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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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  • ronetc

    “most of the new transit projects have been sited, has been flat or stagnant” . . . what is the difference between “flat” and “stagnant”? Does the author mean the difference between, perhaps, “flat or declining?”

    • Andrew Allison

      Let’s not even get into growth having been flat!

  • Frank Natoli

    Once upon a time, the New York Slimes, when Abe Rosenthal was the Editor, actually published articles that weren’t simply Pravda West. I distinctly recall one Sunday Times Magazine with a cover photo of a San Francisco BART train with the title “transit in search of a mass”.
    No matter. Democrats declare success with the imposition of Democrat policies. Consequences of those policies are totally irrelevant.

    • Andrew Allison

      BART is neither new nor typical — it carries well over 400,000 passengers per day whose fares cover 85% of operating costs ( Whether the proposed extensions will be cost-effective is open to question. The SF Bay Area is, however host to an extreme example of the cost-ineffectiveness of new systems. The San Jose Light Rail system is one of the worst in the country, each ride costing the taxpayer over $10. It’s prime mover, Rod Diridon, has been handsomely rewarded by those who benefited from the money spent on this boondoggle (,_Sr.).

      • Laurence Levin

        It’s all about the graft.

      • Frank Natoli

        One of the points of the Times article, although again this is many moons ago, is that the system was designed to run fully automatically, but California unions demanded and got a requirement to have a motorman on each train, whose job it was to watch what was happening, no control of the traction motors, no control of the brakes. Makes sense.

  • Andrew Allison

    “L.A. has already spent over $15 billion on rail . . .” and the recipients and would-be recipients of such largesse will fight to keep the money coming.

  • slovokia

    There is economic efficiency and then there is political efficiency. Projects which aid and enrich your political supporters are politically efficient even if they are detrimental to the broader electorate in terms of economics. Those in power making such decisions can always make the claim that the other guys would be worse. In any case the electorate seldom pays much attention to the details of governance anyway – look at the success Trump is having. Garbage in garbage out.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The future of travel is in individual air cars along the lines of
    This would produce huge savings on infrastructure, as no rail-roads, and no roads would be needed. Go directly to your destination, vertical take off and land in a driveway or parking lot. While roads will still be needed for cargo and such, since traffic is what wears them out, they will require much less maintenance. Since flying an air car like these already requires a computer, a networked computerized air traffic control system would be all that’s needed to maximize an efficient shortest distance point to point travel (as the crow flies). Of huge importance here is the high speeds 300+ mph, available. Time is money, and shortening travel times by more the 5 fold is huge, and would have far reaching effects. For example: it is a fact that commutes greater than 15 mins, being to face increasing resistance, so air cars expand the preferred living locations for any particular job by at least 25 fold as area is the square of the distance. So as automobiles created the suburbs, so would the air car create the super-suburbs as many people could live 100 miles from work and still have a 15-20 min commute. Children could be flown to the schools the Parents prefer, shoppers could shop at their preferred stores, businesses could reduce their bricks and mortar locations while at the same time increase inventory and selections. So major changes are on the horizon.

    • Andrew Allison

      Whilst I generally agree with you, I think you’re off base on this one. The current problems with idiot drone operators invading commercial airspace show why. Also, the ATC problem would be huge — imagine circling a parking lot for half an hour waiting for a landing slot. Worse yet, expanding urban sprawl 25-fold is the last thing we need.

    • Frank Natoli

      Fairy tales, can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart…
      Don’t know about where you live, but where I live, most people are 100% occupied by for all intents and purposes one dimension driving in daylight on dry roads. And you think the same people will easily adapt to three dimension driving in any kind of weather?
      See again the above lyrics.

    • PoohBear57

      Just let me know when you’ve devised a computerized control system for all this that can’t be hacked….

  • GS

    Professor Linda S. Gottfredson tabulated the recruitment IQ intervals for many occupations. Quoting her tables from memory, the attorneys are recruited from the segment with the median ca. 125, and the meat packers from another segment, that one centering on 85. The jobs are stratified, and work-at-home idea is applicable only at the higher reaches of IQ scale. While an attorney can tele-work from home, a meat packer cannot.

  • demboj

    The problem with commuter rail transit is population density. In the US there are about 300 million people living on about 3 million square miles of land. Therefore, American population density is only about 100 people per square mile. Places where commuter rail systems seem most successful, like New York, London, and Paris, have more than 4,000 people per square mile. They are the world’s highest population regions. Even so, most such commuter rail systems need subsidies that exceed the cost of fares. In high density cities, like New York, London, or Paris, nobody is more than a few minutes walk from the subway, or bus stop, there is little land for off-street parking, the subsidies can be managed politically because everybody uses the systems as some point. In most places, however, even in the high density corridors between major cities, people would have to walk or dive significant distances just to get to the bus or rail stop, and the cost of subsidies prohibits providing enough commuter rail service for everybody. The cost of extending commuter rail services to everybody would be prohibitive for even the most fervent advocates of commuter rail systems. Thus, in America, most mass transit systems serve only selected neighborhoods and are inaccessible to most commuters. We should revisit the issue when the US has a population density of 4,000 people per square mile or a population of more than 1.2 billion people.

    • Andrew Allison


  • f1b0nacc1

    I was waiting for another telework article….

    • Andrew Allison

      Fortunately, one doesn’t have to hold one’s breath long [grin]

  • m d m

    Does that mean that highway spending is a mistake too? After all the billions spent, we still have traffic gridlock and no significant increase in market share of CBD trips for private autos.

    • Andrew Allison

      No. Commuting is, and contrary to TAI’s wishes will remain, a fact of life. The inability of suburban mass transit demonstrates that we’re not going to get people out of their (or somebody else’s) car. Hence, highway improvements have benefit. The counter-argument that making commuting by car almost intolerable will force people to mass transit is demonstrably false, see, e.g. Los Angeles.

    • Tom

      Well, no, if for no other reason than commercial transportation of goods.

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