The Dead End of Mass Transit

Joel Kotkin has done some great work pulling together a set of statistics that together show just how unsuccessful commuter rail expansions have been across the United States. After billions of dollars of investment, Kotkin reports, public transit’s market share has gone from 2.0 percent to only 2.2 percent between 2000 and 2014 nationwide. He suggests that most of that growth was in fact seen in “legacy cities” (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia—older cities organized around a well-defined downtown core, where a large percentage of the population works) whereas growth in the rest of the country, where most of the new transit projects have been sited, has been flat or declining.

Kotkin’s analysis of Los Angeles’ experience is particularly damning:

L.A. has already spent over $15 billion on rail yet this has proven less than effective in either boosting transit ridership or lessening congestion.

Since 1980 before the rail expansion the percentage of Los Angeles County commuters who take transit has actually dropped from 7.0 to 6.9 percent while the transit share of the combined statistical area has dropped from 5.1 to 4.7 percent. Even the total numbers of riders is heading down. Recently the transit booster Los Angeles Times published statistics that showed that there were now 10 percent fewer boardings on the Los Angeles MTA system than in 2006, and that the decline was accelerating.

One reason for the poor performance is that much of the train ridership turns out to have been former bus travelers in the first place, which limits actual gains there. Taxpayers, however, should be screaming about this switchero; the subsidy for new L.A. new bus riders, who tend to be the poorest of the poor, cost taxpayers $1.40 while the cost for a new rail rider was $25.82 over the period of 1994 to 2007. If you believe in transit as public good, clearly building more trains makes less sense than expanding bus operations.

Those are some remarkable figures.

And Kotkin comes to the same conclusion that we have been writing about here at Via Meadia for quite a while now: the future lies in re-imagining how work gets done in the 21st century. Kotkin again:

It’s changing work patterns that may provide the most promising opportunities to reduce traffic and reduce greenhouse gases. In the U.S., working at home, not transit, was the principal commuting alternative to the automobile in 39 of the 53 major metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million as of 2014, according to Census Bureau data. The share of work access accounted for by home workers rose by more than a third between 2000 and 2014, from 3.3 percent to 4.5 percent

Many of the most striking work at home share gains are taking place in the country’s leading technology regions, including Austin, Raleigh, the San Francisco Bay Area, Denver, Portland and San Diego. Millennials in particular, notes a recent Ernst and Young study, embrace telecommuting and flexible schedules more than previous generations did, in large part due to concerns about finding balance between work and family life.

All this suggests we need to revamp our ideas of transit, particularly in the newer, fast-growing cities. Trains may elicit a nostalgic smile about the good old days, but most Americans, and the vast majority of our cities, need to live not in the past but in an increasingly dispersed, and choice-filled reality. Time to embrace that future.

Truth. We warmly encourage you to read the whole thing.

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