Urban Fold

Mass Transit Unsustainability

Samuel Staley's picture

The solution to so-called "automobile dependence" within the contemporary planning community is almost alway more mass transit: more trains and buses. But is this realistic, particualarly given current strategies and approaches to providing mass transit? Most investments in mass transit are patently unsustainable, requiring huge investments in capital and dramatic reductions in mobility (measured by travel time) to achieve ridership goals.

Proof of mass transit's unsustainability is obvious to anyone willing to look at it objectively:

  • Mass transit's share of travel continues to fall, even as it seems to have stemmed a decades -ong decline in the absolute number of miles traveled;
  • Increasing market share and transit riders requires dramatically reducing mobility by either increasing congestion or ratcheting up personal autombile costs artificially through devices such as registration fees or gas taxes;
  • While automobile use is subsidized, transit is subsidized at even higher levels, with users paying substantially less than half operating costs. Many communities offer some transit services for free, or a near free fares, to entice people onto trolleys, buses, and trains;
  • Even in places where TODs are considered "successful", such as Ballston or the Chicago Loop, most trips are still by autombile unless people live (or work) in uniquely highe density places such as Manhattan.

In short, providing transit using the current paradigms and strategies is unsustainble. Transit's success depends on the ability of planners to make the lives of travelers worse off by making it harder to get around, restricting housing choice and type, and subjecting people to all manner of externalities and lifestyles they routinely choose to avoid in the current housing market place (e.g., small homes, urban noise, and air pollution).

Is there a future for mass transit? I think so, but it will take outside the box thinking on the part of transit managers and policymakers. Transit lost its way more than four decades ago when it largely ignored the needs and desires of a wealthier and more mobile middle class. The key is to recapture that market by expanding niche services that compete on the things that matter most to the broad base of travelers--fast, reliable, dependable service.

These are going to be niche services rather than the dense, comprehensive transit networks that characterized early 20th century systems. Some transit agencies have begun to shift in this diretion, opting for faster, more flexible and more niche focused transit services such as bus rapid transit. The Central Ohio Transit Authority is pursuing this strategy. Houston has found that high volume bus service can benefit from highway capacity improvements, experiencing gains in market share along some routes. Even Los Angeles is implementing a bus rapid transit route that has the potential to compete based on time and reliability, providing a meaningful alternative to automobile travel.

The key to transit success in the 21st century is improving mobility in a tangible competitive way. In most urban areas, creating a sustainable transit system will mean rebuilding transit networks and markets from the ground up.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



Wow, where to begin with this brief post...

Fortunately he has given us clues... in his complete and total perversion of some important concepts.

1st. This author ignores 2 of the three E's of Sustainability. He focuses on the Economic aspects but totally and willfully ignores the Ecological, and Equity implications of transportation. Being 100% right in his limited arguments still leaves him 77.7% wrong about the larger picture.

- "...subjecting people to all manner of externalities and lifestyles they routinely choose to avoid in the current housing market place..." What about externalities that automobile based planning has imposed on the rest of society and the environment? He abuses the concept as it pertains to transportation planning. I just checked my micro-economics textbook and externalities are defined as hidden costs that economic activities displace on the wider society, NOT costs that the wider society places on individuals.

- "...Transit lost its way more than four decades ago when it largely ignored the needs and desires of a wealthier and more mobile middle class." What about the largely ignored needs of the lower middle class and the working poor? Recent reports show that the middle class is growing smaller and poorer. Equity rises in countries with smaller gaps in wealth between their richest and poorest citizens. Mr. Staley and the privatization agenda seem to be arguing for transportation feudalism: Let those with more accumulate more, and let those with less have access to less.

2nd. "...requiring huge investments in capital and dramatic reductions in mobility (measured by travel time) to achieve ridership goals." Again I appreciate Mr. Staley limiting his argument. It also limits the applicability of the rest of his argument. What about other measures of mobility, such as volume of travelers (light rail as other posters have shown beats freeway investment here)? What about distance travelled? What about mobility as measured by access? He later mentions market mechanisms and choice, but aren't the cheaper, bigger houses getting farther and farther from the jobs. So isn't that raising travel times?

This should be a warning sign that the rational-comprehensive planning mode of Robert Moses is alive and well at the Reason foundation. And practitioners in this mode are fully capable of co-opting important (and actually well-defined) defined concepts such as "sustainability" (3 E's not 1). WE GET IT Mr. Staley, you don't like to ride the bus or pay your taxes. Move to Texas, and let the rest of us get on with making better cities for everyone and not just the rich.

Choice again.

See, Staley and other of this ideology hold that there should be greater freedom of choice to choose either the car or the car.

