Property owners should pay for public transit

The Portland Streetcar at the Portland State U...

Portland, Ore., streetcar. Image via Wikipedia

Public transit makes property owners and developers rich, according to urban planner Christopher B. Leinberger, so property owners and developers should finance it.

With the suburbs in retreat, and with the cost of car ownership now consuming a quarter of Americans’ income, according to Leinberger, people want to live where they can walk, take a bus or, better, hop on a train.

When property values collapsed in recent years, they collapsed less in “urban-style walkable neighborhoods” served by public transit (about -20 percent) and much more in suburban neighborhoods that rely on cars (about -50 percent), according to Zillow, a housing research firm. The recovery appears to follow the same pattern:

“Urban-style housing in walkable neighborhoods–including those in the inner suburbs–is what’s in demand today,” Leinberger writes in this month’s Atlantic. “And for a variety of reasons, that demand will intensify in the coming years.”

Meanwhile, developers and property owners who invest in public transit near their property enjoy a manyfold return on investment, according to Leinberger.

This suggests that a nation recovering from a burst housing bubble ought to invest in public transit, and more pointedly, that the primary investors should not be state and federal governments, but the property owners and developers who stand to gain personally.

Chicago has been going in exactly the wrong direction. In February the Chicago Transit Authority scaled back bus and train service by 18 percent and laid off 1,100 workers, about 10 percent of the agency’s workforce. The cuts have been tough on Chicago’s bus riders–there are long waits for buses during off hours, there are no buses during some hours, and because buses are more crowded, bus bunching is back during the most critical hours.

It’s been clear for many years that government financing of public transit is failing. In February I suggested that Chicago motorists should help pay for public transit. Let those who enjoy the private ride, I argued, fund the public one. They make our city more congested, more dangerous, more dirty, and if they don’t like the increased cost of supporting public transit, they can take the bus like the rest of us, helping to finance public transit by paying their fair fares.

But Leinberger’s suggestion is friendlier to people who think in terms of markets. It’s even, you might say, incentive laden. If property owners and developers will finance public transit, we’ll get the buses and trains we need, and they’ll get filthier rich.

This is how, Leinberger reminds us, public transit began in this country–with real estate developers building small railroads to deliver workers from their new neighborhoods to jobs in the city center and industrial districts. That’s certainly true in Chicago, where the CTA began as an motley collection of private railroads.

It’s not just with nostalgia anymore, but also with real regret, that we look back on the day when electric streetcars ran on nearly every Chicago arterial, providing 9 million rides per year. The last streetcar ran on Vincennes Avenue in 1958, and then private cars and high-polluting buses took over.

We need those streetcars today. And many of the rails still slumber under city streets, blanketed in asphalt.

It would take a tremendous effort to resurrect America’s streetcar lines, once a feature of nearly all American cities with more than 5,000 people. Despite Portland’s valiant example, the government probably can’t do the job. But Daddy Warbucks can. And Daddy Warbucks should–if not for the public good, then for his ailing piggy bank.

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