When the Antiplanner travels around the country, I often meet people critical of their local transit systems. “The buses/trains are empty most of the time,” they say. “I saw a bus this morning with only one passenger on board.” “They put advertising over the windows so we can’t see in to see how empty they really are.”
People shouldn’t complain about empty transit vehicles, says transit expert Jarrett Walker. People “make it sound like because transit systems run empty buses that means they’re failing,” says Walker. In fact, those empty buses are serving a socially beneficial function: they “are valued for the lifeline access they provide for the isolated senior,” disabled person, or other people who lack access to an automobile.
British Columbia transit advocate Todd Litman made the same argument in 2008 when the Cato Institute published the Antiplanner’s paper showing that transit doesn’t save energy or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We should only count the energy-saving benefits of transit, said Litman, during rush hour, when the transit vehicles are relatively full. During the rest of the day, transit provides other benefits (“parking cost savings, consumer savings, basic mobility for non-drivers”) and so shouldn’t be judged based on its energy cost.
This is a brilliant argument and one that deserves to be more widely heard–so long as it is understood that it applies equally well to automobiles as to transit. If you are driving a car with three other people in it, congratulations: you are saving a huge amount of energy over what you would be using if the four of you were riding transit. On the other hand, if you are alone in your car, congratulations: you are performing socially beneficial functions such as increasing your work productivity, getting your kids safely to school, or saving your family money at a supermarket or supercenter.
Some people might argue that for you to drive to work or to a grocery store isn’t “socially beneficial” because you are the main beneficiary. But the same is true for those non-drivers who take transit. When you think about it, your employers benefit from your work more than you do, or they wouldn’t pay you to do it; and whoever hires or buys products from your employers benefit as well. Similarly, your grocer benefits when you shop there, and your neighbors benefit when you buy things that they like because it gives the grocer an extra incentive to keep those things in stock.
You can use this kind of argument to argue for endless multipliers that can spin any benefit-cost analysis out of control. But the basic point is that there is no reason to think that the social benefits of mobility for people who lack cars are any greater than for people who have cars.
While mobility has social benefits, it also has costs, and it is easily possible that those costs can exceed the benefits. Until true self-driving cars become available, at the very least we know that almost every car on the road has someone inside who is engaged in socially useful travel (the main exceptions being people traveling to commit a crime). We don’t know that with transit vehicles: if the only occupant is the driver, and the driver’s only function is to move other people, there is no social benefit.
Au contraire, says Walker: the social benefit comes from giving people who lack cars the option of transportation even if they don’t use it. “Social benefits of public transport,” says Walker, “tend to be based on the severity of need among certain population groups, rather than the level of patronage to be gained by meeting this need.”
The problem with this claim is that it offers no useful measure of success or net benefits. Taken to extremes, you could argue that the emptier the transit system is, the more socially beneficial it is.
In fact, we have to have a way to consider costs. We know that people driving their cars are paying most of the costs of their travel–generally, well over 90 percent of the roughly 25 cent cost per passenger mile. But transit riders pay on average only about 25 percent of the costs of their travel, which in 2011 averaged 95 cents per passenger mile. Even socially beneficial travel isn’t worth it if the costs are too high.
Walker and Litman seem willfully ignorant of the political dynamics that drive transit agencies. By Walker’s analysis, the most socially beneficial transit is that serving the inner city, where most people who lack access to autos live. But transit agencies are driven to provide transit to the suburbs where people pay more taxes and are more likely to vote, while they cut back on transit service to inner cities. As a result, according to APTA data, the average number of people on a transit bus has declined by nearly 30 percent since 1977 (see tables 3 and 8).
It is likely that cuts to inner-city transit service are partly responsible for the continuing growth in auto ownership. According to the Census Bureau, 91 percent of all households have one or more cars. The Census Bureau also reports that 21 percent of workers who live in a household with no cars nevertheless drive alone to work and 12 percent carpool, so transit (which carries 41 percent of such people to work) isn’t the only or even the most convenient option for people who lack cars.
Transit agencies could save energy and provide more social benefits by withdrawing from the suburbs and focusing on urban cores, but that wouldn’t be good for their budgets. Simply calling something socially beneficial is meaningless unless you also consider the costs and offer some kind of incentive for transit agencies to provide those social benefits.
Here are a few facts. In 2011, according to table 1.8 of the Energy Information Agency’s Monthly Energy Report, the average “short wheelbase car” got 23.1 MPG in 2011 while “long wheelbase” (longer than 121 inches) cars got 17.1 mpg. According to the Federal Highway Administration, short-wheelbase cars did 77 percent of “light-duty” driving, so the overall average was about 21.72 mpg or 5,850 BTUs per vehicle mile.
Table 16 of the 2009 National Household Travel Survey reports average occupancies of 1.67 per car, so cars used an average of about 3,500 BTUs per passenger mile. According to the Antiplanner’s calculations based on the 2011 National Transit Database, transit systems in just 21 out of 373 urbanized areas used less than 3,500 BTUs per passenger mile. If you are driving in an average car with two people, then transit in only 10 urban areas is more efficient than your car; if three people, then only one urban area’s transit system is more efficient than your car. That system (Martz Trailways in Wilkes Barre, PA) offers exclusively commuter-bus service, meaning it doesn’t often have empty vehicles.
In the end, transit advocates can’t have it both ways. If the goal of transit is to save energy, then it shouldn’t be running vehicles to areas and at times when they will be nearly empty. If the goal is to provide socially useful transportation, then advocates need to realize that automobiles also provide such transportation, generally at a much lower cost than transit.