Responding to the devastating decline in transit ridership, many interest groups are desperate to “save transit” from competitors and budget cuts. Transit agencies want to save transit. Transit unions want to save transit. Urban planners want to save transit. Transit advocacy groups want to save transit.
The only people who don’t want to save transit, it appears, are the travelers who for the past ninety years or so have increasingly found alternatives to transit that are faster, safer, cheaper, and more convenient. All of which suggests that those who want to save transit have lost sight of the real goal, which is–or ought to be–to provide cost-effective mobility for everyone.
The thing is, transit lost that battle decades ago. Though transit groups love to claim that transit saves people money, it is actually the most expensive form of travel in the United States by far. Moving a passenger one mile by transit cost (after all subsidies are counted) $1.17 in 2016. This was more than four times as much as driving, which cost just 24 cents per passenger mile.
Worse, instead of addressing this problem, the solutions offered by transit advocates would make transit even less cost effective. Take the TransitCenter, whose report on Chicago’s transit decline admits that ridership is falling due to ride-sharing competition, low fuel prices, and decreasing bus service. But the center’s solution focuses on just one issue: bus speeds (an issue previously raised by LA Metro). A chart on page 2 of the report shows what appears to be a precipitous decline in average bus speeds, but only looks large on the chart because they used a truncated chart that put the Y axis at 9 to show a decline from 9.8 to 9.0 miles per hour. Can anyone really think that buses would attract more riders by going 9.8 mph instead of 9.0 mph?
The 8 percent decline in bus speeds probably had far less influence on ridership than the 23 percent decline in CTA bus service (measured in vehicle revenue miles) over the same time period. Yet all of the TransitCenter’s expensive solutions focus on restoring bus speeds: giving buses their own dedicated lanes; resetting traffic signals to give buses priority over other traffic; and speeding bus boardings by having riders pay before they board. While the last idea at least has the virtue of not costing anyone but taxpayers, the first two put the needs of bus riders over auto users, which in the city of Chicago means putting the needs of 14 percent of commuters who take the bus over the 60 percent who drive or carpool to work (and the percentage differences would be even larger for non-commuter travel).
Unfortunately, too many urban planners don’t consider cost-effective mobility to be a primary goal. Instead, they are more interesting in using transportation to reshape urban areas to fit their preconceived notions of what a city should look like, which are generally 50 to 100 years out of date. Moreover, research indicates that transit doesn’t do much to reshape cities anyway, meaning both the goal and the means to the goal are wrong.
Mobility should be the primary goal of transportation agencies and policy makers because mobility produces economic value for everyone. Cost effectiveness should be part of the goal so that mobility is accessible to as many people as possible. Transit being slow and limited in its destinations offers little mobility at a high cost. Those who truly care about cities should stop trying to save transit and start trying to improve cost-effective mobility.