Book Reviews: The Urban Transport Crisis in Europe and North America and Transit Villages in the 21st Century

Citations: Pucher, John and Christian Lefevre. The Urban Transport Crisis in Europe and North America. London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1996. Pg. xv and 226.

Bernick, Michael and Robert Cervero. Transit Villages in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997. Pg xii and 388.

Reviewed by: Gregory L. Thompson, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-2280, February, 1999

Published in Transportation Research A, 32:8, pp621-646, 1988. Posted with permission.

Growing congestion and worsening air quality top political agendas throughout the developed world. Evoking less universal popular concern, motor vehicle intimidation of pedestrians and cyclists still arouses popular ire in many urban areas, as well. The two books reviewed here examine in different ways the nature of these growing transportation-related problems, public policy responses to them, and the consequences of those policies.

John Pucher, professor of urban planning at Rutgers University (and by choice, auto-free), and Christian Lefevre, associate professor of urban studies at the Institut d'Urbanisme de Paris, have compiled a deeply researched, international comparison of urban transportation-related trends in democratic, developed societies. The compilation is all the richer for its inclusion of stable democracies as well as those emerging from years of dictatorship. Trends include absolute traffic by mode of transportation, transportation modal share, measures of congestion, safety statistics, air quality descriptions, and depictions of settlement patterns. The authors also document trends in transportation investment, subsidies, taxation, control of individual behavior, and control of corporate behavior. Although they offer some degree of prognosis and prescriptive remedies, they largely leave it to the reader to make his or her own prognoses from what they have presented.

Pucher and Lefevre begin their work with their principal finding, corroborating what many economists have said for years. People use increasing incomes to choose lower density settlement patterns and ever-greater quantities of mostly automobile transportation. Not one of the countries that they examine suggests otherwise, with the exception that bicycle modal share has continued to increase in the Netherlands. A recent article of Pucher's shows that bicycle modal split also is increasing substantially in former West Germany, but even in the Netherlands and former West Germany, motorization and decentralization are proceeding rapidly [footnote 1]. The universality of such experience across a wide spectrum of cultural and historical traditions suggests that no democratic government can craft policies to stop or reverse the experience of decentralization and motorization so long as incomes continue to increase, and the increases are spread across a large spectrum of society.

There would be no great harm from this finding, if it were not for one other Pucher and Lefevre's universal findings. This is that in all of the countries examined, increasing motorization and decentralization produce increasingly severe problems of air pollution and congestion, and these have become significant political issues in most democracies. They also found that no government policy, whether it is investment in public transportation, investment in roads, traffic calming, traffic demand management, or traffic supply management, makes much difference in reversing adverse trends in air pollution or congestion. Government regulation of auto manufacturing companies has resulted in automobiles that are significantly more fuel-efficient, safer, and cleaner than models of several years ago, but rapid increases in per capita vehicle kilometers traveled are nullifying efficiency gains in all countries. The only policy that might be able to reverse the adverse impacts of motorization and decentralization is congestion pricing, but Pucher and Lefevre find that congestion pricing (which is different from road tolling) is so universally unpopular that no democratic government can be expected to embrace it.

While government policy cannot stop motorization or decentralization, Pucher and Lefevre examine the extent to which policy can make a significant differences in the rate of trends or in mitigating their consequences. Generally the authors' investigation disappointed them even here, but they did find some encouraging signs.

One policy that makes a difference is in the area of safety for non-motorized transport users. Pucher and Lefevre find that in all of the countries that they examined, safety of transportation users is a significant issue. Some governments have addressed the issue for motorists through heavy investments to improve road geometry and mandates to auto manufacturers for safer vehicular design. These policies have been successful in lowering fatality and injury rates for motorists, but not for pedestrians and bicyclists, whose safety deteriorates as motorization increases. Fewer governments have addressed pedestrian and cyclist safety, but those that have done so with better sidewalks, lanes for cycles, traffic calming, and pedestrian precincts have met with considerable success.

