Campaign of Sabotage

How government policies have inadvertently sabotaged public transit.

Michael LewynTransit users are second-class citizens in most American cities and suburbs. For example, the Boston metropolitan area has a subway system serving its urban core and a commuter train system serving its suburbs - yet even in metropolitan Boston, just 32% of entry-level employers are within one-quarter mile of a transit stop.1 And the situation is even worse in smaller cities, many of which have no bus service after rush hour.2

Why do American communities have so little transit service? Pundits and politicians justify the status quo on the grounds that, in the words of Tom DeLay, public transit "has failed in this country . . . despite a taxpayers' investment of over $100 billion."3 The story told by transit critics is a simple one: government spends money on public transit, yet most Americans don't use it. Thus, public transit is a waste of money.

But this story overlooks an important fact: far from encouraging Americans to use buses and trains, government at all levels has inadvertently sabotaged public transit by:

  • Funding the competition. Until the 1960s, the federal government spent billions of dollars on highway building,4 but did not support trains and streetcars (which were generally run by private companies until competition from government highways made them into money-losers).5 And today, the federal governments spends more than four times as much money on highways as on transit (over $30 billion per year for highways, about $7 billion for transit).6 New and widened roads often go to suburbs without significant transit service, and thereby open up those areas for development.7 Thus, highway spending shifts people and jobs to areas without public transit, thus gutting transit ridership.
  • Unfunded mandates. The federal government has effectively reduced transit service by loading down transit agencies with unfunded mandates. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (which requires transit systems to provide accessible service to the disabled) costs transit providers $1.4 billion per year,8 and Section 13-c of the Federal Transit Act (which limits transit systems' ability to reduce labor costs by laying off employees)9 costs transit providers $2-3 billion per year.10 Thus, about half of federal transit subsidies are canceled out by the costs of federal regulation.
  • Paying Americans to move to auto-dependent suburbs. Since 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has insured home mortgages. For the first few decades of its existence, FHA insured mortgages only in "low-risk areas" (usually defined as newer, whiter areas, i.e., suburbs), thus making suburban homes cheaper than urban homes.11 Because suburbs usually have less transit service than cities, FHA policies reduced transit ridership.
  • Packing poverty into cities. New Deal-era public housing legislation encouraged cities to build public housing for the poor, but gave suburbs veto power over public housing,12 and in fact discouraged suburbs from building public housing by mandating that one unit of substandard housing be eliminated for each unit of public housing built13 (thus ensuring that suburbs with little substandard housing could not build public housing). By packing public housing for the poor into cities, federal law packed poor people into cities. Because middle-class people tend to avoid the poor and problems associated with poverty (such as crime), federal public housing law encouraged middle-class flight to suburbia, which in turn reduced transit ridership as families moved from transit-packed cities to auto-dominated suburbs.
  • Using school systems to drive commuters into suburbia. Most states mandate that students be assigned to schools based on their home address – which means urban children go to urban schools and suburban children go to suburban schools.14 Because cities tend to have more poverty than suburbs, city schools tend to have more children who are from low-income backgrounds (and thus harder to educate) than suburban schools. Thus, state laws effectively mandate that cities have worse schools than suburbs, thus encouraging middle-class flight from cities, thus reducing transit ridership.
  • Using zoning laws to make suburbs as auto-oriented as possible. Many American municipalities have enacted minimum lot size laws to reduce population density; for example, the average Atlanta-area acre contains no more than a home or two.15 Public transit is less feasible in low-density areas: as residences are spread farther apart, fewer commuters can walk convenient distances to bus and train stops. Thus, zoning in its current form reduces transit ridership.

In sum, a wide variety of government policies have had the effect of sabotaging, rather than promoting, public transit. Nevertheless, transit ridership has actually been growing since 1995 - and if government ever reduces its anti-transit activism, this trend might continue.

Michael Lewyn is a native Atlantan and teaches at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, Georgia.


1. Conservation Law Foundation, City Routes, City Rights 20 (1998). See also Michael Lewyn, Thou Shalt Put No Stumbling Blocks Before The Blind, 52 Hastings Law Journal 1037, 1041-43 (2001) (citing similar statistics for other cities and metropolitan areas).

2. Id. at 1042-43. See also David G. Oedel, The Legacy of Jim Crow in Macon, Georgia, in Just Transportation 97 (Robert D. Bullard and Glenn S. Johnson, eds. 1997).

