Book Review : The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry


C.Kenneth Orski

Innovation Briefs, September/October 1998

Citation: Cervero, Robert, The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry, Island Press, September, 1998, 400 pp. (Table of Contents available at

Throughout the industrialized world, public transit is struggling to compete with the private automobile. This is particularly the case in the United States, where transit's share of work trips has declined from 6.3% in 1980 to 3.5% in 1995, and its share of all person trips is just 1.8%, down from 2.2% in 1983. But some metropolitan areas outside the United States have managed to buck the trend of declining transit usage. What sets these places apart? In a book entitled "The Transit Metropolis," University of California's Robert Cervero, attempts to find the answers.

According to Cervero, cities where mass transit is flourishing have one thing in common: adaptibility. Some of the successful transit metropolises have adapted their settlement patterns and made them more conducive to transit riding by concentrating offices, homes and shops around rail nodes in attractive well-designed pedestrian-friendly communities. Other places have accepted low density, spread out growth patterns but have adapted transit services and transit technologies to better serve these market-driven land uses. Still other places have struck a middle ground, shaping their urban landscapes so as to become more transit-supportive while at the same time enhancing the quality of transit service by delivering customers closer to their destinations, reducing transfers and minimizing waits. "Places that adapt to changing times, finding harmony between their transit services and urban landscape...are places where transit stands the best chance of competing with the car..." writes Cervero.

The author defines a successful transit metropolis as "a place where mass transit is a viable, respected mobility alternative to the private automobile" -- not necessarily by largely replacing the automobile or even capturing the majority of trips, but "where enough travelers opt for transit place a region on a sustainable course." He divides these cities into four classes and illustrates them with twelve case studies. All of the chosen examples represent cities whose growth and transit development have occurred under free market conditions during the past half-century of rapid motorization:

Adaptive cities. These are cities that have invested in rail systems to guide urban growth to achieve larger societal objectives, such as preserving open space and producing affordable housing. Adaptive cities feature compact, mixed-use suburban communities and new towns concentrated around rail nodes. The book's examples are Stockholm, Copenhagen, Tokyo and Singapore.

Adaptive transit. These are places that have largely accepted spread-out, low-density patterns of growth and have sought to adapt transit services and employ new technologies to serve these land uses in an efficient and effective manner. Examples include Karlsruhe in Germany where a track-sharing arrangement between the municipal rail system and the regional railways has made it possible to provide transfer-free trips from outlying suburbs into the city center; Adelaide, Australia, where track-guided buses perform a similar function by providing feeder and line-haul functions in a single vehicle; and Mexico City, where fleets of colectivos (jitneys) provide flexible, demand-responsive services.

Strong-core cities. These cities -- Zurich and Melbourne are cited as examples-- have used tramways (streetcars) or their modern-day version, light rail transit, to provide convenient and environmentally-friendly means of circulation in the city center and serve to strengthen or reinforce center city revitalization efforts.

Hybrids. These cities have struck a balance between concentrating development along transit corridors and adapting transit to efficiently serve spread-out suburbs. Munich, Ottawa and Curitiba are cited as examples. Munich combines a region-wide heavy rail system, a streetcar distribution system in the center city and a network of suburban bus feeders, all coordinated through a regional transit authority. Ottawa and Curitiba have introduced flexible transit on dedicated busways and encouraged mixed-use development around busway stations to produce unusually high per capita ridership rates.

What do the experiences of the twelve transit metropolises teach us? Cervero draws several conclusions.

Vision and Visionaries

A successful transit metropolis evolves from a well-articulated vision of the future. For example, Greater Stockholm's early vision of the "pearls on a necklace" concept led to the patterns of compact, mixed-use towns linked by regional rail service that is characteristic of the Stockholm region today. Ottawa's 1974 master plan that defined an east-west axis for channeling growth, planted the seeds for what eventually would become North America's largest and most successful busway network. Most importantly, notes Cervero, "in successful transit metropolises land use visions lead transportation policies, not the other way around."

