Dr. Jarold A. Kieffer

Dr. Kieffer is a Transportation Policy Analyst and Writer and the Chairman of the Advanced Transit Association (ATRA)

This paper is copyrighted. It is printed with the permission of the American Society of Civil Engineers(ASCE). It was first published in the Proceedings of the Fourth International APM Conference entitled "Automated People Movers IV" held in Las Colinas, Texas in 1993. This paper has been updated by the author, who also has given his permission for publication here. Any use covered by the ASCE copyright on this paper needs the explicit permission of both the ASCE and the author, Jarold A. Kieffer.


This is not a technical paper. It is perspective paper, designed to detail the failure of current urban transportation strategies and call for new thinking and action responsive to the urban transportation challenge. The author notes that policymakers in most world metropolitan areas are still clinging to futile road-building efforts and outmoded transit technologies too high cost to be used more widely in the transit-starved medium/ lower density parts of metropolitan areas, where, today, most of the people, businesses, jobs, and, unfortunately, road congestion can be found. Policymakers, on an urgent basis, need to encourage testing of new and very promising, substantially lower cost, high service forms of public transit that can be deployed cost effectively in such areas.


The fundamental gap in urban transportation is lack of low cost modes of transit that could give many more people effective non-road-bound modes of travel. The root of this problem is the fact that, while metropolitan areas, world-wide, have evolved mostly and increasingly in medium/lower density ways, their main non-road-bound transit systems were designed for use in high density activity corridors/centers and are too high cost to be used more widely. Expansions of bus, van, and other less costly modes of transit (while useful for improving efficiency of road use) involve vehicles that have to run on increasingly congested roads, and they add to pollution.

Strategies are urgently need that can help head off growth in road congestion and produce non-polluting, non-road-bound transit options low enough in cost to be effective in medium/lower density areas which cannot be served by high cost transit modes today.

For years it has been plainly evident in most metropolitan areas that while their relatively few high density activity centers/corridors are enlarging, their medium/lower density parts are growing much faster. Such areas (made up of single homes, a growing number of small row house complexes, one/two story shopping and/or office centers, and occasional high-rise office and apartment buildings) are where a growing majority of metropolitan area residents, businesses, and jobs are found. Yet, conventional transit forms--heavy and light rail and buses--have been too costly to be spread out in these places and, thus, cannot meet the daily trip needs of most of their residents.

This left a gap that has been filled by autos, which made suburban sprawl feasible in the first place. However, the still expanding use of autos has created clogged roads, dangerous air pollution, endlessly growing parking requirements, environmental blight, and unmanageable funding needs. Less obvious, but equally troubling, are mounting and costly consequences of the tolerated neglects resulting from growing isolation of increasing numbers of older and other people who cannot drive or fear doing so on congested roads and do not have ready use of transit to meet their mobility needs.

That the gross mismatch between conventional transit capabilities and the metropolitan area service challenge was allowed to happen in the first place and continue to this day represents a massive failure of public policy. This failure still is causing substantial misdirection of private industrial energy and public and private funds for support of nearly fruitless actions that fail to even address yet alone be responsive to mobility needs in the transit-starved medium/lower density parts of our metropolitan areas.

It is puzzling that state and local leaders, despite constant criticism they get for road congestion and inadequate transit service, are failing to press for new forms of transit with costs low enough to permit deployment of wider/better service in their transit starved areas.

Growing Direct/Indirect Costs of Inadequate Public Transportation

Much public attention is focused on growing transportation costs. Inadequate attention is given to economic and social implications of inadequate public transportation. These include longer job commuting times/distances, health problems from air pollution, tensions from traffic-related causes, loss of business opportunities on account of road congestion and inadequate parking, and poor land use. Also, remarkably little attention is given to increasingly unmet travel needs of the already large and steadily growing number of older people. Inadequate public transportation means that many are unable to participate at will in community activities, seek or commute to jobs, or have ready access to services they need, or to shopping and recreation sites. Many are, in fact, marooned, because they do not wish to ask or be dependent on family or others to take them some place at a time of their own choosing, or they dislike having to travel only when it is convenient for someone else to take them.

Immobility or reduced mobility in one's community often leads to premature and unnecessary dependency, isolation, and demoralization--factors directly or indirectly adding to public assistance costs, increased mental and physical health problems, and greater need for expensive public and private services. Also, there are costs of operating special but very limited transportation services for disabled, aged, schoolgoers, and other special groups. In economic terms, lack of effective transportation also reduces buying power of people unable to get to jobs and earn income. It also limits spending by people unable to travel freely for shopping, dining, and recreational purposes. It needs to be emphasized that without improved mobility for people over age 65, such negative costs will mount rapidly, because their number is projected to rise sharply in the rest of the 1990s and beyond.

