Points To Consider
Every day you see busses rumble down the streets and hear about plans to build new light rail lines but in truth very few people actually use public transit. All over America, billions are sunk into mostly empty busses and trains. In most cities public transportation accounts for only 2-5% of travel. For all the billions spent, the traveling public doesn’t use it.
The LA Times reported “The Los Angeles County [MTA], the region’s largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating. Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.” —LA Times, January 27, 2016
Most other major cities like Chicago and Washington, DC share the same problem. Transportation policymakers sometimes claim that if only they had more rail lines and bus routes, people would somehow rediscover public transit and start using it again. But the facts don’t support this. Washington, DC has one of the most comprehensive light rail systems of any city in America, yet in spite of the city’s notorious traffic congestion, public transit market share remains low. Building additional transit lines just means that people will have to transfer from one line to another, slowing down an already slow mode of travel.
A typical light rail line, like the Minneapolis Green Line only averages about 14 miles per hour. A person can literally bicycle faster than that. And that doesn’t count time waiting at the station or transferring from one line to another.
Public transit started to lose riders in the 1920s when automobiles became popular. The decline in ridership progressed quickly to today’s vanishing small levels. The Federal Highway Administration does a National Household Travel Survey every few years tracking these trends. The 2009 edition (page 24) shows current transit usage blow 2%.
If public transit is ever to regain popularity policymakers must understand that people will only return in large numbers if the overall speed and convenience are as good as an automobile. Unless people can go where they want, when they need to go, it’s pretty unlikely that the downward spiral of the last hundred years will be reversed.
Other articles in this series will explore how a new generation of fast, convenient public transportation can answer this need and offer advantages. But this will require a change in public transit orthodoxy.