Reason #3 to Stop Subsidizing Transit
Few Use It and Fewer Need It

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.

In 1960, 22 percent of American households did not own a car and transit municipalization was partly justified on the social obligation to provide mobility to people who couldn’t afford a car. Since 2000, only 9 percent of American households don’t own a car, and it is likely that almost everyone who wants to own one (and is physically able to drive) has at least one car in their household. As a result, the market of transit-dependent people has dramatically declined.

Half the households with no cars also have no employed workers in the households. Of the 4.5 percent of workers who live in households with no vehicles, 41 percent take transit to work, 32 percent carpool or drive alone to work (presumably in a borrowed vehicle, probably provided by their employer), 23 percent walk, bicycle, or use other means, and 4 percent work at home. In other words, transit doesn’t even work for most people who don’t have cars.

American Community Survey data for 2015 show there are fifty urban areas in which more than half the workers who live in households with no cars nevertheless drive alone to work, while there are fewer than ten in which most take transit to work (though, since one of them is New York, that’s still a lot of people). (Column AN shows the percent of workers who live in households with no vehicles, while columns AO through AT show how those people get to work.)

As the market consisting of transit-dependent people has declined, the transit industry has focused instead on attracting people out of their cars–so-called transit-choice riders. But hasn’t done very well with that, as indicated by the declining number of people who take transit to work. In short, few people really need transit and those who choose to use transit are equally small in number.

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10 thoughts on “Reason #3 to Stop Subsidizing Transit
Few Use It and Fewer Need It

  1. msetty

    Hey, mimizhusband, don’t drive in some places, you might be accosted by sqeegeemen. Though mostly eradicated in New York, but problem still exists. Also, had your car stolen or broken into lately?

    By The Antiplanner’s logic in this post, we need to abandon at least half (2 million miles) of road in the U.S. because their usage is far too low to justify their existence, and they certainly don’t cover their costs through fuel and other motor vehicle taxes.

    Don’t want to do that, Antiplanner? Thought not.

    And try to explain to Bay Area taxpayers why they should spend the $40-$50 billion+ in new roads and bridges that would be needed to replace the current peak period capacity provided by BART, versus the $5-$10 billion needed over the next 20 years or so to keep it in proper condition.

    In the New York region, you got the trillion or two that would be needed to “replace” the subway and commuter trains? Again, thought not…

  2. Frank

    “we need to abandon at least half (2 million miles) of road in the U.S. because their usage is far too low to justify their existence, and they certainly don’t cover their costs through fuel and other motor vehicle taxes.”

    A “muh roads” argument. Haha.

    Have a source for the “at least half” hedge?

    Roads don’t necessarily need to be abandoned; they first need to be privatized. If a paved road can’t be supported by user fees, then it can revert to gravel. If a gravel road cannot be supported by user fees, it can revert to dirt. If a dirt road cannot be supported by user fees, it can be maintained voluntarily by those who use it; if people don’t want to voluntarily maintain the road, it can revert to a trail or be reclaimed by nature.

    No subsidies for choo choo trains. No subsidies for roads. Period.

  3. msetty

    Hey Frank, for someone who went to college, you sure lack common sense. The point was if we are going to stop subsidizing transit, we need to stop subsidizing roads, too. Every kind of road.

    In theory, I agree with Frank that driving on various kinds of roads should be fully covered by user fees, including various lightly-used But politically, I would like to see him try to collect the direct “user fees” for various lightly-used rural roads and USFS roads in places like Montana or Wyoming. He’d most certainly get shot if not worse. Good luck, particularly to any elected official in such places that tried to implement it.

    More realistically, congestion pricing commensurate with costs and covering the most egregious negative externalities of urban freeways and other limited access roads makes economic sense. However, good luck with that one, too. The most hypocritical place regarding such things must be urban Texas, where even new toll roads are fought tooth and nail by the highly subsidized, suburban drivers of Texas–who at last official count, only paid half of the cost of state highways–but of course, that page on the Texas DOT website was disappeared rather quickly.

    The bottom line is that auto apologists like The Antiplanner deny that driving is at least as heavily subsidized per trip as transit, when the cost of “free” (sic) parking is considered, let alone the heavily-documented negative externalities of driving, and the massive network of roads, utilities and other infrastructure resulting from our over-reliance on the automobile since 1946.

    Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns website has a ton of evidence on this problem.

    As for other negative externalities such as pollution and GhG emissions, if the benefits of driving are so great, then drivers should (in an ideal world, but not that imagined by libertarian “idiot savants” Age of Idiot Savants Book) be willing to cover the total costs imposed on society and the environment by the act of driving.

    But then that would mean implementing pricing and market-based principles almost completely ignored by ideological liberatarians like The Antiplanner (but not by the likes of Strong Towns).

    Additional reference: http://www.citylab.com/transportation/2015/04/the-social-costs-of-driving-in-vancouver-in-1-chart/389805/.

  4. Henry Porter

    Mahron is a civil engineer who is making a living criticizing anything and everything civil engineers have done or allowed to be done or done under the orders of politicians for the last 100 years. He acts like he’s in charge trying, sentencing and executing his profession for war crimes.

  5. prk166


    The bottom line is that auto apologists like The Antiplanner deny that driving is at least as heavily subsidized per trip as transit, when the cost of “free” (sic) parking is considered, let alone the heavily-documented negative externalities of driving, and the massive network of roads, utilities and other infrastructure resulting from our over-reliance on the automobile since 1946.

    Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns website has a ton of evidence on this problem.

    Maroh didn’t eat his own dog food until last year. Can you imagine taking seriously a doctor refusing to quit smoking but he himself didn’t? One could rationalize it every which way but at the end of the day, if it really made a difference they’d do it.

    I’m not sure what compelling evidence CM has shared? I haven’t seen him publicly share the calculations he’s made to claim that it doesn’t add up. I for one have looked at a few of the situations he’s cited as being obviously broken and couldn’t find the problem. Paper napkin math showed that te businesses on the road were paying enough in property tax to cover the costs of the STROAD projects he was wining about. Throw that in with sales taxes, county and state contributions, et al. and with a simple glance it’s obvious the venture is in the ball park of breaking even; right about where a government venture should be.

    In other situations “chuck”, as you like to call him, shuts off his brain. You can see why he wasn’t able to cut it as a civil engineer, he frequently doesn’t understand what he’s measuring. A classic example of this is his ideologically driven obsession with Wal-Mart. Several times he’s brought up the efficiency of some mom and pop lot downtown compared to a near-by Wal-Mart. The amount of property tax paid per acre is not an indication of economic efficiency, city financial health, etc. Even worse he consistently gets the basic details wrong. For example, the Wal-Mart in Grand Rapids, MInnesota that he moans about is 4 times more “efficient” than he claims. He bizarrely declares that the Wal-Mart in on 156 acres, not the actual 18 acres it’s on.

    I could go on. He may be a nice guy but he’s a few fries short of a happy meal.

  6. the highwayman

    Frank, what are you going to do when you lose your job to a robot? Yet you’ll defend a blatant charlatan like Randal O’Toole! :$

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