Transit 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
- 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
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 http://www.transact.org/transfer/trans03/03_14.asp#3
(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
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,
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).