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The Mass Transit Delusion

Opinion Editorial
December 10, 1997

By Dennis Polhill

There is no truth to the belief that light rail improves traffic congestion. A look at the failure of light rail in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere shows how wise Denver-area voters were to reject light rail in a landslide.

Locals in Portland report “light rail actually put more cars on the road.” Portland’s Environmental Coalition opposes building more rail because light rail forces more people into cars. Portland’s experience is not unique.

Of the 10 metropolitan areas that have built light rail in the last decade, only San Diego reports a higher system ridership. In other words, in nine out of ten cities, after light rail is built, total mass transit ridership declines. The decline occurs because consumers are rational. Rail forces more transfers, which increases travel times and decreases convenience. San Diego’s ridership is up only because light rail takes tourists to Mexico.

All infrastructure, including roads, is constructed with fixed capacity. If the government owns the infrastructure, and treats the infrastructure as collective property, then there are no incentives against overuse of the infrastructure.

Overcrowding does not occur when infrastructure is privately owned, as with hotel rooms, restaurants, airlines, shopping malls, athletic clubs, telephones, and electricity. Pricing and other value-added incentives abound. Competition for customers encourages innovation.

Fortunately for commuters, automobile technology improvements that can be implemented in just a few years will allow even the most congested roads to carry many more vehicles.

Moreover, innovative programs to shift highway demand away from peak times (rush hour) towards times when highways are not congested are being considered all over the United States. Gridlock may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to market forces.

No wonder that collectivists were in such a hurry to push a massive tax increase for state-controlled transit. In a few years, the problem will be solved, without their help.

But, mass transit advocates insist, mass transit is not just about getting people from one place to another. Mass transit is complicated by its “entitlement” component. A 1989 management study of the State of Colorado went so far as to suggest that transit be removed from the Transportation Department and reassigned to the Social Services Department.

But as a social welfare institution, mass transit is a very poor use of resources. About 40% of metro area transportation funding goes to mass transit, even though mass transit carries under 2% of commuters. Subsidies pay 80% of the cost of every mass transit boarding. Such huge subsidies to such a small group might be justifiable if the subsidies were for people in need. But over half of all mass transit are affluent.

In any case, travel in the metro area is increasingly from suburb to suburba type of travel which is unserviceable by a large centrally controlled bureaucracy.

The national trends are just as bad for mass transit as are the Denver trends. Mass transit ridership has declined since World War II in every census in every city. The reality is that fewer people live in tenements and work in factories.

Transit fans play on nostalgia and point to old systems as “working.” Yet Chicago ridership today is 1/500th of its peak. The numbers worsen when expressed as market share after population growth adjustment.

Even in New York City, where population density is 10 times Denver’s, where congestion is so bad that many people cannot own a car, and rail travel volume is nearly 5 times that of second place Chicago, rail accounts for less than 10% of all travel.

Subsidies in 1995 dollars for mass transit total $350 billion, roughly the same cost as constructing the entire interstate highway system. Yet ridership has never been lower. Even the U.S. Federal Transit Agency, which gives out transit subsidies, admits that mass transit has problems.

To move from dysfunctional bus service to even less functional rail is clearly no solution and serves only to protect a bureaucracy from the possibility of downsizing. If a successful bureaucratic-style approach to mass transit were known, it would have been tried somewhere and copied.

It may be that the massive centrally controlled protected government monopoly approach to mass transit is no longer workable. If so, it may be time to take a look at the opposite approach: privatize, devolve, and legalize competition.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank located in Golden, Colorado. https://i2i.org

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