First distributed 17 June 2002
Transit advocates claim that recent increases in transit ridership is proof that Americans are turning away from the auto and that transit--especially rail transit--deserves more funding than ever. Yet transit gains are tiny relative to increases in auto driving. The tens of billions invested in transit in recent years have done little but leave surface transportation funding highly unbalanced: Though we travel nearly one hundred times as much by auto as by transit, we spend less than four times as much on highways as on transit.
Data recently issued by the Census Bureau, the American Public Transportation Association, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration allows a new look at the state of transit in American urban areas. I am grateful to Wendell Cox for summarizing the 2000 census data on his web site.
This report is divided into seven sections, which can be summarized as follows:
Transit agencies carried Americans on nearly 9.4 billion transit rides in 2000, more than in any previous year since 1960. The increase from only 7.8 million trips in 1995 has been much ballyhooed by the transit industry and its supporters. Yet new data from a variety of sources demonstrates that transit funding has been a gross failure by practically any measure--and that the greatest failure is light rail.
Transit critics are quick to point out that "transit rides" (known in the business as "unlinked trips") are not the same as personal trips. If you ride a bus then transfer to a subway, you take one personal trip but the transit agency counts you twice. Some suspect that increases in unlinked trips are partly due to increased transfers, not increased personal trips. In transit's defense, however, transit passenger miles have actually grown faster than unlinked trips: 16 percent in the last decade compared with 7 percent in trip growth. Yet urban auto driving grew even more (table one).
Table One Transit and Driving, 1990-2000 (billions of trips or miles) 1990 2000 % Increase Transit Trips 8.8 9.4 6.8 Transit Passenger Miles 41.1 47.7 16.1 Urban Vehicle Miles 1,275 1,665 30.6 Rural Vehicle Miles 869 1,085 24.9
Source: American Public Transportation Association and Highway Statistics 2000, table VM-2.
The good news that transit trips are back to 1960 levels is dimmed by the fact that, since 1960, the U.S. population has grown more than 50 percent and urban driving has increased by a whopping 420 percent! Despite the doubling of U.S. jobs since 1960, the number of commuters riding transit to work fell from 7.8 million in 1960 to 6.1 million in 2000.
For transit supporters, the most disappointing new statistic comes from the 2000 census, which reported that the number of American workers taking public transit to work was virtually unchanged since 1990. The estimated 6,067,700 American workers using transit in 2000--4.7 percent of all workers--was actually about 1,900 less than in 1990. This is all the more stunning because the number of workers grew from 115 million to 128 million. Any growth in transit ridership must be non-commuter traffic--which means it isn't doing much to relieve rush-hour congestion.
Wendell Cox downloaded 2000 census data and posted 1990 and 2000 transit usage by workers and transit's share of the commuter market on his publicpurpose.com web site. The following summary is based on his table showing transit's share of the work market in 1990 and 2000 in fifty major metropolitan statistical areas.
Metropolitan statistical areas are larger than urbanized areas (for which the Census Bureau won't have data for another year); MSAs include all land in the counties around a central city even though much of that land isn't really urbanized.
Most of the commuting data in this and the next section are for "combined metropolitan statistical areas." The Portland area, for example, includes Salem Oregon and Vancouver Washington. Counting Portland alone would produce slightly different results. The one exception is Baltimore-Washington, a combined MSA which I separated by downloading individual county data for the Baltimore and Washington MSAs from the Census Bureau web site.
Transit results were mixed in the various metropolitan areas. Table two lists three categories:
The table also shows that regions with and without rail transit fall into all three categories.
Table Two Urban Area Changes in Transit Commuting and Market Share Rail Urban Areas Non-Rail Urban Areas Gained Both Riders and Market Share Denver Las Vegas Los Angeles Orlando Portland Seattle Sacramento West Palm Beach San Diego San Francisco Bay Area Gained Riders But Lost Market Share Atlanta Austin Boston Houston New York Minneapolis-St. Paul Salt Lake Phoenix Providence Raleigh-Durham Lost Both Riders and Market Share Baltimore Cincinnati Buffalo Columbus Chicago Detroit Cleveland Indianapolis Dallas-Ft. Worth Jacksonville Miami Kansas City Philadelphia Louisville Pittsburgh Milwaukee St. Louis Nashville Washington Rochester
The list suggests that regional growth is far more important to transit's fortunes than rail. The urban areas where transit gained both share and riders are all fastest-growing regions in the West and Florida. Job growth was also high in the mostly eastern and southern urban areas where transit gained riders but lost market share. The urban areas that lost both riders and share are mostly in slow-growing rust-belt states, though the list also includes Dallas, Miami, and Jacksonville.
