Is Mass Transit Dead?

One good thing about covid was that highway traffic was way down, so where I live we finally could get where we were going. With covid now more or less finished, traffic congestion has returned. But, as transportation expert Randal O’Toole explains, mass transit ridership remains depressed:

Americans drove nearly 96 percent as many miles in May 2021 as in the same month in 2019, indicating a return to normalcy. Transit ridership, however, was only 42 percent of pre‐​pandemic levels, which is making transit agencies desperate to justify their future existence and the subsidies they depend on to keep running.
Transit agencies are responding to this by reducing fares. But transit is already so heavily subsidized — getting 78 percent of its funds from taxpayers in 2019 — that a small increase in subsidies is not enough to counter the trends against transit.

The real problem, as O’Toole points out, is that 21st century urban planners are nostalgically fixated on a model that is more than a century out of date.

Transit’s real problem is that it is operating a nineteenth‐​century business model in twenty‐​first century cities. In 1890, when American cities were rapidly installing electric streetcars, most urban jobs were downtown and the streetcar lines radiated away from downtown hubs to bring people to work.

Today, only about 8 percent of jobs are in downtowns, and large urban areas such as Los Angeles or Houston have numerous job centers with as many and often more jobs than the traditional downtowns. Yet, in most urban areas, transit still has a hub‐​and‐​spoke system centered around the central city downtown.

Where I live, the Twin Cities metro area, transit ridership peaked 100 years ago and has progressively declined ever since. Nevertheless, liberal planners have spent billions on light-rail trains that hardly anyone rides. And here, as nationally, transit ridership has fallen off a cliff post-covid. So why are vast amounts of money still being pumped into obsolete mass transit schemes?

Demands for more subsidies, however, are a dead end for transit. We have already reached the point where the main constituencies for transit subsidies are union transit workers and transit contractors, not transit riders. At some point, people are going to realize that hardly anyone outside of New York City needs transit anymore, and taxpayers and voters will demand an end to those subsidies.

For more, see Randal’s article in the Spring 2017 issue of Thinking Minnesota.

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