The Infrastructure of Movement: Moving the City, an Overview and Bibliography for Urban Transit History

It would be hard to overstate the importance of infrastructure in the lives of Americans. In the nineteenth century, Henry Clay viewed the construction of transportation infrastructure – largely roads and canals – as a means to bind the nation’s communities together as one nation. Abraham Lincoln advocated for much the same. In the twentieth century, FDR established entire agencies to construct the skeleton of what became the country’s network of bridges, roads, and electrical grid. Created in part to provide jobs for the unemployed, programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) both constructed the built environment that has enabled national mobility and employed those jobless Americans who would utilize it. Infrastructure’s physical manifestation, then, represents only a portion of its importance. And that is particularly true when discussing urban transit.

Woman modeling a suit on the platform of the New York City subway system’s Fifth Avenue station, Michael A. Vaccaro, 1959, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Various historians have lauded transit systems for expanding democracy, enabling economic growth, and fostering a sense of community. In her history of Mexico City, Diane Davis explored how the capital’s transit systems impacted local populations and shaped national politics. [1] On a more macro level, the failure to invest in public transit, particularly robust bus systems, serves to deepen inequality, argues transit expert Steven Higashide, author of Better Buses, Better Cities.

A certain paradox exists at the center of American infrastructure debates. Despite being the wealthiest country in the world, our investment in infrastructure remains fairly anemic. “The near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future, eschewing what doesn’t yield the quick payoff, political and physical,” wrote Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books in 2016, “has left us with hopelessly clogged traffic, at risk of being on a bridge that collapses, or on a train that flies off defective rails, or with rusted pipes carrying our drinking water.” “Depending on the measurement,” she continued,  “the United States ranks from fourteenth to thirtieth among all nations in its investments in infrastructure.” Needless to say, nearly four years of periodic “infrastructure weeks” have failed to improve things. [2]

Houston, Texas. Boarding a bus, John Vachon, May 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Urban transit systems are no exception to this dynamic of underinvestment and neglect. They might even serve as the epitome of federalism: local municipalities and states have to decide if an investment is worth making. While the federal government does provide some level of funding, planning and construction remains largely up to local actors. The 2013 infrastructure report compiled by the American Society of Engineers graded the nation’s mass transit infrastructure a “D.” [3]

As anyone who has traveled across the U.S. can tell you, urban transit varies greatly from metropolitan area to metropolitan area. Moreover, even within one city, transit systems consist of numerous parts: buses, light rail, subways, trolleys, streetcars, and dedicated lanes to cyclists. While denser versions of transit exist more commonly east of the Mississippi and in northern cities – New York, Chicago, and Boston for example – numerous exceptions exist such as Seattle, Atlanta, and San Francisco, among others.

Four Level Interchange, Intersection of Arroyo Seco Parkway & Harbor, Hollywood, & Santa Ana Freeways (milepost 23.69), Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, CA, no date, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet, if any form of transportation symbolizes the American ideal of transport, it is the automobile. “The freeway is literally a concrete testament to who we are, and it continues to structure the way we live,” writes David Brodsly about the southern California highway system in the 1970s. “The L.A. freeway is the cathedral of its time and place. It is a monumental structure designed to serve the needs of our daily lives, at the same time representing what we stand for in this world.” [4]

With climate change, oil scarcity, and the political struggles of the Middle East coming into fuller focus at the end of the twentieth- and start of the twenty-first centuries, automobility has lost some popular appeal, while urban transit, however limitedly and haltingly, has gained greater salience – even in Brodsly’s SoCal. For example, famously car-centric Los Angeles approved referendums to fund the building of urban transit during the 1980s under the leadership of Mayor Tom Bradley, a return to its Red and Yellow Car past. (L.A. was once home to the world’s largest urban electric train system.) Over the past forty years, the city has gradually carried out the construction of an integrated system of subway and light rail as well as Bus Rapid Transit. [5] As of 2015, its Blue Line, stretching from Long Beach to Los Angeles, stood as the nation’s most-used light rail. Though, quite troublingly, the overall system has failed to secure consistent ridership; for the past five years, the number of riders has declined each year.

