It’s clear now that Americans love mass transit. They just don’t want to ride it.
Randal O’Toole, author of The Vanishing Automobile and other Urban Myths
, points out the newly-released data from the 2000 census that shows Americans now travel nearly 100 times as much by auto (4.3 trillion passenger miles per year) as by transit (a mere 50 billion passenger miles per year).
However, we spend only four times as much on our vast network of heavily used highways as on our lightly used transit systems.
Transit fans complain that highways are “heavily subsidized.” O’Toole finds both highways and mass transit were subsidized by governments in 2000 at about the same level. However, since Americans travel 100 times more miles by auto than by transit, the transit subsidies, per passenger mile, are 100 times as large as for autos!
In 2000, various levels of U.S. governments spent $65 billion on road building, $30 billion on road maintenance, and $29 billion on highway administration, law enforcement, and other road costs. Governments also collected a bit more than $100 billion in gas taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls, offsetting much of the highway spending. $17 billion in highway user fees were diverted to mass transit and other non-highway uses. The net subsidy to highways was $22.4 billion.
Governments spent more than $40 billion between 1991 and 2000 on transit projects. They spent another $186 billion in transit operating expenses, while collecting only $72 billion in fares. The net subsidy to mass transit was $23.5 billion per year.
In addition, although both auto and transit absorbed about the same amount of government subsidy, the highways perform an additional public service. They not only carry far more people, but also a trillion ton-miles of freight per year. Highway trucks bring us everything from peaches and petticoats to—more new cars.
The good news for transit fans is that transit ridership has been rising—and is now back to the levels of 1960, at 9.4 billion transit rides per year. But since 1960, the U.S. population grew more than 50 percent, and urban auto mileage soared by a whopping 420 percent. So much for mass transit easing concerns about global warming from auto emissions.
Less than 5 percent of America’s workers are taking transit to work and only six cities (Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.) account for two-thirds of the transit passenger miles in America. All six have densely packed city center employment, which is becoming atypical of American cities.
The worst transit bargains have been the famed “light rail” lines built in such cities as Portland, Oregon, Boston, Baltimore, and San Jose. Highway costs average 2.8 cents per passenger mile, transit (mostly buses) costs 68 cents per mile, and light rail costs 137 cents per passenger mile! In 2000, the subsidies for a light rail passenger mile were 2.5 times as high as for buses.
New York’s ancient subways are the only rail transit systems more productive than a freeway lane. (A freeway lane averages about 25,000 passenger miles per directional route mile per day.) The average light rail line carries only about 4,400 passenger route miles per day.
Portland’s famous light-rail project is the spearhead of its “smart growth” policies. Portland uses deliberate congestion (narrowing roads, eliminating left-turn lanes) to foster light-rail ridership. Still, Portland gained only 24,000 transit commuters from 1993 to 2000 though it gained 380,000 new workers. Even the smart-growth poster city hasn’t made much of a dent in America’s preference for auto travel.
Why would Americans approve the taxpayer-funded creation of so much transit they don’t use? Obviously, in the faint hope that one of their neighbors will use the bus and thus clear a highway spot for them.
The lessons, says O’Toole:
Transit investments have failed to even slow, let alone halt, the growth in auto driving.
After decades of heavy transit subsidies that haven’t increased ridership, we should realize that urban transit is and will be a tiny element of the transport system in most cities. Unless your city has an unusual number of densely concentrated downtown jobs, such projects as light rail lines are a fraud against the taxpayers.
Growing urban congestion is more the result of transportation planners short-changing highway improvements (including high-occupancy lanes) than an argument for more transit spending.
This article appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune on September 26, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.