May 15, 2001

May 15, 2001 | Commentary on Smart Growth

New York Confidential

To hear the American Public Transportation Association folks tout their latest report on ridership, you half expect to see shells of abandoned cars rotting on every street corner.

Americans have spurned their cars in favor of mass transit, the APTA tells us. Mass transit has reversed a 70-year trend of losing market share. Ridership climbed 3.5 percent nationally in 1999 to 9.4 billion trips. In contrast, highway use increased only about .05 percent to 2.7 trillion miles, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

"These figures show that a decades-old trend of declining transit and increasing driving has been reversed," Roy Kienitz, executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, told The Washington Post.

Yes, national transit use has grown 19 percent since its quarter-century low point in the mid-1990s. And any minute now, city and state governments will begin to line up to request more money from the federal government for mass transit.

But before we dole out millions more on buses and trains -- and requests are quite likely to come in after these numbers sink in -- let's remember that, even now, mass transit carries only about 2 percent of the commuters in urban areas. And the overall numbers are skewed by the fact that 40 percent of the nation's transit use takes place in the New York City area -- more than the next 12 cities in transit use combined. Most of the increase came there. Indeed, outside New York, growth remains microscopic and ridership still has not reached 1990 levels.

And the increase in New York City owes more to the city becoming safer and more prosperous than any socially engineered move from cars to transit. Newly released census data shows that shows New York gained more population than in any decade since the 1920s -- more than double that of any other city -- and surpassed the 8 million mark for the first time.

Moreover, no other city comes close to New York in terms of population densities and job concentration -- two key factors that propel transit use. What happened in New York simply can't won't happen elsewhere.

And just as New York's situation can't be replicated, neither can its jump in ridership. Even the exceptions, such as Portland, Ore., serve mainly to prove the rule. Transit ridership has climbed nearly 40 percent in Portland since 1993, but even there, 95 percent of new travel has been by automobile. Recently released data shows that there has been little change over the last decade in the percentage of people riding transit to work. And Portland's policy of promoting mass transit over highways and of concentrating development near mass transit hubs has created some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation.

APTA's figures probably represent only a brief respite from the pattern of decline in transit's market share. use. Virtually all Oother modes of transportation also have experienced record use as the country continued along its longest-ever peacetime economic expansion. In other words, this is no time to plunder the treasury to finance more mass transit projects.

And even this latest respite isn't much to brag about. Transit ridership has hovered in a narrow range 7 and 9 billion boardings per year for 40 years, a period during which the American population has grown by about 100 million. And its share of the urban travel market has fallen from 7.1 percent in 1960 to 1.8 percent today.

Even today, more than 90 percent of American jobs aren't served by convenient transit service. Car trips -- even on congested highways -- remain quicker than transit use.

Despite subsidies that now approach $20 billion per year, America's monopolistic, publicly owned transit systems only recently have stopped losing riders in significant numbers. They still fail to support themselves or bring any meaningful relief to highway congestion. They remain slower, more expensive, less convenient and less efficient than virtually all other forms of transportation.

So when you hear reports that mass transit has taken the country by storm yet fail to see any improvement in traffic, believe your eyes, not the hype.

Wendell Cox, principal of the Wendell Cox Consultancy in St. Louis, is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Wendell Cox Visiting Fellow
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

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