged highways have pushed people to the fare box. Motivating the region’s commuters to get on board is transit’s challenge.

The Southeast has long been known for its wide open spaces. Land is plentiful and relatively cheap, and the region’s booming economic opportunities have attracted new residents by the millions. As the growth of the suburban South has accelerated in recent years, unprecedented traffic loads have strained the road systems of many metropolitan areas.

Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority
As the Southeast’s population continues its growth, will the region’s residents embrace public transportation as a solution to gridlock, air pollution, and access to jobs?

Despite these overloaded roadways, Southerners have been slow to embrace public transportation. This resistance is likely linked to the region’s longtime reliance on automobiles, state governments’ reluctance to impose land-use decisions on their regional governments, and the urban sprawl of many Southern cities.

U.S. transit ebbs and flows
Yet, surprisingly, the United States once led the world in the use of public transportation, according to a 2001 study by the Transportation Research Board (TRB). With cities’ populations exploding in the early 20th century, electric streetcar systems grew to meet the burgeoning demand for transportation. According to the TRB study, the average American living in an urban area in 1920 took more than 250 transit trips annually.

But as cars became mass-produced and more affordable, Americans largely traded their streetcars for sedans. The suburban lifestyle effectively ended the heyday of public transportation. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), transit use peaked in the United States in 1946, when 141 million Americans took 23.4 billion trips on trains, buses, and trolleys. In 2003, 291 million Americans took 9.4 billion transit trips.

Despite this decrease in ridership, U.S. investment in transit systems remains considerable. According to a March 2005 APTA study by economists Robert Shapiro and Kevin Hassett, the value of current assets in U.S. public transportation systems totaled more than $363 billion in 2003, with $37 billion in bus systems and $326 billion in rail. American government at all levels spent more than $41 billion on transit in 2003, according to the study.

Southern cities are geared toward cars
While transit continues to play an essential role in the lives of millions of Americans, the car remains king, especially in the South. The region’s many rural areas and suburban developments work against the population density that once allowed transit to thrive.

Photo courtesy of HARTline
A HARTline streetcar serves Tampa, Fla., transit riders.

“Southern cities generally have lower population densities,” said Steve Polzin, transit research program director for the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa and a consultant for Tampa’s HARTline transit system. “The cities grew up in the post-auto era and have an ample parking supply and decent streets. It’s a lot harder to find a parking spot in Boston, Chicago, or New York than in a city in the South.”

A transit official seconds that point of view. “In the South, there’s a big love for the auto,” said Jack Stephens, deputy executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA), which operates 72 miles of commuter rail in Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties. “We know that people love their cars, but people moving to Florida from other parts of the country are used to having transit as an option.”

Still, the design of employment centers in many large Southern cities is a challenge to effective transit service. For example, the city of Atlanta’s share of jobs in the 20-county metropolitan area fell from 40 percent to 28 percent from 1980 to 1990, according to a 2001 joint study by the Progressive Policy Institute and the Center for Regional Economic Issues at Case Western Reserve University. “Many Southern cities are not as focused on their downtown as other transit-oriented cities,” Polzin notes. “Suburban office parks, which have no sidewalks, don’t invite transit riderships. Southeastern cities have dispersed employment, which has been a hindrance for transit.”

Polzin said his studies show that many Florida cities have fewer than 20 percent of workers in downtown areas. “That share makes it difficult to attract commute-trip users.”

Will bad traffic drive us to drive less?
Congested roads are the number one factor in persuading commuters to board a bus or a train. “It’s no secret that traffic in the metro Atlanta region is terrible,” said John Keys, director of external affairs for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), the state body that coordinates transportation alternatives and reviews development impact in 11 metropolitan Atlanta counties. “Our population is growing in part because people want to live in this area, but you don’t want to sprawl out everywhere and kill what makes you a desirable place to live in the first place. The need for transit and transportation alternatives is everywhere around here.”

Because the expansion of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA)—metro Atlanta’s primary transit provider and the Southeast’s largest system—is a politically sensitive issue, GRTA began coordinating commuter bus service in 11 metropolitan counties in June 2004 with three routes. “Transit is changing. A lot of suburbs now want transit,” Keys said. “People would rather pay $5 for a round trip and have the time to read a book than deal with the traffic.” Keys said GRTA’s current plan calls for 27 commuter bus routes by the end of the decade.

Average Weekly Boardings for Selected Southeast Transit Systems
Note: Numbers represent thousands of weekly boardings.
Source: American Public Transportation Association

SFRTA’s Stephens said south Florida’s population boom has also led to an increase in transit use, which presents an opportunity. “South Florida has experienced an intense demand for homes and housing,” Stephens said. “There’s just not enough housing to accommodate the number of people we expect to move in, so density and mobility are going to be key for the state to be able to handle this surge.”

Ridership numbers in one south Florida system support that view. In March 2004, Palm Beach County’s Palm Tran service carried an average of 27,297 passengers each weekday on its bus routes, surpassing its previous record of 25,903. Broward County Transit expanded service to portions of Broward, Palm Beach, and Dade counties in 2004, increasing the route’s ridership that year by 43.6 percent since 2000.

