Magazine article EconSouth

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

Magazine article EconSouth

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

Article excerpt

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.

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.

"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 Stepheus, 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. …

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