Transit infrastructure, not just transit

The streetcars that crisscrossed North American cities and towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally built and run by private companies, and operated at a profit. With the rise of the private automobile and due to other factors, they were no longer able to turn a profit, even in the cities in which streetcars were not deliberately run into the ground. I don’t think cities realized at that time that the infrastructure of the streetcar lines may have actually been worth paying for — and not just something to be allowed if paid the usage fees by streetcar companies. And so the infrastructure was swept away with the streetcars, which paved the way (no pun intended) for the downturn of urban areas and boosted suburb development.

Fast forward to now. Many people still participate in discussion of, and decisions about transit in North America without understanding that transit is not just about moving people effectively. From such a point of view, it can make sense to advocate for high-frequency buses and not much else in many cases. (Of course, there are also factors such as comfort and simplicity to consider.)

The other side of transit is infrastructure. Transit infrastructure, generally rail-based, changes the fabric of its surroundings. It transforms the geography, and attracts disproportionate development to its stations or corridors. Once built, it is taken as a permanent and reliable connection and short-cut between disparate places. It is visibly in place, a financial and social investment that is both useful and that cannot be easily picked up and moved. In other words, it is infrastructure. And such infrastructure is central to reclaiming an urban landscape.

We should stop talking about just transit, and start talking about transit infrastructure. The way discussions are framed makes a difference, and currently discussion about transit allows the ignorance of all the implications of transit beyond the movement of people. The only way to build liveable cities in North America that are not car-dependent is by building strong transit infrastructure. Transit can only follow, while transit infrastructure leads.

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2 responses to “Transit infrastructure, not just transit”

  1. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org says :

    It’s not at all clear that infrastructure has to be rail-based in order to stimulate development. It just has to be sufficiently robust and immovable to give a sense of permanence to the service. Ottawa’s busway system, for example, has definitely stimulated development at some stations.

    Even then, I could argue that the real test of the permanence of a service is whether it’s a good transit market, not how much has been invested in its infrastructure.

    After all, if rails really ensured permanence, we’d still have all those rail lines from the early 20th century.

    • Michael Druker says :

      I agree, it doesn’t have to be rail-based; that’s just the most common kind.

      What’s important isn’t so much the true permanence — anything can happen — but the feeling of permanence. We don’t make decisions based on truth, but on our impressions and gut feelings. And while you can reason about good transit markets, it’s difficult to compete with the gut significance of infrastructure.

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