Carrying large packages, suitcases, or shopping bags on transit is awkward at best and impossible at worst. Anyone who expects to travel with such cargo, even if only some of the time, will do best with a car.
In 2007, Ikea opened its first store in Portland. It is 280,000 square feet, has around a thousand parking spaces, and is near a light-rail station. How many people who plan to do more than just window shop do you imagine carry their purchases home on the light rail?
Drag right to see the Cascades light-rail station, which is much further from Ikea than any of the parking spaces.
Rather than maintain transit systems in a state of good repair, the transit industry has chosen to build more transit lines that it can’t afford to maintain. Transit riders respond to delays and dilapidated transit by finding other methods of travel.
The Department of Transportation’s latest assessment of the nation’s transit systems found an $89.8 billion maintenance backlog. Moreover, the backlog is growing by $1.6 billion a year, because rather than fix transit systems, transit agencies are building more.
To eliminate the backlog in 20 years, the report calculated, every single dollar now being spent on transit improvements must be transferred to maintenance and preservation. Alternatively, the industry must find at least $5.8 billion in new subsidies each year (see page Roman numeral L).
Housing, jobs, and other destinations are so diffused throughout American urban areas that they don’t generate the large numbers of people moving from one point to another that mass transit systems need to work.
“Transit worked when American cities were denser,” is the mantra of today’s urban planners. “If we can increase their densities, transit will work again.” Reality is a lot more complicated, and that reality explains why transit can’t work in American urban areas even if their densities increase.
From about 1880 to 1913, transit and cities co-evolved thanks to new technologies that benefited both. The same steam engines that powered commuter and early rapid transit trains also powered downtown factories. The same Bessemer steel that made the rails that streetcars and urban trains rolled upon also provided the structural beams that allowed construction of skyscrapers. The same electric motors that moved electric streetcars also powered electric elevators that gave people quick access to the upper floors of those skyscrapers.
Compared with the aura of security offered by riding inside of an automobile, many people avoid transit because they feel vulnerable and threatened by other riders.
Crime, sexual harassment, and other invasions of privacy are common on metro systems throughout the world. Sexual harassment is especially bad on Tokyo subways, and a survey of 600 women transit riders in Paris found that 100 percent of them reported having been sexually harassed.
Such harassment often depends on the anonymity that comes with extreme crowding, but most American transit systems don’t get that crowded precisely because Americans won’t accept the invasions of personal space required for such crush conditions. Still, there are numerous complaints of sexual harassment on the New York City subway. Crime is rapidly rising on the DC Metro as well.
The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that, for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit.
Public transit is the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in the United States, with subsidies per passenger mile that are 50 to 100 times greater than subsidies to driving. But people who use transit are only dimly aware of the subsidies. Even without counting the subsidies, most people don’t ride transit partly because the alternatives, including driving, cost so much less.
Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to anymore. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless.
This week, the Antiplanner is exploring the myth that Americans don’t ride transit because they have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas, and transit’s limited destinations is one of them.
The Portland urban area, for example, has around 15,000 miles of roads and streets. The region’s 80 miles of rail transit don’t begin to reach the number of destinations that can be reached by car. Adding the roughly 1,000 miles of bus routes helps, but still requires many people to walk long distances to and from transit stops.
Most transit is much slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling.
There’s a myth that Americans have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars, and they don’t ride transit because of that irrationality. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas while transit provides less than two percent.
One of the most important reasons is that transit is slow. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book, the average speed of rail transit is 21.5 miles per hour, while the average speed of bus transit is 14.1 mph (see page 7). So-called rapid transit, known to the Federal Transit Administration as heavy rail, averages just 21.1 mph, while light rail is 15.6 mph and streetcars are a pathetic 7.7 mph (see page 40).
Asian-based writer Adam Minter has taken a hard look at China’s high-speed rail program and found it wanting. The country has built some 12,000 miles of high-speed rail lines, more than the rest of the world combined.
San Antonio, notes Texas Public Radio, is “the largest city in the country without a rail system to move” its residents. As a result, the article implies, people are “stuck behind the wheel,” and the article’s headline asks, “Should San Antonio Reconsider Rail?”
Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, of course, suggests that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But more important, the article is guilty of the Politician’s Fallacy, which is: “1. We have to do something [in this case, about congestion]. 2. This [rail] is something. 3. We have to do this [build rail].”
Before jumping to any conclusions, San Antonians should ask how well rail is moving people in other cities. The first point to note is that, when TPR says that San Antonio is the largest city not to have rail, there are only six larger cities to consider. We don’t think of San Antonio is being the nation’s seventh-largest city, but it is true because Texas cities have strong annexations powers, so tend to be much larger than cities elsewhere. Houston, Dallas, and Austin are also among the nation’s eleven largest cities.
Civil engineer and transportation expert David Levinson starts with the premise that the oil industry receives $20 billion in subsidies from the United States each year, and concludes that this subsidy has minimal impact on urban transit. When, a few years ago, gasoline prices were double what they are today, transit ridership was only about 0.1 percent greater than it is today. Assuming ridership would have kept up with population growth, a “100% increase the price of fuel gets you a 5% increase in ridership,” says Levinson.
But back up a minute. Who says the oil industry gets $20 billion in annual subsidies? As the anti-petroleum group, Oil Change International admits, most of that “subsidy” is a tax deduction for oil exploration. As Forbespoints out, this is the kind of subsidy that is “also available to any U.S. manufacturer such as Apple or Microsoft.” As the pro-petroleum OilPrice.com says, “The suggestion that depletion or depreciation deductions on income from investments that might not otherwise exist amount to a subsidy is a remarkable interpretation of the rules of accounting and the English language.”
Some countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, actually give their residents direct subsidies to use oil. The United States does so only to help low-income people buy fuel oil to heat their homes. Otherwise, the “subsidies” people complain about are really just tax deductions for ordinary business expenses.