Many urban areas spend 25 to 50 percent of their transportation funds on transit systems that carry only 1 or 2 percent of passenger travel. Transit advocates eagerly plan rail lines, dedicated bus lanes, and other forms of intensive transit services in the hope of getting another 1 or 2 percent of people out of their cars. As bad as this is, they inevitably forget about the other component of transportation: freight.
Transit carries a respectable number of people in the New York urban area, a visible number in a few others, but an almost irrelevant number in most. Transit’s share is less than 1 percent in virtually all U.S. urban areas not on this list.
If people are the heart of any city, freight is the life blood. Without freight movements, people starve, hospitals run out of medical supplies, construction companies can’t get materials to job sites, traders can’t get their goods to market, and manufacturers can’t get the raw materials they need.
Transit carries virtually no freight. To be fair, a few commuter rail lines also support freight trains and some transit riders carry goods that might be considered freight. But transit vehicles themselves carry insignificant amounts of freight.
Highways and streets are shared by bicycles, cars, buses, and trucks. Railcars and other transit vehicles are used almost exclusively by passengers. Ask an urban planner to design a city’s transportation system and the result will almost inevitably emphasize transit. Ask the planner to design a freight transportation system and suddenly transit falls way down the priority list.
In short, a decision to emphasize transit in order to attract people out of their cars is also a decision to make consumer goods more expensive, increase costs to delivery companies such as FedEx and UPS, and drive up the costs for almost every business in a region. Freight is generally the least subsidized part of our transportation network; to be fair, subsidies to all forms of transportation should end.