Transit Envy at the Baltimore Sun

(Reposting of a column no longer at the original address)

Transit Envy at the Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore Sun editorial maws on about transit, transit elections and reducing traffic congestion. What the Sun misses is that transit and traffic congestion are completely different subjects. No level of transit investment, anywhere in the world, has materially reduced traffic congestion.

A November 29, 2006 editorial in the Baltimore Sun illustrates the typical populist, and wrong, romanticism about mass transit. Noting that a voters in a number of jurisdictions around the country approved transit tax increases, the Sun said: “Growing traffic congestion, rising fuel prices, and concern over pollution have made the case for transit too difficult to ignore.”

Regrettably, there is a huge difference between the “case’ and the reality. The reality is that transit cannot reduce traffic congestion. The reality is that, at whatever level of investment, transit has not attracted sufficient numbers of drivers to materially reduce the share of urban travel by automobile.

A look less than 40 miles south of Baltimore proves the point. In the Washington, DC area, more than 100 miles of high-quality Metro has been built — more than in any world urban area except for Seoul. Altogether, the miles of Metro built in Washington equal the total built in all of the other US urban areas. Yet what about traffic? Washington’s ranks fourth in the nation, and is close enough to challenge number two and three (transit rich Chicago and San Francisco) at any point. Over the past 20 years, traffic congestion has nearly tripled, despite the miles and millions of Metro.

The Sungoes on to cluelessly claim, “What works in Seattle, Denver and soon Salt Lake City and Kansas City, too, can work here – if it’s given a chance.” This is the old “story from across the mountains,” which achieved its highest form when a well-known columnist suggested Cleveland as a model for St. Louis.

However, things are much different than the Sun perceives across the mountains. Here is how things “work”” Like in Baltimore, Seattle’s’ transit market share is less than 2.5 percent. Denver’s is less than 1.5 percent. It would take a miracle of massive proportions to get transit up to a 0.5 percent share in Salt Lake City and Kansas City. Further, no virtually urban area — not in the United States and not in Western Europe — even has plans that would materially reduce automobile use or traffic congestion. That, however, does not keep transit officials from promising the impossible in their pursuit of more money in elections. In the private sector, such behavior is subject to truth in advertising laws. In transit, it gains accolades.

Why is it that transit cannot reduce traffic congestion? It is simply that transit best serves the historical 19th century core of urban areas. For example, nearly 40 percent of downtown Washington commuters use transit for the work trip. However, downtown Washington accounts for less than 20 percent of the area’s employment. More than 80 percent of the destinations are outside downtown and outside the ability of transit to compete. This is why the large majority of travel in all American and Western European urban areas is by car and why there is no hope for this to be reversed. It is, as noted above, so hopeless that not even the planners can concoct a vision in which car travel would be reduced.

At the same time, the mindless preoccupation with transit and its futility outside the urban core is accompanied by a misunderstanding of the role that the automobile has and will continue to play. Research indicates that the superior mobility of the automobile is one of the reasons that affluence has spread so widely in American and Western European urban areas. Around the country, programs to get cars to low-income households are increasing their incomes by significantly increasing the geography of their jobs options — despite decades of talk about transit and “reverse commuting,” it simply has not happened to a material degree. There is a simple reason. It cannot.

Any genuinely interested in solving the transportation problems of the modern urban area will do well to discard the rhetoric and look at the reality. Transit can play an important role in a few markets, like the nation’s strongest downtowns and door-to-door transportation service for the physically disabled. However, no volume of political “throw away” lines or editorial rhetoric will change the fact that transit has little or no role to play outside these niche markets.

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