Is paying for transit a waste?

COST Commentary: The article below is from 2003 but it is very current with the issue. The article captures the essence of the key question regarding transit expenditure “bang for the buck” or: Why do cities spend so much money on public transit when it does not relieve congestion? The author concludes: “However, these is no connection between transit and traffic congestion, strange as that may sound.”

The major change to facts is that transit commute ridership has grown a little in actual numbers and increased a tiny estimated percentage of 0.2% from 2000 to 2010 according to the census in 2000 and the census community survey estimates in 2010. The percentage has essentially flattened for the first decade since the 1960 census when work trip data was first collected. US commuting by transit is still below the 5% mentioned in this article.

This first very small public transit increase was clearly due to significantly higher gas prices and the poor economic conditions. Past similar situations have caused temporary transit increases but never enough to create even slight decade over decade increases. Some analyses indicate that puplic transit ridership has actually decreased from 2000 to 2010. It is probably not worth the discussion. One thing is clear, the minor increase in public transit was only a very small part of the slight decrease in driving. Most of the driving decrease was in automobile trips not taken. Drivers took fewer long trips and did more planning to combine or chain trips in urban driving.

By Cliff Slater, Honolulu Advertiser, March 10, 2003

At an American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) panel discussion held last week, Tom Jackson, ASCE’s National President, detailed America’s and Hawaii’s crumbling infrastructure problems and discussed needed funding for sewers, highways, water systems and mass transit.

When it was my turn, I suggested that the increased spending he had recommended for mass transit could be better spent in the other areas. Here’s why.

In the early 1970’s, the U.S. began subsidizing mass transit of various kinds, including subways, light rail, ferries and bus systems. According to the American Public Transportation Association, those taxpayer-provided subsidies increased to $160 billion in combined building and operating subsidies just for the last ten years alone. [i]

The result of this spending?

According to the U.S. Census, the number of commuters using public transportation has declined steadily at every census since 1960—not just the percentage but the number of commuters.

In 1960, 7.8 million commuters used transit but that dropped to 6.1 million by the year 2000 despite a doubling of the work force. Thus, transit usage as a percentage of commuters is half of what it used to be—today it is less than 5%. [ii]

How can we have invested billions in subways like San Francisco’s BART and Washington’s METRO, light rail lines in Portland, San Diego, and Denver among many others, and in new bus systems all over the U.S. and finish up with fewer people commuting by public transportation? Good question.

It appears that the switch from commuting by mass transit to commuting by automobile that began in the 1920’s has continued unabated despite these massive taxpayer subsidies for public transportation. This is an “investment” that has not paid off. At best, you can only claim that the subsidies slowed the decline of public transportation.

Honolulu’s experience has been little different. The City took over a profitable bus system in 1972 and required subsidies from that moment on. Today, Honolulu taxpayers subsidize TheBus by over $100 million annually in capital and operating costs. It has become 10% of the city budget—yet ridership declines. Fewer commuters, both in number and percentage, use TheBus to commute today than did in 1980. [iii] And that is despite a 31% increase in the number of buses in use.

What was, and is, the point of spending all this money—both locally and nationally?
The American Public Transportation Association claims that one of the benefits of public transportation is “less traffic congestion.” And taxpayer support has primarily been from the perception that “investments” in mass transit would relieve traffic congestion. However, there is no connection between transit and traffic congestion, strange as that may sound.

Traffic congestion has deteriorated both in those cities that have spent vast sums of money on transit and those that have spent little. Of the 20 U.S. cities that have the worst traffic congestion, we find that 18 of them also have experienced the worst increases in congestion. [iv] And, further, these 18 cities are those where the vast bulk of the transit subsidies have been incurred.

We might wish to encourage public transportation for other reasons but it should not be to relieve traffic congestion.

If we are to deal with traffic congestion sensibly, we have to approach the subject in a businesslike way devoid of wishful thinking, “visions,” knee-jerk responses, and other impediments to clear and rational thought.

How are we going to do that?

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at
[i] Operating spending:
Capital spending:
See also

[ii] Census journey-to-work data 1960-1990 for the U.S: For 2000:

See also: Journey-To-Work Trends in the United States and its Major Metropolitan Areas 1960-1990. Federal Highway Administration. Publication No. FHWA-PL-94-012. November 1993. For change in workers: tables 5-6 and 5-6A. For changes in public transportation use: table 5-9A.

[iii] Honolulu commuting: Table DP-3 on page 3 for 2000. Section 12 Labor Force, Table 12.03 for 1990. Select “Hawaii,” then select “Honolulu, HI,” then select table “Labor force, employment and journey-to-work (Census).” Then search for two lines:
Total workers reporting means of transportation to work 1990 = 437,518
Workers using public transportation to work (includes ferryboat) 1990 = 40,643

The latest data from TheBus also shows continuing declines in ridership:
“Patronage of TheBus totaled 68,430,491 in FY 2002, compared with 70,384,025 in FY 2001. TheBus operated a total of 1,354,440 bus hours in FY 2002, compared with 1,339,604 in FY 2001.” page 228, DTS-9

[iv] During the period 1982-2000, since the Texas Transportation Institute began measuring traffic congestion data in U.S. urban areas for their Urban Mobility Studies.

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