Another difficult issue is the financing and relevancy of public transportation. In every country studied escalating public transit deficits (in part induced by motorization) coupled with the failure of transit systems to increase accessibility to suburban places that people want to go are significant political issues. Governments everywhere find it difficult to fund increasing transit deficits and capital improvement plans put forth by transit bureaucracies. The only policies that indicate some ability for containing deficits or improving productivity are various approaches to privatization, but complete bus privatization as adopted in Great Britain resulted in approximately a 30 percent loss in bus ridership because of substantial fare increases and loss of coordinated services. Privatization in Great Britain also failed to bring investment into the country's bus systems at a rate sufficient to maintain, let alone expand, capital assets. A model of privatization used in Scandinavia (which is not elaborated upon) involving government agencies specifying route structures, fare levels, and coordinated schedules but contracting out everything else offers more promise, according to Pucher and Lefevre.

The countries in their study include Germany (including the former West and East Germany), France, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (before the break-up), Canada, and the United States. These countries embrace a wide range of historical and cultural tradition as well as government policy. Governments in all of the countries examined except Canada and the United States have levied high gasoline taxes for years, generally much higher than expenditures for roadways. In other areas, though, even the countries with high gas taxes differ in their investment, taxation, and subsidization policies. At one extreme Germany and the Netherlands have extremely high rural and urban population densities and cultures that value urban heritages. Since the 1970s both countries also have developed strong environmental movements. Consequently governments in both countries have resisted most transportation policies involving heavy urban destruction, while they have invested heavily in their tram, bus, metro, and suburban transit systems as well as traffic calming and non-motorized transportation infrastructure. More recently, both countries' governments also have accommodated decentralization by coordinating public transportation investments with planned suburban developments of high population density, contained by large tracts of agricultural and forest land. At the same time though, both countries are wealthy, and a wide spectrum of the population embraces the automobile wholeheartedly, resulting in among Europe's highest auto ownership rate (in Germany's case, 471 cars per 1,000 population in 1992) and highest level of auto usage. In Germany, while public transport travel doubled between 1950 and 1992, auto usage increased 20-fold. Currently autos account for about 53 percent of travel in former West Germany, transit accounts for about 11 percent, while bicycles account for 10 percent and walking for 27 percent. Modal shares for all of the non-auto modes (except bicycles) are declining, albeit slowly. Bicycle use increased from about 7 percent of total travel to 10 percent between 1970 and 1990. Auto use is lower in former East Germany, but it is rising very fast, while transit use and walking are plummeting relatively and absolutely.

At the other extreme of the spectrum is the United States, with low population and employment densities, high average incomes, little popular regard for its urban heritage, weak government (particularly in regard to land use control), strong racial divisions and economic inequities, and the longest legacy of mass motorization of any of the world's societies. The United States is the only country in the world that has attempted to adapt its metropolitan regions to rely almost wholly on highway transportation through the construction of massive motorways designed for local travel, while it almost universally provided subsidized parking and before 1970 allowed its public transportation systems to decay. Public policy also taxed highway use far lower than its social costs and provided subsidies for low-density living. Around 1970 new policies were added to the old that attempted to revitalize old central cities and public transportation systems. The latter have received surprisingly large proportions of total transportation expenditures since the mid-1970s, but to little avail. Transit ridership has remained stagnant at very low levels, transit modal share has continued to decline, while highway use has continued to escalate at alarming rates, accompanied by rising congestion and declining air quality.

The contrast between Germany and the Netherlands on the one hand and the United States on the other suggests that while general motorization and decentralization trends are similar, their different manifestations can make a difference in social welfare. One might attribute the two extreme outcomes to population density, but the experience of Canada, which has lower density than the United States but development and travel behavior trends closer to those in Germany, suggests otherwise. Pucher and Lefevre believe that policies such as full social costing (including parking) of motor vehicles, cessation (or never doing so) of efforts to build urban motorways, construction of pedestrian precincts and bicycle facilities, the accommodation of decentralization trends into denser residential and employment nodules centered around transit systems that are themselves reoriented to serving the suburb-to-suburb market, all can make a positive difference in the quality of life. Pucher and Lefevre also are equally pessimistic about democratic societies implementing packages of such policies where they do not already exist.

