Data: Other Countries Are Building Transit While the U.S. Falls Behind

Photo: Hugo Douchet, CC
Photo: Hugo Douchet, CC

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Transport Politic and is republished with permission. 

Using the data embedded in the Transit Explorer database, I calculated key statistics on how transit investment has changed over time in the United States and a number of other countries. These data point to some intriguing trends, notably a decline in investment stateside combined with significant expansion in countries like Canada, Egypt, France, Israel, and Turkiye (I have not yet assembled data for countries in south and east Asia, where transit expansion is proceeding even more quickly).

(Relatedly, for the Urban Institute’s Urban Wire, I calculated key trends in housing adjacency to rail and bus rapid transit stations in the US, as well as Canada, England, and France.)

Over the past century, transit construction in the US waxed and waned. Overall, the number of kilometers of rail transit systems added reached its apex (at least since the 1920s) in the 1990s, when about 1,000 kilometers of new commuter rail lines were opened. During the first decade of the 2000s, the country added the most heavy rail (subway/metro) and light rail lines, generating more than 500 new kilometers over ten years, a record.

Since 2010, however, rail transit construction has lost steam in the US. The number of kilometers opened declined by about 30 percent between the 2000s and 2010s, and the first few years of the 2020s suggest further decline by 2030. At the current rate, less than 500 new kilometers of rail transit will open by then—the lowest figure since the 1970s.

Nevertheless, among the countries in the Transit Explorer database (meaning, excluding Australia, plus south and east Asian countries), the US now has the most kilometers of metro rail (heavy rail or light metro). As of 2023, it has about 1,350 kilometers in operation, of which about a third are in the New York region.

But the growth rate of active metro lines in the US has been slower than in other countries since 2000, increasing by only about 10 percent in route length (the US population grew by 18 percent over the same period). The length of metro systems more than doubled in Brazil and increased by 45 percent in Spain, by contrast.

And there are about 1,700 kilometers of metro in operation in the European Union’s seven most populous countries (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, and the Netherlands), whose collective population is almost identical to that of the United States. Their metro route length has increased by 30 percent overall since 2000—three times as fast as the US. (Those countries’ populations collectively grew by only about 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2021.) It is worth noting that Russia’s urban metro rail systems have also expanded tremendously since 2000, outpacing Spain as of 2022.

We can see similar trends when examining the number of light rail, tramway, or streetcar stations in operation across the countries in the database. Since 1980, US cities have invested heavily in light rail, adding about 1,370 stations nationwide. That’s a lot, but it is less than in those seven EU countries combined (2,100 stations), and even just in France (1,450 stations).

And some countries, like Italy, are planning very large investments in new tramways in the coming year.

Transit expansion plans, of course, vary by metropolitan area. Among regions in the US and Canada, New York has by far the largest number of line kilometers of light or heavy rail, followed by the Bay Area, Mexico City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Toronto.

But New York actually has fewer active heavy rail lines in service than it did in 1950. And neither it nor Chicago has added much light rail or subway service since the turn of the millennium. Neither has any major expansion plans actually funded for completion over the next five years, either.

Los Angeles, Montreal, Seattle, and Toronto, on the other hand, stand out as having the largest transit expansion plans in terms of new route kilometers that are currently under construction or planned, meaning projects are funded and almost ready for construction.

And when controlling for urban area population, New York is arguably an under-performer when it comes to overall transit route length. The New York urban area currently has fewer light or heavy rail kilometers per capita than the Baltimore, Bay Area, Denver, Philadelphia, San Diego, St. Louis, and Washington, DC regions. It goes to show that having the maximum amount of transit route length isn’t necessarily directly correlated with having the most transit ridership; the New York area carries more people on transit than all those regions combined.

But New York, as noted, also stands out for having no light rail or subway projects that are either under construction or funded. This situation contrasts strongly with the Minneapolis and Seattle urban areas, whose rail transit expansion plans are the largest in the US on a per-capita basis.

New York’s limited transit expansion prospects are particularly remarkable when compared to the plans of many other world regions. Cairo, Istanbul, Paris, Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Toronto each have many light rail or metro lines under construction today—and many more kilometers planned (Paris is likely to soon overtake London and New York in terms of total kilometers of such routes). London, on the other hand, has none.

Different regions are investing in different ways. Among routes that are currently under construction, Casablanca, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Seattle, Tel Aviv, and Toronto have focused heavily on light rail projects. Cairo, Istanbul, Lagos, Montreal, Paris, and Riyadh are building at least 50 kilometers of metro rail each. And Bogota, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro are building many kilometers of bus rapid transit.

The result of all this expansion is that New York’s once-dominant position as having the world’s longest metro network—a position it claimed from London in the 1910s—has eroded. New York pulled down many of its elevated lines and didn’t do much to expand its Subway network. Meanwhile, London took on the mantle in the 1980s through its expansion with the Docklands Light Railway, and, through systematic, relentless expansion, Moscow took the crown from London in the 2010s. Systems in East Asia are even larger. At the same time, Paris, Cairo, and Istanbul have massive expansion plans with many new lines opening over the next five years.

These conditions overall tell a story of declining US commitment to transit expansion in the context of large growth in other countries around the world. There are some exceptions—Seattle, in particular, has a big investment in new lines planned. But while the world is building out ever more accessible transit systems, the US appears to be falling behind.

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