Metro Center subway station being being constructed at 13th and G Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., Warren K. Leffler, November 16, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

On the east coast, Lyndon Johnson enacted what has become the capital’s Metro system under the auspices of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). “A product of its era,” writes Zachary Schrag, “Metro emerged as public transportation not merely to transport commuters, but to build, in Johnson’s words, ‘a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.’” [6]

One of the few subway systems constructed in the post-World War II era (with Los Angeles, San Francisco (BART), and Atlanta (MARTA) the three other examples), Washington D.C’s Metro was established in an era, writes Schrag, during which “Americans passionately embraced the automobile.” [7]

In several ways, the process by which D.C.’s Metro came into existence is fairly representative of the challenges facing efforts to expand urban transit infrastructure. Community activism and bureaucratic delays bedeviled the Metro’s construction. One suit brought by residents of Yuma Street in the city’s tony North Cleveland/Cleveland Park neighborhood delayed construction of the Metro for two years at a cost of $6 million. Though admittedly, due to its population’s high levels of education, income, and knowledge of government bureaucracy, opposition in the nation’s capital might have been and continues to be more effective than in other locales. [8] Contemporaneous highway protests in New York, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere did successfully alter or prevent construction of freeways, but the two are not necessarily comparable due to the dearth of efforts to expand or establish subway lines in urban America as compared to an over abundance of highway construction. [9]

Red Line Metro subway train going one way arrives to join a train about to head the other direction at Metro Center Station, a transfer station to other lines beneath downtown Washington, D.C., Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In spite of such setbacks, by 2018 the DC Metro had extended service well into Northern Virginia and promised to expand further. Though it has struggled over the past few years, as overdue maintenance, budget shortfalls, service problems, crime, and competition from ride sharing services have undermined ridership, it remains a critical mode of transit in Washington D.C. Promisingly, before the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic afflicted the nation, ridership for D.C.’s Metro had rebounded, demonstrating the system’s resiliency.

Urban transit also matters for what it says about us as a nation. In many ways, urban transit reflects American society’s class, racial, and gender inequalities. In 2007, 90 percent of Americans drove to work; 76 percent of them did so alone. Under five percent commuted by public transit. “The people who used public transportation were much more likely than other Americans to be black or poor,” Emma Rothchild noted in 2009, and “they were more likely to be women than men; most of them lived in New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.” [10]

Entrance to the North Hollywood Metro subway station in Los Angeles, California, Carol M. Highsmith, 2013, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Anyone who has ever been to Downtown Los Angeles knows that the neighborhood serves as an entrepot for a largely-Latino workforce critical to the Southern California economy. These workers build the region’s architecture, care for its young and old, and pick, prepare, and cook the food that give the region’s residents sustenance. As USC scholar George Lipsitz wrote in 2005, “the cumulative total of janitors, maids, child care personnel, food service workers, clerks, secretaries, and day laborers riding the buses of Los Angeles on any given day, produced the kind of critical mass that formerly only existed in the factories and fields.” [11]

Not that we make it easy. Black riders spend one-third longer waiting for buses and trains as compared to their white counterparts. The poorest 20 percent of Americans spend 31 percent of their income on transport, the second poorest spends 21 percent, the third poorest 17 percent, the fourth poorest 15 percent. The wealthiest, meanwhile spend only 10 percent of their income on their transportation costs. A history of segregation and class-based zoning plays no small part in such inequities. “We can’t design a future where race and other hierarchical structures don’t matter in transportation,” writes Adonia Lugo, “unless we reckon with how they’re embedded in today’s unequal mobility landscape.” [12]

While subways and light rail remain very valuable, they are costly, require long debates and negotiations, and their construction can sometimes feel glacial. (Though to be clear, these points apply even more so to subways than light rail.)

In terms of cost alone, Sollohub cautions that a restoration of systems like the Los Angeles Red Line could be prohibitive. Describing the costs as “staggering,” he notes that the cost of restoring the kind of transit systems that many cities began dismantling during the Depression begins at “$10 million per mile, but often exceeds $100 million per mile. At this rate, the replacement cost could easily approach $1 trillion.” [14] Moreover, rebuilding often gets ensnared in development politics and NIMBYism. One opponent of the Purple Line light rail in Washington D.C., who now serves as Montgomery County executive, compared its construction to “ethnic cleansing.”

The former City Hall, on Market Square in Brownsville, Texas, became home to various city departments, as well as the bus terminal for the urban system, Carol M. Highsmith, March 14, 2014, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Bus systems ferry over 4.7 billion people annually; your average car lane carries 1,000 to 2,000 people per hour, while a bus-only lane ranges from 2,000-4,000. Compared to subways and light rail, these lanes cost less for patrons and can be expanded quickly and at lower cost to municipalities, but their deployment needs to be thought out. In addition to making access to buses easier and their schedules more frequent, planners can make small adjustments, such as allowing all-door boarding and placing stops after stop lights, both of which increase buses’ efficiency.

