August 3, 2000

August 3, 2000 | News Releases on Energy and Environment

Public Transit Does Little to Reduce Traffic Congestion, Study Shows

WASHINGTON, Aug. 3, 2000-Even Americans who don't use mass transit believe rail systems can help ease traffic congestion and other problems associated with "urban sprawl." But newly compiled data from the Department of Transportion, Census Bureau and other sources shows that this is mostly wishful thinking.

Since 1960, America's transit systems have received more than $385 billion in federal, state and local government subsidies. Yet transit's share of urban travel has plunged, from 7.1 percent in 1960 to 1.8 percent in 1998. The annual number of transit trips has dropped 25 percent since 1970, and in 1996 hit its lowest point since before the turn of the century, Heritage Foundation Visiting Fellow Wendell Cox found.

"Despite significant infusions of public funding, transit has made no progress in reducing traffic congestion," writes Cox, a consultant to the Department of Transportation. "Indeed, given its miniscule market shares, there is virtually no potential for transit to reduce traffic congestion in today's dispersed, suburban-oriented cities."

Transit holds a bigger share of the urban-travel market in a few metropolitan areas such as Chicago (4 percent), San Francisco (3 percent), Washington, D.C. (3 percent) and New York (9 percent), Cox notes. But more typical is the 1 percent or less found in such cities as Sacramento, Las Vegas, Cleveland and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Though this trend shows no signs of reversing, annual federal spending on transit will increase under current law from $4.6 billion in 1998 to $8.2 billion in 2003. "The $41 billion spent in just those five years will make transit one of Washington's fastest growing spending programs," Cox notes. "Transit remains one of the costliest ways to move people from one place to another, and it is getting more expensive compared with the alternatives."

Part of the problem is that public transit systems-with their legally enforced monopolies-have been immune to the type of competition that has caused other industries to become more cost efficient, Cox says. The cost of airline travel, for example, has gone down since 1970, thanks largely to deregulation. By contrast, transit's inflation-adjusted cost per passenger mile rose 164 percent between 1970 and 1995.

Most new transit systems won't improve on this record. "Among the 28 proposed rail systems evaluated for federal funding by the Federal Transit Administration in 1999, 27 are so costly that it would be less expensive to lease an economy car for each new commuter," Cox writes. "Six would be more costly than leasing a luxury car."

Transit supporters, though, continue to hype transit as a way to reduce traffic jams. Yet even with the advent of new systems, congestion has grown 26 percent between 1982 and 1996, according to the Federal Highway Administration. On average, new subways carry 60 percent fewer people than a single freeway lane-and new "light rail" lines (contemporary versions of the old trolley cars) carry 80 percent fewer people, Cox says.

And because most new transit riders are former bus or carpool passengers, new rail systems have little or no effect on congestion or commuting patterns, he says. Washington, D.C. provides a good example of this: The percentage of commuters who drive to downtown remained constant at about 50 percent, between 1975, the year before the D.C. Metro subway opened, and 1997, Cox found. Almost every new rail passenger was drawn from buses and carpools.

This pattern may help explain why transit's efforts to reduce air pollution have failed, Cox says. A U.S. Department of Transportation report shows rail systems have little impact on pollution-removing barely 1 percent of emissions in Washington, for example. Even with more cars on the road, the nation's air quality has improved since 1970 largely because of better engine technology, not because of transit usage, he says.

Why has transit failed to attract new riders? Two reasons, Cox says. For one, it's inconvenient. Most urban areas (99.2 percent) are more than a quarter-mile from the nearest station, necessitating transfers or long walks. Second, rail doesn't provide a quick trip. A recent national transportation survey found that cars travel nearly double the speed of light rail (average speed: 17.3 miles per hour) and subways (19.4 miles per hour).

Still, transit can play a limited role in a city's transportation plans, Cox says. It gives mobility to low-income workers and offers the elderly and disabled a safe and secure way to shop and travel. It can also provide efficient service to crowded downtown areas with limited parking and narrow streets.

Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international transportation policy firm based in St. Louis. Appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley, he authored a tax amendment that provided the initial funding for the city's transit systems. He has also served as chairman of the American Public Transit Association's planning and policy committee and its governing boards committee.

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