Mass transit does not reduce congestion

Originally published in the Baltimore Examiner

Wendell Cox Jan 9, 2007

WASHINGTON - Transit advocates must be elated. Voters in places as diverse as Seattle, Kansas City and Salt Lake City approved new taxes for transit improvements.

No doubt the electoral victories depended on expectations that transit improvements would reduce traffic congestion, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Traffic congestion and transit are completely different subjects. No level of transit investment, anywhere in the world, has materially reduced traffic congestion.

In Washington, more than 100 miles of high-quality Metro has been built — more than in any world urban area over the past three decades except for Seoul, South Korea. Altogether, the miles of Metro built in Washington equal the total built in all of the other U.S. urban areas.

Yet what about traffic congestion? Washington’s ranks fourth in the nation, and could challenge number two and three — transit rich Chicago and San Francisco — at any point. Over the past 20 years, traffic congestion has nearly tripled, despite the miles built for and billions spent on Metro.

Yet, transit advocates tell proverbial “stories from over the mountains,” about successes achieved in other urban areas. Invariably, the transit “successes” never show up in overall urban area data.

In fact, transit market share does not exceed 5 percent in any U.S. urban area except New York. Only a few exceed 3 percent, with “over the mountain” favorites such as Portland, Seattle and Denver, not among them. It would take a miracle of massive proportions to push transit to a 0.5 percent share in Salt Lake City and Kansas City.

Further, no urban area — not in the United States and not in Western Europe — has plans to materially reduce automobile use or traffic congestion. (London charges peak rates to enter a certain zone, but it costs nearly $15. This would kill any U.S. business area where it was implemented, except possibly Manhattan.)

The facts, however, do not keep transit officials from promising the impossible in their pursuit of more money. In the private sector, such behavior is subject to truth in advertising laws. In transit, it wins accolades.

Why can’t transit reduce traffic congestion? Geography. It can only effectively serve the urban core. For example, nearly 40 percent of downtown Washington commuters use transit for the work trip. However, downtown Washington accounts for less than 20 percent of the area’s employment.

More than 80 percent of destinations lie outside downtown and outside the ability of transit to compete. This is why the large majority of travel in all American and Western European urban areas is by car and why no hope exists for this situation to change. It is, as noted above, so hopeless that not even the planners can concoct a vision in which car travel would be reduced.

At the same time, accompanying the mindless preoccupation with transit and its futility outside the urban core is a misunderstanding of the role the automobile has and will continue to play.

Research indicates the superior mobility of the automobile is one of the reasons affluence has spread so widely in American and Western European urban areas. Around the country, programs to make available cars to low-income households are increasing their incomes by significantly increasing the geography of their job options.

Anyone genuinely interested in solving the transportation problems of the modern urban area will do well to discard the rhetoric and focus on reducing congestion. The Governor’s Business Council approach, recommended in Texas, sets a maximum congestion level based upon the Travel Time Index and then plans roadway expansion and traffic management strategies to make it happen.

If we want to reduce traffic congestion, we need to focus on it as a goal and get beyond the hopeless ideology that has passed for transport planning in so many areas.

Wendell Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, a visiting fellow of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris and author of a new book, “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”