Public transit helps the poor, saves energy, and cleans the air, right? Not really. Transit is a subsidy to the wealthy as much as it is to the poor, and it really isn’t any greener than driving.
Some low-income people ride transit, but the people most likely to use transit to get to work are those who earn $75,000 and up. According to table B08119 of the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, 6.6 percent of people who earn $75,000 and up take transit to work, as opposed to just 6.2 percent of people who earn $15,000 or less.
Nor is transit particularly green, at least, not according to the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book. The average car uses about 3,100 BTUs per passenger mile while the average SUV uses about 3,500. By comparison, transit buses and light rail average about 3,800. While heavy rail averages just 2,150 BTUs per passenger mile, that is heavily weight by New York City. Outside of New York, the only heavy-rail lines more energy efficient than cars are in San Francisco and Atlanta. By operating mainly during rush hours, commuter rail does okay at 2,700 BTUs, but many commuter lines, including those in Dallas, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Philadelphia, are worse than driving. Continue reading
Only the government would complain when the number of customers using one of its services grows. At least, that’s the case with an article about the increase in freight traffic as UPS, FedEx, and other shipping companies make more deliveries due to on-line sales. Supposedly, a “siege of delivery trucks is threatening to choke cities with traffic.” If roads were properly priced, of course, this wouldn’t be a problem–but if they were properly priced, the transit lobby wouldn’t be able to steal $16 billion a year from highway user fees.
In a statement sometimes attributed to Will Rogers but whose true author is unknown, someone said, “the solution to congestion is for government to make cars and business to build the roads.” Whoever said this understood that government tends to create shortages of things that people want, while private businesses tend to create plenty.
Speaking of private businesses, Waymo–the new name for the spin-off company developing Google’s self-driving cars–is inviting residents of the Phoenix metropolitan area to apply to be among 500 “early riders.” The company will loan 500 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to families to try out. Apparently, this is on top of cars that have already been loaned to 100 families in the area.
Transit advocates like to claim that transit is somehow crucial to urban vitality, even in cities where only a few people use it. The reality is that lower taxes play a bigger role in urban growth–and spending more on transit means higher taxes.
Transit almost certainly is crucial to New York City, where 58 percent of commuters take transit to work. It also is important in Washington, DC (40%), San Francisco (37%), Boston (34%), Philadelphia and Chicago (28% each). It is somewhat important in Baltimore, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Seattle (all about 18%-19%). These numbers apply to the cities; transit is far less important in most of their suburbs. There are only a few more cities in which transit has a double-digit share of commuters: Buffalo, Honolulu, and Minneapolis (14%), Portland (13%), Atlanta, Cleveland, and Los Angeles (12%), and St. Louis (11%), but these percentages are hardly crucial.
These numbers are for commuting, but transit’s share of other travel is much smaller. New York is the only urban area in which transit carries more than 10 percent of urban passenger travel; in fact, it was 11.5% in 2014. San Francisco-Oakland is a distant second at 7.6%. No other area comes close: Honolulu is 4.4%, Washington 3.9%, Chicago 3.8%, Seattle 3.3%, and Boston 3.1%. Every other urban area is under 3 percent. Such small percentages are hardly crucial to the future of those regions.
In 1960, when most of the nation’s transit was private (and profitable), 7.81 million people took transit to work. By 2015, the nation’s working population had grown by nearly 130 percent, and taxpayers had spent well over a trillion dollars improving and operating urban transit systems. Yet the number of people taking transit to work had declined to 7.76 million.
The share of households that owns no vehicles has declined from 22 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today, while the share owning three or more vehicles has grown from 3 percent to 20 percent.
Although 7.76 million isn’t a few, commuting is only a small share of the travel people do. In 2014, Americans drove 5.1 billion miles a day in urban areas, which (at 1.67 people per car) works out to 3.1 trillion passenger miles per year. The 57 billion passenger miles carried by urban transit was just 1.8 percent of the total. Add walking, cycling, motorcycles, and other forms of travel, and transit’s share is even smaller.
After more than a year of shut-downs, slow-downs, and break-downs, the Washington Metro rail system still faces a huge maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, rail opponents in Hawaii placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post begging President Trump to cancel funding for that city’s increasingly expensive rail project.
Click image to download a PDF of this ad.