The Growing Futility of Current Transportation Strategies

Worldwide, more policymakers are realizing that current strategies for coping with unmet urban transportation needs and their consequences have failed. Yet, most of them have been clinging to such failed strategies, because they don' t know what else to do. For example, in the U.S., in the next few years, various federal statutory deadlines will be reached that require cleaner air in a number of metropolitan areas. However, measures to reduce motor vehicle emissions have aroused bitter action-delaying controversy. Yet , government policymakers and their planning and engineering staffs at all levels have failed to work for new, low cost forms of non-road-bound public transit as a means of reducing pollution. Worse, only a handful have even thought to encourage development, testing, and demonstration of such options. Instead, without such options, most of these people are locked on to building more highway lanes and parking, even though ample experience shows that within a short time these additions also are jammed, that measures to improve road traffic efficiency are quickly swamped by new traffic growth, that added lanes and parking are both increasingly expensive and use more and more scarce land, and that gains from improved gas-burning efficiency will likely be offset by the growing number of autos on roads.

Inadequacies of Current Transit Modes

Noted below are cost and service reasons why expansions of heavy and light rail, large automated guideway peoplemovers, and buses cannot be at the heart of new strategies for coping with unmet public transportation needs in the medium/lower density parts of most metropolitan areas.

Heavy Rail

The technology of heavy rail pre-determined its high costs and the limited physical area it can serve. The results of these factors are evident in the few heavy rail lines/stations found in the medium/lower density parts of most metropolitan areas. Further expansion of these lines/stations is prohibitive, because heavy rail building costs range from $ 75- 245 million a mile and operating and maintenance costs also are very high. Moreover, parts of many of these systems are old and must be renewed. Renewal costs are very high; the means of paying them are not clear. In most U.S. communities, where heavy rail is operated, it has to be heavily subsidized but is losing market share.

Heavy rail construction, especially underground, disrupts business and other life for 5- 10 years. Its long trains of large vehicles require wide rights of way and huge platforms and stations which, if placed underground, need huge holes dug with great effort and cost. Run on the surface, their electrically-powered rails pose dangerous hazards guarded against by continuous fencing. Thus, all along their rights of way, they become "Chinese walls" that divide communities. Operated above ground, they require big, expensive 10 - 11 foot-wide aerial guideways with supports as much as 4 feet in diameter. Hence, siting of lines and stations often has proved to be very controversial.

Heavy rail systems are rarely cost-effective even in the few high density centers/corridors they serve. For operating and cost-efficiency reasons, access is limited, because each line can have only a few widely-spaced stations. Hence, use is pretty much limited to the shrinking minority of metropolitan area residents who live/work near one of the few stations and are going to a place near another of the few stations. Those whose needs can be met this way are usually well-served, and vehicles are mostly full in peak hours. However, heavy rail's high costs require growing subsidies from public and private resources. In non-peak hours, operators tend to use smaller trains which often have few passengers. As with other forms of scheduled service along a given route, heavy rail's vehicles must be run, subject to wear and tear, whether full or empty.

As noted, most metropolitan areas have only a few high density places or corridors, and growing majorities of their residents now live/work in medium/lower density areas, well away from the few heavy rail lines/stations that exist. They need transit that provides numerous, well-dispersed lines/stations. Thus, heavy rail, too costly to be spread out this way, tends to be mostly irrelevant in their daily trips. These elemental facts are obvious. Yet, despite the lack of funds to expand transit service, some public and business policymakers keep pressing for billions to finish or build new heavy rail lines that were conceived on the basis of long out-moded assumptions about where most businesses, jobs, and people would be located. Often high cost heavy rail systems were justified on the promise that their operation would reduce auto traffic on roads to/from metropolitan area cores. Yet, quite visible to all, such roads are more jammed than ever.

Actually, many people in the shrinking minority of metropolitan area residents who could benefit from using heavy rail are deterred by inadequate parking, long, out-of- the-way trips to stations, high cost and of ten complex fire systems, and the need to shop on the way home or drop off/pick up children at day care facilities. Though very limited in scope, most heavy rail systems give good, reliable service to the shrinking proportion of people who can effectively use them. However, meeting the growing costs of this mode consumes a large portion of transit resources and preempts funds needed for other transit measures to help the growing majority of metropolitan area residents who need to move in directions where heavy rail does not go.


