North County Transit Reconfiguration is a Symptom not a Treatment

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Metro is celebrating the opening of the $10.2M North County Metro Transit Center and a reconfiguration of bus routes to take advantage of it. North St. Louis County is Metro’s fastest-growing customer base. This growth tracks with growing poverty in the area. The fact that the transit center is located in Ferguson is a feather in our cap. Less celebratory is what it really means. The reconfiguration is a symptom of the problem, not a treatment. The problem being development patterns that are too spread out.

Metro North County 2016 Map{Click for larger – Metro}

Seeking to serve the poor is a commendable goal for Metro. Reliable access to work is way better than being stuck at home leading to other more costly ills. Being poor in walkable places is tough enough. Being poor in auto-oriented ones is much tougher. Spread-out development patterns are incompatible with being poor. The sunk cost for transportation in time and money crowds out food, childrearing, health care, education, housing, etc. Forcing the poor to drive, often poorly maintained cars, also makes them siting ducks for just as poor municipalities, burdened with fragmentation costs in a declining tax base, fighting for self preservation.

North County Transit Center Land Productivity{Land productivity around the new Metro North County Transit Center.}

We already can’t afford the infrastructure serving spread-out areas. The land is hopelessly low-yielding. We see that materializing in the Hazelwood School District’s budget woes. While auto-orientation takes a bite out of household budgets, it also renders the entire community house poor. The cost to maintain all the public and private infrastructure crowds out other spending and wealth accumulation.

I can tell you that the top-performing all-day routes in most networks I’ve studied (top performing in riders per unit of service) are mostly high-frequency routes in dense areas. Both the frequency and the density are important. And in most cases, the threshold of “high frequency” is around every 15 minutes all day. Lower frequencies are usually associated with much lower performance. {How Frequent is Freedom?Jarrett WalkerHuman Transit}

We also can’t afford adding transit on top of it. In serving extent to areas incompatible with transit, frequency (aka convenience, freedom) is sacrificed making the system as a whole worse for everyone.

To be clear, I’m not saying Metro shouldn’t have done this. I’m saying it’s not a treatment for the real problem of unsustainable development patterns. The right treatment is for people, jobs, and amenities to be closer together. When we choose to change the policies that encourage us to move further away from everything else, we will be on the road to recovery.

This Video from Forward Through Ferguson better explains the cycle than my prose ever could.

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  • HawkSTL

    I understand the pro-density argument and, as a City resident, am sympathetic to it. But, where this article loses me is the implication that we should “force” people into dense and more urban areas. The market forces show that, in general, more people want more land and more house for less cost. You can’t find that in dense areas. Plus, if you have children, the quality of the schools (and having space to kick them out to the back yard to play) is the biggest issue. The quality public schools are not in dense areas either.

    I’m all for trying to persuade people that they should reconsider the dense areas. But, I strongly disagree that we should “force” our view on those (who happen to be a majority) who disagree. You need transit and roads where the people are located. That is all the agencies are doing, which is their mission.

    • rgbose

      I didn’t say force. I’m saying we can’t afford the level of infrastructure and service we would like in spread out areas.In trying to serve spread out areas our transit system suffers.

      • JZ71

        But you need to provide some, minimal, level of service to justify taxing the people living in low-density (suburban) areas to subsidize better transit service in more-dense (urban) areas. It doesn’t have to be all or none!

  • kjohnson04

    The new transit center is reshuffling ho-hum service in a new package. No appreciable change in services levels, but connects routes differently.

  • Alex Ihnen

    It’s folly to attempt to connect the majority of jobs with the majority of residents across an incredibly sprawling region. A more dense transit system would be more functional, but funding and planning is regional.

    • STLExplorer

      Funny how most of the other things that shape our communities are not funded or planned regionally…

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  • Alex P

    This is similar to when people complain about how slow a bus is or how slow a metro train is (the latter for other cities such as Phoenix or the Twin Cities). It’s been mentioned a few times here and on twitter that average trips on Metrolink are much longer than the average trip on most other rail transit systems. People need to stop focusing and complaining about “slow” transit service and instead focus on the inefficiencies of sprawl.

    • Kimberly R Hampton

      Yet the people who are complaining are the ones who actually use the service. (I happen to be one of them) If transit agencies actually listened to those who use the service most frequently, they would learn a lot more.

      • Alex P

        I happen to be one as well. I’m just tired of people immediately blaming Metro/Bi-State when they should be writing to politicians.

        • JZ71

          It’s not solely the politicians’ fault that people choose to live, work and recreate in the places that they do (and do not)! Look in the mirror – the choices each of us make each day heavily influence the built environment in many, many, subtle ways.

          • rgbose

            Certainly not solely politicians’ fault. But for decades one couldn’t get a mortgage in large productive areas and one could in the new, now low-yielding areas.

            Imagine how Apple v Samsung phone battle would play out if one could get a two year mortgage for a Samsung, but for the Apple you had to put 50% down and pay it off in two months.

          • JZ71

            Yes, past practices certainly did shape and direct people’s choices, but they were still choices, albeit, not “perfect” ones. Renters, by definition, did not (and still do not) require mortgages, yet many, many renters chose (and continue to choose) suburban living over urban. The same goes for employers, be they the May Company, Ford, GM, A-B and/or many, many others – all of them chose to relocate, at least partially, to suburban areas in the region (and now, to cheaper locations outside the region, state and country). We can analyze all we want about the root causes, but what we really need to do is to work with what we have and make it work better. “Turning our backs” on certain segments of the population, just because it’s “hard”, ignores the reality that everyone pays taxes to support PUBLIC transit. Not urban transit, not city transit, but public transit.

          • rgbose

            Don’t see your point about renters. Government played an even bigger influence on the form and placement of apt buildings. Dellwood used to celebrate on its website that it had no multi-fam buildings. Black Jack incorporated to try to keep them out. Folks in Spanish Lake feel StL County encouraged apt construction there so as to not upset other parts of the county. And in form zoning forbade mixed-use and forced parking minimums retarding their land productivity and today are harder on the poor than the walkable development patterns before government intervention. And the owner’s have to get financing too, which is also influenced by gov’t policy. A two story mixed use still can’t get a Fed guaranteed loan.

            And again it’s about how the market is being perturbed in a way that is bankrupting us in the long-term, not about people’s preferences. I might buy a house on the beach if it was subsidized enough.

            When we choose to spend $500M to make the PUBLIC commute from St. Charles Co convenient instead of enhancing quality of life in the already built areas, we shouldn’t be surprised that $3.41B in AGI moved out of StL County last decade. And we’re saddled with a huge long-term liability in the infrastructure that enabled it.