Pucher's and Lefevre's examination of public policy and travel behavior is largely macro in scope. In contrast, Michael Bernick and Robert Cervero offer a micro-scale analysis of how one type of public policy affects travel behavior. Bernick is an attorney, member of the Board of Directors of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, and Co-Director of the University of California at Berkeley National Transit Access Center. Cervero is professor of City and Regional Planning at University of California at Berkeley and Co-Director of the U.C. Berkeley National Transit Access Center. The policy that Bernick and Cervero advocate is government promotion of dense concentrations of housing and jobs around transit stations in the United States, which they call transit villages. Although such a policy has not been widely adopted in the United States, Bernick and Cervero argue that if it were, it would alter travel behavior significantly. They promote transit villages as the most effective policy for lessening congestion and improving air quality that is politically acceptable. Congestion pricing, they concede (along with Pucher and Lefevre), would be more effective but is not politically acceptable. Transit villages are a second-best alternative.

Bernick and Cervero lay out their argument in three parts. Their evidence includes results of numerous funded research projects on relationships between urban form and travel behavior. Included are the authors' surveys of residents and employers near rail stations in a wide variety of areas. Some of the research has been conducted under the auspices of the Transit Cooperative Research Program, an on-going research program of the Transportation Research Board and the American Public Transit Association. Their evidence also includes descriptions of many of the efforts at integrating residential and commercial development with rail transit stations in the United States.

Part One, including two chapters, introduces the concept of the transit village for application in contemporary United States. Borrowing concepts from the new urbanists Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck, Bernick and Cervero define a transit village as a mixed-use cluster of housing within walking distance (about 0.4 kilometers) of a plaza defined by a rail transit station and a commercial and civic core. The walking distance constraint limits transit villages to encompassing about 65 hectares. Such areas could house upwards of 4,000 households if developed mostly for residences and perhaps 2,000 households and 5,000 jobs if developed for both residences and regional employment. Either orientation would contain community-serving shops and offices, as well, all in an attractive setting that would appeal to middle class suburbanites. Unlike Calthorpe, who outlines a system of transit-oriented development blanketing an urban area, built around bus lines as well as rail lines, Bernick and Cervero consider transit villages only in the context of rail transit stations. Also, unlike Calthorpe, who describes some transit villages as having high levels of regional employment, Bernick and Cervero's work focuses on the blend of transit villages with mostly residences and little regional employment, though some of their case studies from Washington, D.C. are in fact large-scale employment centers  [footnote 2].

Bernick and Cervero argue that transit villages retrofitted into low density sprawl environments would lessen traffic congestion and air pollution by enticing residents out of automobiles. Transit villages also would break down class and race barriers of the post-World War II auto-oriented suburb. "Today's auto-oriented suburbs have isolated people by age, class, and race---the young from the old, the rich from the poor, whites from blacks. [In transit villages] people are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and an attachment to community (page 6)." Chapter 2 summarizes several historical precedents to transit villages from the period before 1920, when streetcar lines and commuter train stations influenced urban form.

Part Two presents what the authors call a theory of transit villages. Chapter 3 summarizes the rise, fall, and what the authors claim as the renaissance of rail transit in the United States. While their description of the rise and fall is based on transit demand, their definition of the renaissance is based on transit supply; namely, the huge infusion of public funds into the U.S. transit industry since 1970. Their argument is that rail transit has been politically popular since the 1970s, rail station areas, particularly those with parking lots, present a great opportunity for redevelopment, and if redeveloped as transit villages, the previous parking lots could greatly increase transit patronage. Chapters 4 and 5 present arguments that transit villages would in fact increase transit patronage. Chapter 6 is an analysis of demand for transit villages based on several different types of analysis. These include visual preference tests of simulated transit villages, and analysis of impacts that BART has had on rents and development. The latter are from the original BART impact studies and the BART-at-20 studies, the latter conducted by the authors and others.

