Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mass Transit Systems of North America

From the obscenely wonderful Radical Cartography, a map of mass transit systems throughout North America.

(Note: I've shifted a couple of the 'cities' around slightly for formatting purposes.) The map depicts fixed mass transit systems - subways, light rail, and the like - in cities across North America, all depicted at the same scale. Radical Cartography says:
At a glance, many metros seem to be comparable in scale, but what separates New York from Baltimore is density: station-to-station distance, line overlap, and linkages.

Most systems are organized as a hub with spokes; the two notable exceptions are New York and Mexico City, both of which are more like nets.
You can also really pick out the slackers in this sort of direct comparison - I'm looking at you, Detroit and Seattle. Detroit you can sort of understand: that city's been bleeding population for decades, perhaps leaving it without sufficient density and tax base to support a modern mass transit system; and of course they're the home of GM, which has not historically been very amenable to the whole notion of people not being chained to the yoke of car culture. But Seattle? A city that's been pretty much booming for the last few decades? Where there's supposedly a high level of environmental consciousness? That is actually rather densely built and walkable, and has massive problems with traffic congestion? Seattle, I think you have some explaining to do.

You can compare this map to a list of heavy rail mass transit systems in North America, mostly based on information from this list (which unlike the map doesn't include light rail, note):

1. New York City-Subway (7,825,500)
2. Mexico City-Metro (3,879,500)*
3. Toronto-TTC (1,256,700)*
4. Washington, DC-Metrorail (1,019,900)
5. Montreal-Metro (791,500)**
6. Chicago-L (680,400)
7. Boston-MBTA or T (502,500)
8. San Francisco-BART (392,900)
9. Atlanta-MARTA (294,400)
10. Philadelphia-SEPTA (eww...) (289,000)
11. Vancouver-SkyTrain (271,000)***
12. New York City-PATH (257,400)
13. Los Angeles-Metro Rail (153,000)
14. Miami-Metrorail (65,500)
15. Baltimore-Metro Subway (57,600)
16. Philadelphia-PATCO (36,900)
17. San Juan-Tren Urbano (36,500)

* estimate based on this
**based on this
***based on this

Well, making that list was certainly an exercise in procrastinating from work I should be doing. Hope you enjoyed it!


K H D and sometimes T said...

Seattle has been tragically paralyzed by the need for consensus. Check back in 2012 though, we'll kick detroit's butt.

Chad said...

In defense of Seattle, there is a commuter line from Tacoma through Seattle to Everett which is growing in popularity and a light rail systems which will link downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport that will come online in July with additions to the north already funded and under construction.
So I will concede that our system is insufficient, it is growing.

Anthony said...

Happily, Denver's map is a bit outdated. It's light rail system now looks like this:

Anonymous said...

Portland and Seattle have similiar levels of density. Porland built out an extensive light rail system. Seattle did not. According to the 2005-7 American Community Survey by the US census, 12.5% take public transit to work in Portland. In Seattle 17.9% take public transit to work. When you built a light rail system, you make transit more convienent for people who live with in a quarter mile of the system. But often you inconvience people who live further from the system who know need to take connecting busses to catch up with the light rail network. The additional time spent waiting for the transfer tends to mean that choice riders find the better choice is now just to drive to work. The net result is that building rail networks tends to result in no net addition of mass transit usage. The higher debt caused by building out the systems often leads to more severe route cutbacks during funding shortages. Rail is most efficient in point to point service. But employment modernly is spread throughout the metro area. The addition of rail systems in an area tends to mean a reduction in transit service to secondary employment centers.

Chachy said...

Anon - That's an interesting perspective - definitely worth considering. I assume the higher mass transit commuter rate in Seattle would be due to higher bus ridership? But I don't really find it plausible that light rail would necessarily "inconvience people who live further from the system who know need to take connecting busses to catch up with the light rail network." Certainly, if a mass transit system is poorly integrated, that could be the result, and maybe that's the case in Portland - but I can't think of any a priori reason that it should be the case. Plus, while buses have some advantages over light rail - especially flexibility and initial cost - there are reasons to favor light rail over buses: they reduce pollution and traffic congestion to a greater degree; they get us further away from a dependence on fossil fuels; they're more comfortable, etc.

But my favorite reason to prefer rail is the very fact that the infrastructure is permanent. By becoming a fixture in the urban environment, they contribute to development in the vicinity of stations, which increases densification, which increases walkability and contributes to a thriving urban environment. I think those are worthwhile social goals in which the whole community has a stake. Obviously, that doesn't mean light rail is right for every city: I wouldn't prescribe it for Enid, Oklahoma. But a city that's sufficiently large should have a diversified mass transit system, and one which serves the purpose of making the city more livable. Seattle is past that threshold.

