The Great Train Robbery


We will soon be leaving the first quarter of the 21st century behind us. But in the minds of our transportation planners, the punditry, and some real estate interests, the way forward is actually to step back to the glories of the 19th century. At the state level, and most significantly in Washington, we are about to pour an unprecedented $20 billion more into transit, especially subways and other trains. This is folly: changing demographics and geography, as well as new technologies, suggest a very different future for how most of us get around. We are simply not going to become a nation of train travelers, and it would be pointless—not to say destructive—to try.

There’s nothing new here. Much of the national media, in chorus with urban political and economic leaders, have been pushing these train-focused approaches since the days of Jimmy Carter. The stated aim is usually to move Americans away from their supposedly evil and pernicious love of the private automobile. Americans drive not because they irrationally love cars—although some do—but because it is simply by far the best way to get around.

We know this because for the most part, train-heavy investments have reaped little in terms of riders and virtually no reduction in auto usage. Indeed, even before the pandemic, transit ridership, despite the creation of new lines, was sagging. Since then transit has continued and accelerated its decline. By the end of 2022, the transit market share had fallen 50%. Today, despite the end of the pandemic, that number has barely moved at all. It is into this fading market share that the current administration and much of the political class now wants to throw its money. This even includes a $6.7 billion one-mile extension of the Caltrain commuter rail service to San Francisco’s moribund downtown, which has been characterized as “among the world’s most expensive projects.”

Transit’s Problem with Demographic Patterns

Transit’s biggest problem, even since before the pandemic, has to do with profound shifts in demographics and geography. Despite all the hype about going “back to the city” over the past few decades, the country has continued to disperse to suburban areas which largely rely on auto travel. It was hoped that drivers in newer, faster-growing metropolitan areas—Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Phoenix—would commute on new, expensive urban rail systems. This has not come to pass. Transit advocates tend to stress, correctly, the damage done to families and individuals from long road commutes. But in reality, it is transit riders who consistently suffer the longest commutes.

Nowhere has the transit fantasy been more aggressively sold than in Southern California. For years urbanistas on the east coast have fantasized about Los Angeles becoming the “the next great transit city.” Yet even before COVID, the region’s $20-billion investment in new trains has resulted not in increased transit market share but a smaller one. Today’s ultra-expensive transit lines, it turns out, carry a smaller percentage of daily riders than the old, much-maligned bus system carried back in the 1980s.

The key problem in Los Angeles and much of the country lies in changing residential patterns and business locations. Transit works best in highly concentrated downtown districts, which receive workers from surrounding communities. This model still works, albeit less well, in our older, more traditional cities. Indeed, more than a third of all transit commuting destinations are in the city (not metro) of New York. Beyond that, another quarter of transit destinations are in just six cities: those with the largest central business districts outside New York (called legacy cities), including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington.

Starting in the 1920s, and certainly after 1950, population trends have been shifting toward the periphery. In 1950, the core cities accounted for nearly 24% of the U.S. population; today the share is under 15%. In contrast, the suburbs and exurbs grew from housing 13% of the metropolitan population in 1940 to 86% in 2017, a gradual increase of 2% a year. Suburbs account for about 90% of all U.S. metropolitan growth since 2010. Between 2010 and 2020, the suburbs and exurbs of the major metropolitan areas gained 2 million net domestic migrants, while the urban core counties lost 2.7 million.

Read the rest of this piece at American Mind.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo: Cathy via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.