Rapid Transit Shouldn't Be a Deal-Breaker for Amazon

The country’s rapid-transit systems are falling apart and it’s not clear where the money is to fix them. 

Amazon recently announced that it is looking for a home for its second headquarters and city officials nationwide are clamoring to get it. As part of the announcement Amazon specified a few criteria that it wants its new city to have. Observers have used these criteria to create short lists that include the usual suspects of New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., as well as dark horses like Austin, Atlanta, Detroit, Denver, and Pittsburgh. One of the things separating the favorites like Boston from the underdogs like Pittsburgh is the availability of rapid transit (e.g. subways), but Amazon shouldn’t let a lack of rapid transit be a deal-breaker.

Amazon’s desired criteria include a metro area population of over one million people, proximity to an international airport, site access to mass transit, and an educated workforce. All of the metros listed above have large airports and large research universities that can supply the talent Amazon needs, especially if the company partners with local universities to create internship programs. But Midwestern and Southern cities often lack the heavy-rail systems found in coastal cities. Amazon might think this is a drawback, but going forward it’s likely to be a benefit for two reasons.

First, the country’s rapid-transit systems are falling apart and it’s not clear where the money is to fix them. Decades of underinvestment have left New York City’s subways and D.C.’s Metro in shambles. Delays are the norm and ridership in D.C. is falling, putting additional strain on the transit authority’s budget. Uber and Lyft have become viable alternatives to subway or metro rides, and many of the people I know in the D.C. area prefer them to the risk of getting stuck on the Metro.

Boston’s system, the “T”, is also in serious need of some upgrades. Train cars with a 30-year life expectancy are being used for 50, and one estimate puts the maintenance backlog at over $7 billion. Boston’s harsh winters wreak havoc on the dated system, leading to delays, closures, and stranded customers.

Chicago’s train system, the “L,” works better than the other systems, but it’s unclear how long this will last since both the city and the state of Illinois are broke. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making a big push to get Amazon but the company would be crazy to locate there, L or no L.

Chicago’s population has been declining for decades and the decline is likely to accelerate as the both the local and state government fall further into the red and city services worsen. The young, college-educated workers that Amazon wants can avoid thousands of dollars in future taxes that will be used to pay off debts accrued before they were born by not living in Illinois. Amazon might be a good place to work, but is it good enough to overcome that?

Heavy rail systems might have been an asset for cities in the past, but now they are a huge liability with uncertain futures in places that can’t afford them. Cities without heavy rail can use their transportation dollars to build the infrastructure of the future without simultaneously maintaining antiquated systems built around 20th-century technology.

Which brings us to the second reason rapid transit is overrated: driverless cars. While no one knows exactly what the business model for driverless cars will look like, many people believe that car manufacturers and rental car companies will own fleets of cars and consumers will rent a car only when they need a ride.

In many ways driverless cars will function as a more personalized form of rapid transit, where the car will show up when and where you need it and take you precisely where you want to go, eliminating time-consuming trips to and from a station. Their ability to wirelessly communicate with one another will also alleviate much of the congestion experienced by drivers in big cities today.  Driverless cars are already being tested by several companies in Phoenix and Pittsburgh and at some point in the not-too-distant future they’ll be common.

Driverless cars are the future, and cities without heavy rail, trollies, street cars or other non-bus modes of public transportation shouldn’t waste resources building them now since driverless cars and buses use the extensive system of roads that already exists. Instead, those dollars would be better spent on technologies that facilitate road travel, such as city parking systems with real-time surge pricing, electronic tolling systems, and smart roads that melt snow and transmit traffic information.

While New York, D.C., Boston, and Chicago are pouring billions of dollars into their dilapidated rail systems,  Pittsburgh, Denver, Atlanta, and other cities should focus on creating a 21st-century transportation system that doesn’t involve clunky, expensive trains. Amazon might not appreciate it now, but it will make these cities better off in the long run.