What's Really Keeping Americans off of Transit?

Josh Barro offers his take on the charge, oft resorted to by transit advocates, that subsidies for road maintenance encourage driving. Instead, he argues, we should turn our attention to the mechanisms that make it hard for transit to compete.

For anyone interested in changing to status quo, it can help to take a closer look at the things we don't even realize we're paying for. In that tradition, transit advocates have made remarkable headway in recent years, identifying subsidies that the general public pays to make it easier to get around on four wheels. From free parking to road repair, cities go to great lengths to clear obstacles for the automobile.

But Barro offers a sobering rebuttal for those who argue that such incentives are standing in the way of the widespread acceptance of transit: between public transit and the automobile, the former depends far more heavily on general subsidies than the latter. In his estimation, only 8 percent of the overall cost of driving is subsidized by general revenue (i.e. not just drivers), whereas transit systems in Milwaukee and Madison, for instance, rely on such subsidies for 65 to 74 percent of their budgets.

"If you ended road subsidies," Barro offers, "people would drive less – but probably not much less. Gasoline prices would go up by about 50 to 60 cents a gallon, but over the last decade, fuel prices rose more sharply than that without triggering any major change in our transportation practices."

The real battle for transit advocates, then, boils down to land use: "Cities impose barriers to density that limit the number of housing units and offices that can be located near buses and trains, which reduces mass-transit usage."

Full Story: Don't blame cars for the shortcomings of mass transit

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