3. 137 Cong. Record H8199-02 (1991), available at 1991 WL 213667.

4. Lewyn, supra at 1045-47 (discussing history of federal highway spending in more detail).

5. Paul Weyrich & William S. Lind, Conservatives and Mass Transit: Is It Time For A New Look? 10 (1996).

6. See Budget Plans to Shape TEA-21 Renewal, Transfer, March 14, 2003, available online at (noting current budget baseline of $31.6 billion for highways, $7.2
billion for transit).

7. See Lewyn, supra at 1048-51 (making argument in more detail, and in particular citing National Association of Home Builders survey showing that 55% of home buyer would move to a newer area if highway access improved); Sierra Club v. US DOT, 962 F. Supp. 1037, 1043 (N.D. Ill. 1997) ("Highways create demand for travel and [suburban] expansion by their very existence").

8. Testimony of the American Public Transportation Association, Subcommittee on Surface Transportation of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Sept. 26, 1996, 1996 WL 10831544. See also Brian Doherty, Disabilities Act: Source of Unreasonable Accommodations, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 16, 1995 at G1 (ADA's paratransit provisions alone cost transit agencies $1.1 billion per year). Because these figures are several years old, they may underestimate the ADA's costs.

9. Editorial, Untied, Houston Chronicle, June 29, 1995 at 36, available at 1995 WL 5912413 (statute mandates that transit agencies pay six years' wages and benefits to employees affected by layoffs).

10. John-Walters, Bus-Jacking the Revolution, Policy Review, Jan/Feb. 1996 at 8.

11. Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier 207 (1985).

12. Id. at 224.

13. Michael H. Schill & Susan Wachter, The Spatial Bias of Federal Housing Law and Policy, 143 U. Pennsylvania Law Review 1285, 1293 (1995).

14. Lewyn, supra at 1058.

15. Arthur C. Nelson, Exclusionary Practices and Urban Sprawl in Metropolitan Atlanta, 17 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 1087 (2001) (discussing exclusionary zoning in Atlanta, and noting that as a result average lot size in metro Atlanta over 3/4 of acre).



Highway Subsidies

Walt Hannan said:

"The highway users are paying for the roads and streets they use primarily through payment of a special tax on gasoline at the pumps. There is no handout from the Fed. government."

This would be nice. Sadly, though, it isn't true. Gas taxes only cover about 35% of highway costs. Road users don't pay their way, either. For more details, check out the following website:

Dan Zack, AICP

Fresno, CA

Public Transit

The highway users are paying for the roads and streets they use primarily through payment of a special tax on gasoline at the pumps. There is no handout from the Fed. government.


Michael Lewyn describes how government policies have sabotaged transit. Another way of looking at it is that cheap gasoline has sabotaged government policies as well as transit.

How cheap is gasoline? Well, the minimum-wage, human-power equivalent of the useful energy in a gallon of gasoline would cost at least $500!!

This is my rule of thumb for sustainability--how would society look if gas were that expensive?

One implication is that rich people would no longer be able to live so far away from ghetto-ized poor people, because then there would be no poor people to do all their work for them.

Another implication is that conventional agribusiness, which uses at least 10 or 20 fossil-fuel calories for every food calorie produced, would no longer be affordable. So farming would change completely, and farmers would be the most important workers.

Linking Decisions

Thoughtful article that highlighted linkages generally not recognized. Perhaps the next step would be let these inadvertant sabotages be known to the government so that appropriate steps can be taken to reduce dependance on natural resources and the inequitable subsidization of suburban infrastructure by urbanites.

The Battles Are Often Awkward and Confusing

Michael has provided a useful encapsulation of this particularly critical aspect of our recent transportation history and hopefully we can put it to use.

Getting "balance" and consensus may actually be much more of a perennial problem than we might at first suspect. The recent issue of the FHWA magazine, in an article on Dwight Eisenhower, illustrates that forces begin dismantling public transit several decades before there was any significant agreement on highway programs to replace them.

There are allied interests, albeit nascent, that "need things to work" and could be enlisted to support investments in transit. But they first need to be engaged in better understanding there own issues and what is at stake. In LA, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has formed coalitions with the Chamber of Commerce and others to hold topic forums, trek to Washington and Sacramento, etc. It is a broad, complicated consensus process that is going to require long and concerted efforts at many levels.


