Denver urban planner Drew Willsey has what he thinks is a great idea: relieve traffic congestion by paying people to ride transit. He accepts, reluctantly, that the billions of dollars Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) has spent on rail transit hasn’t worked: transit’s share of commuting has dropped from 4.9 percent in 2000 to 4.6 percent in 2016, and, considering ridership is dropping, probably lower in 2017.
Unfortunately, like many other planners, Willsey can’t get the idea that transit is the solution to everything out of his head. He implicitly assumes that transit is good, cars are bad, and the most cost-effective way of relieving congestion is always by increasing transit.
In Denver, at least, none of these assumptions are true. The Transportation Energy Data Book says that cars used about 3,000 BTUs and light trucks about 3,600 BTUs per passenger mile in 2015 (and probably slightly less in 2016). The National Transit Database says RTD used 3,800 BTUs per passenger mile in 2016. Cars emit about 212 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger mile, light trucks 268, and RTD 272. Certainly some cars and trucks are worse, but some are much better.
Willsey’s brilliant idea is to pay people 25 cents every time they board a transit bus or train. Since RTD carries about 100 million riders a year, he calculates this would cost about $25 million a year. He estimates this would lead transit usage to “skyrocket,” but he neglects to note that, if it did, it would end up costing a lot more than $25 million a year.
Curiously, he never mentions fares. RTD collected an average of $1.32 a ride in 2016. If Willsey means to refund 25 cents of that, the actual fare would average $1.07. Reducing fares by 25 cents a ride would probably increase ridership, but I doubt that it would skyrocket.
Let’s say for the sake of argument it increased ridership by 50 percent. Then the annual cost would be $37.5 million, of which $25 million would be going to people who were riding transit anyway. In the extremely unlikely case that a 19 percent decrease in average fares doubled ridership, the cost would be $50 million, not $25 million.
Since he never mentions fares, it is possible that Willsey is proposing to completely eliminate fares and pay people 25 cents a ride. That would certainly increase ridership, but it would cost a lot more than $25 million. If it doubled ridership, it would cost about $314 million a year, about 1150 percent more than his estimate, and half of which would be going to people who were already riding transit.
Update: In an email to the Antiplanner, Willsey confirms that his proposal is to eliminate fares and pay people 25 cents a ride. He admits that he failed to accurately account for the cost.
Although Willsey is arithmetically challenged enough to not realize the cost would be eleven times what he claimed, he enthuses that doubling transit’s share of commuting would “decrease substantially” the need to build new roads in the next 25 years. The Denver area grew by 75 percent in the last 25 years, and it is reasonable to expect it might do the same in the next 25 years. Doubling transit’s share might get roughly 5 percent of commuters out of their cars, which I don’t consider to be “substantial” compared to a 75 percent growth in commuting.
Willsey totally ignores the transportation elephants in the city, which are ride sharing and the prospect of driverless ride sharing in the next few years. Ride sharing has already significantly reduced transit ridership nationwide since 2014. One investment firm estimates that driverless ride sharing companies will charge 35 cents a vehicle mile, which is only slightly higher than average transit fares of 28 cents per passenger mile.
Given that fares only cover a quarter of RTD’s operating costs, moving someone by a driverless ride share in Denver will soon cost less than transit, and the fares will be only a little more than transit. So why should taxpayers spend even more money on a transportation system that is likely to soon go extinct?
There are a lot of ways to relieve congestion, and almost none of them have anything to do with transit. One of the few ways transit could relieve Denver congestion is by reducing it, because on many routes buses and light-rail trains get fewer cars off the road than the congestion they themselves create.
As the Antiplanner never tires of reminding people, roads are unique in that their capability for moving people declines when demand increases. A freeway lane that can move 2,000 vehicles per hour at 50 miles per hour can only move 1,000 vehicles per hour at 25 miles per hour. Keeping traffic from slowing down can actually double road throughput during rush hours.
So it would be nice if planners such as Willsey would stop obsessing with last century’s form of travel. They could instead spend their time finding cost-effective ways to keep roads from becoming congested, which would benefit everyone.