To Put Transit on Stronger Footing, Stop Lavish Subsidies for Driving

How to get more transit riders, by Cap'n Transit
How to get more transit riders, via Cap’n Transit

There’s an interesting conversation happening in urbanism circles about how to make transit financially sustainable, going back to a piece in CityLab last June from University of Minnesota professor David Levinson. Levinson made the case for running transit like a public utility, not a government agency.

There’s one thing that’s largely missing from these discussions, argues Cap’n Transit, and it’s a big one: Transit isn’t operating on a level playing field as long as roads and parking receive such huge subsidies. Glossing over the importance of this disparity is what he calls “transportation myopia”:

Transportation myopia: the condition of seeing transit as a self-contained system rather than as an option in competition with private cars and other modes, and of seeing transit as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

Levinson himself acknowledges that transit was “hugely profitable” until competition from publicly funded roads and parking took away their ridership. And he acknowledges in his Way #2 that this could be reversed by charging the full cost for those roads and parking facilities. This is essentially the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership described by Michael Kemp back in 1973. And that’s really all you need.

What we need to talk about is how to get full cost pricing for roads, including potential challenges and ways to overcome them. But for some reason Levinson doesn’t talk about any of that, he just goes on to talk about smart cards and land value capture and bond markets.

Elsewhere on the Network today: BikeWalkLee shares an article indicating that Florida courts have pretty much given hit-and-run drivers a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Political Environment reports that Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker says he would “totally privatize” transportation. And Street Smart explains why a traditional street grid distributes traffic better than a highway.

  • Andres Dee

    Alas, I can just imagine “the other side” (Wendell & Randall, for instance) twirling their Snidely Whiplash/Headly Lamarr mustaches, while contemplating a flowchart for building more stroads & subdivisions.

  • LOL This is what I picture. 😉

  • Andres Dee
  • Andres Dee
  • davistrain

    A few years ago, I received an e-mail with an article about why people don’t use transit. Ironically, this was written by someone who usually rode public transit and apparently found it useful and a sensible way to get around. I condensed his report into a list:

    Why people don’t use transit
    Transit Dependent vs. Choice Riders

    1) Too slow
    2) Roundabout routes
    3) Unpleasant bus stops
    4) Doesn’t go near where I want to go
    5) Creep factor—winos, weirdos, hoodlums, teenage punks
    6) Doesn’t run late enough
    7) Crowded and uncomfortable
    8) Long headways—too long to wait
    9) Confusing fare/transfer systems
    10) “Loser Cruiser” image—not a “chick magnet”

    Note that the list does not include “fares too high”–If someone can afford a car and all the expenses of driving, the cost of a transit ride or a monthly pass is not an important consideration. Regarding leveling the “playing field” The obvious solution is to raise fuel taxes and registration fees, but these approaches are sometimes called “political poison” or to use an ironic metaphor “a third rail”. Right now, I don’t think the majority of voters are ready to sacrifice cheap automobility to “reduce their carbon footprints.” We can refer back to World War II, when reducing gasoline consumption and tire wear were considered vital to winning the war, but these measures were considered to be “for the duration [of the war]”. Once the Axis powers were defeated, we could go back to unlimited driving, road construction and home building.