Infrastructure Week 2019: The state of American transit today and tomorrow

May 17, 2019 James Purkis

How do we get people moving? It’s about acceptable commute times, longer-term master plans, and high-capacity public transport systems.


Stantec’s Transit Sector Leader James Purkis describes the state of US transit today, and what we can expect from transit of the future. This Q&A blog is part of a 5-part series for Infrastructure Week 2019.


What is your perspective on US Infrastructure, the D+ rating from ASCE, and the current state of transit?

America has invested considerably in transportation networks since the 1950s—particularly road systems—and created urban networks that were the envy of the world. Transit systems that were developed were primarily in the big cities where there were already constraints before the 1950s. But since those initial developments, there’s been a slow uptake on maintaining and developing transit as the cities have grown, and there’s been quite a reliance on using cars and transit bus networks.

And what you see in the present day is that there is considerable congestion for people who are commuting in and out of cities daily. As cities have grown, they’re lacking the corridors and land needed to increase these road networks, so there’s a real need to look for alternatives.

While the condition of some of these assets requires improvement or maintenance, I believe it’s time to have a serious review of what’s going to happen for the next 50 to 100 years in terms of how people need to move around those cities to allow the prosperous nature that’s occurred for the US in the last century. Without some immediate action and long-term investments, eventually it’s going to cause a slow economic demise, as cities can’t perform the way that they are envisaged.


North American cities will likely be building more high-capacity public transport systems in the future, says James Purkis. The Tempe Streetcar in Arizona, designed by Stantec, will use hybrid technology and move riders in the downtown Tempe area.


What are our burning priorities on infrastructure investment, from your perspective?

First, you need to have stronger policies about acceptable commute times for people. It’s about creating alternative forms of transport to connect people into employment centers to allow them to access their work but also to allow the cities to attract highly qualified people to come and _q_tweetable:Thinking 50 to 100 years into the future—what do we want cities to look like? People are looking for choice._q_work in those cities. Transportation shouldn’t be a barrier to that but should be a major catalyst in making that possible. We need to think 50 to 100 years into the future—how do you want those cities to look?

There are many great initiatives now that are helping us move in the right direction. Look at California, where they’re considering imposing European and Canadian style regulations to ban sales of gasoline-powered cars in the future. They’re looking to build public infrastructure that allows green, clean infrastructure in the downtowns to improve the habitat for the public. Many European cities have tried to keep the downtown environment of their cities greener, cleaner, and free of traffic. They’ve made downtowns environmentally friendly places for people to want to work and live. The more we move in this direction, the greater the options become.


Is there anything that we’re not doing that we could be doing to build more transit now?

For most cities, it’s defining much longer-term master plans. Cities have seen how downtowns have developed, and they’ve built transit systems, transportation networks, and roads. We need to expand that to the greater city and put robust plans in place to reserve the right of way for future corridors and urban development.


Cities need to ensure that they’re prepared for transit expansion—well in advance of projects coming into development.


Is there a city that’s doing that well?

I look at Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, because they’ve grown so fast. They’ve created models for new cities outside their original cities, and they’ve been able to plan out the corridors that they’re going to use over the next 25 to 50 years. Many cities in Europe have restricted the use of personal vehicles in defined areas of their downtowns and improved transit to move people.

Many Western cities are already developed, which creates a major challenge. You need to identify where the new corridors are going to be, and progressively ensure all the utilities—and other constraints that are seen on most major programs—are freed and moved out of the way well in advance of projects coming into development.


How do you see transit in the future? Say in 2030?

I see North American cities building high-capacity public transport systems. The use of autonomous vehicles (AV) will increase, however, there will be challenges to travel all the way to work, as road networks still won’t have adequate capacity. Everybody will be trying to get to the same general location downtown, but for a city to handle that, there needs to be high-capacity corridors in place that, for instance, allow commuters to use AVs to connect the first and last mile of their journey.

The industry is in a phase of innovation where manufacturers are coming up with new products, new solutions, and automation on how you can service major transit infrastructure, whether that’s electric buses, hydrogen buses, low-floor streetcars, or light rail. There are even hydrogen trains now.


Purkis believes that AVs will take people to high-speed connectors, whether conventional or AV or other new technologies – which will then take them downtown. Stantec has been a leader in bringing AV testing to North America, including in Chamblee, Georgia.


How do you see Smart Cities and technologies fitting into transit building and maintenance?

People are looking for choice. In the past, most commuters were limited to a car or a bus to get to work. Now, as cities develop, people want alternatives, including ride-hailing apps, walking, and cycling. For some commuters, it’s about enjoying their trip to work as opposed to seeing it as a burden. Using technologies that connect our systems and people, we can develop new cities and locations in existing cities where various clusters of work are going to be concentrated, and where people can get to and from their work via alternative methods.


Other blogs in this series:

Infrastructure Week 2019: The state of American roadways today and tomorrow

Infrastructure Week 2019: The future of green infrastructure

Infrastructure Week 2019: Brownfield development is the future of the US urban landscape

Infrastructure Week 2019: Parks as infrastructure—providing resilience and quality of life


About the Author

James Purkis

James Purkis is a senior principal working from our Kelowna, British Columbia, office. As transit leader, James has extensive global experience in transit and transportation systems, working in 15 countries and for more than 30 years.

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