The experience of riding the bus also needs to be improved. Of the billions of trips riders take every year on the bus, many of them “are miserable, they’re circuitous,” as Higashide told Roman Mars on a recent episode of the podcast 99% Invisible. Even before the bus arrives, he continued, “you’re standing on the side of the road, sometimes not even with a sidewalk or a shelter.”

Americans largely view the bus as transit of last resort. As Higashide noted in his interview, “a class valence” exists in public attitudes about bus transit. Media depictions such as that of Earnest “Earn” Marks (played by Donald Glover) in the show Atlanta convey a similar idea. In the series’ first episode he broods over his failures in life as he’s forced to navigate the city by bus. Consider an even older example: the famous scene at the end of The Graduate, when a bewildered Dustin Hoffman and his girlfriend head off on a bus into a troubling unknown.

View of Houston from University of Houston-Downtown
View of Houston from University of Houston located in downtown Houston, Texas, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet bus transit can also be a solution. Houston’s revamping of its bus system serves as one example. Rather than add a tweak here and there, Houston undertook a complete redesign of its bus network. After existing for decades, the old routes no longer made sense; the metropolitan region’s job and retail centers had shifted such that the system’s orientation toward the downtown business district had to change. So the city built it anew, taking into account Houston’s new demographics. The resulting system placed a million new jobs and households within walking distance of frequent transit. In 2019, Houston and Seattle were the only two cities to see an uptick in bus ridership. Meanwhile, Houston also added three new light rail lines, which only made those new bus routes even more effective and efficient.

Finally, in some places like Los Angeles, multiracial social movements have spearheaded campaigns for improved and more environmentally-conscious bus transit. During the 1990s, behind the leadership of Eric Mann and Manuel Criollo, residents formed the Bus Rider’s Union (BRU) under the auspices of the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC). The BRU’s demographics embodied Los Angeles’ diverse population: 50 percent Latino, 25 percent black, 20 percent white, and 5 percent Asian. Its constituents, largely working-class janitors, maids, child care workers, and construction laborers, spend two to three hours commuting to work on overcrowded buses. “The buses would have forty people sitting and forty people standing, no air conditioning, completely messed up,” Criollo told Ethan Elkind for his book Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City. [13]

Through political pressure, protest, and legal action, the BRU successfully pursued a consent decree (established in 1996 and lasting until 2006), that mandated improved bus service in Los Angeles. Advocates like George Lipsitz argue that due to the consent decree, the BRU saved riders $25 million annually, reduced overcrowding on buses, and forced the MTA to buy 233 compressed natural gas buses with a promise to buy 55 more, for only $89 million. These reforms, he argues extended past transit: “[I]t entailed a transfer of wealth and resources from rich to poor, from middle-management suburban commuters to inner-city low-wage workers and from subsidies for private auto dealers and suburban rail contractors and builders to direct expenditures on safe, efficient, and ecologically-sound services for office workers, janitors, teacher’s aides and other unskilled workers.” [15]

At the time, critics such as former Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority CEO Roger Snoble argued that the consent decree actually increased traffic, placed increased burdens on an already cash-strapped agency and failed to increase ridership. Yet it seems clear that in truth, it undoubtedly reduced crowding, increased bus service frequency and reduced the system’s environmental footprint. The BRU also inspired movements in other cities, as environmental justice activists filed similiar lawsuits across the nation.

Getting from here to there in American cities remains critical to people’s lives and the health of the nation’s metropolis. Infrastructure’s impact cascades across populations. Whether you use bike lanes to commute to work, take light rail or subways, or jump on to your local bus, the state of urban transit factors into every part of our lives.

As always with our bibliography, we do not assume it to be comprehensive and encourage readers to add suggestions in the comments; special thanks to Jordan Patty, Evan Friss, John Stehlin, and Sarah Seo for their help in compiling our bibliography.

Map of subway routes in Lower Manhattan, with proposed World Trade Center site, January 29, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Urban Transit Bibliography

Amalgamated Transit Union. A History of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Washington, D.C.: Amalgamated Transit Union, 1992.

Avila, Eric. The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2014.

Baldwin, Peter C. Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930. Columbus, OH: University of Ohio Press, 1999.

Barnes, Catherine A. Journey from Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Barnum, Darold T. From Private to Public: Labor Relations in Urban Mass Transit. Lubbock, Tex: College of Business Administration, Texas Tech University, 1977.

Basmajian, Carlton. “Transportation and Power.” Journal of Urban History 38.6 (November 2012): 1114-1120.

