If So Many People Support Mass Transit, Why Do So Few Ride?

COST Commentary: The article immediately below describes a long term dichotomy regarding public transit: The vast majority of U.S. citizens have historically supported public transit, even as a declining percentage of citizens use it. My prediction regarding this gap is below.

It is clear that citizens throughout the nation have made reasoned mobility decisions which best support their desired quality of life. These decisions have resulted in the negative public transit trends discussed here and throughout this site.

The largest use of public transit is work commuting but public transit is less than 5% of the total, behind drive alone and carpooling. Excluding New York, work-at-home is also ahead of the use of public transit throughout the nation. About 65% of the nation’s work commuting is in six pre-automobile cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco. About 96% of U.S heavy rail transit is in these cities. The rest of the nation’s transit ridership is very small as it is spread over many cities throughout the nation.

Total U.S. transit ridership has been stagnant and small for more than 50 years while many billions of tax dollars have subsidized the expansion of transit. Therefore, the percentage of citizens choosing transit has significantly declined. Work commuting has declined from just over 12% to less than 5% since 1960 when this data was first reported in the U.S. census. Meanwhile, the cost of public transit has risen faster than inflation, creating an increasing burden on all taxpayers.

Austin is no exception. Its public transit work commuting 2.3%, declining for many years, and is 5th behind drive alone, car pool, work-at-home and all other (includes bike & walk). Austin does have two major negative distinctions: Its average bus ridership is 10 people, well below other similar cities and its fare recovery of less than 10% is one of the lowest in the nation for a major city. Austin’s total transit ridership has also been stagnant and small for the past 15 years. It is actually lower last year than 15 years ago and Cap Metro projects further declines this year and next year. Austin’s substantial investment in transit, its commuter rail and a 56% increase in population have made no difference in this negative ridership trend.

My prediction: The decreasing use of transit and the increasing costs are resulting in a beginning of closing the gap between transit riders and transit supporters. Transit supporters and riders will recognize the value of cost-effective transit solutions and will cease to support the runaway costs of ineffective transit, which can only serve to reduce the entire community’s quality-of-life. We need to start this in a very big way in Austin as “brakes” are applied to the proposed light rail in Austin’s Proposition 1, near the end of November’s ballot. This will began to close the “gap” and serve the greater-good of the community.

The second article below from a year 2000 issue of ‘the Onion,’ has the famous title:

“98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others”

The article contains several comments and quotes from people about the future growth of transit and its role in mobility. For those not familiar with ‘the Onion,’ it is a clever news satire organization. This parody contains similar comments to those we still hear today regarding the merits of transit, especially train transit; in spite of the overwhelming and growing experience that transit is a small and declining portion of mobility and an increasing portion of taxes. Much as the Onion article satire suggests ways to increase transit use, 14 years ago, the article below makes a shallow attempt at suggesting the possible enhanced future roll of transit. Not likely; the current declining trend has existed for a long time and swiftly moving new technology can produce a paradigm shift in transit and mobility which will further antiquate 150 year old train technology.

The reckless pursuit of ineffective transit, which is the highest cost transit mode, is resulting in a growing economic burden on taxpayers who must subsidize it, and, to decreasing and higher cost transit service for those who need it. This is a losing combination for the community. We need cost-effective transit which will serve the most people needing it, from the most trip origins to the most destinations. Inflexible, extremely high cost rail transit such as the proposed $1.4 billion, 9.5 mile light rail will only degrade mobility and the overall community.

If So Many People Support Mass Transit, Why Do So Few Ride?
Closing the support-usage gap will be key to a strong public transportation future.

By ERIC JAFFE in CITYLAB, September 22, 2014.

Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: “98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.” But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.

What’s more striking about the support-usage gap is that it doesn’t just exist on paper. In addition to saying they support transit funding, Americans back up that support with their own pocketbooks. Time and again at the polls, people are willing to raise local taxes to maintain or expand the transit service that so few of them actually use. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, there were 62 transportation measures on ballots across the country in 2012—many with a considerable transit component—and nearly 80 percent of them succeeded.

Nor do these investments necessarily pay off in greater transit usage over time. Recently, transit scholars Michael Manville and Benjamin Cummins analyzed 21 local transportation funding ballots from 2001 to 2003, and found that, on average, these tax increases were approved by 63 percent of the vote. Yet a decade later, the share of commuters who drove alone in these places had fallen just 2 points, from 87 to 85 percent, while the share of transit commuters had stayed the same, at 5 percent. At best, the behavioral shifts were modest; at worst, they didn’t exist.

People believe transit has collective benefits that don’t require their personal usage.

One of the clearest examples of the disparity comes from Los Angeles County. In 1980, about 7.5 percent of commuters used transit. That year, voters approved a permanent half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation initiatives, including lots of transit upgrades, but by 1990, the share of transit commuters had declined to 6.5 percent. That year, voters again approved a half-cent increase by a two-to-one margin, with nearly all the money going to transit. But the transit commute share was still at 7 percent come 2008, when yet another transportation ballot, Measure R, was passed by two-thirds of the vote.

