Urban areas from Atlanta to San Jose have repeated this pattern: they opened new rail lines with great fanfare, then quietly reduced bus service, and transit ridership stagnated or fell. Even in Portland, where rail transit is supposedly successful, the share of workers who take transit to work declined from 10 percent when Portland transit consisted solely of buses, to 8 percent today when Portland has five light‐rail lines plus streetcars and a commuter train.
Transit’s share of Dallas‐Ft. Worth commuting went from a meager 2.7 percent before building rail to an even more pathetic 1.7 percent in 2016. San Antonio’s rate of transit commuting today is greater than either Dallas‐Ft. Worth’s or Houston’s, and tied with Austin’s. Houston’s share of transit commuters was greater than San Antonio’s before Houston built rail transit; now it is less.
Low‐income and minority workers depend on buses, while cities build rail to attract middle‐class commuters out of their cars. Such transit apartheid is ignored by rail advocates who are more interested in grandiose construction projects than in actually improving transportation.
Neither low gas prices nor ride sharing are going away anytime soon. In fact, the loss of transit riders to ride‐sharing services will rapidly accelerate as shared, driverless cars replace human‐driven vehicles. Companies as diverse as Ford, Google, and Uber are racing to put driverless cars in our cities within five years that will be both more convenient and less costly than transit. It’s highly likely that by 2030, most publicly subsidized mass transit outside of the New York urban area will disappear.
In short, this isn’t an auspicious time for San Antonio to plan rail transit. On one hand, San Antonio’s transit is already doing a better job of moving people to work than Dallas‐Ft. Worth’s or Houston’s. On the other hand, San Antonio is smart to have not spend billions of dollars building a rail system that, a few years from now, will be running empty trains or rusting away.
San Antonio was the nation’s first large city to convert streetcars to buses in 1933 because buses were and are faster, safer, and less expensive. Today, San Antonio is just as smart to remain one of the nation’s largest urban areas to withstand pressure from a rail lobby that seeks profits over sound transportation.