Building Smarter Communities Includes Public Transportation

This is a photo of just one of Chicago's commuter train stations. Find this image at
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons | ComputerGeek3000
This is a photo of just one of Chicago's commuter train stations. Find this image at
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons | ComputerGeek3000

I’ve been think so much about my own future, the where and how I’m going to live, that I needed to think about some truths and reality of our modern-day life. I read a great article written by Charles Marohn, who writes a post called  Stroad Nation, I encourage you to take a few minutes and read his words… really smart thinking.

While the overall topic of his post was about the incidents in Ferguson, he also refers to an “auto-oriented development” – and this is the 800lb gorilla in the room. More plainly stated, our communities are auto-centric, meaning that they were all built upon the premise that you’d drive everywhere. That was a key component of urban planning and development of the past, and it’s the same thing that is bleeding us dry today. The cost of driving has risen substantially, to the point where the average person spends almost 50% or more of their net pay on transportation (cost of car, fuel, tolls, maintenance, etc).

Because we drive to work, we pay. We’re basically working to have a job (to AFFORD the job); it costs more and more to show up and collect that paycheck which isn’t growing at the same rate. We’ll lost out every time! Gas prices are forever increasing, and so it’s not going to get more affordable as time goes on, rather it’s going to become less affordable as time progresses. This actually makes the case to take public transportation, but can you afford the time to utilize it? Probably not.

I would love to stop spending $300+ of my check towards gas and tolls, but am I going to do this by taking up 3 hours to get to work? No, and that’s why most Americans won’t use public transportation to get to work. If it’s not convenient we commuter-consumers won’t use it, and that’s the bottom line.

Most of the big cities have public transportation and related hubs everywhere, and this typically feeds out to the suburbs where people live. I say most because there are examples of massive urban sprawl (Atlanta, Miami, etc) where the suburbs stretch far beyond where the early city planners thought they would, and the public transportation (specifically light rail) service is limited.

I want to talk about Miami, Philly, and DC; three places I’ve lived in and have real life experience with. Of course any New Yorker would be quick to point out that NYC is a great place to live and not have a car and they would be right. I know they’ll swear it’s the best – but I’ve never lived there so I can’t comment about it as per my own experience. But so I’m not totally leaving NYC out of this discussion – yes – it’s a great system and if I lived there I would use it. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the city is financially viable and the economy is strong

Two are examples (models really) of great public transportation systems, and one only wishes it could have it but never will. I’ll start with the worse (Miami) and then give two good examples to think about.

Miami – Where the train service goes only to the wrong part of town?

A photo of Miami's "People Mover" trains that operate mostly in downtown Miami, and to Hialeah. Find this image at
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons | Joedamadman

Miami in particular has a horrible arrangement of public transportation, because the rail service (which is complimented by bus service) is limited. I say “limited” because the rail service is entirely serving the downtown area (it’s called the “People Mover”), and the main extension of that rail service goes to Hialeah, which is one of the poorer areas of the city. There is another extension that goes a little south, so it only goes down to the S. Miami area. This is not far enough to make it a viable option for residents in suburbs further south of downtown, nor anybody living north of downtown! This forces many of those professionals to grudgingly drive downtown and cram into a few public spaces or expensive parking lots. There are also lots of places to work outside of the downtown area, but as there’s no commuter rail outside of this, I can’t really comment otherwise. There is also no train service to Miami Beach, which is where many locals work in the hospitality industry.

To take public transportation in Miami means taking the bus, which aside from the lack of support to commuter rail, also takes an immense amount of time that most people don’t have. Imagine leaving for your current job, an extra 2 hours before you normally do. Would you?! You only take the bus is you are forced to, it’s not fast or at all convenient to the majority of people that you’d want to have using it.

Miami is a city that you pretty much have to drive everywhere you want to go, and you have only a few choices of roads in which to do it, which further aggravates the drivers. There is US1, 826, and 836 – these are the main roads and they are always packed! Wouldn’t it be nice to have a system of trains that lead out to the suburbs? It would, but it will never happen here.