Part Three is a survey of transit village initiatives in various parts of the United States, while Part Four is a description of land use and transportation relationships in three urban regions with high transit usage: Stockholm, Tokyo, and Singapore. Both Parts Three and Four focus on forces that have either brought transit villages into existence or have stymied their development. Both also further examine the impact of transit villages on travel behavior. Finally, Part Five is the conclusion.

A major problem with this work is that messages imparted by its text are not supported by its evidence. The heart of Bernick's and Cervero's argument that transit villages can reduce auto use is based on their surveys showing that residents of dwellings within walking distance of rail stations use transit much more than those who must drive to rail stations. In the San Francisco bay area, for example, about 47 percent of working residents of apartments and townhomes within easy pedestrian access of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District's suburban Pleasant Hill station use BART to go to work compared to only about 16 percent of the larger community of Pleasant Hill, and five percent for the suburban Bay Area. Bernick and Cervero found similar relationships in the Washington, D.C. metro area, and in other California regions with rail transit (though lower percentages in some of the other California systems). From this evidence, Bernick and Cervero conclude that once a suburbanite moves into a transit village, he or she will drive less and use transit more.

There are several problems with this reasoning. First, their premise overlooks another likely explanation for the higher transit modal split of transit village-like development. This is that transit villages attract already-committed transit users, not only from suburban areas, but also from central cities. The authors' survey of one of the most successful of the emerging transit villages, Pleasant Hill, supports the latter possibility. It shows that most of the village's residents previously lived in central San Francisco and Oakland rather than auto-oriented suburban areas (pp. 192-193). Similarly, their discussion of transit-oriented development in the Washington, D.C. area quotes a developer of an as-of-yet unbuilt project who said he was pitching the development to three groups. The first group is high-income singles living in central Washington but wanting to move to a more crime-free environment that retains some urban amenities (p. 233). If future transit villages lure people away from central cities rather than from sprawling suburbs, the transit village concept could further induce regional decentralization and lower transit use. (A person living in a central city generally could reach many more important destinations using transit than a resident of a suburban transit village.)

Another implication that the authors draw from their surveys is that the conversion of rail transit park-and-ride lots to residential transit villages would increase transit patronage. Again, their data do not support this point. The authors' figures (pp. 80-81) show that a suburban BART station serves an area of about 90 square miles. The average density is about 3,000 people per square mile, and the work trip transit mode split is about five percent. These figures should produce 6,750 transit work trip passengers per day for the station. [footnote 3]. The authors imply that if the parking lot were redeveloped into a transit village patronage would rise , but their data indicates that if would fall substantially. If the parking lot were redeveloped into a residential transit village, about 4,000 households would be within walking distance of the station. With a rail transit work trip mode split of 47 percent, the 4,000 households would produce only about 1,880 daily transit work trips. [footnote 4]. This is not to say that transit villages are bad for transit, but they should not replace park-and-ride lots that serve residential areas.

The principle problem is that even at high densities, a relatively small number of households can be located within walking distance of rail stations. Because Bernick and Cervero fail to address this problem, much of their argument loses force. This point comes into focus when Bernick and Cervero refer to Anthony Downs' criticism of transit oriented residential units in Stuck in Traffic. Downs, an economist at the Brookings Institution, dismisses the ability of the residential-oriented transit village concept to reduce traffic congestion or reduce air pollution in the United States by more than a few percent. His reasoning is that the total area within a quarter mile of rail transit stations is such a small percentage of total built urban areas in almost all large U.S. metropolitan regions that no matter how the station areas are developed, their cumulative impact would make no noticeable difference in metropolitan travel behavior. [footnote 5]. Rather than defuse this argument, Bernick and Cervero at the end of Chapter 5 agree with it, after presenting their own calculations showing its truth when applied to the San Francisco Bay Area. The authors then further weaken their case by stating that transit villages need to work in conjunction with other public policies, such as assessing motorist the full social costs of driving. This unfortunate admission undercuts the very purpose of their book, which is offering a second-best alternative to the social pricing of auto travel.

