Making Transit Better Isn’t Enough. Driving Needs to Be Worse.

So transit ridership is up. Everybody knows that. It’s at its highest point since 1956. Right?

That's more like it. Photo: ## Suite##
That’s more like it. Photo: ## Suite##

Well, ridership per capita is still less than half its 1956 point. And by 1956, transit ridership was already at a 40-year low. But with transit growing faster than car travel, at a rate that outpaces population growth, there is still cause for optimism.

But even that cautious optimism took a bit of a beating in the Washington Post’s opinion section this morning, as three prominent urban planning professors declared the transit bump fictitious. “In fact, use of mass transportation has remained remarkably steady, and low, since about 1970,” they go on. “There is nothing exceptional about last year’s numbers; they represent a depressing norm.” They even hint that federal funding for transit is too high.

Way too far down in the column, the professors — David King of Columbia University, Michael Manville of Cornell University, and Michael Smart of Rutgers — shift focus from the problem with transit to the problem with driving.

The nut of their argument is as follows: “Resting our hopes on a transit comeback distracts from our real transportation problem, which can be summarized in four words: Driving is too cheap.”

Emily Badger made this point in Atlantic Cities two weeks ago (and Jeff Wood and I made it on the Talking Headways podcast last week). It’s not enough to spruce up sustainable modes if we as a nation are still giving enormous amounts of subsidies and space to the private automobile.

If driving continues to be the fastest and most convenient way of getting almost everywhere, people will continue to drive. It’s like telling business owners they’re welcome to hire union workers at a living wage, but they’re also totally free to use child labor if they’d rather. Nine times out of 10, people will pick the cheaper option.

Not that driving is cheaper than biking or taking transit, of course. Owning a car is quite expensive, in fact — about $9,150 a year, according to AAA. But it’s not nearly expensive enough.

Here’s what King, Manville and Smart say:

Drivers impose costs on society — in delay, in pollution, in carbon, in wear and tear on our roads — that they don’t pay for. As a result, many of us drive more than we otherwise would. Ending this underpriced driving — through higher fuel taxes, parking and congestion charges and insurance premiums based on miles driven — is a central challenge for local, state and federal transportation officials.

If only transportation officials saw that as their central challenge! Instead, many fail to recognize the ways in which Americans are signaling that they are ready to use other modes and continue planning for an auto-centric future.

The op-ed continues:

Charging the right price for driving would give drivers a better-performing system, both by reducing congestion and raising revenue to help repair roads. It would help communities and the planet by reducing pollution. And, not least, it would help public transportation by leveling the playing field between transit and private vehicles. Increased subsidies for public transportation have neither reduced driving nor increased transit use. But ending subsidies to driving probably would do both.

Ending these subsidies will be hard work, politically. Yet we will have no incentive to do this work if Americans continue to believe that transit is making a comeback on its own. It isn’t. Transit, like the rest of our transportation system, is in trouble. We need to act quickly to save it.

The authors are absolutely right. The U.S. has spent the last 60 years making sure motorists could endanger everything from public health and safety to public transportation budgets and not feel a thing. Every time the idea comes up that drivers should feel be responsible for a little more of the damage they cause society, accusations of “social engineering” and “Agenda 21” start flying.

So instead, the U.S. continues to incentivize the worst behavior and inconvenience the best. No wonder transit ridership still isn’t what it should be.

91 thoughts on Making Transit Better Isn’t Enough. Driving Needs to Be Worse.

  1. The Washington Post article is quite good–I wish NPR and some of the other outlets that mindlessly parrot “numbers without denominators” would pick up on this. If you have not read it, you should do so. Continuing to subsidize driving ensures we continue to emphasize a low density settlement pattern that cannot likely be sustained by a burgeoning population.

    Like others have said below, the transitions will be ugly, but I think they are inevitable. The problem is, the more we kick the can down the road, the more ugly change will become. Perhaps imposing a gas tax that rises steeply over the next decade, and using the funds to rebuild infrastructure in a “smart” manner is a good start. I can’t see us abandoning the ‘burbs, at least in the short run, but a continually increasing gas tax, perhaps coupled with energy market forces, can force adjustment incrementally.

