It began snowing in St. Louis on Wednesday afternoon, January 22, 2003. I was due to leave from Lambert International Airport at just before 8:00 pm for a trip to Raleigh-Durham to speak to a business group on urban sprawl, so-called “smart growth” and urban rail. Usually, I allow 45 minutes for the 35 mile trip, but since St. Louis drivers are only slightly better adapted to snow than Los Angelenos, I left an hour early. On the way, it struck me that the inclement weather might be the very condition that make for a quicker journey on Metrolink, the area’s light rail line. Metrolink is one of the fastest urban rail systems in the country (San Francisco’s BART and the Los Angeles Green Line are faster). If I had taken Metrolink from the eastern-most College Station (in Belleville, Illinois), the total trip time, from my house (a few miles beyond the station), the trip would have taken nearly two hours.
But first some background on the challenges of driving in St. Louis. St. Louis is a special place. As brides-maid to the world record on population loss, St. Louis lost 60 percent of its population from 1950 to 2000. Not since the Romans sacked Carthage has a city shed so much of its population (a 100 percent loss between 149 BC and 146 BC). In keeping with this tradition, St. Louis seems to have adopted a policy of conscious infrastructure neglect. The 2.5 million population urban area is divided by the Mississippi River, with more than 2/3 of the people living to the west, in Missouri, and the balance to the east in Illinois. Today, two downtown highway bridges are open the Mississippi — two of five. The MacArthur Bridge was closed to highway traffic when part of the deck gave way in the 1960s. No one ever bothered to fix what was then a city owned bridge. Then there is the McKinley Bridge, which was closed a year ago when inspectors thankfully found structural problems before there was a deck collapse. The third is the historic Eads Bridge, a marvelous stone architectural structure built in the 1860s. and closed since the 1980s, except for the light rail line that runs on the lower deck. But there is progress. Recalling the drawn-out construction schedules of medieval cathedrals, work has been underway for some time to re-open the Eads. But that would do me little good tonight.. It is no simple task to cross the Mississippi on a roadway system that seems to have been undersigned for the very purpose of hindering such a crossing.
Two decades in Los Angeles had taught me that arterial streets (signalized surface streets) can be better than freeways in the worst congestion. They can be faster, and they surely are less stressful. Indeed, my press conference statement to the effect that this strategy had prevented me from being caught in serious traffic congestion in Los Angeles baffled a map-challenged Atlanta Constitution editorialist, who apparently rarely ventured off a road with a blue and red shield interstate sign.
But back to St. Louis Within a few miles of home, I looked at Interstate 64 and it failed the test — it was time for the “arterial strategy.” Following along city streets, I checked the freeway from time to time, and at one point entered for three miles. As I approached the Poplar Street Bridge, which carries Interstates 55, 64, 70 and US 40 across the Mississippi River, I feared that my luck might have run out, so diverted to the only other choice, the lower volume Martin Luther King Bridge, which had been taken away from the city of East St. Louis, Illinois to avoid MacArthur/McKinley fate some years before. Soon I was across the river and downtown and heading directly toward the airport on Natural Bridge Road, never again to see or even cross a freeway. The traffic, frequent signals and driving snow made travel slow. But, one hour and twenty minutes after leaving home I arrived at a satellite parking lot, and another 10 minutes later (1:30 after leaving home), the shuttle bus dropped me at the main Lambert terminal (which is also the end of the light rail line). This is nearly 30 minutes faster than would have been possible by Metrolink, assuming that the weather had not slowed it down. But all was not lost — travel by car gave me some extra time in the airport lounge on the Internet.
Indeed, had I lived within walking distance of the College Station, the train would have taken longer than the car — on arterial streets and in a snowstorm. And light rail would have taken about twice as long the more than 99 percent of the time that it is not snowing in St. Louis.
What all of this demonstrates is the most fundamental problem with transit — that it does not provide automobile competitive service. Yes, there are places where transit can compete with the automobile, such as the large downtown districts of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Boston, where 50 percent or more of work trip travel is by transit. Even to smaller downtown areas, such as St. Louis, Portland and Houston, express bus and rail services can be competitive with automobile. But there is a big “if” — if the rider lives close to the transit line. For the vast majority of urban travel in both the United States and Western Europe, transit can simply cannot compete with the automobile except to or within the urban core, because it is either far slower or isn’t even available. Metropolitan transit authorities and regional transit authorities would be more properly titled “downtown transit authorities.” A recent survey of suburb to suburb commuting in Chicago found average work trip travel times to be five times average automobile travel times — two hours and 40 minutes each way. This is in an urban area with one of the western world’s best transit systems.
Recently, an Atlanta area chamber of commerce commissioned a study to find out why people don’t ride transit to suburban employment locations. There, huge edge cities — suburban employment centers, such as Buckhead and Perimeter rival downtown for area dominance. They should have saved their money. The answer is that people will not ride transit unless it is competitive with the automobile. It is as simple as that. Suburban employment centers do not have the network of express bus and rail lines that radiating throughout the urban area from downtowns. Moreover, the transit system that could provide automobile competitive service to areas outside downtown at a price that could be afforded by any electorate has not been invented (and is not likely to be).
It is time to discard the “teacup” theory of commuting. People ride “teacups” and other rides at Disneyland, because they are there for the very purpose of riding amusement park rides. Commuters are not in the market for amusement park rides, though they probably would ride teacups if they were competitive with the automobile. They aren’t, and neither is transit, whether cost-obese new rail systems or more modest (and often quicker) express bus lines. Meanwhile, I still don’t know whether the freeway would have been faster. Either way, it surely would have been more stressful.
Wendell Cox is a member of the Frontier Centre’s research advisory board and a principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, a demographic and transport firm in the St. Louis area. He is a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris and served on the Amtrak Reform Council and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.