Bernick's and Cervero's presentation of case studies of transit village implementation also presents discord between text and data. Their Chapter 6 examines the impact of transit stations on land markets, purporting to show that transit stations strongly impact housing and employment markets, particularly in the Bay Area. Underlying statistics do not support the claims. Table 6.1, for example, purports to show that transit oriented housing has fewer autos than housing distant from stations, but the results are statistically insignificant, and in any event, the households farther from the station have fewer autos per household member. Figure 6.10 shows rent premiums for housing near BART stations compared to that farther away, and again the results are insignificant. The discussion of a hedonic model of rent premiums concludes with, "The finding that both proximity to transit and project compactness get capitalized into higher rents bodes well for future of transit-oriented developments in the Bay Area and potentially elsewhere," (p. 160), but the note 46 supporting this statement reveals that neither of the parameters of variables measuring distance to BART stations and project compactness are statistically significant. At the end of the chapters, the authors finally admit that BART has had little impact on land markets except in downtown San Francisco, and that if transit villages are to blossom, planners have got to intervene.

The reader then turns the page to Part Three to examine case studies of planner intervention. Many of these are proposals that have not been implemented. Some are actual developments that look very unlike the models that the authors presented. There is not one transit village presented situated on a working transit route. According to Bernick and Cervero, Pleasant Hill has come closest in the Bay Area to becoming a transit village, but the authors conclude that Pleasant Hill lacks a village atmosphere. In Pleasant Hill politics have defeated proposals for a more complete development, and elsewhere in the United States politics have defeated ambitious as well as relatively minor proposals for redevelopment of existing rail transit station areas. NIMBYism and political opposition from those with vested interests in already-existing commercial and residential development seem to be the main culprits. Poor real estate markets in high-crime areas also appear to have brought other proposals to naught. Projects that have come to partial fruition have done so because of local government or transit agency leadership (sometimes prodded by community advocates) in assembling land and making it available to developers at below-market prices. There is one proposal (Fruitvale on BART) where community support is helping implementation in a depressed inner city area, but most successful projects have been built in areas where there already were active real estate markets and where citizen opposition to development was low. The results of Part Three also suggest that the size of the transit network and the number of destinations that can be reached by it have some bearing on transit oriented developments coming to fruition, though Bernick and Cervero only hinted at this point several times.

Overall, Bernick and Cervero go well beyond their evidence in overselling a concept, that may none-the-less have some merit. The evidence in Transit Villages suggests that local government policy (and subsidies) can make a difference in stimulating denser residential and commercial development with pedestrian orientation, and that some consumers are willing to buy into such developments in safe areas with active real estate markets. Transit systems are not necessary for such developments, but the larger and more complex the transit system is, the more likely it is that developers will be interested in cooperating with transit agencies in transit village construction. Land that transit agencies have assembled around stations may offer attractive sites for transit villages if it is situated in safe areas with active real estate markets, but ridership gains may be less than anticipated, particularly if villages displace parking lots. In a more promising vein, the evidence also hints that a network of villages, some developed as regional employment centers linked by a network of bus as well as rail routes, such as Calthorpe suggests, could have a synergistic effect on transit patronage. Unless congestion pricing is adopted, however, transit villages in the United States offer no promise for reduction in regional traffic congestion or air pollution, thus corroborating Pucher's and Lefever's work.


1. Pucher, John. "Bicycling Boom in Germany: A Revival Engineered by Public Policy." Transportation Quarterly. Vol. 51 (Fall 1997): 31-46.

2. Peter Calthorpe. The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream. New York. Princeton Architectural Press, 1993.

3. 90 square miles times 3,0000 people per square mile yields a population of 270,000. At two people per worker, we have 135,000 workers, and at a modal split of five percent, we get 6,750 morning work trip BART riders.

4. 4,000 households would yield about 4,000 workers at two residents per worker, and a modal share of 47 percent would yield 1,880 morning work trip BART riders.

5. Anthony Downs. Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1992): Appendix D.


Last modified: March 18, 1999