  2. Well, the rural areas have to spend a lot on rural roads, period. Roads are as good as it gets for dispersed rural areas, and it’s necessary to pave most of the rural roads so the eggs don’t break while being transported to market.

    After that… there’s no reason for so much road spending in cities, where cars don’t work very well and even trucks don’t. Elimination of parking minimums would probably take care of most of the problems.

    The expressways are another, very expensive, matter. They should all be tolled. If the tolls don’t cover the cost of the expressway, get rid of it, it’s not needed. Most of the popular expressways *do* have their costs covered by tolls (Ohio Turnpike, NY Thruway, etc.)

  3. If people move back into urban areas and the buildings “go vertical”, the fire department can expand much more slowly than the population. A lot of city services have costs proportional to the number of acres served, not the number of people. Fire departments are largely like this. So is mass transportation. So is the water supply. So are the sewers.

  4. This is why public transportation needs to be funded.

    ” Most Americans live in places where the transit situation is far more
    dire–like, zero. What are they going to do when gas tops five or six
    or eight bucks a gallon?”

    Move to a city with rail. That’s what’s actually happening.

  5. There’s no such thing as a free market. And property rights… well, look up what that meant, historically, during feudalism.

    I agree that living choices should be *voluntary*, so we agree on something pretty big.

  6. Driving doesn’t remotely pay for itself.

    In places where people vote for their local town boards to build roads, property taxes pay for most of the cost of driving. That’s OK. But it’s important to realize what’s actually going on.

    Income taxes pay for the non-tolled expressways. And that funding choice was made undemocratically by our gerrymandered House and unrepresentative Senate.

  7. Lunacy and magical thinking. “The free market” doesn’t provide anything by magic fairy dust. There is no free market, there are only different sets of regulations.

    Right now, it’s *ILLEGAL* to build the type of inner-city housing people want to live in. Look at the zoning codes.

  8. A strike by the road maintenance workers will shut down the road system. Not immediately, but eventually.

    Transportation is an inherently collectivist enterprise. It’s not one of those things you can do in splendid isolation.

  9. The ruling class doesn’t give a damn about the roads any more.

    They fly in private aircraft.

    The general aviation airports and the helipads are the price we are stuck with to keep the ruling class happy. They don’t give a damn about the roads.

    As for rail? Yes, it uses space. But it uses a lot less space than roads. That is all.

    Chicago is a bad example for what you’re trying to claim — the railyards which left Chicago effectively reappeared elsewhere as industry (such as the stockyards) relocated to other cities. Sometimes the yards reappeared in the form of truck yards, and took up even more space.

  10. Given that the burbs and cars are picking our pockets with confiscatory taxes, I think you need to recognize that you’re a statist, and I’d like you to get your Big Government hand out of my pocket.

  11. Nathaniel:

    Rural areas generally do not have roads with curbs and sewers and sidewalks. Telephone lines and other utilities are either above ground or buried under the side of the road. They are maintained generally by the county. City roads have to have much more, even if you reduce the amount of cars by half, you will still need roads.

    If you rebuild a robust train system for the delivery of goods into a city, you will need to acquire the land and the infrastructure for trucks to make and take deliveries to the depot. You will have to build train lines. Land is expensive. For a city the size of Chicago are you going to have one major depot or several? Will all the trucks that deliver to the tens of thousands of businesses in Chicago be able to be handled by these depots? Who is going to pay for this? You can’t deliver everything in small trucks or the cost will become prohibitive. Do you want your refrigerated products delivered in a truck with no refrigeration? Smaller refrigerated trucks will require more trips back and forth to the grocery stores to make deliveries. You will still need roads. And the dreamy ones on this board that think you can haul everything on a bike pulling a trailer are unrealistic.

    If you want people to abandon the suburbs and come back to the city, where will the suburban employers go? If they do decide to come back into the city, again there will need to be land acquisition and costs associated. If these major employers choose to go elsewhere, where will the jobs be for people coming back to the city? Will these jobs pay as well if businesses are forced to rebuild in the city?

    Want to get rid of expressways or start toll charging on them? Whether you live in a city or suburban location you will pay more for transportation of goods. That means if you already live in the city and don’t have a car, everything you buy will be subject to higher transportation costs.