Lewyn complains that "In sum, a wide variety of government policies have had the effect of sabotaging, rather than promoting, public transit."

What Lewyn sees as "sabotage", may be better understood as trying to solve our transportation capacity shortfall and resulting congestion with limited public funds.

With limited public funds, we can buy about 20 times more transportation (passenger-miles) and associated reductions of congestion, emissions, noise, and accidents by investing in roads that in transit. Ref:

Jack Mallinckrodt

Patronizing attitude

I am curious to know why Mr. Lewyn thinks that children from low-income backgrounds are "harder to educate".

Campaign of Sabotage

What're we gonna do about sprawl? Don’t they have public hearings where we can comment on new development projects? Are we all so busy admiring architectual renderings of "smart growth" that we don't have time to sound off when our local and county elected officials continue to approve new auto-dependent development?

Michael Lewyn is quite correct in stating that "government at all levels has inadvertently sabotaged public transit." But let's put it in a more human context and say that citizens who can't, shouldn't or choose not to drive (a privilege) have been sabotaged by their government.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the origins of our national freeway system. Was it designated a national defense project in order to circumvent any objections that might arise about a public works project having all its entrances posted with signs reading “Pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles prohibited?” Timely protests to prevent this sort of discrimination might have been regarded as trivial alongside the more critical issue of racial segregation mandated by law in many states.

Somewherein the Thoreau Institute website I read: "We have seen the enemy, and he is us." Perhaps all the new interpretations of eminent domain being used by cities to enhance sales tax revenues and revitalize older cities derive their legitimacy from that interstate highway system. What would "The American Dream" be today if property owners in the '50s and '60s could have demanded whatever the traffic would bear for property desired for a motorists-only project.

If the hard-to-get funds for financing transportation infrastructure are to be spent in an equitable and cost-effective manner we need a clearer understanding of what government is constitutionally obliged to provide, and what it doesn't have to provide. Driving is a privilege, not the equivalent of our right to travel. We all have a right to travel, but there's no law requiring anyone to manufacture buses, motor vehicles, bicycles, Segways, etc. And there's no obligation for society to provide accommodations for every auto the manufacturers can sell.

The disenfranchisement aspect of sprawl development should be separated from the current discussion and put on a fast track for resolution before we get further involved in the aesthetic and environmental aspects of urban and suburban planning. Go to the public hearings on a project that's exclusively auto oriented, confront the decision makers and ask them if they think that transit-dependent people are all "creeps" and "weirdos." Maybe they'll be sufficiently embarrassed by such accusations to reject a proposal on the grounds that's not accessible to motorists only. Perhaps a developer will challenge it and we'll finally find out what a car-driving judge thinks about people who don't drive.


A number of solutions do exist for the transit problem. Impose higher federal fuel taxes for automobiles, make all interstate highways tollways, add a special sales tax (luxury tax, essentially) on automobiles to cover the expected damage to the environment and built environment, etc. A federal Smart Growth mandate that sets somewhat loose guidelines for smart growth while pushing urban areas to curb sprawl will also assist. However, as Mr. Lewyn pointed out, these changes are hard to come by with three major automobile manufacturers and 3 major oil companies on the Forbes 500 list. Too bad that in America, Money = Power.

So what next?

Lewyn makes some excellent points about how the government basically shot itself in the foot regarding public transit, but I would have liked to see him expand his argument by proposing solutions. Perhaps this aspect can be discussed in the comments forum...

One more to blame

Nice article, but you forgot one other person/entity to blame: The transit companies themselves. I work in downtown Tampa and drive to a bus stop located five miles from my house. Normally, few people are on the bus. Why? Because the transit company that operates the bus line has no idea how to advertise itself. With parking being high and gas prices over &1.60 a gallon, you would think that the bus service would be doing everything to get people to ride. Instead, it cuts services and provides buses that have no air conditioning and leak, all in an attempt to reduce ridership.

In short, transit companies need to look at themselves when complaining about funding and poor ridership.

Simple, but true

The notion that transit is underappreciated and underfunded is not new or (that I know of) significantly debated. The fact that transit services are mostly public ensures that they will never be fully funded in a political system driven by special interst lobbying and large campaign contributions. With the tremendous industries of oil, automobile manufacturers, construction, and others lobbying hard for highway construction as a national priority, transit stands little chance of receiving the support it deserves.

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