Ten Billion Served (and 300 Million Fleeced)

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) just announced that the U.S. transit industry carried more than 10 billion transit trips in 2006, the first time the industry has exceeded 10 billion trips since 1957. Naturally, APTA – the transit industry’s leading lobby group – sees this as “10 billion reasons to increase local and federal investment in public transportation.”

The 10-billion milestone looks a lot less impressive when compared with the growing population of urban residents. It works out to just 42.7 trips per urban resident in 2006. (A trip, incidentally, is a transit boarding: if you get on a subway, then transfer to a bus, that is counted as two trips.)

While 42.7 trips per urbanite is more than were carried in 2005, it is not more than 2001, and it is less than in any year between 1907 (the first year for which transit data are available) and 1993.

In the meantime, transit subsidies already average 64 cents per passenger mile, compared with less than 0.4 cents for subsidies to auto driving. Over the past decade, APTA’s transit factbook says that the U.S. has “invested” more than $100 billion in public transit capital improvements, mostly for expensive rail transit projects. Many of the cities that have built rail transit lines have actually seen transit ridership drop because the high cost of rail has forced them to cut bus services.

As I explain in more detail in my Antiplanner blog, the real problem with the transit industry is too much money. Because transit agencies get the vast majority of their funds from taxpayers rather than transit riders, their incentives are to build expensive, glitzy urban monuments rather than provide economical transit services to those who need them. The solution is to stop subsidizing transit agencies an instead give vouchers to transit users, who can use them for buses, taxis, or any other public conveyance.