    Building up is costly too. Any kind of new construction generally is the costliest. I don’t know the economy of scale, but don’t think new highrises are going to be cheap housing. Where can you get a 3 bedroom in a highrise in Chicago for under $300,000 right now and what will it cost in the future. Or are you assuming that no one will have families with children.

    Packing more people, more rail, more businesses in the city might be workable, but it is going to have ramifications that are not well thought out at this stage. It means city’s are going to have to charge more in local taxes just to pay for additional services. It means city residents are going to pay more in the long run for just about everything. (Or do you think Commonwealth Edison can just pick up the transmission stations in the suburbs and move them into the city for all the new residents?)

    Sometimes I have to wonder if people are still playing Sim City on the computer in their teenage bedrooms? Because if you don’t understand supply and demand and associated costs, you are basically going to create cities that are not going to be very good for anybody.

  12. It’s necessary to be accurate and that means it’s necessary to point out that driving does not pay for itself. Gas taxes only pay for half of road construction and maintenance. The other half comes from sales taxes, property taxes, income taxes, and general fund budgets. The concept that cars and driving is a closed-loop self-sustaining funding situation is inaccurate so “driving doesn’t more than pay for itself.” Not even close.

  13. There is no abandon the “suburbs” movement. You can make suburbs a little more dense and a lot more walkable strategically, giving people more options. There is no rule that says suburbs can’t have a walkable Main Street with commercial and residential. Or a couple of blocks with mid rise offices and housing with ground floor retail.

  14. Tolling expressways would add a negligible amount to the cost of goods. That’s a fake argument that collapses once one actually makes calculations.

    Let’s say cars are tolled 15 cents per mile on expressways, and trucks three times more, so 45 cents per mile. Let’s say a beer truck travels 1 000 miles (considering the continental US is 2 500 miles east-west and 1 500 miles north-south, that’s a very high estimate). The beer truck carries about 20 000 bottles of beer (estimates I’ve seen go up to 26 000, so I’m actually being kind to you here).

    Tolls will cost the truck driver 450$. 450$ divided by 20 000 bottles of beer means that the cost of tolls would be about 2 cents per bottle.

    Negligible. Tolls would add a 1-2% additional cost to goods that travel long distances, even less for more local goods.

    Note that almost all highways in France are tolled, and all expressways are very highly tolled in Japan, yet most freight is carried on trucks in both these countries, and the system works. There is no shortage of goods and prices aren’t sky-high.

    The real irony here is that by increasing the cost of transport (especially the marginal cost), you reduce how much people pay for transport in the long term. If transport is more expensive per mile, then people will tolerate shorter distances, which increases the viability of walking, biking and transit as transport modes versus the car. The result is that households can make do with 1 less car (or none at all), and will thus save thousands of dollars each year.

    Packing more people in the city does mean higher cost to provide services… but it also means a much larger tax base. Overall, the cost per person is going to be the same, or even lower thanks to economies of scale.

  15. What is really expensive is continuing the status quo. Americans spend about 20% of their income on transport because of sprawling suburbs that force residents to own one car per adult in an household, Europeans pay 14%, Japanese pay 10%. People drive a lot more than they should because the marginal cost of driving is kept way down by road funding that spreads the cost of the infrastructure as widely as possible in order to reduce the marginal cost of driving. In other words, other people pay for your own use of the road, you pay for other people’s use of the road. If you choose to voluntarily reduce your use of it, other people benefit, but you still are on the hook for paying for their use of it.

    The economic incentives are twisted, you encourage people to waste resources and force more government spending on roads. People still end up paying for it, but as they don’t see why they’re paying, they never change their habits.

    The suburban living style is extremely expensive to sustain, but this cost has been hidden through policies aimed at making it appear cheap to make it accessible to more and more people. Moving to the cities will require investments to increase housing supply and to reestablish earlier levels of public service, but when you account for the cost per person, it’s actually cheaper than building new suburban subdivisions which ALSO requires building schools, sewers, etc…

    The best in all of this is that the taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for much of this spending. Housing and transport would be paid by consumers and users at a much greater rate than they currently are.

    As to the transport of goods. I’ve demonstrated how tolls would result in negligible increases of the price of goods in a message above this one. Even then, I’ll point out something you seem to have forgotten about good transport:

    Subsidies don’t make costs disappears, they simply move around the costs.

