From Rhetoric to Reality on Transit

newgeography by Wendell Cox 12/01/2008

Rhetoric always seems to trump reality in the headline department. This has been evident as a fawning press and commentators have made the most of the decline in driving from high gas prices and the related increase in transit ridership. As gas prices rose to their above $4.00 peak, driving in the nation’s urban areas had declined 2.0 percent over a year. At the same time, transit ridership rose 3.3 percent, leading to the impression that transit ridership increases had accounted for most, if not more than the loss in driving.

Now, as gas prices dip below $2.00 nationally, $1.50 in some places and to their lowest point since well before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there are indications that the new riders are returning to their cars. Here in the St. Louis area, where I live, prices are now $1.39, the lowest in the nation.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, notes lower transit ridership and increased freeway traffic volumes, while the Dallas Morning News notes that it is no longer a challenge to find parking places at DART rail stations.

As gasoline prices have returned to reality, it is a good time also for the transit rhetoric to be transformed into reality.

First, the increase in transit ridership was never significant in overall terms. Yes, ridership increases in some systems strained capacity on the already crowded buses and trains taking workers to downtown locations. But, since transit accounts for so little in urban mobility, the increases counted for little in the overall scheme of things. For example, the 10 percent increase in ridership that occurred in the Atlanta area could account, at a maximum, for only a 0.2 percent decline in automobile use.

The reason is simple: less than two percent of travel in the Atlanta area is on transit. Atlanta was among the leaders. In most other urban areas, the impact of the transit increase was less than 0.1 percent. It is thus not surprising that the decrease in driving and increase in transit translated into a national urban market share increase somewhat greater than 0.1 percent over the last year – that is 1 out of 1,000.

Second, as much as some commentators applauded the shift, it is important to understand why it occurred. The shift did not occur because people had been convinced that such a move would materially reduce greenhouse gas emissions (It would not – outside the New York City area, cars emit little more greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than transit). The shift occurred, purely and simply, because it was in the best interests of the shifters. It saved them money and worth the time lost (transit work trip travel times are double that of the car). Now that driving is no longer prohibitively expensive, it is rational to expect much of transit’s ridership gain to be lost.

Third, the return to the car should not be considered a reflection of the much ballyhooed “love affair” with the automobile. Simply put, people use transit where it makes sense and do not where it does not.

This can be illustrated by six households on a typical street in Long Island’s Nassau County, an inner suburb that borders the city of New York. One in 6 Nassau County workers was employed in Manhattan in 2000. For them, travel to Manhattan from Nassau County makes total economic and psychic sense. Crossing Queens and maybe Brooklyn – particularly at rush hour – on the way to Manhattan is an experience to be avoided. In addition, train and even bus travel into Manhattan is relatively fast and, once on the island, the subway can whisk you to a dazzling array of locations. No surprise that 75 percent of Mahnattan workers take transit to work.

But what about the other five workers? Even in New York, transit services to work locations other than Manhattan tends to be sparse. As a result, the other five neighbors who do not work in Manhattan drive to work. It’s not those five have a love affair with the automobile, any more than the Manhattan commuter has romantic attachments to the subway. It simply indicates that for 5 of the workers, using a car makes sense, while for one, using transit does.

Indeed, if one is looking for true love affairs, look to refrigerators or toilets. It can be expected that all six houses have them. Of course, such a characterization would be ludicrous. People tend to adopt those products and practices that make their lives better. For those few (in the national context) who work in the largest downtown areas, transit makes their lives better. For those working elsewhere, cars do. Finally, it can be expected that when all six workers go to a supermarket, the furniture store or Jones Beach, they use the car. Even Manhattanites abandon transit to motor on weekends to their second homes across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania in the Poconos.

Some transit advocates believe the answer is to expand transit service so it can be as convenient and time-effective as an automobile. There are two difficulties with this. The first is that any such expansion would likely cost more to build and operate, each year, than the total personal income of any urban area attempting it. This is probably why no one has ever seriously proposed it. There is another issue: history shows that new money for transit does not produce a corresponding increase in transit ridership. From 1970 to 2006, US transit expenditures rose 270 percent, after adjustment for inflation. Over the same period, transit use rose less than 20 percent. The result – only 7 cents of new value (new transit ridership) was obtained for each new $1.00. So any infusion of new cash to expand transit service is likely to be largely wasted.

Talk of auto eroticism or of a transit oriented future can capture the romantic sense in people and planners. But the reality remains that people will choose the mode of transport that makes their lives better, not those that make their lives more difficult.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”

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