The Bankruptcy of the Modern Transit Model

by Randal O’Toole, posted in Transportation on Antiplanner Blog

Over the past 25 years, the population of the Pittsburgh urban area has remained fixed at about 1.8 million people. Driving, however, has increased by almost 50 percent. During this period, Pittsburgh has spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading light-rail lines, building exclusive busways, and — in the latest project — building a $435 million transit tunnel under the Allegheny River. Despite (or because of) this investment, transit ridership has dropped by more than 25 percent.

Although the numbers vary slightly from place to place, Pittsburgh’s story is pretty typical of transit everywhere. Sure, some cities have seen ridership gains, but subsidies to transit are huge and transit does not make a notable (meaning 5 percent or more) contribution to personal mobility in any urban area except New York (where it is 10 percent).

Bill Steigerwald, an editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, surveys the failure of the transit industry through an interview with the Antiplanner’s friend, Wendell Cox. Cox’s comments are scathing.

Since 1970, says Cox, “transit expenditures have gone up more than 300 percent adjusted for inflation and ridership has gone up less than 20 percent. There is no other sector of the economy, including health care, where I can find escalation even close to that.”

Every time someone points out that transit is a waste of money, they are beaten down with the mantra that “transit isn’t profitable anywhere else, so why should it be profitable here?” How do we let people get away with such absurd statements?

Cox points out that transit is profitable in some places. Tokyo, for example, has 10 private — and profitable — commuter-rail systems and two subway systems there “cover all their operating costs as well as almost all of their capital costs.” Here, a transit agency is doing good if it covers 40 percent of its operating costs and none of its capital costs.

I would add that major cities in many developing nations rely on private transit systems that are profitable. When transit-subsidy advocates say transit isn’t profitable elsewhere, they mean in Europe. And Cox points out that most European countries have stopped their national transit programs and pushed funding down to the local level. This has at least forced economy measures such as contracting out transit services to private parties, which saves taxpayers 40 to 50 percent of the cost of running a transit line.

Why do we put up with this? The answer, of course, is that transit is pork. “For most transit agencies in the United States, if they were to write a mission statement that is reflective of what they do, they would indicate that they exist for the purpose of serving their employees and vendors,” not transit riders, notes Cox.

Steigerwald asks Cox if anyone is looking at an alternative transit model. Instead of answering, Cox points out that Congress, the transit agencies, transit unions, and transit vendors all benefit from the current model too much to change it. The annual budget of the American Public Transportation Association, by the way, is $22 million, more than five times bigger than the budgets of all the highway lobbies in Washington, DC.

But there are other models. There is the jitney model, which Cox himself has promoted. There is the demand-response or smart jitney model — like the current paratransit system but open to anyone instead of just disabled people — promoted by Robert Behnke. Behnke adds a new twist to this model when he points out that wireless Internet can help dispatch transit vehicles. And there is the idea of virtual exclusive busways, which would allow buses to provide better service than almost any rail system on congestion-free roads paid for by tolled automobiles.

None of these ideas are popular among transit agencies because they don’t cost enough. So, in answer to yesterday’s question, “what is my agenda?” the agenda that Cox and I share is to provide better transit service at lower or no cost to taxpayers. But that threatens the entrenched special interests that depend on tax subsidies.

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