FRA Chief: America Is Driving Less and Congress Needs to Catch Up

Speaking to reporters earlier today, Federal Railroad Administration chief Joe Szabo said that people are driving less and using transit more — and that those changes are permanent. “America’s travel habits are undergoing rapid change,” he said. It’s a fact, he said (“not opinion — statistically proven”), calling on Congress to show that it understands these changes by moving in a new direction.

FRA Chief Joe Szabo says Congress needs to recognize that Americans are driving less and using transit more. Photo: ##

Szabo referred to a recent report by U.S. PIRG that found the average American drives six percent fewer miles today than in 2004. “While that’s significant,” he said, “what’s really significant is what you’re seeing with younger people.” He cited U.S. PIRG’s finding that from 2001 to 2009, driving among the 16-34 year old demographic declined 23 percent while transit use increased 40 percent. Szabo went on:

We’re talking about the next generation that actually considers it badge of honor not to own a car but instead to use inter-city passenger rail, mass transit, bike-sharing, and car-sharing. And this is the future. So it’s time for Congress to recognize this future and prepare for this rapidly growing trend.

Szabo’s remarks came during a press event with the American Public Transportation Association, which released impressive ridership numbers for the first quarter of 2012. Americans took nearly 2.7 billion trips on transit during the first three months of the year, a five percent increase over last year — the fifth consecutive quarter of U.S. public transit ridership increase, APTA said.

Rail modes experienced especially strong growth, with light rail use up by 6.7 percent and heavy rail use up by 5.5 percent. Szabo said that rail transit will continue to play a big role in a mode shift away from cars.

“There are efficiencies in rail that can’t be ignored,” he said. “With service levels targeted for the marketplace, passenger rail can be the most cost-effective, least oil-reliant, and most environmentally friendly mode of transportation.” He said the country is experiencing a “rail renaissance,” with ridership up 72 percent between 1995 and 2008.

Swings in the economy have likely contributed to the recent ridership surge, with transit becoming more appealing to Americans looking to economize on transportation costs. Many of those new riders will stick with transit: APTA studies have shown that a significant number of transit converts don’t go back to driving when gas prices fall. Job growth could also be a factor, since commuting constitutes 60 percent of transit use.

Szabo didn’t get into specifics about how Congress should adapt to the changing travel habits in the U.S., except to say that lawmakers must pass a “fully funded, multi-year transportation bill that guides us towards a 21st century transportation network that is safer, more energy-efficient, more environmentally sustainable, and that offers us more transportation choices.”

At the APTA press event, Therese McMillan, deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, said that transit should no longer be viewed as “something on the side and not an integral part of what affects people’s lives on a day to day basis.” She said the Obama administration’s priorities reflect “this growing realization that transportation overall, but public transportation in particular, is becoming a major part of an overall vibrant American community, whether that community be urban, suburban, or rural.”

This isn’t a top-down mandate, she noted. Communities come to the agency for help in meeting their own visions of how to expand their transit systems. It only makes sense to fully fund federal support for these locally-driven programs.

10 thoughts on FRA Chief: America Is Driving Less and Congress Needs to Catch Up

  1. It’s good news that our transportation priorities, and better still that a federal official is noticing. Now how about the rest of the federal government to start shifting priorities? I don’t like how our roads are mostly in good shape, but our railroads and transit systems are mostly dismal. But we need to begin a positive trend somewhere….

  2. Part of the problem is that so many of the “powers that be” folks are from my generation or somewhat younger.  They grew up in the days when gasoline was 25 to 30 cents a gallon, and one could buy a serviceable car for a few hundred bucks.  Cars were simple enough for “do it yourself” repairs and parts were fairly cheap.  Them days is gone forever, but old attitudes die hard.

  3. This is genuinely amazing given that auto-competitive transit systems have not been a national priority – barely an afterthought, actually.

    Unless and until we shift federal priorities – not the policy statements and commitments, but priorities as reflected by expenditures – we will continue to keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing since the Eisenhower administration . . . building ever-increasing road capacity and getting ever-eroding returns on investment.

    We need real transit networks – not express bus running on new add-a-lane projects, but genuine transit investments – able to effectively serve major cities and their associated suburbs. We need to serve traditional, reverse, and inter-suburban commutes. Our investments need to make transit a mode of choice for all. Everyone – freight rail, trucking, general highway users, etc. – stands to reap significant benefits from a drastically re-imagined national transportation network.

  4. While there are many, many contributing factors to the rapid shift of millennials rejecting automobiles, ultimately I think places without transit access are simply going to be left behind. Its far easier to simply avoid traveling to locations with poor transit access than to figure out how to get a car, how to make complicated transfers, how to ride a bus. 

  5. I think that he’s just wrong and his statement is self serving.  If anyone is driving less its because of freaking $4 a gallon gas.

  6. And now we have to convince Congress to put the money towards rail, bike and bus, not towards highways. When I started driving gas was 49.9 a gallon and 3.49 a gallon now, I am not against driving, I am just against being forced to drive because outside of the metro areas, the car is king. There is none so blind as those that will not see.

  7. Cars are a product of heavy government subsidization and a lack of market-based incentives and disincentives to drive — namely the lack of ‘pay per use’ of roads and highways. Create tolls on this basis (weight of vehicle as per consumption of roads/highways) and this ‘problem’ could be resolved overnight … but all of the entitled drivers today would squeal like a pig on a spit. Yes — it is time for a change that gets us moving in the right direction — and Mr. Szabo is correct and ‘walking his talk.’

  8. Where is transit funding coming from? I’ve been of the belief that nearly all of it comes from gas taxes. I must then ask those who say car transportation is over subsidized. The thing is that car transportation is what is subsidizing rail. I also believe that rail gets a higher % of its subsidies from non-gas sources i.e. general fund.

    Car transportation is self funding. tolls paid at the pump not the booth.
    Public transit loses money, and is funded significantly by the government.

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