Grasps for Solutions in the Dying Transit Industry

The transit business was dying before the epidemic, despite getting more than $50 billion in annual subsidies, and the virus has nearly killed it out.

Even if your industry receives government subsidies covering two-thirds of its operating expenses and all of its capital costs, most individuals still refuse to utilize your services. Are you a fan of:

a. Increase operational subsidies so that you can provide free services?

b. Invest more in capital enhancements that haven't previously attracted additional customers?

b. Punish Americans who refuse to use your services?

d. Redefine your objective such that even if nearly no one utilizes your service, you look relevant?

All of the above, perhaps? Except in New York City, it appears to be the transit industry's answer to the problem that practically no one uses public transportation anymore. Data released by the Department of Transportation early this week, for example, reveals that October transit ridership was barely more than half of pre‐​pandemic levels even as driving has returned to nearly 100 percent, flying is 80 percent, and Amtrak is 72 percent. Even in New York, transit ridership remained less than 57 percent of pre‐​pandemic levels.

To get riders back, transit agencies are trying a variety of strategies:

Free fares: President Biden is going to Kansas City this week to promote free transit. Since taxpayers are already subsidizing so much of the cost of providing transit, why not just have them subsidize all of it? Kansas City adopted free fares last year and ridership increased a little bit. But Kansas City residents still travel by car more than 500 times as much as they ride transit, so what is the point of free fares?

Capital projects: Meanwhile, transit agencies all over the country are gleefully anticipating their share of the billions of dollars of transit funds in the recent infrastructure bill. Portland, whose last light‐​rail line cost $1.5 billion and yielded zero net new riders, wants to spend billions more on its next light‐​rail line. Denver’s Regional Transit District wants to build a rail line to Longmont even though its own analysis found that it would end up costing $65 per rider. St. Louis wants to build a new light‐​rail line even though its transit system carried fewer riders in 2019 than it did before it started building light rail in the early 1990s.

Penalize the competition: Automobiles are faster, more convenient, less expensive, and–in most urban areas–greener than transit. The obvious solution, if you are a transit agency official, is to make driving slower, less convenient, and more expensive.

“It’s too easy to drive in this city,” says Los Angeles Metro CEO Phil Washington, referring to the city that is often ranked as one of the most congested in the world. Washington’s solution to declining bus ridership is to convert many of the lanes on major streets to exclusive bus lanes, thus increasing congestion and, he hopes, forcing a few people out of their cars. Cities all over the country are proposing such “bus‐​rapid transit” projects, which sound good on paper until you realize that most of them will make congestion worse, not better. Other proposals call for reducing the amount of parking available to drivers, forcing them to ride transit instead.

Change the mission: Transit is sold to voters based on its ability to reduce congestion, save energy, and protect the environment, but it can’t do any of those things if hardly anyone rides it. A recent report published by the American Public Transportation Association urges transit agencies to “define success as more than just ridership.” “Think of transit less as a business and more as an essential service,” says the report, encouraging agencies to focus on “socially equitable transit access.” But for whom is it necessary and equitable?

Many "important employees" during the epidemic allegedly had modest earnings, making them reliant on public transportation. In fact, in 2019, only 5 percent of workers whose incomes were below $25,000 a year commuted to work by transit. During the pandemic, the percentage of all workers taking transit declined from 5 percent to 3.2 percent. Meanwhile, the majority of transportation funding come from regressive taxes like sales and property taxes. This means that the 95 percent of low-income employees who don't utilize public transportation pay a disproportionate amount of money for rides they don't take. Inequity is exemplified by this situation.

All of these solutions have one thing in common: they enhance transportation subsidies. That's the incorrect prescription for an industry that's become so outmoded, according to University of Minnesota academics, people living in the nation’s 50 largest urban areas can reach more jobs on a bicycle than by transit in trips of 50 minutes or less.

Alternatives to transport are significantly less expensive and far more effective at addressing the issues that transit no longer solves. More congestion will be relieved by improved traffic signal synchronization than by all of the world's light rail lines, which most cities have failed to implement largely due to anti-automotive attitudes. Increasing the energy efficiency of autos by 1% will cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly more than investing tens of billions on public transportation. Helping the last few low‐​income families who don’t have cars obtain automobiles will help them out of poverty by giving them access to far more jobs than transit can reach.

The transit business was dying before the epidemic, despite getting more than $50 billion in annual subsidies, and the virus has nearly killed it out. It's past time to cease funding an antiquated mode of transportation.

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