Image by Max Pixel licensed under Creative Commons.

New York's elevated railroads brought transit to farmland and sparked development of a city. China still does this. But in the United States, today, transit projects are expected to bring massive ridership instantly or risk being shut down or criticized.

Governing Magazine editor Alan Ehrenhalt writes about Judge Richard Leon's ridiculous ruling that blocked Maryland's Purple Line light rail. Leon halted the project because, he said, initial projections of its usage hadn't accounted for Metro's ridership declines. Never mind that the Federal Transit Administration said enough people would ride the Purple Line if Metro shut down completely; there wasn't enough data to prove to Leon, beyond a shadow of a doubt for a man evidently skeptical of the transit project, that it was worthwhile.

Leon's ruling came in a case brought "by some suburbanites living in the vicinity of the project" who, Ehrenhalt writes, "had no legitimate environmental concerns; they just didn’t want a transit line in their neighborhoods. But they knew how to take advantage of the giant loophole that NEPA had become." (An appeals court has temporarily allowed the project to resume work while the litigation is resolved.)

NEPA is the National Environmental Protection Act, which has a noble goal: to protect the environment. But it requires such detailed analyses not just of whether a project will actually pollute water or kill wildlife but impact "the quality of the human environment" in any way, including "an enjoyable harmony between man and his environment."

Under the law, Ehrenhalt explains,

It soon became a common requirement for communities and developers planning any new transportation project to justify it by predicting how it might be used 10, 20 or 30 years later, even though no such prediction stood much chance of being accurate. Planners often had to thread the needle when it came to feigning clairvoyance. If the usage they forecast for a project was too heavy, the project could be halted on the grounds that it would lead to unacceptable congestion. If the forecast came in too low, a judge could declare it to be an unnecessary intrusion on the pristine land around it.

Even though there's no way to predict the future perfectly, transit projects have the Scylla of NEPA lawsuits on the one side if their ridership projections are too low. And then, if the projections are too high, the Charybdis of articles like this recent one in the Washington Post.

The 2004 environmental study for the Silver Line predicted, for instance, 3,803 riders per weekday at McLean; there were only 1,618 per day in May. But the areas around the Silver Line stops are still mainly suburban office parks ringed by parking, separated by nearly-uncrossable mega-roads. Fairfax County is slowly—slowly—making the roads more walkable, and development is (fairly quickly, now) transforming the parcels.

WMATA planning head Shyam Kannan explained what's going on to reporter Lori Aratani.

“I can’t stress enough that ridership is a product of land use,” said Shyam Kannan, managing director of planning at Metro. He said that the ridership projections came at a time when the economy was booming and were based on “heroic assumptions” about how quickly development would take place around the five new stations. These assumptions failed to materialize, he said, because of a combination of factors, including the 2008 recession, 2013 global economic collapse and, closer to home, sequestration and cuts to the defense budget. Those factors cooled the appetite for new construction.

“The good news is that things did unfreeze,” said Kannan. “If you head out to Wiehle, you’ll see nothing but construction cranes. All of that portends many thousands of trips on Metro.”

It took more than five years for Rockville Pike to transform around Metro. White Flint station has been open 33 years, and it's just now getting walkable urbanism. Clarendon, Fort Totten, Congress Heights—the list goes on. The Silver Line is catalyzing Tysons' transformation; it's unrealistic to expect it to happen overnight.

And yes, some ridership estimates did predict that, but perhaps only because the way environmental law is interpreted (and because of limited, competitive funding), transit projects have to get an A+ or it's as good as an F, at least in the minds of some judges. It's a perversion of the intent of laws like NEPA when most road projects move along a steady path to approval and the much more environmentally friendly transit projects have to run an endless gauntlet of unpredictable and potentially fatal obstacles.

Meanwhile, in China, they build subway stations like this:

This is Caojiawan station in Chongqing, photos of which went viral recently for being oddly in the middle of nowhere, without even roads to the area. This isn't so crazy; the line is going out here in anticipation of urban development to come.

Maybe putting it in before even a road is unusual, and the state of environmental protection is much, much different in China, but building transit before the other buildings makes a lot of sense. Most of New York's early elevated railroads went to what were then at most lightly populated areas of Manhattan, or opened up new parts of Queens and Long Island for development, and so on. Same in many other cities. Streetcar lines were part of building communities like Takoma Park.

The Flushing line (now 7 train) in Queens, 1917.

But imagine what Judge Leon would say if someone wanted to build transit to a yet-to-be-developed area. Or what would appear in the news five years later.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.