Seemingly, buses, which require low capital investment and can be flexibly deployed, should be more of an answer to unmet transit needs in medium/lower density areas. However, in most communities bus use has not been expanding, and buses continue to lose market share. Reasons: (1) Buses have high labor/maintenance costs which policy- makers tend to react to by cutting service, in turn reducing the value of buses to would- be patrons; (2) the public tends not to like bus service on account of distances to bus stops, high fares and fare complexities and need for multiple transfers, often long waits at stops in fear of bad weather or crime, and slow trips on account of many stops and indirect routes. Bus service also tends to be limited to a few corridors. Moreover buses come infrequently. Also, buses, as with heavy and light rail, usually have fixed routes and schedules. Even when carrying few patrons, especially in non-peak hours, they must complete their routes before turning around. Hence, equipment gets a lot of costly wear and tear often for little patron use.

Many communities operate special buses as feeders to heavy or light rail systems or to provide circulation service for given areas. These systems, which usually require substantial subsidies, are helpful to the relatively small number of people whose travel needs can be met going to the limited places where such buses go. However, these services also tend to be cut in face of growing operations/maintenance costs, making them less responsive to public needs. Finally, and critically, from the standpoint of urban transportation strategy, buses have to operate on crowded roads. Even if more people traveled on buses, thereby making road use more efficient, heavy traffic increases projected for most metropolitan areas will lead to more and more bumper-to-bumper traffic, including buses operating on the roads.

Commuter Rail and Light Rail

More communities seek to expand commuter rail service in traffic-clogged corridors. These efforts use regular railroad or trolley-type vehicles operating singly or in trains of two or more vehicles. Such services help people whose travel needs match where lines go and have easy access to stations. However, many would-be train-users lack means for getting to stations and then to their ultimate destinations from where they would get off. These systems also are found in only a few corridors in metropolitan areas and serve relatively few of their travelers. Expansion of such service is inhibited by right-of-way complexities and parking problems. The railroad-type systems range widely in costs. If secure, sound-proofed rights of way are donated or acquired at nominal cost, if road-crossing separations are in place from prior rail use, if adequate guideways, stations, platforms, and parking lots/structures are already available, costs can be as low as $ 15 million a mile. If these features have to be acquired, upgraded, or built, total system costs can run up to and over $ 100 million a mile.

Special Transit Systems

Some communities provide bus/van services to older, disabled and other special groups. These services usually are limited to a few types of trips, such as for doctor appointments. These limitations deny these people spontaneous opportunities to join a friend for dinner or lunch, or to go to the theater, or to shop. Patrons have to travel when vehicles are available and experience delays involved in getting other patrons to/from their destinations. Such trips also entail a lot of planning, waiting, and anxiety about meeting vehicles for return trips. This is especially a problem in doctor visits, because patrons don't now how long they will have to wait or how much time will be needed for treatments. Rarely can these special transit systems be used for trips to look for or commute to jobs. Shopping and recreation use is only occasional, if at all, and must be with a group, under rigid conditions of timing, duration, and place.

Heavy Automated People Movers

In the 1960s, transit developers in many countries produced a new transit mode-- commonly called Automated Group Transit (AGT)--designed to cut labor costs by automating operations. The U.S. and many other governments, after aiding these efforts for years, gave up. Most private transit developers and venture capitalists, sensing that these high cost systems would have only limited markets, left the field by the mid- 1970s. The problem was that AGT promoters failed to address the central need of metropolitan area transportation, namely, for transit low enough in cost to enable it to be spread about more in meeting mobility needs in transit-starved, road-congested medium/lower density areas. Instead, AGT promoters produced very high cost AGT systems which, like heavy and light rail, could only serve a few high density corridors and as circulation systems in some airports and other activity centers.

AGT programs became high cost, because their planners assumed that large numbers of people had to be aggregated at, and moved between, a limited number of stations. Therefore, they specified trains of large vehicles each carrying many passengers, and the trains were to stop and pick up/drop off passengers at each station. Also, to avoid road congestion, most AGT systems were designed to operate on aerial guideways. To carry the heavy vehicles needed, guideways had to be large and costly, as were stations and loading platforms necessary for handling large numbers of passengers entering, waiting, and leaving trains. Hence, building costs for AGT systems not limited to airport or amusement park use range from $ 50-175 million a mile. Moreover, operating/maintenance costs run very high, because heavy cars require complicated propulsion and braking systems that need frequent repairs. Also, the visual blight of large AGT guideways has created siting and funding controversies which reduced AGT utility in the eyes of local policymakers. Most U.S. cities that considered AGT systems rejected them as too costly even for use in high density corridors.

