Data recently published by the Federal Transit Administration show that ridership in February was 2% lower than the previous February. This continues three years of declining ridership caused by increasing auto ownership and growing competition from other transportation providers.
Ridership declines have prompted transit consultant Jarrett Walker to argue that “city governments have an urgent imperative to do what’s necessary to make it attractive for people to use” transit. Walker apparently believes that cities exist for the benefit of transit systems, rather than the other way around.
In fact, urban transit was developed for a kind of city that no longer exists, one in which most jobs were downtown and most residents lived near downtown. The Golden Age of urban transit lasted from about 1890 to 1920, when skyscrapers housed factories with tens of thousands of jobs on a city block and people got to work on streetcars and rapid transit trains.
The beginning of the end came in 1913, when Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line. Moving assembly lines not only made cars affordable to most Americans, they also moved jobs from downtowns to the suburbs because they required lots of space. Today, fewer than 8% of American jobs are located in big‐city downtowns.
Transit’s importance to American cities peaked in 1917, when the average urban resident rode transit 287 times. By 1964, it had declined to a mere 62 trips per urban resident.
In that year, Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act, promising federal funds to cities and states that took over private transit systems. The massive infusion of subsidies that followed failed to reverse the industry’s decline and instead caused a massive drop in economic productivity. Operating costs grew far faster than ridership or fares, and trips carried per operating employee fell by more than 50%.
Since 1970, American taxpayers have spent more than a trillion dollars (adjusted for inflation) subsidizing urban transit. This is how well it has worked: In 2017, transit ridership was down to 37 trips per urban resident, the lowest in recorded history.
Inevitably, some of the subsidies to transit went to lobbyists who’ve come up with ever more creative ways to justify further subsidies. Transit, they say, helps the poor, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and relieves congestion.
None of these is true. All but about 4% of American workers live in a household with at least one car. Giving a chronically poor person a used car will do far more for their job prospects than giving them a free transit pass.
Nor is transit greener than driving. Nationally, transit uses almost exactly the same amount of energy and emits the same amount of greenhouse gases per passenger mile as automobiles. Encouraging people to drive cleaner, more fuel‐efficient cars will do more for the environment than failed efforts to get them out of their cars and onto transit.
Nor does transit particularly relieve congestion or, as Jarrett Walker puts it, “use space efficiently.” In fact, transit often makes traffic worse: Lumbering buses, streetcars and light‐rail trains usually contribute more to congestion than the few cars they take off the road.
What transit does do is cost money. Americans spend an average of 25 cents per passenger mile driving. Subsidies to driving ought to be eliminated, but those subsidies average less than two cents a passenger mile. By comparison, urban transit cost $1.17 per passenger mile in 2016, 89 cents of which came from taxpayers. No other form of travel — not flying, nor driving, nor Amtrak — is so expensive or receives such huge subsidies.
We can privatize transit in the few cities where transit still plays an important role, including New York, Chicago, Washington and San Francisco. Private transit providers already compete against public agencies in some of these cities. But in most American urban areas, transit could disappear next week and a majority of residents would only notice a slight reduction in congestion and an easing of their tax burden.
Urban and transportation planners should stop trying to perpetuate obsolete transit systems. Instead, they should prepare cities for the transportation technology that people actually use. Whether electric‐ or petroleum‐powered, shared or owned, human‐driven or computer‐driven, that means automobiles.