The Executive Summary of this study was reprinted from an
Issues Analysis from the Laissez Faire Institute, originally
published in January of 2003.
For the full study, including detailed analysis and
graphical data on the topic, please click here (Microsoft
The Decline of Public Transit
Urban public transportation systems have been in decline since the
end of World War II. At that time, public transit vehicles provided
50% of travel in urban regions. Last year, 2% of urban travel in
America was provided by public transit.
This decline has occurred despite Herculean government efforts to
prevent it. Non-riders are forced to pay two-thirds of the cost for
every transit rider's transportation. Per person mile of travel,
government now spends twenty times as much on public transit as it
does for roadways.
The decline of public transit is the result of powerful demographic
forces that show no sign of reversal. Basically, the demand for
public transit is inversely related to personal income. As people's
incomes rise they can afford the more comfortable and convenient
travel provided by owning and operating an automobile.
The "race" between the automobile and public transit is over. The
auto has won. Nothing short of an economic debacle that drastically
reduces urban standards of living can overturn this outcome.
Unwilling to face this reality, public transit's devotees are busy
repackaging an early loser in the race (trolleys), hoping that a
new name (light rail) and a new public relations campaign can
persuade people that the tax increases needed to try to resuscitate
this dinosaur are necessary.
The Light Rail Fad
Those who advocate light rail transit rely heavily upon the alleged
"success" of trolleys in the cities that have them. Many have gone
on pilgrimages to places like Portland and San Diego and returned
with tales of great wonder and astonishment.
Why, these cities actually have trains. Frequently, there are
passengers. Local transit bureaucrats and politicians rave about
how wonderful these light rail trains have been for their cities.
However, bureaucrats seeking to expand their empire or justify
their budgets and politicians who have plowed millions of taxpayer
dollars into these ventures have every incentive to exaggerate the
Of all the options in the current public transit mix, for most
cities, light rail is probably the worst possible choice. It
requires its own special track, so it lacks the flexibility of
buses which can be run over existing city streets. Yet, its
carrying capacity is far less than that of heavy rail.
There isn't a single light rail transit system in America in which
fares paid by passengers cover the cost of their own rides. The
aggregate deficit for 2000 (the latest year for which complete data
are available) was more than a billion dollars. The average cost
per passenger mile is around $1.20. These costs are far higher than
the average cost per bus passenger mile of about seventy-five
cents. Of course, no transit option matches the average cost of
automobile transportation, which is about thirty-four cents per
Light rail's inefficiency is matched by its unfairness. On average,
taxpayers pay nearly 90% of the cost of light rail passenger
travel. This is worse than the average for all transit modes. When
all transit modes are considered, riders pay about one-third of the
costs. Light rail compares even more unfavorably with auto
transportation where private passenger vehicles currently pay more
than 100% of their share of the cost of the road system.
Light rail's inefficiency and unfairness aren't offset by
effectiveness. Only in Portland does light rail transit account for
as much as one percent of the urban person-miles of travel. The
average share of person-miles of travel for light rail transit was
only three-tenths of one percent.
Light rail is touted as a means of reducing urban traffic
congestion. The claim is that it will lure drivers out of their
cars and, thereby, reduce traffic congestion. If all of the light
rail passengers would have otherwise been driving their own cars,
light rail would, on average, be removing three cars in 1,000 from
the roads. However, studies have shown that about 80% of new light
rail passengers were former bus passengers. Taking this into
account, the real impact on traffic is for light rail to remove
less than one car in 1,000 from traffic.
The transit numbers tell a tale of inefficiency, inequity, and
ineffectiveness. In no city is transit run on sound business
principles. There is little effort to try to generate compensatory
revenues from customers. Huge and unending losses are the result.
Riders are asked to pay a pitifully small share of the costs.
Modern urban travelers want convenience, comfort, and speed. The
automobile best fits these requirements. This is why the auto is
the choice for the overwhelming majority of urban travelers. The
inconvenient, frequently uncomfortable, and slower transportation
offered by public transit modes does not meet the needs of more
than a small fraction of urban travelers. Given its inferior
performance characteristics relative to other transit options,
light rail is the most unappealing choice for trying to meet the
needs of the small fraction of urban travelers who rely on public
For the full study, including detailed analysis and
graphical data on the topic, please click
here(Microsoft Word file).
John Semmens is an analyst with Laissez Faire
Poplar Ct., Chandler, Arizona 85226; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.