Visions, in turn, need visionaries who can articulate the vision , win others over to their vision and translate the vision into reality. Many successful transit metropolises have benefitted from inspired leadership, such as Sven Markelius' stewardship of the Stockholm regional plan, or mayor Jaime Lerner's 20-year governance of Curitiba.

Efficient Institutions and Governance

Successful transit metropolises also owe much to their efficient institutional structures and regional forms of governance that promote close coordination of transportation and land use. One exemplary model is the Verkehrsverbund found in Germany, Austria, Switzerland. These umbrella organizations ensure that problems that commonly plague regional transit services— such as a multitude of different fares, uncoordinated timetables and excessive transfers— are eliminated. They also allow for economies of scale (e.g. in common maintenance facilities) and a better division of operating responsibilities as between public and private providers.

Viable Centers

All successful transit metropolises maintain strong, vibrant central business districts. Viable downtowns are not only important as transit hubs and major transfer points. As destinations they generate the highest shares of transit riders. In Stockholm, Copenhagen, Munich, Curitiba, Zurich and Karlsruhe, center cities are the transit showcases that set the patterns for the rest of the urban area.

Competition and Entrepreneurial Ethos

Elements of competition are found in many successful transit metropolises. Competition not only contains costs and rewards efficiency , but also spurs service innovations. Stockholm and Copenhagen contract out bus service on a competitive basis and have begun doing likewise for suburban rail services. In Munich, Karlsruhe, Curitiba and Adelaide, efficiencies have been achieved by separating policy directions and asset ownership from service delivery. The public sector retains control over how service is provided (level, quality, frequency, routing) and leaves it to the market forces to determine at what price. Within the confines of standards set by government sponsors, the lowest-cost provider delivers the service. Fixed infrastructure belongs to the public sector. Rolling stock is provided by competitively chosen operators, often from the private sector. In Mexico City, thousands of independent paratransit owner-operators provide efficient minibus services linking outlying neighborhoods with Mexico's regional metro system.

Giving Transit Priority and Discouraging Automobile Use

Many transit metroplises go the extra distance to make transit time-competitive with the private automobile. Ottawa and Zurich give clear preference to transit vehicles. Copenhagen and Zurich have reassigned many downtown streets to trams, buses and bicycles. These measures have been supplemented with restraints on automobile use. In Singapore, Tokyo and Stockholm this has mainly taken the form of punitive pricing— steep surcharges on gasoline and automobiles and expensive central city parking. Singapore has additionally introduced road pricing to further discourage peak period driving in the city center. Mexico City's alternating ban on car use, depending on vehicles' license plate numbers, has curbed driving in the city as a pollution reduction strategy. Munich, Zurich and Curitiba have slowed down and deterred automobile travel in residential neighborhoods through physical design changes.

Urban Design: Cities Are for People

An overarching design philosophy of most transit metropolises is that cities are for people, not cars. High quality transit is viewed as consonant with this philosophy. In Copenhagen, Munich and Curitiba, large parts of the historical core have been given over to pedestrians. In all of the European case study cities, trams and light rail vehicles blend nicely with auto-free zones. Urban design is every bit as important outside central cities. In the suburbs of Copenhagen and Stockholm, transit stations are treated as community hubs. Rail stations and the public spaces that surround them are often places where people congregate. Many civic squares double up as open-air farmers markets and venues for concerts. Street furniture, greenery, urban art and water fountains add comfort and visual aesthetics. Through conscious design, transit is both physically and symbolically at the community's core.

C. Kenneth Orski may be contacted by phone at: 202/338.9550; fax: 202/338.9555  Innovation Briefs is published by URBAN MOBILITY CORPORATION, C. Kenneth Orski, Editor; 1634 I Street NW Suite 500 Washington, DC 20006-4003


Last Modified: March 02, 1999