    So if transport is currently subsidized, maybe the price of goods are slightly lesser than they would be if truckers had to pay directly for the road infrastructure through tolls. However, someone has to pay for these subsidies somewhere. In the end, the result wouldn’t be significantly different, the price of transport would simply be integrated into the price of goods instead of being passed along to the consumers in the form of a myriad amount of small taxes.

  16. “It’s like telling business owners they’re welcome to hire union workers at a living wage, but they’re also totally free to use child labor if they’d rather. Nine times out of 10, people will pick the cheaper option.”

    No, I think it’s like telling power companies they can either put scrubbers on their coal plants, or add sacrificial virgins to the fire.

    That’s a dichotomy that doesn’t make sense as a comparison to “cheap car” v. “expensive car”–child labor is only ‘cheap’, if you treat the children like virtual slaves.

  17. Why wouldn’t the transit agency be exempted from–or get a direct rebate of–the gas tax?

    That isn’t pricing premised on demand, it’s premised on a increase in TAX.

  18. So we can have smog like Paris?

    The (primary) reason that US has few of the “interesting” diesel cars is that they don’t meet US emissions standards. A secondary reason is that in the 70s, the American car companies made such gawd-awful diesels, that 2 generation of Americans think that “diesel car = unreliable, noisy, smelly, slow car”.

    You can get a Merc, or an Audi or a VW diesel with the tech to meet US emissions. We won’t get the rest w/o major changes in *EURO* particulate standards, bc the rest of the euro car makers aren’t going to make two *diesel* models.

  19. If you want to make driving worse by raising gas prices, you might find an alternative mode of transportation, but you still need to eat and warm your home. Fuel prices find there way into many of our everyday goods and products. Just a thought to everyone screaming for higher prices to get people out of their car.

  20. Ah, missed the implication of a conditional future.

    Nevermind the increase in transportation costs, the increase in production costs will take it that far. Welcome to a future of $10 *powder* milk gallons–powdered to reduce the size and weight to keep the transpo costs down.

  21. “We” decide policy through a combination of popularity contests and well-funded special interests. When was the last time a law was passed and signed that was unpopular AND went against the most powerful special interests?

    Your example is anachronistic and took place when American politics was a different beast than it is today.

    Changes like this would have to be made gradually over time, perhaps without letting the public realize the end goal. Then there just might be a chance.

  22. We’ll have as much free market as we as a people want. We also have as an intrusive as government as we, as a people want. Trouble is, people all think they can game the political system to their advantage at their neighbors’ expense. They also think they have the right way to live that should apply to everyone else. Worse yet, they get their ideas about those things from people who presently run the system.

    Today’s system is really mostly semantically different from feudalism. Things have different names but they are functionally the same.

  23. So should I get a check for all those years the ‘L’ disturbed me?
    Carbon Dioxide: I suggest you look into how the temperature record has been altered to fit the models. Winston Smith has been very very busy in recent years. The modelers are the warmers the empiricists are not. But the mass media and political power hustlers won’t tell you about the empiricists who don’t get funding and are largely rather up there in age now. As to the rest, you’re just another person who wants to dictate to others how they should live. How they should use their property and so forth and will use any wedge possible to create a ‘social cost’ to bring in the heavy hand of the government.

    Read what I wrote again, 1992 is when Agenda 21 was formalized at the UN. I put the start of this likely somewhere in 1930s or before. Anyway it doesn’t change my main point that following the agenda 21 game plan is very very noticeable.

  24. They aren’t going to ride the L into downtown Chicago.

    Countries where the general population does not have cars, still have limited access highways. Their rulers and the cronies use them.

    Rail uses a lot of space. Ever visit a rail yard? Ever stand on the 31st street bridge looking at the tracks? Used to be able to do the same downtown, but it’s largely hidden/gone now. Go visit an old suburb like Harvey (consider concealed carry) and take a look at the space rail takes up, what it does for the appearance of the area too.

    The rail lines along the Stevenson take up at least as much space as the expressway. Take a look at the yard at roughly I55 and Pulaski. Or 51st and Wallace. You just choose to recognize these spaces and others like them. They make parking madness look silly. The only way you gain space would be trying to shove 20th century populations into 19th century capacities and that wouldn’t have worked.

