Transit Myths

The Myth that Transit Can Reduce Congestion

Myth: Transit can reduce congestion

Reality: Outside of a few inner-city ares, transit carries too few riders to make any difference to urban congestion.

Transit, particularly rail transit, is often touted as the solution to the increasing congestion that besets American cities. Yet, outside of major downtown areas, transit carries far too few people for it to play any role in reducing congestion.

Federal transportation data (see Transit Data Link) show that transit carries more than 10 percent of passenger travel in only one U.S. urban area — New York — and more than 3 percent of passenger travel in only five other urban areas: Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

The data also show that transit’s share of travel is highly dependent on the concentration of jobs. New York has a high share because it has 2.5 million jobs in Manhattan. The other five urban areas with high transit shares also have lots of downtown jobs.

Transit can capture very little market share in urban areas in which jobs are spread out, such as San Jose and Los Angeles. While some regional planners have proposed to increase residential population densities, none have proposed to force most jobs in their urban areas to move downtown.

With transit carrying less than 2 percent of travel in most areas, and 2 percent being about the limit in areas that don’t already have major job concentrations, transit is not likely to influence congestion. The huge amount of money that would have to be spent to increase transit’s share from, say, 1 percent to 2 percent would better be spent removing highway bottlenecks and expanding road capacities in congested corridors.

Where transit does play a significant role in bringing commuters into some downtown areas, it is really little more than a subsidy to the property owners in those areas. While it is an article of faith among urban planners that revitalizing downtowns is a legitimate social goal, in fact the best transit can do is relocate jobs from one part of an urban area to another. Why should government play the role of picking winners and losers by enriching downtown property owners while neglecting transportation elsewhere?

The Underfunded Transit Myth

Myth: Transit is underfunded.

Reality: For more than thirty years, transit funding has been far greater, per passenger mile, than funding to autos & highways.

Transit supporters frequently point to the billions spent on highways and claim that transit deserves additional funding to make up for this historic bias. Yet they neglect to point out that nearly all of the funds spent on highways are paid out of highway user fees, while only a small share of transit funds are paid out of transit fares.

Even beyond this point, highways are much more productive than transit. In 2003, for example, highways carried 88 times as many passenger miles as transit, yet total highway spending was less than four times as much as spending on transit. Thus, highways cost about three cents a passenger mile, mostly paid by highway users, while transit cost more than 70 cents a passenger mile, only a quarter of which was paid by transit riders. Of course, highways also carried billions of ton-miles of freight, while transit carried little to no freight.

2003 Highway and Transit Spending and Productivity
                                   Highways       Transit
Spending, billions                  $143.8         $40.1
Subsidies, billions                   15.2          30.9
Passenger miles, billions          4,625.4          48.0
Cost, cents per passenger mile         3.1          83.5
Subsidy, cents per passenger mile      0.3          64.4
Highway passenger miles include only cars and light trucks.
Source: US Department of Transportation
Subsidies represent spending not covered by transit fares, tolls, fuel taxes, or other user fees.

On a per passenger mile basis, spending on transit has exceeded spending on highways since at least 1975, the earliest year for which comprehensive data are available. If transit suffered any disadvantages from underfunding relative to highways in the 1950s and 1960s, it has more than made up for it since then. Yet excessive spending on transit has not led to significant increases in transit ridership. While per capita driving increased by 80 percent in the last thirty years, the per capita passenger miles of transit travel have increased by only 15 percent.