Benjamin, Walter. Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002.

Brodsly, David. L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.

Carpio, Genevieve. Collision at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2019.

Chastain, Andra B. “Vehicle of Progress: The Santiago Metro, Techno-Politics, and State Formation in Chile, 1965–1989.” Phd Dissertation, History, Yale University, 2018.

Chambliss, Julian C. “A Question of Progress and Welfare: The Jitney Bus Phenomenon in Atlanta, 1915-1925.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 92, no. 4 (2008): 486–506.

Davis, Diane.  Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Model under construction in office, Paul Rudolph, between 1967 and 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

DiMento, Joseph F. C., and Cliff Ellis. Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013.

English, Jonathan. “Derailed: The Postwar End of New York City Subway Expansion.” Journal of Urban History (December 26, 2019).

Elkind, Ethan N. Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Friss, Evan. On Bicycles: A 200 Year History of Cycling in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

Furness, Zack. One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

Freeman, Joshua Benjamin. In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933-1966. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gutfreund, Owen. Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Henderson, Jeffrey. Street Fights in Copenhagen: Bicycle and Car Politics in a Green Mobility City. New York: Rutledge, 2019.

Higashide, Steven. Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run and Win the Fight for Effective Transit. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2019.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.

Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.

Lugo, Adonia E.  Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture & Resistance, Portland, OR: Microcosm Publishing, 2018.

Washington, D.C. Sunday cyclists watching sailboats at Haines Point [i.e. Hains Point], Marjory Collins, June-July 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Robert McCullough, Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.

Clay McShane, Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

McShane, Clay, and Joel Tarr. The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Miller, John A. Fares, Please! From Horse-Cars to Streamliners. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1941.

Mohl, Raymond A. “Citizen Activism and Freeway Revolts in Memphis and Nashville: The Road to Litigation.” Journal of Urban History 40.5 (September 2014): 870-893.

—— “Stop the Road: Free Revolts in American Cities.” Journal of Urban History 30.5 (July 2004): 674-706.

Molloy, Scott. Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Norcliffe, Glen. The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Norton, Peter. Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Plotch, Phil. Last Subway: The Long Wait for the Next Train in New York City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020.

Popan, Cosmin. Bicycle Utopias: Imagining Fast and Slow Bicycle Futures. New York: Routledge, 2019.

Rosenthal, Anton. “The Streetcar in the Urban Imaginary of Latin America.” Journal of Urban History 42.1 (January 2016): 162-179.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014.

Schrag, Zachary. The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Seo, Sarah. Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Sheller, Mimi. Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes. New York: Verso, 2018.

Shelton, Kyle. “Building a Better Houston: Highways, Neighborhoods, and Infrastructural Citizenship in the 1970s.” Journal of Urban History, 43.3 (May 2017): 421-444.

Streetcar motorman, Omaha, Nebraska, John Vachon, November 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Warner, Sam Bass. Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Sollohub, Darius. “The Machine in Society.” Journal of Urban History 34.3 (March 2008): 523-540.

Stehlin, John. Cyclescapes of the Unequal City: Bicycle Infrastructure and Unequal Development. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Vivanco, Luis A. Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing. New York: Rutledge, 2013.

Welke, Barbara Young. Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Wolfinger, James. Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.

Featured image (at top): The Watts Towers Metro subway stop in the low-income Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, Carol M. Highsmith, 2013, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] Diane Davis, Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

[2] Elizabeth Drew, “A Country Breaking Down,” New York Review of Books, February 25, 2016.

[3] Drew, “A Country Breaking Down.”

[4] David Brodsly, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981) 2, 5.

[5] Ethan Elkind, Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metrorail and the Future of the City (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014), 50-53.

[6] Zachary Schrag, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 1-2.

[7] Schrag, The Great Society Subway, 2.

[8] Schrag, The Great Society Subway, 160-1.

[9]  Eric Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2014).

[10] Emma Rothchild, “Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?” New York Review of Books, February 26, 2009.

[11] George Lipsitz, “Learning from Los Angeles: Another One Rides the Bus,” American Quarterly, 56.3 (Sept 2004): 512, 524

[12] Emma Rothchild, “Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?” New York Review of Books, February 26, 2009.

[13] Adonia E. Lugo, Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture & Resistance (Portland, OR: Microcosm Publishing , 2018).

[14] Darius Sollohub, “The Machine in Society,” Journal of Urban History, vol. 34 no. 3 (March 2008): 539-540.

[15]  Lipsitz, “Learning from Los Angeles,” 525.

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