So why do so many people support transit—not just with their voices but their wallets—when they have no intention of using it? The conclusion reached by Manville and Cummins largely echoes that of the Onion: people believe transit has collective benefits that don’t require their personal usage. Maybe voters think transit will reduce traffic congestion, or improve the environment, or help low-income residents, or translate into economic development. So long as someone else uses transit right now, everyone else will win in the end.

This outcome may seem obvious, but the data behind it are truly staggering. Take a look at one analysis Manville and Cummins perform on a transportation survey conducted by the National Resources Defense Council in 2012. They found no statistical connection between respondents who supported transit funding and those who wanted to drive less, or even those willing to use transit if it were more convenient. But respondents who believed “the community would benefit” had a700 percent increase in odds of being a pro-transit voter. The researchers write in the journal Transportation:

Put simply, Americans are more likely to see transit as a way to solve social problems than as a way to get around.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, so long as people indefinitely keep paying for transit they don’t use. Perhaps that’s even a sign of societal maturity. But problems will arise if voters stop agreeing to devote their taxes to transit, because the broader benefits they’ve hoped for fail to materialize. Of course, the reason these benefits don’t emerge is that the very people supporting transit aren’t riding it: traffic congestion isn’t going to get any better, after all, if every driver waits for someone else to shift to the subway or the bus.

There’s an even worse outcome already happening in some places: the wrong types of transit riders get subsidized with public money. Since transit ballots must often appeal to wealthier suburban communities to gain enough support to pass, much of the subsequent funding goes toward the commuter rail serving these areas. That leaves city bus riders who need good service most with a smaller slice of the pie. Transport scholars Brian Taylor and Eric Morris recently reported that rail riders get 31 percent more public funding than bus riders, on the whole.

Total inflation-adjusted transit subsidy per unlinked trip by mode: 1995 to 2009. (Taylor & Morris,Transportation, 2014)

Where all these trends converge is the realization that truly supporting transit requires more than just voting to support transit. To make a real dent in mobility trends, cities will need to make driving more expensive at the same time that they make transit more appealing. “So long as many transit supporters prefer to drive, new transit spending may neither increase transit ridership nor reduce driving,” write Manville and Cummins. “Taxing driving, in contrast, could accomplish both.” But it doesn’t take the wisdom of the Onion to know that’s an idea far less than 98 percent of commuters will support.

Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others

the Onion, Nov 29, 2000

WASHINGTON, DC–A study released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association reveals that 98 percent of Americans support the use of mass transit by others.

Traffic moves slowly near Seatte, WA, where a majority of drivers say they support other people using mass transit.

“With traffic congestion, pollution, and oil shortages all getting worse, now is the time to shift to affordable, efficient public transportation,” APTA director Howard Collier said. “Fortunately, as this report shows, Americans have finally recognized the need for everyone else to do exactly that.”

Of the study’s 5,200 participants, 44 percent cited faster commutes as the primary reason to expand public transportation, followed closely by shorter lines at the gas station. Environmental and energy concerns ranked a distant third and fourth, respectively.

Anaheim, CA, resident Lance Holland, who drives 80 miles a day to his job in downtown Los Angeles, was among the proponents of public transit.

“Expanding mass transit isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity,” Holland said. “My drive to work is unbelievable. I spend more than two hours stuck in 12 lanes of traffic. It’s about time somebody did something to get some of these other cars off the road.”

Public support for mass transit will naturally lead to its expansion and improvement, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said.

“With everyone behind it, we’ll be able to expand bus routes, create park-and-ride programs, and build entire new Metrolink commuter-rail lines,” LACMTA president Howard Sager said. “It’s almost a shame I don’t know anyone who will be using these new services.”

Sager said he expects wide-scale expansion of safe, efficient, and economical mass-transit systems to reduce traffic congestion in all major metropolitan areas in the coming decades.

Morning rush hour on one of Los Angeles’ economical, environmentally friendly buses.

“Improving public transportation will do a great deal of good, creating jobs, revitalizing downtown areas, and reducing pollution,” Sager said. “It also means a lot to me personally, as it should cut 20 to 25 minutes off my morning drive.”

The APTA study also noted that of the 98 percent of Americans who drive to work, 94 percent are the sole occupant of their automobile.

“When public transportation is not practical, commuters should at least be carpooling,” Collier said. “Most people, unlike me, probably work near someone they know and don’t need to be driving alone.”
Collier said he hopes the study serves as a wake-up call to Americans. In conjunction with its release, the APTA is kicking off a campaign to promote mass transit with the slogan, “Take The Bus… I’ll Be Glad You Did.”

The campaign is intended to de-emphasize the inconvenience and social stigma associated with using public transportation, focusing instead on the positives. Among these positives: the health benefits of getting fresh air while waiting at the bus stop, the chance to meet interesting people from a diverse array of low-paying service-sector jobs, and the opportunity to learn new languages by reading subway ads written in Spanish.

“People need to realize that public transportation isn’t just for some poor sucker to take to work,” Collier said. “He should also be taking it to the shopping mall, the supermarket, and the laundromat.”

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