TCS Daily

Railroaded to Nowhere

By Joel Schwartz - July 22, 2002 12:00 AM

Mass transit accounts for only about one percent of travel in the U.S. But the American Public Transit Association, the national lobbying organization for transit agencies, recommends America increase transit use ten-fold to match European levels. The result, according to APTA, would be lower transportation costs and less air pollution.

The report, "Conserving Energy and Preserving the Environment: The Role of Public Transportation," is flawed at almost every level. However, its most serious failing is that it begs the question of how motorists could be enticed to shift en masse to transit in the first place. APTA never asks why most people choose cars and suburbs over dense cities and mass transit. Instead APTA sets an arbitrary goal to increase transit use ten-fold and asserts this can be achieved without net costs.

Perhaps this would work in some fantasy world where people didn't value rapid, flexible, and inexpensive travel, and didn't care whether they lived in an apartment or a single family home. But in the real world, getting people to use transit is no easy task. Transit's share of travel is tiny and has been declining for decades, even though transit receives 100 times the subsidy per passenger-mile as autos. Transit's share has been declining even in New York, Chicago, and most of America's other dense, transit-friendly cities.

To increase transit ridership, APTA holds up Europe as a model the U.S. should follow. But it's Europe that's emulating the U.S. Despite its dense cities, extensive public transport, and $5 per gallon gasoline, per-capita automobile use increased by factors of two to five during the last 30 years in most European cities, while both urban population densities and transit's share of trips dropped by 20 to 50 percent. Europeans, like Americans, are embracing the automobile's convenience and the amenities of suburban living as rising incomes put auto travel within reach of most households.

Metropolitan planning organizations, the regional agencies that draft metropolitan transportation plans, predict that even spending thousands of dollars per capita on new urban transit services - hundreds of billions on a nationwide basis - would at most increase transit use by a few percentage points (and MPO transit ridership predictions have generally turned out to be optimistic). Yet APTA recommends increasing transit use by a factor of 10, and claims this would provide "significant economic advantages." On the contrary, while small increases in transit use would come at a huge cost, the expenditures necessary to achieve a ten-fold increase would likely be crippling.

APTA also commits another cardinal sin of economic analysis - assessing only the benefits of a pet policy proposal, while ignoring both its costs and the costs and benefits of alternative approaches that might be better. For example, APTA reports only the energy savings from shifting people from cars to transit, but ignores the enormous costs of transit. Including all capital and operating expenditures, transit costs about 68 cents per passenger-mile, while autos come in at only about 20 cents. Even transit riders themselves aren't willing to pay anywhere near the real costs of providing the service. Fares cover only about 28 percent of transit expenditures with the rest subsidized by taxpayers.

Despite its woeful economic analysis, APTA achieves its analytical nadir with its ill-informed claims about transit and air pollution. While advocates tout the air quality benefits of transit, the evidence suggests there's no relationship between transit and air quality. The figure below plots per-capita transit expenditures versus air quality for more than 50 major metropolitan areas. The correlation between the two measures is zero. This isn't surprising, given that few people use transit, regardless of expenditures.

U.S. Cities: Number of Days in 2000 Exceeding Federal Ozone Standard vs. Dollars Spent on Transit per City Resident

Even if transit use could be substantially increased, it would be a foolish way to reduce air pollution. Pollution measurements on roadways and in vehicle inspection programs show auto pollution is declining by about 10 percent per year as older cars leave the fleet to be supplanted by newer ones that start out cleaner and stay cleaner as they age. Partially as a result, areas that exceed the federal ozone standard achieved a 30 percent reduction in high-ozone days between 1995 and 2001. Thus, just one year of fleet turnover reduces air pollution more than the entire air quality benefit achievable from APTA's proposed transit increases.

That doesn't mean we can't reduce air pollution even faster. Most auto pollution is caused by only a few percent of vehicles - so-called gross polluters. These vehicles can be cheaply identified with an on-road pollution measurement technique called remote sensing, and their owners required to repair the car or voluntarily scrap it for a cash incentive. Such a program could reduce auto pollution by an additional 10 to 15 percent within a year, and at less than 0.1 percent the likely cost of a ten-fold increase in transit use.

Road congestion is another serious problem in urban areas, and unlike air pollution, it is getting worse. But increasing transit use generally requires increasing road congestion. Transit is viable only at relatively high population densities, yet increasing density also packs more cars into a smaller land area, increasing congestion. Some cities, such as Portland, are also curtailing road building with the express goal of making driving less convenient to encourage greater transit use.

Instead of trying to make commuters miserable, scarce transportation dollars should instead be allocated to reflect the actual relative demand for transit and auto travel. That would allow cities to provide the additional automobile infrastructure necessary to keep up with travel demand, reduce road congestion, and provide a transportation system that meets residents' needs.

Most people prefer auto-based lifestyles and technology and fleet turnover are mitigating air pollution. Even huge increases in transit expenditures won't substantially increase transit use. APTA was able to find otherwise only by playing a game of make believe.

Joel Schwartz is a Senior Fellow with Reason Public Policy Institute, and a former California Air Quality Official.

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