Even in the areas that gained both worker-transit riders and market share, transit's market share is pitifully small. The National Transit Database reports passenger miles by transit mode in each urban area. The Federal Highway Administration's Highway Statistics series reports vehicle miles in each urban area, which can be multiplied by 1.6 to get passenger miles. From these data we can calculate transit's share of motorized travel as well as rail transit's share of motorized travel.
Table three compares these numbers for 2000 with transit's share of the commuter market reported by the 2000 census. The motorized travel data are for urbanized areas, while the commuter data are for metropolitan statistical areas, which as noted are slightly different. But the comparisons are still useful.
Table Three Transit's Share of Motorized and Commuter Travel (percent) Share of: Motorized Travel Commuter Travel Urban Area Transit Rail 2000 1990 Atlanta 1.3 0.8 3.7 4.7 Austin 1.0 0 2.6 3.4 Baltimore 2.2 0.5 6.2 7.4 Boston 4.6 3.7 9.0 10.6 Buffalo 0.7 0.1 3.5 4.7 Chicago 3.9 2.8 11.5 13.7 Cincinnati 0.9 0 3.1 3.6 Cleveland 1.3 0.4 3.4 4.6 Dallas-Ft. Worth 0.5 0.1 1.8 2.4 Denver 1.4 0.1 4.3 4.3 Detroit 0.5 0 1.8 2.4 Houston 1.1 0 3.3 3.7 Indianapolis 0.3 0 1.3 2.0 Kansas City 0.3 0 1.3 2.0 Las Vegas 1.2 0 4.1 2.0 Los Angeles 1.5 0.3 4.7 4.6 Louisville 0.4 0 2.2 3.2 Milwaukee 1.2 0 4.0 4.8 Minneapolis-St. Paul 1.0 0 4.6 5.2 Nashville 0.2 0 1.0 1.7 New York 10.8 6.8 24.9 26.6 Orlando 0.7 0 1.7 1.6 Philadelphia 3.2 1.9 8.7 10.2 Phoenix 0.5 0 2.0 2.0 Pittsburgh 1.6 0.2 6.2 8.0 Portland 2.1 0.7 5.7 5.4 Providence 0.5 0 2.5 3.2 Raleigh-Durham 0.1 0 1.7 2.0 Rochester 0.5 0 2.0 3.2 Sacramento 0.8 0.3 2.7 2.4 Salt Lake 1.1 0.4 3.0 3.0 San Diego 1.5 0.6 3.4 3.3 San Francisco 4.3 2.7 9.5 9.3 Seattle 2.7 0 6.8 6.2 St. Louis 0.8 0.3 2.4 3.0 Washington 3.7 2.8 11.1 13.3 West Palm Beach 0.3 0 1.4 1.4
Source: Transit and rail's share of motorized travel is from the 2000 National Transit Database and Highway Statistics 2000. Transit's 2000 and 1990 share of commuter travel is from http://www.publicpurpose.com/ut-jtw2000metro.htm and is based on 2000 census data.
Six urban areas--New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and Philadelphia--stand out as megacities in which transit carries more than 3 percent of all passenger miles and more than 8 percent of commuter travel. The "big-six" carry two out of three transit passenger miles in America. All six have rail systems, but more important, they tend to have massive numbers of downtown jobs.
Transit has a 4.7 percent share of motorized travel in Honolulu, probably because of its large military base. A few smaller urban areas, such as college towns, may also achieve these percentages, but no other major urban area does.
Table three has five major lessons:
Table four shows that transit gains are swamped by increased auto driving: Even Seattle and Portland's gains in market share are trivial compared to changes in auto driving.
Portland gained 24,000 transit commuters, but 380,000 new jobs, meaning that it gained more than a dozen times as many new auto commuters as new transit commuters. Increases in automobile passenger miles are typically twenty to several hundred times as much as increases in transit passenger miles.
able four compares the growth in annual passenger miles to 2000 from 1993, the earliest year in which both transit and highway data are posted on the web. The key figure is the last column, which shows how many times highway driving has grown more than transit use.
Even where transit gained a share of commuter travel, the growth of total highway and street passenger miles exceed transit passenger mile growth by 22 to 185 times. In some regions where transit lost market share, highway growth exceeded transit growth by hundreds of times.
