Carrying large packages, suitcases, or shopping bags on transit is awkward at best and impossible at worst. Anyone who expects to travel with such cargo, even if only some of the time, will do best with a car.
In 2007, Ikea opened its first store in Portland. It is 280,000 square feet, has around a thousand parking spaces, and is near a light-rail station. How many people who plan to do more than just window shop do you imagine carry their purchases home on the light rail?
Drag right to see the Cascades light-rail station, which is much further from Ikea than any of the parking spaces.
Rather than maintain transit systems in a state of good repair, the transit industry has chosen to build more transit lines that it can’t afford to maintain. Transit riders respond to delays and dilapidated transit by finding other methods of travel.
The Department of Transportation’s latest assessment of the nation’s transit systems found an $89.8 billion maintenance backlog. Moreover, the backlog is growing by $1.6 billion a year, because rather than fix transit systems, transit agencies are building more.
To eliminate the backlog in 20 years, the report calculated, every single dollar now being spent on transit improvements must be transferred to maintenance and preservation. Alternatively, the industry must find at least $5.8 billion in new subsidies each year (see page Roman numeral L).
Housing, jobs, and other destinations are so diffused throughout American urban areas that they don’t generate the large numbers of people moving from one point to another that mass transit systems need to work.
“Transit worked when American cities were denser,” is the mantra of today’s urban planners. “If we can increase their densities, transit will work again.” Reality is a lot more complicated, and that reality explains why transit can’t work in American urban areas even if their densities increase.
From about 1880 to 1913, transit and cities co-evolved thanks to new technologies that benefited both. The same steam engines that powered commuter and early rapid transit trains also powered downtown factories. The same Bessemer steel that made the rails that streetcars and urban trains rolled upon also provided the structural beams that allowed construction of skyscrapers. The same electric motors that moved electric streetcars also powered electric elevators that gave people quick access to the upper floors of those skyscrapers.
Compared with the aura of security offered by riding inside of an automobile, many people avoid transit because they feel vulnerable and threatened by other riders.
Crime, sexual harassment, and other invasions of privacy are common on metro systems throughout the world. Sexual harassment is especially bad on Tokyo subways, and a survey of 600 women transit riders in Paris found that 100 percent of them reported having been sexually harassed.
Such harassment often depends on the anonymity that comes with extreme crowding, but most American transit systems don’t get that crowded precisely because Americans won’t accept the invasions of personal space required for such crush conditions. Still, there are numerous complaints of sexual harassment on the New York City subway. Crime is rapidly rising on the DC Metro as well.
The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that, for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit.
Public transit is the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in the United States, with subsidies per passenger mile that are 50 to 100 times greater than subsidies to driving. But people who use transit are only dimly aware of the subsidies. Even without counting the subsidies, most people don’t ride transit partly because the alternatives, including driving, cost so much less.
The 2015 National Transit Database shows that people pay an average of 28 cents per passenger mile to ride transit. To compare this cost with driving, the American Public Transportation Association uses American Automobile Association calculations of the cost of driving, which show an average cost of about 57 cents a mile for medium-sized cars. So it seems like a no-brainer to conclude that transit saves money.
Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to anymore. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless.
This week, the Antiplanner is exploring the myth that Americans don’t ride transit because they have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas, and transit’s limited destinations is one of them.
The Portland urban area, for example, has around 15,000 miles of roads and streets. The region’s 80 miles of rail transit don’t begin to reach the number of destinations that can be reached by car. Adding the roughly 1,000 miles of bus routes helps, but still requires many people to walk long distances to and from transit stops.
Most transit is much slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling.
There’s a myth that Americans have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars, and they don’t ride transit because of that irrationality. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas while transit provides less than two percent.
One of the most important reasons is that transit is slow. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book, the average speed of rail transit is 21.5 miles per hour, while the average speed of bus transit is 14.1 mph (see page 7). So-called rapid transit, known to the Federal Transit Administration as heavy rail, averages just 21.1 mph, while light rail is 15.6 mph and streetcars are a pathetic 7.7 mph (see page 40).
As I promised yesterday, I’ve compiled what I consider to be the most important data in the 2015 National Transit Database into one spreadsheet. These data include trips, passenger miles, vehicle revenue miles & hours, weekday trips, fares, operating costs, maintenance costs, capital costs, BTUs of energy consumption, and grams of carbon dioxide emissions.
The 2015 database is expanded from previous years, which just included data from transit systems in major urban areas over 50,000 people. The 2015 data also include transit systems in minor urban areas of under 50,000 people, rural areas, and Indian reservations. The major urban area data fill the first 2,066 lines of the spreadsheet, while the rest fill the next 1,549 lines. The major urban areas accounted for 10.377 billion transit trips in 2015, while the smaller areas accounted for a mere 128 million trips.
The Federal Transit Administration has posted 2015 transit data as part of the National Transit Database. However, the Department of Transportation’s new web sites have made downloading data fairly tedious.
To save you time, I’ve downloaded the data and then uploaded them in two zip files. First is the Historic Time Series showing data from 1991 through 2015. Second is a more detailed 2015 database, providing safety, energy, and other detailed data not found in the historic time series. Each of these files is between 10 and 11 megabytes in size.
For simple things such as capital costs, operating costs, fares, trips, and passenger miles, the historic time series is an excellent source of information. The most useful files are table 2.1, “operating expenses and services,” which has separate sheets for operating costs, fares, vehicle revenue miles and hours, trips, and passenger miles, and table 3.1, “uses of capital costs,” which has capital expenses. All of the sheets in these two tables break down data by transit agency and mode. Unfortunately, the capital expense sheet does not break down the difference between new projects and maintenance of existing projects.
Washington Metro has been interrupting service for various “safety surges” (they call them “surges” because it sounds better than “slowdowns”), but according to the Federal Transit Administration it has a lot more work to do. The FTA says that the rail system’s power supply is “in a deteriorated condition” and the tunnels and tracks have numerous defects that haven’t even all been identified, much less put on the schedule to be fixed.
Not surprisingly, the American Public Transportation Association’s latest ridership report reveals that Metro ridership in the second quarter of 2016 was 11.5 percent less than the same quarter the year before. As the Antiplanner has previously noted, this decline took place before the delays caused by the maintenance work, so most of it is because people have found other means of transportation due to Metro Rail’s low reliability.
Washington is not alone. Rail rapid transit systems in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia are just as bad off, and New York’s and San Francisco’s aren’t far behind. APTA’s president even issued a rather desperate-sounding op-ed begging for money to repair obsolete and dying forms of transportation.