Anonymous said...

While this is fascinating, I have to point out that in some cities, you've included Commuter Rail (SF Bay Area, Dallas/Ft. Worth), while in other cities only the subway, and in the case of Ottawa, the Bus Rapid Transit network (without which, the Canadian capital is rather transit-lacking.

Not that you should waste any more time at work, but for the sake of comparison, it would be interesting to see what New York City looked like with the Long Island Railroad, the Metro-North and NJ Transit's commuter rail, compared to LA's Metrolink... I bet LA's *looks* bigger. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

How the feds allocate funding for rail is based upon how many people can be diverted into the proposed rail line. That creates incentives for transit agencies to eliminate direct bus routes and instead have the bus routes feed into the rail system. The problem with that is every time you have to make a transfer in the mass transit system you increase the number of delays for your riders.

If a bus that was going from pt A to downtown, now has to go from pt A to the rail system and then downtown. In order to ensure that a late bus doesn't cause riders to miss the connecting train, the bus must now arrive at the train several minutes early. Because mass transit serves a population with impaired mobility, you also have to provide additional time in that schedule to allow that population to get off the bus and get on the train, that adds another several minutes. When light rail was brought to my community, my total commute went up by 9 minutes. The additional delay is a necessary function of transfering people from one mode to another mode. You can't optimise that system any better.

I was willing to put up with such an inconvience. My neighbors weren't. Ridership fell on our neighborhood bus line and the line was dropped as a cost cutting move for the transit agency.

This is why the addition of new rail lines doesn't mean higher levels of mass transit usage. The addition of rail leads to a fall in the number of people on the bus. This is why the share of people taking transit stays flat even after the construction of a rail line.

see pg 13

In Sacramento where I live, light rail was introduced in 1987 and the rail network has been extended several times. Additionally funding for transit went up as a result of a half cent tax for mass transit in 1989.

Yet neither the additional funding nor light rail boosted the share of people taking mass transit to work.

If the goal was just to boost ridership instead of building new expensive infrastructure, they should have lowered the cost of a bus pass or alternatively just added more bus lines instead of building out the rail network.

Essentially that is the trade off Seattle made, which is why Seattle has a higher share of ridership than Portland.

Chachy said...

Anon, you are keeping me on my toes. Still, though, the objections to light rail you mention strike me as objections to the particular methods of implementation rather than to the feasibility of the concept. If the feds have inefficient or pervesely incentivizing criteria for allocating funding, that should be addressed; but that doesn't mean it is an inherently bad idea. And I happen to think it's a positively good idea for the reasons I gave above.

As for the added time needed to get from bus to train, I don't see why that should be any worse than switching buses, which is what one usually has to do anyways, in most cities. And a well-designed light-rail system would ideally serve as the backbone of an overall mutli-nodal system: since the fixed infrastructure should promote development around light rail stations over the long term, the bus routes can be designed to orient around that pattern of development. And since the long-term effect will be densification and increased walkability, that should make the bus system even more efficient over the long-haul (since density and walkability correlates with efficient and useful mass transit).

And I think that's key: what are the long-term effects on urban development going to be? I sympathize with your commute getting a bit botched by the addition of light rail; that's irritating. But such short-term effects are bound to affect some people whenever there's a change in transportation infrastructure - even if it's just a shift in bus routes, which happen all the time. But the long term goal should be densification and the building of a thriving urban environment, which will make the average commute shorter and contribute to a sustainable pattern of development. And to that end, developing light rail is one of the better policies.

By the by, I've come across a couple of relevant factors at play in Seattle. As Chad says, they have a commuter line that is indeed growing in popularity. And the topography and geology of the city present some unique challenges to light rail. So there's that to bear in mind as well.

Brian said...

Seattle HAD a rapid transit NETWORK system in place ready to be built, and the light rail fans in the suburbs voted to kill it off. This is because "light rail" advocates are more interested in promoting corridor development (they're busy demolishing the only majority-minority neighborhood in Seattle for a surface line, while running it deep underground wealthier areas) than actually getting people out of their cars.

Oh, and they complained about the fact that it was a monorail and that "monorails and elevated transit are for losers", essentially.

A city the size of Seattle that has a single proposed light rail line and votes to kill a separated-grade, rapid rail system (monorail or otherwise) is pretty pathetic and disinterested in moving the sort of people by transit that we do here on the East Coast.

Richard Faulkner said...

Can someone direct me to an information site that will compare and contrast the top ten urban mass transit systems in North America (possibly break down each dollar spent in pie chart form) how they get / level of funding /revenue from government through to ridership.

I can be reached at:


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