Why Every City Can't Have an Amazing Subway System Like NYC's

June 28th 2017

Traffic and public transit: the two are definitely related.

Many U.S. cities have problems with one or the other. Sometimes they have problems with both.

And while the jury remains out on the ability of expanded public transit to reduce overall traffic congestion, research conducted in 2013 suggests that transit systems can significantly reduce traffic on parallel commuter roadways. 

Here are three cities that could really benefit by beefing up their public transit systems. 

1. Detroit

First things first— the Motor City's public transit system the People Mover gets high marks. The problem is the rest of the subway system in the city was never completed.

The People Mover operates on a loop around the city's downtown, but doesn't reach out into the rest of the city.

Detroit traffic is some of the worst in the country. A study by traffic researchers INRIX found that the Michigan city had some of the poorest traffic conditions across the nation. Detroit drivers typically spend over 30 hours in traffic a year—that's more than a full day. 

And it's costly.

"Traffic congestion is said to have cost each driver more than $1,000 a year in Detroit," according to MLive.

It makes you wonder what the city would be like with a robust public transit.

2. Kansas City

Missourians in Kansas City spend less time in traffic than their friends in Detroit, but the 18 hours could be avoided with some forward thinking public transportation ideas. A 2014 study from the University of Minnesota found that Kansas City was the tenth worst municipality reviewed in the analysis of accessibility to public transit.

Professors David Levinson and Andrew Owen used public transportation schedules and pedestrian access to the workplace to determine the level of accessibility per city.

The problem comes from the city's sprawl. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kansas City had a streetcar system that was nationally admired. But as the city expanded, the railway system became obsolete and the over 300 miles of track were shut down.

Since then, the city has struggled in vain to figure out some sort of solution to its public transportation issues.

3. Los Angeles

Angelenos spend over 100 hours a year in their car, making the Southern California city the most congested in the country. And the city's public transportation system doesn't appear to be able to solve the problem.

While the minds behind the LA Metro rail system are trying to expand the lines, the reality of the city's layout is holding them back. Much like in Detroit and Kansas City, sprawling the lines out to reach the outer areas of Los Angeles is proving to be extremely challenging.

And the city is so spread out that finding the solution to a public transportation system that can serve the most people most effectively is even more difficult than you might think.

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"Complaining about LA's lack of public transit is kind of like complaining about the U.S.'s lack of high speed rail," said Jalopnik commenter renniSaint, an LA Metro engineer. "It is all about density. NYC has nearly FOUR TIMES the population density of LA."

But, public transit is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Take New York City, for example. 

Yes, New York has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. The city's subway and bus system is looked up to across the globe as a model of how to effectively move people from one end of the city to another.

FiveThirtyEight found that the amount of people who use New York's public transportation system exceed the next 16 biggest systems combined. It's massive.

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But even so, New Yorkers spend almost 90 hours a year in traffic. The transit is under repair constantly. And when the city needs to make big repairs, like the work that's about to begin on Brooklyn's "L" line, it could have devastating effects on the economies of small neighborhoods like hipster destination Williamsburg.

That work, by the way? Maintenance on the Canarsie Tunnel that's been languishing since Hurricane Sandy. Even in New York, this work takes a long time.

But New York's unique transit system can't offer any solutions to the problems of the other three cities on our list. If anything, it proves that there's no one size fits all answer to public transportation woes in American cities.

Let's hope they each find solutions— for drivers and riders alike.

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