You can’t effectively take a a train anywhere! You can’t take to Fort Lauderdale, or Boca Raton (or any points in between) you can’t take it to West Miami, and until the recent years, you couldn’t take it to the airport (MIA).  You can go to Hialeah, but that’s only if you live there, which most people and many of our professionals don’t care to live. I’m not dissing Hialeah here, I’m just saying that if you’re not supporting the wealth of the community, you’re not going to get the key ridership you need to support a broad-area public transportation system. There are “commuter” trains that you can drive to that go up from S. Broward into Boca and the Palm Beaches, but even this is a PITA (Pain In The A$$) so most people don’t.

There’s just no “living near a station” here in Miami or S. Florida, it just doesn’t really exist that way.

Let’s talk about DC and Philly, two cities that were planned better, and have much better support for public transportation. Miami wishes it could have a Metro or Septa!

Washington DC/MD/VA Metro – Doing it right and serving the community

This is the WMATA Regional Service Map. You can find this map on their site at
Photo Credit WMATA | Regional Rail Service Map

Here’s a great example of how a public transportation SHOULD be. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but since I moved to Miami in ’97, I wished and prayed that someone would try to replicate what they’ve done here. This is a bi-directional rail system that (by design) tries to provide great coverage of the entire Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas.

Yes, there is a central hub (Union Station) where the rail service meets up with Amtrak, and so ultimately you can go anywhere you want with these connections and stops. The rail services blanket the entire region with light rail, and backs up the service with bus transportation.

While people inside the beltway love to curse Metro, I for one think they’re doing an amazing job – all things considered. I can only stress how well a city like Miami would do with this kind of public transportation system in place. Too bad it will never happen.

Philadelphia has SEPTA and it’s running strong

Photo Credit SEPTA | Regional Service Map

SEPTA is short for Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, and this is a good public transportation system… better than most cities that have public transportation in place. I would say great, but I can’t. As good as it is, it’s not a truly bi-directional service.

To be clear on what I’m saying, all of the trains in the morning go downtown, and reverse in the afternoon for the commuters headed home. There is ample bus transportation as well. What’s missing here is the ability to take the train to points WEST, for commuters like myself. .

For example – I live in a town called Abington, which is NE of downtown Philly, and I work out in KOP (King of Prussia). I can’t really take the train to work, because I’d have to go all the way downtown, and get on a different train to head back West. This would take hours and that’s where the disconnect lies.

What’s wacky to me is that this city, or really the neighboring suburbs were all built from an area called “The Main Line” – which was originally the summer playground for the wealthy, and the reference is really how they could take a train here. There’s lot of train tracks heading out here, but the service isn’t oriented to help commuters that aren’t going downtown.

The BIG Takeaway: Public transportation must be a core part of any community that intends to prosper

When you have a city that is planned well, a necessary part of that planning and infrastructure needs to include public transportation that helps everyone rely less on their car, and more on a system that saves time and money. Without this, the residents will pay more (as a larger percentage of their disposable income) on just driving to work to collect that paycheck. This is a point that Charles Marohn made very clearly is his post Stroad Nation.

The more disposable income that a resident has to spend locally on their lives and homes, the better. If that same money is being wasted on car travel (the gas, the insurance, repair/maintenance, and tolls), you can safely assume that the city is wealthy and can afford it, or dirt poor, because they can’t (but they are forced to do it anyways).

I only recently in my adult life started to live and plan (fiscally speaking) out of a spreadsheet. My spreadsheet tells me exactly how much I have to spend after the bills are paid.

My numbers don’t lie, and that stings a little. I spend almost 30% of my net income on transportation, and that’s without a car payment! If I could figure out how to reduce the money I spend on transportation every month, we’d be spending more on things we need, and that would bolster our local economy without question. Also, I’ve learned that it’s easier to save a thousand dollars than to go out and earn an extra thousand.

There’s always a bottom line, and in this respect it represents the real impact that public transportation needs to be included with every city being built, or being rebuilt. We need this in order to set ourselves up for success. Without it, you can expect it to fail in the long run.

Thank you Charles for giving me some food for thought, and the motivation to blog about it even more.

By Louis Wing

About Louis Wing 68 Articles
I talk about this, that, and the other stuff. I have to admit I may ramble on and on... but I am usually driving to a point. Educated and street-smart, I like my beats downtempo. Read more about Louis Wing

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