The 20-mile Honolulu line was originally projected to cost $2.8 billion. Then it rose to $3.0 billion. By the time construction began, the projected cost rose to $5.1 billion. Now, the Federal Transit Administration says the final cost may be more than $10 billion. Although the agency denies the cost will be that high, it admits it doesn’t have enough money to finish the project. The federal government agreed to cover $1.5 billion and has paid half of that. The ad implores Trump not to pay the other half.
In 2015, the American Public Transportation Association issued a press release whose headline claimed that transit ridership in 2014 achieved a new record. However, the story revealed that 2014 ridership was the highest since 1956. That’s no more a record than if it was the highest since 2013.
The truth is that America’s urban population more than doubled between 1956 and 2014. Using the ridership number that really counts–trips per urban resident–2014’s number was a near-record low of 41 trips per person. The only time it was lower before 2014 was a few years in the mid-1990s, when ridership dropped to as low as 38 trips per person. The rate may fall to nearly that level in 2016.
Fifty-three years ago, the transit industry was mostly private and earned a net profit. Today, it’s almost entirely publicly owned, and subsidies have grown out of control. It’s time to take a stand and say all transportation subsidies are bad, but transit subsidies are the worst.
The National Transit Database says agencies spent more than $64 billion in 2015 yet collected less than $16 billion in fares. They carried about 55 billion passenger miles, for an average cost of $1.15 per passenger mile, of which 87 cents was subsidized. No other major mode of passenger transportation is anywhere near this expensive.
Americans spent about $1.1 trillion buying, operating, repairing, and insuring cars and light trucks in 2015, but they also drove their autos nearly 2.8 trillion miles. At average auto occupancies of 1.67 people (see table 16), that’s 4.6 trillion passenger miles by auto, for an average cost of about 24 cents per passenger mile. We don’t have 2015 data yet, but in 2014, government agencies spent about $72 billion subsidizing roads (add the $98 billion in “other taxes and fees” to the minus $10 billion in “less amount for nonhighway purposes” and the minus $16 billion for “less amount for mass transportation”).
After holding a final public hearing last night, officials in Durham, North Carolina will probably decide next week to build a $3.3 billion ($2.4 billion construction plus $900 million interest on debt) light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. It is hard to imagine any place that is more poorly suited for rail transit.
The region’s population density is less than 2,000 people per square mile. Except for the universities, there are no real concentrations of jobs. The biggest job center in the region, Research Triangle Park, has about 50,000 jobs spread out over 11 square miles, but it isn’t even on the proposed light-rail line. To make matters worse, the proposed 17.7-mile rail route is so circuitous that someone on a fat-tire bicycle could probably beat the train by taking a shorter route.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was pleased to announce last week that it would not be delaying any rush-hour trains due to maintenance work for a few days. However, starting this week, rush-hour frequencies on the Yellow Green Lines would be reduced by 20 to 50 percent, and part of the Green Line will be completely shut down for two weeks.
All of which has just become business as usual in Washington. The real news is that WMATA plans to raise fares and cut service by up to 25 percent on July 1. Rush-hour fares will go up a dime, non-rush-hour by a quarter, and trains will stop running at 11:30 pm most days, instead of the current 12:30 am.
The big cut, however, will be to rush-hour service. Trains that now operate 10 times an hour will be cut back to 7.5 times an hour, effectively a 25 percent cut in service. Passengers can therefore expect a 33 percent increasing in crowding. Or, more likely, the system will lose even more riders.
The reason why you don’t have to file your income taxes until tomorrow, April 18 this year is that today is a holiday in the District of Columbia (which means DC IRS workers get the day off) to celebrate the passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862. Under this law, Congress appropriated a million dollars to buy DC slaves for $300 each, thus freeing 3,185 slaves.
Britain had freed slaves without violence in 1834 through compensated emancipation. Abraham Lincoln had long supported the idea of compensated emancipation, having introduced a bill for it during his time in Congress in 1847-1848. Robert E. Lee and many other Virginians also supported the idea.
The objections came from abolitionists, who felt slavery was immoral and slaveholders shouldn’t be compensated, and from slaveowners in the deep South, where cotton was a primary crop and cotton picking was such an undesirable job that they feared they could only produce it with slavery. Someone patented a mechanical cotton picker in 1850, but apparently it didn’t work very well for mechanical pickers didn’t replace humans for another hundred years.