A lot of cities are spending a lot of money trying to revive their downtowns. To the extent public officials should want all places in a city to experience economic prosperity, it’s good to root for downtown revivals. For Smart Growthers and central planners, however, the primary motivation in revitalizing central business districts (CBDs) is to service transit. Where once we viewed public transportation as a means to an end (mobility for those without private automobiles), we now see transit as the end itself.
A new report from Florida State University should help squash this myth of the importance of CBDs to transit ridership. The study looked at all 82 U.S. metropolitan areas with at least half a million people” and found that there was “no relationship between the strength of the CBD and transit ridership.” What matters more is 1) service frequency, 2) service coverage, 3) car ownership, and 4) unemployment.
Eric Jaffe, writing in Atlantic Cities, sees a bus half full: “some ridership factors will always fall outside a transit agency’s control, but the ones that fall squarely inside it are powerful too.”
Yes, it is within the ability to control for transit agencies to reallocate monies to improving service frequency headways and re-orienting routes to dispersed job centers. But to get there, transit boosters will first need to challenge their assumptions that city cores are the key to success and expensive gaudy rail systems will “lure” commuters out of their cars.