  25. Mhmm, freedom to cause mass congestion and local pollution, freedom to turn large parts of cities into giant empty lots and/or dirty buildings, etc.

  26. The way our system works is that the only popularity contest is to vote for the *leaders*, not individual laws. Now, some states use ballot measures to decide some issues, but of the thousands and thousands of laws passed in this country, how many are voted on by the people? Very, very little. That’ because, as I said, it’s not a popularity contest. Instead, you have leaders that are (in theory) open-minded and get to hear both (or more) sides of an argument and make a decision on the *merits* of the argument at hand, not which has the most people behind it. Of course, many politicians don’t behave this way and vote for the law that their biggest donors want, but that is a corruption of the system.

    And again, as I pointed out, all new ideas by *definition* of being new start out as being supported by a minority. Nothing would ever change if we made all decisions based on a popularity contest because of status quo bias.

    So again, we don’t decide policy changes because one is more popular than another. Instead, the experts (who are open-minded and educated on the issue, unlike all us amateurs who have day jobs and hence don’t have the time to do the proper research and listen to all sides) gather up the data and make the decision that is the best for the goals they have set (in the case of urban planning, that may be reducing pedestrian deaths, increasing traffic flow, reducing GHG emissions, etc.).

  27. “Of course, many politicians don’t behave this way and vote for the law that their biggest donors want, but that is a corruption of the system.”

    Corruption of the system or not, it happens and happens a lot (you yourself admit that it is “many politicians”). Now ask who has more money to buy politicians, those interested in maintaining the status quo, or those interested in reducing driving?

    You can’t ignore the popularity aspect. Remember most politicians want to get reelected. And I ask again, when have laws that are both unpopular to the masses AND against the interests of the big-money lobbyists (oil, automotive, for example) been passed in modern times?

  28. I’m not saying ignore the popularity aspect. What I’m saying is, point out to people (like I’m doing to you) that popularity amongst the general public isn’t the proper way to decide the merits of an argument. Maybe that isn’t enough to change the realities, but it’s the battle that needs to be fought. We have made so many poor decisions in this country because we think that the uneducated, biased public should be making decisions about issues of which they know very little. Sure, it happens all the time, but it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to do better.

    “And I ask again, when have laws that are both unpopular to the masses AND against the interests of the big-money lobbyists (oil, automotive, for example) been passed in modern times?”

    In CA, see AB32:

    Further, SF is officially a “transit-first” city:

    It can happen, and in progressive places like CA and SF, you see it happen more and more.

  29. I decided to go car free in 1991 at the age of 39. I am 62 and it was the best thing I have ever done for myself. I am an eco activist, however, one person going car free does not help the planet much and in 23 odd years of “setting an example”, I don’t think I have convinced one person.

    The benefits are that I am a lot healthier at 62 than I was at 39 and can be active for the planet without being called a hypocrite. Not that I believe my fellow activists who drive are hypocrites, but I feel I am more effective by walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

    Yes, and I had the most lucrative part of my career (infotech) after I stopped driving. I guess less stress makers for more creative thinking, at least for me. I am currently retired and still have the joy of being able to bike long distances.

    The best way, in my opinion to start doing away with cars is where they are hardest to use, in the inner downtown and business districts of cities. then work the car free areas out to the cities bounderies while expanding public transit and bicycle facilities. Work out to the suburbs and finally to more rural areas.

    As for the predicted death of suburbia, let’s not forget that the first suburbs were Railroad suburbs, such as the aptly named Philadelphia Main Line, where I lived car free myself for a number of years. This could be accomplished, in my opinion, within a decade. I would love to live long enough to see it.

    I am currently living in DC, working as an activist (unpaid of course), biking all over town and looking forward to my next bike trip up the old C&O canal path and the GAP trail to pittsburgh and back. If I can only find the time.

    I would recommend the car free life to anyone.

  30. In addition, making the roads reliably congestion-free will itself significantly reduce trucking costs– currently, you’re still paying for a truck which is stuck in traffic going nowhere. Plus, you save on storage and spoilage costs if you can reliably deliver goods where and when you need them.

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