Dilemmas of Policymakers in Expanding Public Transportation

1. World-wide, communities have been unable to buy/operate service-effective automated transit systems low enough in cost to permit wide use in medium/lower density areas. Various systems exist on paper. Hardware has been tested by a few. Low market demand and design problems have sharply reduced their number. Of the handful still being actively pursued, none has been fully tested and demonstrated.

2. Lacking better transit options they could install now, local officials see themselves limited to strategies that call for more roads and more efficient use of available roads (e.g. more HOV lanes, car/van pools, more turn-out lanes, controlled entry to crowded roads, etc.) Yet, many of them recognize that reliance on such strategies may be futile, because projected traffic growth will greatly outrun road-building resources, negate much value of traffic efficiency measures, and still lead to bumper-to-bumper traffic, even on efficiently used, expanded road systems.

3. Lately, millions of dollars are being found to support a new field of transportation that links automation techniques to improved efficiency in motor vehicle flow on roads. Even with the scarcity of road-building funds, people are planning to build special highways or road lanes to provide auto drivers fully automated, carefree trips. It seems to have escaped planners of these ventures that, on getting off automated roads, drivers still have to negotiate congested roads and find parking places. These schemes, while likely to cost a lot of money, can do little to ease road congestion in medium/lower density areas or reduce parking needs, and they offer nothing to provide better mobility for the growing number of older and other people who do not or cannot use autos.

4. Planners commonly urge zoning measures, location of housing near jobs, and other means for concentrating employment and other activities on high density rail, AGT, or bus corridors, thereby making these modes more cost-effective. The problem is that such measures tend to be effective (and then only to a very limited degree) mainly in places where extensive new development or redevelopment is possible. In many communities, such opportunities are limited, because their land area is mostly filled in, and proposals to redevelop existing properties frequently attract strong public opposition. However, even in such new town developments as Reston and Columbia near Washing- ton, D.C., the fact is that many of their residents and many people who work in these places commute long distances to work. Moreover, while some people will move from low to high density areas, to be near rail or bus lines, they will be replaced by people who want to escape high density living conditions. Clearly, higher densities are developing in more places, but medium/lower density areas are not diminishing. As noted, they are proliferating faster than high density areas, and they are generating most of the growing road congestion, because road-bound travel modes predominate in them.

New Transportation Strategies Needed

Choked roads, lack of effective non-road-bound transit, and growing numbers of people without effective mobility in the medium/lower density areas are testament to the failure of current urban transportation strategies. Possibly more troublesome, remarkably few jurisdictions have actions or even serious planning under way to moderate these conditions, other than the nearly futile exercise of building more and more road lanes. As noted, most local officials, urban planners, and commercial developers, when urged to consider transit expansions, say that heavy and light rail and AGT are cost-effective only when serving high density areas. By and large, they are correct. However, by default, that leaves the much unloved bus as the main form of public transit in medium/lower density areas. Beyond poor public acceptance of buses, and their high labor and maintenance costs, they are road-bound and pollute the air. Hence, expanded bus service would do little to ease road congestion or pollution.

Given the perception of policymakers that they have no low cost/high service transit options, they have tended to write off transit expansions in the medium/lower density areas. Indeed, around the world, very few transit expansions in such areas have taken place or are planned. This write-off, however, reflects an amazingly pervasive mindset among policymakers. While their use of the cost-effectiveness test for ruling out more transit for non-high density areas is understandable, it is so only when current high-cost transit modes are considered. It is long overdue for policymakers to ask the strategic question: "How would availability of substantially lower cost, high service forms of transit alter consideration of where transit could be cost-effective?" Such systems, if successfully tested and demonstrated, could change current thinking on whether transit can be cost-effective in medium/lower density areas.

New Hope in the Picture

To help spur fresh thinking about very low cost transit modes, the Advanced Transit Association (ATRA) assessed the developmental status of personal rapid transit PRT, a long-debated fully automated concept that would use small vehicles that would run on small guideways and carry passengers, alone if they wish, on fast, non-stop origin to destination trips. These systems would operate on a demand rather than scheduled route basis, thereby minimizing needless movement and wear and tear on equipment. Most suburban stations would be small and inexpensive. They would be located off the main track so that loading and unloading would take place without stopping other traffic on the main line. Backers of such systems claim per mile costs ranging as low as $ 3 to 15 million, and some claim their systems could be high capacity carriers.