This freedom shouldn't be lessened by socialist command-and-control planners telling people they can choose another mode of transportation.



Short Term v. Long-term choices

Right, Dano. Because those pesky irrational voters (even in Orange County) who keep passing 1/2 cent gas taxes that include transit funding, are making longer term choices. And any well-paid economist knows that rational choices are only rational if they work in the short term regardless of how they fare in the long term.

Can you fix the link?

That link looks interesting, but it goes to an organ transplant website.

I would tend to disagree that transit systems need to focus on serving the wealthy- it seems like when this brief blip of cheap energy is over, the wealthy are going to be the only ones left driving. So transit systems should be serving those of us who can't afford personal drivers, right?

the nature of autos

"...ratcheting up personal autombile costs artificially"

What are the natural costs of automobile use? Are autos even natural? What kind of concept is this? The costs of auto use are a social decision, a social construct. There's nothing natural about their usage.

What's natural?

Walking is natural. Fishes swim, birds fly, people walk.

Irvin Dawid's picture

The best alternative to the auto

Staley's first utterance is, "The solution to so-called "automobile dependence" within the contemporary planning community is almost alway more mass transit: more trains and buses."

Staley should read Planetizen (as well as contribute to it) so he is better versed as to what the 'planning community' believes.

I would direct him to "Vancouver To Atlanta: 'Congestion Is Our Friend'"

"There's no better alternative to the car than walking," said Larry Beasley, former city planning director for Vancouver, who has been recognized worldwide as helping create a new urban model. "We have been doing everything in our power to make walking comfortable. We actually have fewer cars coming into the downtown area than we had 10 years ago."

The article goes on to indicate, "The city also has invested strongly in transit, including electric buses, rapid rail, commuter rail, streetcars and ferries."

Too bad Mr. Staley didn't join the Atlanta delegation in that trip to Vancouver....

Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

Atlanta & SMARTRAQ.

Too bad Mr. Staley didn't join the Atlanta delegation in that trip to Vancouver....

Too bad he decided to omit Larry Frank's SMARTRAQ findings in Atlanta, as well.



Thanks for the read D. As

Thanks for the read D.

As for this posted interchange its got several holes in it. For one thing, the numbers are used and some are omitted for a sleight of hand argument. "So-called auto dependence", its not "so-called" just go to almost any city or region in the US and boom, its nothing but cars, large roads and sea sized parking lots. And the solution there is always more roads, more lanes in those roads and even larger parking lots.

And also if mass transit is so unsustainable, why no mention of other areas/cities/countries with mass transit? Oh I know why, because they'd actually show strong usership of mass transit and it would completely destroy the argument. Its so successful in these places because it is pedestrian friendly, unlike the areas I mentioned earlier.

Transit And Walking

Remember that, in his last post, Staley claimed that transit was a failure because places with high levels of transit also have high levels of walking.

Charles Siegel

funny numbers

"Mass transit's share of travel continues to fall, even as it seems to have stemmed a decades -ong decline in the absolute number of miles traveled;"

"Even in places where TODs are considered "successful", such as Ballston or the Chicago Loop, most trips are still by autombile unless people live (or work) in uniquely highe density places such as Manhattan."

These guys really need to be called on this stuff. Anyone who has stood on a Manhattan street corner for longer than 30 seconds can see that pedestrian trips far outnumber private auto trips. The ped counts in most major cities wouldn't be possible without the transit to support that high-density, PEDESTRIAN-FRIENDLY development. Because no one (save for a few CDCs or BIDs) collects accurate ped or bike data it's easy to leave it out of the transit equation. Toss that in with news of people driving further and further to work and to the grocery store, switch back and forth between "trips" and "passenger mile" when it helps their argument and it's easy to believe the distorted picture that they paint. Include all trips in your analysis and you find that cars in cities with robust transit don't look the same under scrutiny.

Robert Goodspeed's picture


Staley writes: "While automobile use is subsidized, transit is subsidized at even higher levels"

Every road and freeway built that doesn't have a toll is a big, fat subsidy for driving. It would be interesting to see a tally of total tax monies spent on roads versus transit -- then we'd see who is subsidized more.

Removing The Subsidies

The rule is that the most expensive forms of transportation, the automobile and public transportation, are subsidized the most. The least expensive, bicycling and walking, are subsidized the least.

If we removed all subsidies to transportation and internalized all external costs, the main results would be 1) a reduction in the distance traveled and 2) a shift to bicycling and walking. This is Economics 101.

That is why Mr. Staley, of the free-market Reason Foundation, should not complain about subsidies out of one side of his mouth and complain about "planners ... making it harder to get around" out of the other side of his mouth. If we removed the subsidies, there would be much less getting around.

