“Why doesn’t L.A. have good public transit?” That’s the question that author Jake Berman had when caught in its famous snarl. Following initial research, that question widened to: “Why doesn’t North America have good public transit?” Berman attempts to tackle both questions with his newly released book, “The Lost Subways of North America.” Half pictorial guide of historic (and proposed) layouts of many cities’ transit systems, half history of how each of those cities has grown/fallen to their present networks, “Lost Subways” is a story of twentieth-century America, if its primary arc was the rise and fall of the trains and their replacement by cars.
This story is told on a city-by-city basis and quickly a consistent structure emerges. Just as in a Scooby-Doo episode you’d expect the gang to arrive at a spooky locale, for Fred to say “Let’s split up, gang,” and then for a monster chase to occur, the arc for transit has expected beats in each city. There’s the early part where real estate and city transit expand together, often as one private enterprise. Then, a needed expansion is shelved for a depression or world war, only for the private operators to go bankrupt against the car. Inevitably there’s the moment congestion-plagued cities choose freeways, often choosing to demolish through predominately Black neighborhoods to allow access to the cars of suburban whites. And just like the part where Fred pulls off the mask to reveal a rich dude, Berman frequently reveals that the reason new transit hasn’t been built usually isn’t a novel one between cities: normally some mix of obstructive bureaucracy, terrible land-use laws, and racism.
But even if the arcs most cities follow are shockingly similar, Berman provides plenty of explanations for how places like Chicago ended up with better systems than, say, Detroit, even if both metropolises have similar histories of segregation. Sometimes a narrow decision, like choosing to maintain a line along the freeway you intend to replace it with, is enough to prevent a city from becoming L.A., and sometimes choosing to adopt a speculative technology like the People Mover is how you end up not having a public transit system. The quirks of fate do matter, as even half a decade of delay in the sixties can cause a city like Washington D.C. to rethink freeways from the smoggy evidence provided elsewhere.
Berman’s comparative analysis is most useful in trying to identify solutions. Using the examples of Dallas and Houston, Berman illustrates how zoning laws can either make or break a transit system. Dallas’ DART Light Rail system largely fails because public transit tends to require housing density ideally within walking distance, so plopping commuter rail in a swathe of single-family ranches and building a massive parking lot to fit minimum parking requirements will encourage just driving. Meanwhile, Houston’s recently developed system, when paired with sensible changes to parking minimums so that dense housing has a chance to spring up, has allowed its new system to flourish even in a previously car-centric city. While the problems plaguing public-transit systems are numerous, Berman identifies the chief problem, and to that he suggests a solution. If we build smarter cities, we can have smarter transit in return. It’s merely a choice, just like previous ones that we have had to make.
“The Lost Subways of North America”
By Jake Berman
University of Chicago Press, 272 pages