ATRA's assessment group was composed of persons with broadly differing opinions on the technical feasibility of PRT and on its projected very low costs. Yet, after a year- long study of the PRT concept furthest along in engineering studies, the assessment group concluded without dissent in its 1989 report that: (1) the concept is technically feasible; (2) all PRT components are already patented; (3) many of its command/control features are already in use; and (4) its very low cost estimates are based upon commonly accepted cost-estimating techniques. The group cautioned, however, that the system it studied was neither tested nor demonstrated5. ATRA, in publishing the report, noted the critical need for very low cost transit and strongly urged policymakers at all levels to make such testing and demonstrations a very high priority.

The Chicago Regional Transit Authority, lacking cost-effective options for meeting sub- urban transit needs, followed ATRA's urging. It financed studies of two competing PRT concepts, which were completed in 1992. In June, 1993, the Authority chose the Raytheon/Taxi 2000 version of PRT for testing over a three-year period. This winning bid was for a construction cost of $ 13 million a mile. Assuming the system tests satisfactorily, the Authority will decide whether to join Raytheon in financing a working demonstration of the prototype in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. It committed $ 18 million and Raytheon $ 20 million to the testing and demonstration activity.

In addition, a study committee appointed by SEATAC (the incorporated area around the Seattle-Tacoma Airport) concluded that PRT, if fully tested, would be the system of choice for meeting SEATAC's circulation needs. PRT concepts also are under scrutiny in Sweden and the Netherlands. The demonstration of a PRT concept will give policymakers and planners a very low cost/high service transit option for use after 1997. Considering the world-wide need for such transit, such an option could produce demand that would stimulate industrial activity and jobs on major scale.

Recommended Actions:

Shrinking the gap in urban transportation will require new strategies to: (1) speed testing and demonstration of very low cost transit modes that are not road-bound; (2) diffuse transit service to tie together the main activity centers of metropolitan areas, so that many more people of all ages in their medium/lower density parts can use transit instead of autos for meeting many of their daily needs; and (3) increase accessibility of transit (both in terms of ease of use and location) to people who have physical impairments and to those who otherwise do not use autos.

It is remarkable that, despite the obvious failure of current urban transportation strategies, world-wide, few governments at any level have shown interest in new strategies. Neither the U.S. nor any other national government has a program for developing very low cost, high service transit concepts. For over a decade, the U.S. government has had no objective in this critical area and has stated that such a program would have to be financed by private investment and/or state and local government initiatives. However, at the same time, private investors, many soured by the AGT experience, shunned public transit and, therefore, have had no interest in funding programs to bring forward very low cost systems for testing and public demonstration. Even now despite worsening road congestion, investors hear no widespread state/local demand for such systems and, therefore, they have no basis for thinking they would be profitable investments. To complete the circle, state and local officials failed to clamor for such systems, because they could not see them being demonstrated anywhere and had no idea they could exist or be cost-- or service-effective in the growing medium/lower density areas so poorly served by public transit. Therefore, to help break out of this circle of futility, and to bring hope into the picture, it is critical that state and local officials:

(1) Seek detailed briefings on new, very low cost, non-roadbound, automated, high service, small vehicle concepts, such as the PRT concept;

(2) If persuaded that such very low cost, high service concepts have promise for being effective in cost and service terms for extending transit service in badly underserved areas, urge other their national associations to call for further development of such concepts and their demonstration in practical service, so that venture capital can see potential profitable world market in such systems and be encouraged to make investments that speed their final development and manufacture in quantities that would assure low costs; and

(3) Avoid costly, long term transit investments (other than for necessary rehabilitation) that have little promise of substantially widening service in poorly served, traffic-congested medium/lower density areas.

Short Term Actions

In the meantime, because such systems could not be available for widespread use until the end of the 1990's states and local governing bodies could adopt interim measures, including adoption of a strategy to encourage more people to reduce their auto trips by:

1) Offering more bus service to link major commercial and government centers in metropolitan area public transit networks and by adding more frequent bus runs in peak and non-peak hours;

2) Establishing county-wide systems of contractor-operated vans to provide neighborhood pickup service to move people from their homes to bus or rail stops and back, for nominal fees;

3) Encouraging transit systems to simplify their fare systems and transfer policies, to make them more user friendly and less costly for persons taking longer trips; and by encouraging employers, shopping centers, and neighborhood and community organizations, to provide more user-friendly information to workers and older and other residents on bus and rail routes, trip times, fares, and transfer policies;

4) Offering more state aid to localities from federal and state resources that can be used for transit purposes, including (a) increased funding of services for older and other non-auto-using persons, to permit more types of trips to be eligible, and to enable full weekday/weekend availability of services, and (b) help for bus systems to provide better bus shelters equipped with state-of-the-art technology for providing route/fare information and continuous, up-to-the-minute postings on arrival times for each bus that serves such shelters.


Last modified: October 02, 1998