Table Four Growth in Transit and Auto Passenger Miles (change from 1993 to 2000) Region Transit Highway Hwy/Trnst Regions in which Transit Gained Market Share Denver 137,850 5,422,201 39 Las Vegas 106,350 6,511,042 61 Los Angeles 352,793 15,153,032 43 Orlando 80,651 5,907,117 73 Portland 145,332 3,193,369 22 Sacramento 50,654 2,871,453 57 San Diego 176,976 5,905,894 33 San Francisco-Oakland 55,012 6,635,106 121 Seattle 153,310 3,847,580 25 West Palm Beach 28,498 5,265,641 185 Regions in which Transit Lost Market Share Atlanta 221,237 13,075,616 59 Austin 29,140 2,922,841 100 Baltimore 14,723 2,868,458 195 Chicago 387,946 9,377,493 24 Cincinnati 34,058 2,604,203 76 Cleveland 51,186 1,675,522 33 Dallas-Fort Worth 88,583 22,127,977 250 Fort Lauderdale 5,924 5,236,713 884 Houston 107,820 9,937,914 92 Indianapolis 5,346 2,703,553 506 Memphis 5,989 2,059,904 344 Milwaukee 57,433 810,258 14 Minneapolis-St. Paul 72,688 7,189,024 99 Philadelphia 133,376 2,091,251 16 Phoenix 26,207 5,846,785 223 Salt Lake City 11,919 2,101,908 176 San Antonio 26,924 4,302,457 160 St. Louis 86,274 4,068,492 47
Source: Changes in transit passenger miles are from the 2000 and 1993 National Transit Databases. Changes in auto passenger miles are from the 2000 and 1993 Highway Statistics, table HM-72, with daily vehicle miles of travel converted to annual passenger miles by multiplying by 365 days and 1.6 riders per auto.
Transit's insignificance in the face of growing auto traffic is not a result of inadequate funding. From 1991 through 2000, transit agencies spent more than $70 billion on capital expenses, nearly two-thirds of which went into rail projects. The agencies also spent more than $186 billion on operating expenses, but collected only $72 billion in fares.
The growth in spending has far exceeded the growth in either ridership or fares. Since 1991, capital spending has grown by 76 percent and operating subsidies (operating expenses minus fares) has grown by 32 percent. Yet transit ridership has grown by just 9 percent.
As a result, transit subsidies have steadily grown even after adjusting for inflation. In the past decade, inflation-adjusted subsidies per ride increased by 18 percent and subsidies per passenger mile increased by 8 percent. In 2000, subsidies averaged $2.51 a ride and 49 cents per passenger mile.
One measure of waste in transit funding is declining worker productivity. In 1990, America's transit systems produced 150,800 passenger miles and 32,200 trips per full-time equivalent transit employee. By 2000, they produced only 133,100 passenger miles and 26,100 trips per employee. This represents a 12 to 19 percent decline in output per worker, which is mainly due to a 31 percent increase in employees.
Another reason for increased subsidies is wasted investments. Transit agencies have invested $43 billion in rail since 1992, compared with only $20 billion in buses, yet buses still carry 61 percent of all transit rides and 45 percent of passenger miles.
The biggest offender is light rail. Table five shows that 10.9 percent of transit capital investments were in light rail, yet this mode carries only 2.8 percent of transit riders and collects only 2.1 percent of transit fares. Nor is there much of a savings in operating expenses, since light rail accounts for 2.7 percent of transit operating expenses.
Heavy rail and commuter rail do better, with capital investments approximately on a par with ridership and operating expenses well below ridership. However, it is likely these modes do better because they are targeted to high-density cities and job centers such as Manhattan, Chicago, and Boston. Light rail can't be targeted because heavy rail can beat it in the densest areas and buses can beat it everywhere else.
Table Five Share of Expenses, Fares, and Ridership by Transit Mode (percent) Mode Capital Operating Fares Ridership Bus 30.7 57.3 50.0 44.6 Commuter rail 21.9 11.9 15.7 19.7 Heavy rail 32.1 17.4 28.4 29.0 Light rail 10.9 2.7 2.1 2.8 Other 4.5 10.8 3.8 3.8
This table compares the share of capital investments by mode over the past decade with operating expenses, fares, and ridership in 2000. "Other" includes demand-responsive buses, ferries, people movers, trolley buses, and various other modes. Source: American Public Transportation Association.
Table six shows that, as a result of wasteful spending on light rail, light-rail subsidies in 2000 were 2.5 times as much as for buses. Light-rail subsidies per passenger mile were nearly three times as much as for other rail modes.
Table Six Subsidy Per Trip and Per Passenger Mile by Transit Mode (dollars) Mode Unlinked Trip Passenger Mile Bus 2.09 0.56 Commuter Rail 7.49 0.33 Heavy Rail 1.63 0.31 Light Rail 5.22 1.23 Trolley Bus 2.19 1.39 Demand Response 16.83 2.11
Source: American Public Transportation Association. Includes capital and operating subsidies.
