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Review of The Transit Metropolis by Robert Cervero


Review of The Transit Metropolis by Robert Cervero

The cover of The Transit Metropolis by Robert Cervero.

Christopher MacKechnie

Review of The Transit Metropolis

In The Transit Metropolis by Robert Cervero (Washington: Island Press, 1998), the author presents case studies of what he considers to be successful transit cities and attempts to draw lessons learned from each one of them that could be applied by other cities desiring to create world-class transit systems. While each city studied does indeed have excellent transit, the lack of American cities included (although San Diego, St. Louis, and Houston are included as "aspiring transit metropolises") limits the lessons learned that can be applied in an American setting. In addition, the book could benefit from an update, as the past fourteen years have seen a great deal of development in the transit field. Overall, though, this book is an excellent introduction into how public transit and a city work together to provide quality public transportation.

Types of Transit Cities

The majority of the book is devoted to the case studies, which Cervero divides into four categories: adaptive cities, adaptive transit, hybrid, and strong core. In adaptive cities, the city built form is designed in a way to support transit as much as possible. Each of the cities Cervero includes in this category - Stockholm, Copenhagen, Singapore, and Tokyo - are extremely dense places that have directed growth to areas around rapid transit stations. Even though a recent decision by Los Angeles to allow greatly increased density around transit stations suggests that the city could in the future fit into this category, in general American distaste for high density suggests that with the exception of New York it is not productive for planners to attempt to construct the next Stockholm or Singapore in the United States.

In adaptive transit, planners accept the inevitability of low density growth and try to plan transit around this drawback. In this category Cervero includes Karlsruhe, Germany; Adelaide, Australia; and Mexico City. While Mexico City is too huge to draw any lessons from, both Karlsruhe and Adelaide are low-density medium size cities of which the United States has many of. The key to the success of Karlsruhe and Adelaide seems to be that the transit systems are designed to minimize the need to transfer (a feature also present in hybrid city Ottawa, Ontario).

Hybrid cities are a cross between adaptive cities and adaptive transit. In this section Cervero discusses Ottawa, Munich, and Curitiba, Brazil. Although, as described above, Ottawa operates many express routes during the peak periods from the suburbs to downtown over its exclusive busways, during the other hours of the day patrons needs to transfer from suburban feeder routes to busway routes - an arrangement whose efficiency has benefited Toronto (not discussed in this book because it's transit system has been widely disseminated elsewhere, according to Cervero) for years.

Strong core cities mentioned in the book are Zurich, Switzerland and Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne, whose dense core with excellent transit is unfortunately surrounded by endless swaths of suburbia with poor transit, could be compared with a place like Chicago in this respect. Unfortunately, Cervero fails to discuss how transit in suburban Melbourne could be improved - he focuses only on the inner city.

Aspiring Transit Metropolises

This is the section of the book that would benefit the most from an update. While there is no doubt that Vancouver, BC has become a true transit metropolis, the same cannot be said of St. Louis (transit service devastated by the recession) and San Diego (ditto). Since the book came out Houston has decided to become a transit metropolis by focusing on building rail lines instead of operating buses, while Portland, Oregon has had to cut bus service even as it continues to build new rail lines. One possible new entry into the list - Los Angeles .

Lessons Learned

Cervero draws fifteen lessons from his case studies, some of which will be discussed here. These lessons include visions and visionaries - most of these cities had individual people who, sometimes it appears just through force of will, implanted their transit ideas upon the populace. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villargosa, whose America Fast Forward plan seeks to greatly increase the amount of rapid transit in Southern California, could be such a visionary with a vision.

Efficient institutions and governance - who practice pro-active planning and urban management - are also essential. North American examples of strong transit institutions include Translink in Vancouver and OC Transpo in Ottawa. Both agencies have strong powers in shaping land development in their respective cities, and Translink also has taxing power. In contrast, many transit agencies in the United States are politically weak or have power over only a limited area, say within a particular city's limits.

Of course, effective transit, which cannot exist unless lots of people want to go to the same place, is not possible without viable centers. The existence of viable centers hopefully includes balanced development and traffic flows to avoid heavy peaking of transit traffic (i.e. all inbound to downtown in the morning and outbound in the afternoon). The existence of viable centers seems to be beyond the control of transit agencies, although it would be nice if transit agencies became more involved in development issues. Los Angeles Metro currently is involved in real estate development around its stations to a moderate extent.

Several lessons speak to giving transit (and non-motorized transit modes such as cycling and walking) not only priority over cars but also adopting policies to punish cars. Although technically the easiest and financially the cheapest way to increase transit usage, unfortunately adoption of policies like this has been politically difficult in the United States. In New York, attempts to introduce a Manhattan congestion charge failed despite its clear success in places such as London, Singapore, and Stockholm. In Los Angeles, the Metro Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley continuously stops at red lights, causing delays, because heaven forbid that an automobile be delayed for thirty seconds. However, the approval of a bus-only lane on Wilshire Boulevard gives up hope that the tide may be changing.

There is one lesson - that competition and an entrepreneurial ethos can improve transit - that I disagree with. Read more about my thoughts about privatization here and here .


Overall, The Transit Metropolis is an essential book for the library of any transit planner. In the future, in addition to an update about the aspiring transit metropolises I would also like to see some case studies of ineffective transit systems and Cervero's analysis of how we could make them more effective (apart from merely giving them more money, of course).

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