Public Policy Forum Blog

What does the rise in national transit usage suggest for Milwaukee?

A new report by the American Public Transit Association reveals that U.S. transit ridership in 2013 rose to its highest level since 1956. APTA found that rail systems did particularly well, with subways, heavy rail, light rail, and commuter rail all seeing ridership increases of 1.6 to 2.8%.

In coverage of the report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Minneapolis Star Tribune, I was quoted as suggesting that given the growth in rail ridership nationally, perhaps Milwaukee should renew its pursuit of rail and/or other rapid transit options to turn around its own declining transit ridership numbers.  While that’s not a misrepresentation, the issue is nuanced and my reaction deserves further explanation. 

I’ll start by making a point I stressed to both reporters: while the APTA numbers are promising from the perspective of those who support mass transit, the rush to attribute causality may be premature.

Transit advocates are eager to link the ridership increase to transit’s growing popularity among citizens, which they say flows from the preference of younger generations for non-automobile options and a growing general societal preference for urban lifestyles. Other recently-released reports indicating a decrease in vehicle miles travelled by automobile users and different travel behaviors among young adults may well support that contention, but further analysis is warranted before it is taken as fact. 

For example, the growth in light rail ridership may simply reflect the fact that many cities have opened new light rail lines or extensions in recent years, thus reflecting a greater opportunity to use light rail, as opposed to a shift in preference or attitude.  Other non-transportation variables – such as economic conditions or immigration patterns in major cities that rely heavily on transit – also should be considered.

Nevertheless, there may be enough here to ask whether – if citizens today really are showing a greater preference for mass transit options – our region needs to consider what we have and what we may need. And I would suggest that the most glaring deficiency in our current transit system is not our lack of rail transit options, but of rapid transit options.

Rapid transit systems typically are characterized by their dedicated rights-of-way for transit vehicles, as well as station locations that are spread several miles apart. Both of those characteristics allow for travel times that are competitive with those of the automobile for longer commutes. It is important to note that rapid transit objectives can be accomplished with trains or buses, as long as the transit vehicle can proceed largely unimpeded by automobile traffic. 

In other cities, rapid forms of transit have been successful in attracting “choice” riders (those who also have access to an automobile).  They can effectively complement local and express transit services to provide users with a balanced system of options – much like local roads, county trunk highways, and interstate highways do for automobile commuters.

Milwaukee has considered adding options that were deemed “rapid” before, including a light rail system between Downtown and the Milwaukee County Zoo and several express bus routes that were labeled “bus rapid transit.” The design of those systems left them lacking a true rapid nature, however, as the light rail line only would have used a seperate right- of-way between Miller Brewing and the Zoo, and the so-called bus rapid transit lines would not have used a reserved right-of-way at all.   

Would true rapid transit lines – such as one that would provide an exclusive east-west right-of-way for buses or trains through the Menomonee Valley or along Bluemound Road – constitute a cost-justifiable upgrade to our transit system that would respond to an increased public yearning for fast, convenient transit options? 

That’s impossible to say without specific route designs, cost estimates, and further analysis of transit demand in a metro area that lacks the severe traffic congestion of many of its peers. Given the trends that are beginning to be observed nationally, however, and the fierce competition for talent and innovation that are hallmarks of the 21st century knowledge economy, it’s a question worth considering.

Rob Henken