Though advertised as "high-capacity transit," light rail fails by this measure as well. Newly opened light-rail lines gain ridership over former bus routes because transit agencies tend to operate them more frequently than buses. Yet they are rarely operated more frequently than every seven minutes. Though individual rail cars may have more seats than buses, buses can operate every ten to thirty seconds.
Obviously, no single bus route would run every thirty seconds, but several routes in a broad corridor might. When transit agencies open new light-rail lines, they cancel all bus routes parallel to the rail corridor and force transit riders to use rail. This actually reduces the corridor's transit capacity.
Another way of measuring transit productivity is to look at ridership per directional route mile. A directional route mile is a mile in each direction; thus, a ten-mile rail line is usually twenty directional route miles. Table seven summarizes productivities by mode; data for individual rail systems are in an appendix below.
Table Seven Daily Passenger Miles Per Directional Route Mile Mode Average Maximum Commuter Rail 3,362 10,220 Heavy Rail 24,617 46,236 Light Rail 4,428 8,484 Freeway lane mile 26,334 37,430
Source: Transit from National Transit Database, freeway from Highway Statistics 2000 (average of fifty largest urban areas only).
In 2000, America's heavy-rail lines carried an average of 24,600 passenger miles per directional route mile (pm/drm) each day. This is close to a lane of urban freeway, which carries about 26,000 passenger miles per lane mile--with a maximum of 37,000 pm/lm in Los Angeles.
However, New York subways are the only rail transit systems more productive than a freeway lane. The second most productive heavy-rail line, in Boston, carried only 17,100 pm/drm. Heavy-rail lines in Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Miami are particularly unproductive, carrying under 7,500 pm/drm.
Yet most light-rail lines pale even by comparison to unproductive heavy-rail lines. The average light-rail line in 2000 carried only 4,400 pm/drm. The most productive was Boston's at 8,500. The Hudson-Bergen, Sacramento, Baltimore, Denver, and San Jose light-rail lines were particularly unproductive, carrying 3,500 pm/drm or fewer.
Except in New York, commuter rail is similarly unproductive, though this is compensated for by lower costs. Still, buses could probably do better than commuter rail in most places where it is being considered.
Light rail underperforms in another way as well: at the farebox. The average bus fare is 77 cents, but the average light-rail fare is only 57 cents. Moreover, bus fares have grown by 47 percent in the past decade, but light-rail fares have only grown by 20 percent.
Table Eight Average Transit Fares By Mode 1990 2000 Growth Bus 0.52 0.77 47% Commuter Rail 2.90 3.33 15% Heavy Rail 0.74 0.94 27% Light Rail 0.47 0.57 20%
Source: American Public Transportation Association
Lower light-rail fares might have been appropriate in 1990 because the average light-rail trips were 12 percent shorter than bus trips, so per-mile fares for both buses and light rail were both around 14 cents. But in 2000, the average light-rail trip had grown to be 13 percent longer than the average bus trip, so bus fares have grown to 21 cents per mile while light-rail fares have fallen to 13 cents per mile.
In all transit systems I know, light-rail fares are nominally equal to or greater than bus fares. Are transit agencies overreporting light-rail ridership or giving more free rides to light-rail riders? Or does it happen that transit agencies that have built light-rail lines are so hungry for riders that they charge less than all-bus transit agencies?
Nationwide, automobiles carry about 2.6 trillion passenger miles a year on urban highways and streets, and another 1.7 trillion on rural roads. Urban transit, which carries less than 50 billion passenger miles a year, represents barely 1 percent of surface travel and 2 percent of urban travel.
In 2000, various levels of government spent about $65 billion on road capital investments, $30 billion on road maintenance, and $29 billion on administration, highway law enforcement, collection costs, and other costs.
Governments collected $101 billion in gas taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls, so it is hard to argue that most of the spending on roads was a subsidy. While it is true that state and local governments spent about $29 billion of property taxes and general funds on roads, they also diverted $17 billion in highway user fees to transit and other non-highway uses. This means that total subsidies to highways were about $22.4 billion.
This probably overstates highway subsidies, as it may leave out some highway user fees. It certainly includes some costs that are not truly highway costs, such as the cost of state and regional transportation planning when that planning is more oriented to transit than highways. In addition, highways carry roughly a trillion ton-miles of freight each year, something often forgotten when calculating subsidies to the auto.
Table nine shows that total highway subsidies are slightly less than total transit subsidies. But since Americans travel nearly one hundred times as many miles by auto as by transit, subsidies to transit per passenger mile are almost exactly one hundred times greater than to autos.
