The Truth About Transit

Originally Published in The Baltimore Sun

Wendell Cox Jul 12, 2002

IN RECENT years, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and mass transit agencies have been pumping out press releases about record ridership. At the national level, a recurring theme has been that ridership has reached a 40-year record.
So it was to have been expected that when the results of the 2000 U.S. Census were announced, a large increase would be shown in the number of people using transit to get to work. The news is out, and there is a record -- a record low.

Not in the 40-year history of census commuting information have fewer people used transit to get to work. As a result, transit's work-trip market share is also at a record low and is probably at the lowest rate since before the streetcar was invented in the 1880s. Now, just 4.7 percent of people use transit to get to work. 

During the 1990s, 13 million additional workers began using cars to commute to work. This compares with a slight decline in transit use and a 10 percent market share loss, from 5.3 percent in 1990 to 4.7 percent in 2000. Transit is clearly not reducing traffic congestion, because to do that requires getting people who drive to work out of their cars, something that no census has ever shown.

What makes these dismal results more significant is that the nation has been embarked on an expensive campaign to build urban rail systems. The reality is that not even where the new systems have been built has transit made much difference.  Portland, Ore., has not only built two new light-rail lines, but has embarked on "smart growth" strategies to limit sprawl and to not expand highways.

All of this was to attract people out of their cars. Yet today, more people than ever drive alone to work in Portland, and mass transit's share of commuters is lower than before the rail system was built.  Perhaps the most surprising result was in Dallas, which opened three light-rail lines and a commuter rail line in the 1990s.

The local media have produced an unending series of success stories. But in at least one measure, success eluded them -- 3,100 fewer workers commuted by transit in 2000 than in 1990.  Despite multibillion-dollar investments in new rail systems in both Baltimore and Washington, market share is declining. During the last two decades, Baltimore has opened a subway and a light-rail system, while MARC commuter rail services have been greatly expanded.

Yet transit's work- trip market share in metropolitan Baltimore fell from 9.9 percent in 1980 to 6.2 percent in 2000, a 38 percent decline. While employment has grown by more than 250,000, transit work trip ridership has fallen by more than 20,000.  Slightly less unfavorable results have been achieved in the Washington area.

There, national taxpayers have financed the country's most expensive new subway system. In 2000, after $10 billion and 100 miles of new route, transit's work-trip market share is 29 percent below what it was before the first segment of the subway opened.  More than 1.3 million new jobs have been added, and fewer than 100,000 new transit work-trips. Between 1990 and 2000 alone, the loss was 20 percent.  And the new subway was not the only transit improvement.

Two new commuter rail lines opened (Virginia Rail Express), and Washington also benefited from the MARC commuter rail expansions.  These results do not indicate that transit does not have a role. Transit is very effective where the conditions are right -- very large and dense downtown areas and high-density cores that are served by transit that is competitive with autos.

For example, more than one-half of commuters to Manhattan, Brooklyn and Chicago use transit.  But outside the largest downtown areas, transit provides little service competitive with cars. Mass transit is about downtown and downtown alone. There is just one place in Baltimore that has competitive transit service from throughout the area -- downtown.

The estimated 90 percent of people who work outside downtown have a single choice, the automobile.  Urban planners often cite Europe as a model for American mass transit. But things are little different there. Outside the historic cores that the planners visit are sprawling suburbs where most people live and work, with little mass transit except to downtown.
For decades, U.S. policies have sought to attract people to transit from cars. It just hasn't worked. Transportation policy should be refocused toward making the automobile system work better. There is no other way to realistically address traffic congestion.

-Wendell Cox is Adjunct Fellow of the Maryland Public Policy Institute