APTA’s ridership figures show that commuters’ use of transit in some Southeastern cities is rising only modestly at best (see the chart). While some transit industry observers anticipated that higher gasoline prices would persuade auto drivers to rely more on transit, the spike in oil prices that began in 2002 was not accompanied by a corresponding jump in transit ridership. In fact, a July 2004 APTA study of fuel prices’ effect on transit services found that transit operators attribute a ridership increase of less than four-tenths of 1 percent to increased fuel costs. “Price is not the advantage of transit,” said Brendon Hemily, a Toronto-based transit industry consultant. “When you drive a car, you’re not paying out of pocket. When you pay for transit, you pay every time you get on. If you want people to take transit, you have to offer more than price.”

Local planning can hinder transit
Historically, transit systems have thrived in an environment of strong state support and unified regional planning, conditions often lacking in the Southeast, where local jurisdictions traditionally control development. “In the South, you still have a lot of territoriality,” Stephens said, adding that political concerns can make broad regional cooperation difficult. “It’s difficult for a county commissioner from Palm Beach to tell his constituents that a project in Miami-Dade should be the number one project,” he noted.

This Southern tradition of local land-use policies poses a challenge to broadening transit, Stephens believes. “Florida has recently passed a growth-management bill that creates some financial incentives for regionalization, but we’ve yet to see how that will work out,” he said.

On June 24, 2005, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush provided some incentive when he signed into law the Transportation Regional Incentive Program. Under this program, the state Department of Transportation will pay up to 50 percent of the nonfederal share of public transportation facilities, so local jurisdictions will have to come up with only half as much money as they did before.

GRTA’s Keys said much of his job is focused on educating Atlanta-area developers and small governments about the impact of different types of development. “We talk a lot about the economics of bad land use and bad public policy choices,” he said. “We explain that different transportation modes feed each other. If you build only asphalt, you spread out and work against transit.” He added that Atlanta’s business community is largely pro-transit, but the political support to expand public transportation is currently lacking.

One service doesn’t fit all
It’s not only suburbanites facing crowded roads who need other transportation options; immigrants and the elderly, whose populations are growing rapidly within the region, are prime candidates for transit. The Hispanic population in the Southeast grew from 1.8 million in 1990 to 4 million in 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hemily said this group is a strong constituent for transit use. “Since [many immigrants] come from countries where transit is used more, it may be easier to attract them,” he said.

Polzin agrees that immigrants are heavy transit users, at least initially, until they establish themselves economically and buy a car. He stressed the importance of providing access to transit near immigrant population centers.

Whereas 14.3 percent of the South’s residents were over 65 in 2000, Census data project that figure to grow to 22.5 percent by 2030, and this elderly population will require transportation services as well. Especially in Florida, with its large numbers of retirees, transit should play an increasingly significant role, but planners will have to anticipate older people’s needs. “We don’t look for anything like a landslide use of transit by the elderly,” CUTR’s Polzin said. “There is a presumption that this group represents a booming opportunity for transit as folks age and are no longer able to drive.” But, he noted, “The vast majority of people drive well into their older years.”

Capturing the senior market could be even trickier because the elderly population is so spread out geographically. “The baby-boom generation is the first one that’s been predominantly auto-oriented and suburban,” Hemily said. “It’s going to be a shock to elderly suburbanites because the suburbs are geared to serving families with kids, and the infrastructure is not geared to seniors.”

Getting people to work is job one
Transit’s primary function of getting people to and from work will become even more important as service jobs in areas with increasing housing costs continue to grow. “Lack of affordable housing for the work force is causing problems,” Stephens said, citing the importance of affordable housing for clerical, secretarial, and government workers. “Those people are no longer going to be able to afford houses near where they work. You used to have situations like that in places like Aspen, Colo., but it’s becoming a problem down here.” Stephens said transit is becoming a tool that communities are using to create greater access to affordable housing.

Photo courtesy of Tri-Rail

Polzin said it’s also important for transit systems to make service available near where low-wage workers reside because these individuals are often dependent on transit to get to their jobs.

Vying for Uncle Sam’s dollars
Applications for federal transit dollars to construct new systems and expand existing ones are fiercely competitive and will become more so. Keys said that 15 years ago there were 12 to 15 transit systems beginning service nationwide that received federal dollars, but the number of new starts in the United States has risen to nearly 200 now. While this growth is encouraging, he noted, “it’s very challenging for the systems to get the federal share [of money] that makes their projects feasible.”

As the competition for federal funding heats up, new systems will likely rely increasingly on cheaper methods of transit such as express bus service and light rail. One mode that is gaining support in transit circles is bus rapid transit (BRT). Sometimes referred to as “training wheels for rail,” BRT involves running buses along corridors with dedicated lanes so they sidestep the traffic that can slow down a regular bus. This mode is widely used in many South American cities, and U.S. transit experts have been studying its feasibility here.

Still, rail transit—regarded as the transit mode most likely to lure riders out of their cars—will continue to spread in the Southeast. Political and business leaders in central Florida are considering a $73.5 million, 60-mile commuter rail line that would serve four counties in the Orlando area. Last November, Tennessee began work on a project that includes a $39 million, 32-mile commuter rail line from Nashville to neighboring Lebanon as well as a network of five regional corridors that will eventually cover 145 miles in the Nashville area.

Whatever transit’s form, numerous factors at work in the Southeast—population growth, traffic congestion, the air pollution caused by auto emissions—may win new converts to transit. “You can only do so much widening of the roads,” Stephens said. “At some point, transit becomes the solution.”

Milestones in Southeast Transit

This article was written by Tom Heintjes, a managing editor of EconSouth.

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