Subsidies or not, all of the spending on roads put together amounts to less than 3 cents per automobile passenger mile. Yet we spend nearly 68 cents a passenger mile on transit, 49 cents of which is a subsidy.
For comparison, table nine also shows light-rail costs to be $1.37 per passenger mile. This is nearly fifty times greater than the cost of roads. Subsidies to light rail are nearly 250 times greater than to roads.
Table Nine Highway and Transit Revenues and Spending in 2000 (dollars and miles in billions except last two lines in cents) Highway Transit Light Rail Fares/Tolls & User Fees $101.5 $8.7 $0.2 Capital Investments 64.6 9.6 1.2 Operations, Maintenance, & Other 59.4 22.6 0.6 Total costs 123.9 32.2 1.9 Net Revenues -$22.4 -$23.5 -$1.7 Passenger Miles of Travel 4,400 48 0.1 Cost in cents per passenger mile 2.8 67.5 136.5 Net revenue in cents per pm -0.5 -49.2 -123.2
Source: Highway Statistics 2000, table HF-10 and American Public Transportation Association. Data may not add due to rounding. "Other" for highways includes law enforcement, administration, research, planning, and user fee collection costs.
Urban leaders, especially those in rail-wannabe regions such as Cincinnati, Louisville, Phoenix, and Seattle, should recognize that:
Appendix Daily Rail Passenger Miles Per Directional Route Mile In 2000 (DRM in miles, Daily PM and DPM/DRM in passenger miles) Urban Area-System DRM Daily PM DPM/DRM Commuter Rail New York-Long Island RR 638 6,522,088 10,220 New York-Metro North 546 5,561,922 10,187 Chicago-NE Illinois 940 4,328,478 4,605 New York-NJ Transit 975 3,543,956 3,634 San Francisco-Peninsula 154 519,361 3,372 Boston 710 1,959,028 2,759 Philadelphia-SEPTA 449 1,139,024 2,537 Chicago 180 276,976 1,539 Pompono Beach 142 183,833 1,295 DC-MARTA 373 438,663 1,176 San Diego 82 92,746 1,131 DC-Virginia 178 185,255 1,041 Los Angeles 770 702,429 912 Dallas-Fort Worth 29 17,597 607 San Francisco-Altamont 172 61,593 358 Philadelphia-PDOT 144 42,056 292 Hartford 101 16,256 161 New York-NJ Transit 975 153,054 157 Seattle 79 8,249 104 Dallas-Fort Worth 23 513 22 Heavy Rail New York-NYC Transit 493 22,794,272 46,236 Boston-MBTA 76 1,298,423 17,085 San Francisco-BART 190 3,244,094 17,074 DC-Metro 194 3,261,504 16,812 Atlanta 92 1,379,425 14,994 Philadelphia-SEPTA 76 1,097,134 14,436 Chicago-CTA 206 2,747,943 13,340 New York-PATH 32 255,399 7,981 Miami 42 301,607 7,181 Maryland-MARTA 29 193,533 6,674 Los Angeles 32 204,737 6,398 Cleveland 38 147,970 3,894 Light Rail Boston 51 432,673 8,484 St. Louis 34 261,170 7,681 Los Angeles 82 572,122 6,977 Portland 65 385,918 5,937 San Diego 97 515,805 5,318 Salt Lake City 30 136,088 4,536 San Francisco 70 298,063 4,258 Dallas-Fort Worth 41 164,924 4,023 New York-Hudson-Bergen 8 27,559 3,445 Sacramento 41 125,664 3,065 Baltimore 58 162,115 2,795 Denver 28 77,322 2,762 Pittsburgh 35 91,003 2,600 Philadelphia 69 168,599 2,443 Cleveland 31 68,087 2,196 San Jose 56 97,967 1,749 New York-Newark 14 1,780 127 Trolley Rail (Streetcars) New Orleans 16 36,235 2,265 Memphis 6 2,828 471 Seattle 4 1,283 321 Kenosha 2 175 88 Automated Guideway (Peoplemovers) Detroit 3 4,887 1,629 Miami 9 12,076 1,342 Jacksonville 4 639 160 Totals/Averages Commuter Rail 7,660 25,753,077 3,362 Heavy Rail 1,500 36,926,040 24,617 Light Rail 810 3,586,858 4,428 Streetcars 28 40,521 1,447 Automated Guideway 16 17,602 1,100 All Rail 8,517 59,802,010 7,021
DRM is directional route miles. Daily PM is
passenger miles per day. DPM/DRM is daily passenger miles per
directional route mile. Source: National