Charles Siegel

Beginner's Question on Road Subsidies

I was wondering if someone can debunk the following debunking:

1. Road folks say that the road "subsidies" are not really that, because they are in fact in large part paid back by gas taxes (I know I've seen lot of info recently on the shortfalls in the value of those taxes). But they say transit subsidies really are subsidies because they are not paid back. Is this true.

2. The problem with the "internalized all external costs" is that road externalities (pollution, land use) are all philosophical concepts. Meaning, how do you quantify the costs of pollution and sprawl when those concepts are still hotly debated? Whereas the transit costs are there for everyone to see (construction, operation, time). Is this an accurate impression.


More On Road Subsidies

My thoughts:

1. Gas taxes pay for freeways, though there are shortfalls and subsidies even here, as you say. But cities' general funds pay for local streets, traffic lights, policing, and many other costs of the automobile.

2. You are right that there are practical problems quantifying the external costs of the automobile, though some studies have tried to do it. But these external costs are so huge that there are even bigger practical problems if we ignore them: eg, in California, automobile account for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions.

I think the talk about externalities is important as a theoretical answer to free-market dogmatists who complain that public transportation is subsidized while cars are not. Even if it is hard to quantify them, it is very clear that the public does effectively subsidize the automobile by bearing its huge external costs - and it will become clearer as the world's temperature increases.

Charles Siegel


First, 'debunking' sounds like we're on Powerline blog or something.

1. What is 'paid back'. If your only criterion is money, you're not addressing the issue properly. Some people with an agenda want to steer the discussion to only money, but that doesn't mean we must legitimize it and go there.

2. Pollution externalities are not philosophical constructs. They are real. Atlanta & '96 games was great test bed or incomplete combustion and human health, now we have the medical community on board with disabling built environments, studies in LA about kids' decreased lung capacity...etc. And 'hotly debating' something doesn't mean policy is put on hold until all questions are answered (else nothing would ever get done).




re-evaluate "unsustainable"

Nowhere in this article does this person argue that Mass-Transit is "unsustainable." I see an argument for it's justness, claiming that it requires exposing the alternatives to negative externalities, and subsidizing ridership. Who says that subsidizing mass transit and taxing people for using their cars isn't sustainable behavior? As far as I am aware these two behaviors have been around as long as the automobile itself. As far as the justness of these two practices are concerned, I would argue that sometimes the goals of a city, a state, or a country are not achieved through allowing each component of a city, state or country, it's own free say.
If you want you can label me an enemy of free-choice and market forces, but neither of those things accomplish the goal in this situation. You are correct to discuss externalities in this instance, because they are exactly the epistemilogical justification of such taxes on automobiles. You drive a car, you contribute to carbon dioxide and monoxide pollution; you drive a car you add to traffic (an externality in the sense that it is something everybody else pays for); you drive a car and you are advocating the construction of new roads, which are the single most dangerous common usage of public property; you drive a car and you are slightly increasing the aggregate demand for oil, and slightly increasing the cost of a gallon of gas; you drive a car and you are contributing to noise pollution and light pollution.
Effective mass-transit networks are powered by a grid and thusly are capable of spreading out the effect that they have on aggregate demand for any given energy resource. Effective mass transit networks do not operate more slowly when under heavy use, meaning that your use of a train in a city doesn't have the negative externality of slowing other people down. Many mass transit utilities operate on their own right of way, meaning that they never intersect roads or have the need to stop (other than picking up and dropping off passengers). This has the effect of making mass transit substantially safer than transit by automobile. Mass transit utilities can greatly add to energy consumption, and given the fact that the US primarily powers itself with coal, also to air pollution. But this we can neglect, seeing as how the only alternative is transport via automobile (unless you are making an argument that we should all begin walking or riding bikes), and it is fairly obvious that cars pollute more. We could, in order to provide tax incentives, charge people for the part that they play in emitting pollution, regardless of what method of transit they use, or we could identify the preferable action, not tax it, and only tax the undesirable action in accordance with the difference in per person emission.
Then there is the issue of noise and light pollution, underground subways do a good job at minimizing the light and noise pollution. They are however very expensive to create and often encounter serious water-table difficulties; however, the same could be said for projects such as the Big Dig. I do support mass transit in nearly all situations, but I will not argue that elevated rail isn't noisy. Because of it's role in the blocking of sunlight, greatly contributes to the production of ghettos in low-income areas.
But aside from this issue I see the former five as adequate justification for the subsidization of mass transit and continued taxation of automobile usage. I will not argue that this behavior is sustainable since it's sustainability is contingent upon future tax-policy. Future tax-policy is contingent upon democratic results, and neither me nor you can look into the future and say "I know what people will want in 20 years."

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