To improve transit in U.S., improve regional coordination: Lessons from across the pond

By Mary Ebeling

Recent work out of Virginia Tech compares approaches in large metropolitan regions in Europe and the U.S., seeking to identify best practices for improving regional transit service. Case study examples for Europe include regional public transport associations—Verkehrsverbünde, or VBs—in Munich and Hamburg, Germany; Zurich, Switzerland; and Vienna, Austria. American case studies include San Francisco, California and the Washington, DC regions. The study focuses on the years 1990-2012, a period of increasing automobile ownership and VMT for each of the case study communities. During the same period the VBs, seeking to compete with the automobile, improved transit service by increasing ridership while growing the geographic coverage areas. The U.S. case study regions struggled with maintaining ridership and declining revenue. These case studies provide insight into where transit in U.S. metropolitan areas may learn from the European examples and improve practice. Although the U.S. circumstances may differ from the European case studies in the particulars, lessons from the experience of building successful systems in Europe can help U.S. metro regions improve the usefulness of regional transit.

The study determined that regional collaboration among municipalities, agencies, and the state is a major factor in the success of regional transit in Europe, and this coordination helped the VBs improve service across a variety of areas. Researchers identified both similarities and differences observed across the case studies and organized them into the following:

  • Funding structures: Both the U.S. and European case study agencies used funding from federal, state, and local sources. Unlike the U.S., European federal governments provide funding for operations as well as capital investments, an important distinction for the solvency of a transit system. Another important difference is that regional shared revenue structures are better developed in the European examples. The U.S. policy of sending federal funding directly to individual transit agencies, plus the amount of local tax dollars assessed for transit, feeds a tendency for agencies to protect funding, creating a disincentive to coordinate and pool resources across a regional service area. This funding scheme creates parochialism as each agency seeks to protect its operating and capital funding, which continually falls short, rather than working to strengthen a regional transit system.
  • Planning structures: The patchwork of transit agencies that are typical in U.S. metro regions are in contrast to the coordinated, comprehensive systems typical in Europe that better serve a regional economy. In the U.S., numerous government agencies engage in transportation planning independent from the federally mandated MPO transportation planning process. The European case studies found transit agencies and local jurisdictions working together to formulate capital and operating plans and budget preparation. Although MPOs, in their long-range transportation planning role, could work to connect municipalities and transit agencies to identify regional transportation needs, this role was often not a primary one for the MPO. The paradigm that funds individual transit agencies rather than enabling regional revenue sharing, as done in Europe, may support this lack of coordination.
  • Innovation, marketing, and branding structures: One major innovation that U.S. transit agencies have been slow to adopt is fare coordination, although agencies are beginning to move in this direction. As regional fare coordination gains traction agencies should consider improving on this practice. Seattle’s Orca Card, the Bay Area Clipper Card, and Chicago Transit Administration’s Ventra card are three examples of new fare payment systems that allow riders to seamlessly travel on a regional transit system using one fare medium. Another powerful marketing tool is to offer a variety of discounted transit passes to increase the convenience of transit and compete with car travel. Marketing discounted passes is commonly used by VBs. Although student and senior-citizen passes are more common, annual and low-income passes could be used by more agencies to leverage increased ridership and address equity concerns. All of these types of passes have worked well in the European market and are popular where they have been adopted in the US. The three agencies noted above for the cross-system fare cards also have adopted tiered fares.

Improving regional transit in the U.S. is hampered by policies prioritizing local control over regional coordination. This in turn exerts a strong influence on a transit network that is fragmented and impedes coordination of transit services in metropolitan regions. Transit agencies in the U.S. may not be able to immediately adopt every best practice from the VBs. In particular, changing how funding flows from the federal and state levels to transit agencies will require major changes to funding formulas and policies. In the interim, transit agencies operating in a regional context can increase transit usefulness by working across geographic and agency boundaries to develop seamless fare payment systems and by adopting different types of passes for different groups in the community. Simultaneously, state and federal governments should help address these barriers by working to adopt updated funding formulas and policies to encourage greater collaboration among regional transit agencies.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.