Public Transportation Is A Mess. How Can It Be Fixed?

New York. Toronto. San Francisco. Chicago. Great cities, with one thing in common. Their public transportation systems are a mess.

You probably know Richard Florida’s name. And if you don’t, you certain know the phrase he popularized: the Creative Class. In his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida said that cities’ fortunes could be revived by appealing to smart, talented people — entrepreneurs, technology experts, artists, and creators of all kinds. These innovators could lead the way in putting cities back on their feet.

His idea worked. The only problem was, it left a lot of people behind. Now, Florida is back with his latest book, The New Urban Crisis.

In it, he says that by ignoring the working class, service class and essentially the middle class in general, America’s cities are in big, big trouble. Some of them could be headed for confrontation well beyond what the Occupy movement generated.

Florida appeared before Ann Arbor SPARK, an conomic development group in Ann Arbor, Mich., last week, where I got a chance to catch up with him.

He says one of the biggest problems that cities face is the deterioration of the ways people get around. “Once a metropolitan area gets above 5 million people, the old way of growing, with single family homes and cars, seizes up. That platform of economic innovation will no longer work,” Florida says.

He went on, “We need to invest in transit. Lord God, come visit me in Toronto and try to get anywhere. It is gridlock. I go to Atlanta, it’s gridlock, Miami, it’s gridlock, Washington, it’s gridlock, Boston, it’s gridlock. New York, the whole thing is falling apart. Every day, the transit system is a nightmare.”

Since 2000, dozens of cities across the U.S. have expanded or opened transit systems. Later this month, Detroit will dedicate its first surface rail system in 60 years. But the QLine simply runs from Detroit’s increasingly prosperous downtown to its prosperous Midtown neighborhood, home to its arts district and Wayne State University, and on to the New Center area, which is showing signs of revival.

The QLine does not run beyond there to the suburbs, where it can take hours for service workers to reach the city center, if they rely on regional transportation. Florida says transit can’t stay simply with the city limits. “We need transit to connect our declining suburbs to urban growth hubs,” he says.

Of course, the question then becomes, who’s going to pay for it? The Trump administration has touted its commitment to infrastructure, although there is no money in its proposed budget, and it mainly is focusing on highways, roads and bridges. In fact, Trump has proposed cutting TIGER grants, the Transportation Department program that has funded $5.1 billion to 421 projects in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Public transportation advocates say that could be a nightmare. Instead of relying on the federal government, however, Florida says there’s another answer for solving the urban crisis. “There’s only one way out of it. Local empowerment and local action. The federal government is not going to save us, and Americans know that.”

Florida is bent on putting the transportation mess, and the problems that urban areas face, on peoples’ radar. Watch for more reporting from Curbing Cars in coming weeks about transportation systems and the impact they are making on their users.

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