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Is Mass Transit In America Dying?

Public Transit

Americans drove nearly 96 percent as many miles in May 2021 as in the same month in 2019, indicating a return to normalcy. Transit ridership, however, was only 42 percent of pre‐​pandemic levels, which is making transit agencies desperate to justify their future existence and the subsidies they depend on to keep running.

The pandemic accelerated several trends that were already happening and that had contributed to declines in transit ridership in every year since 2014. First, even after getting vaccinated, more people are working at home at least two or three days a week. Second, those who commute to work are finding less congested roads, so driving is more attractive than it once was. Third, people are increasingly moving to areas where transit doesn’t work very well: Redfin data show that home prices in “car‐​dependent” (I prefer “auto liberated”) areas are growing twice as fast and homes are selling in half the time as in transit‐​accessible areas.

Transit agencies are responding to this by reducing fares. But transit is already so heavily subsidized — getting 78 percent of its funds from taxpayers in 2019 — that a small increase in subsidies is not enough to counter the trends against transit. People who have discovered the benefits of working at home two or three days a week are not suddenly going to go back to the office five days a week because transit fares are a little lower.

Transit’s real problem is that it is operating a nineteenth‐​century business model in twenty‐​first century cities. In 1890, when American cities were rapidly installing electric streetcars, most urban jobs were downtown and the streetcar lines radiated away from downtown hubs to bring people to work.

Today, only about 8 percent of jobs are in downtowns, and large urban areas such as Los Angeles or Houston have numerous job centers with as many and often more jobs than the traditional downtowns. Yet, in most urban areas, transit still has a hub‐​and‐​spoke system centered around the central city downtown. Demographer Wendell Cox’s analysis of census data show that, before the pandemic, transit carried about 40 percent of downtown commuters to work, but typically carried only about 5 percent of commuters to other major job centers.

If transit wants to remain a viable part of the nation’s transportation system, it needs to reinvent itself so that it serves more than just a few downtown commuters. As I describe in a recent policy brief, one way for it to do so would be to have multiple hubs, like many major airlines. The hubs would be connected to all other hubs by non‐​stop, express buses, while local buses would radiate away from each hub.

Instead of reinventing themselves, however, transit agencies are more likely to simply develop new excuses to get subsidies despite low ridership. Transit advocates have already proposed that transit shouldn’t be judged by the number of riders it carries but by how many neighborhoods it serves, even if they are served by empty buses. Another argument is that transit should focus on equity, when in fact the best way to improve transportation equity is to increase car ownership.

Demands for more subsidies, however, are a dead end for transit. We have already reached the point where the main constituencies for transit subsidies are union transit workers and transit contractors, not transit riders. At some point, people are going to realize that hardly anyone outside of New York City needs transit anymore, and taxpayers and voters will demand an end to those subsidies. Ending the subsidies will force transit agencies to be more responsive to users than to politicians, so the sooner they are ended, the better.

Randal O’Toole is a Cato Institute senior fellow specializing in land‐​use and transportation issues. He has written six books, including Reforming the Forest Service and Romance of the Rails, plus dozens of policy papers and numerous articles and op-eds about free-market approaches to transportation, housing, and other issues.

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  1. Harry_the_Horrible

    July 14, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    Why is this a surprise?
    Fewer people are going to work.
    Besides, mass transit is unpleasant, doesn’t stop where I want it to, and doesn’t operate on my schedule.
    My car, on the other hand, goes where I want it to, when I want it to, and I don’t have to share with anyone.

  2. John Steele

    July 16, 2021 at 10:28 am

    Mass transit has always been a bottomless money pit and has to be subsidized with tax funds. Generous retirement and salaries make it unworkable. It also dangerous in may cities to ride it. It doesn’t go where you want to go, so you end up walking a few more miles and it takes an hour to go where you want and riding in a car is a 10 minute trip. End it..

  3. stogieguy7

    July 16, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    This article is spot on! And, I’ll be more ‘progressive’ about mass transit than most conservatives: I’d probably use it if it ever worked for me. But it almost never does, unless I am a tourist going to the downtown of a big city.

    I live near Chicago, which has a huge public transit system which, in part, consists of the urban rail system “the L” and a suburban commuter rail system known as Metra. Metra serves dozens and dozens of communities. Yet, rarely can I use either system because they’re all based on the concept that EVERYTHING leads to down town Chicago! Therefore, its only useful if that’s where you’re going. It actually does that part pretty well. But most of us never need to go downtown. Most commutes are suburb to suburb. Or suburban part of the city to a suburb. Mass transit isn’t set up to serve these people anywhere in the Americas. Which is why it will fail if it is not reformed.

  4. Jim

    July 16, 2021 at 4:17 pm

    Public Transit: going where, and when, Big Stupid Government parasites and their union-thug goons say you can.

  5. Scott

    July 16, 2021 at 7:21 pm

    California is trying to spend $100bn on a mixed-speed train that goes nowhere useful. Just one more reason to recall that worthless governor.

  6. boron

    July 17, 2021 at 1:19 pm

    Many moons ago I moved to Portland, at that time a safe, pleasant progressive city with many bus and train/subway routes/miles. I lived in NE, a short walk from the office; I was called to a meeting with the head honcho at HQ in NW (on a rainy day).
    One train ride, two bus changes, and a half-hour walk later, I arrived for my appointment (on time yet: I left home very early; I’m a chrono-neurotic). That’s when I decided I needed a car in what is known to be a very walkable city.

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