Monday, December 25, 2006

Public Transit and Urban Success

The Moving Beyond Congestion project of the RTA and the public transit service boards (CTA, Metra and Pace) makes the argument that an investment of additional billions of dollars in a "world class" public transit system will improve the region's economy and make it a more attractive place for people and businesses to locate.

A Brookings Institution study authored by Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro entitled "City Growth and the 2000 Census: Which Places Grew and Why" casts some doubt on this sanguine thesis. The study examined various factors accounting for the broad range of population growth rates among cities. One finding (pg. 11 of 14) is that "cities built for cars grew, but cities designed for mass transit and pedestrians tended to shrink."

The study found that the average growth rate in the 1990-2000 period for cities in which more than 10 percent of commuters took public transportation was "nearly zero" while the average growth rate for those cities in which less than 3 percent of commuters used public transportation in 1990 was almost 17 percent.

The authors commented that "there has been a huge shift from the older walking and public transit-oriented cities of the past to the driving cities of today. They did point out that during the 1990-2000 period New York and Chicago were exceptions to the slow/no growth trend for transit-oriented cities, growing by 9.4% and 4.0% respectively.

Another study co-authored by Professor Glaeser for the National Bureau of Economic Research "Sprawl and Urban Growth" documents this transformation to the "driving cities of today." Pg. 21 of 74) In 1960 22% of workers took public transportation or walked. The percentage who walked or took public transportation to work dropped by almost half, to 12%, in 1980. Public transit continues to lose mode share, dropping from 6.4% of work trips in 1980 to 4.7% of work trips in 2000. The share of people commuting by auto (alone or via car pooling) rose from 64% in 1960 to 87.9% in 2000.

The example of New York and Chicago--two transit-friendly regions that grew in the 1990s--strongly suggests that there is no simple causal relationship between heavy investment in public transit and urban decline. Other factors, such as education and income levels and reliance on manufacturing, may have a much stronger impact on the relative success of urban regions.

Nonetheless, just as we may want to avoid a simplistic conclusion that investment in public transit will result in urban decline we need to avoid equally simplistic assumptions that more investment in public transit will necessarily improve the region. For example, the Brookings Study identified human capital--namely, an educated workforce--as a key driver in the growth of urban areas. (Pages 9-10 of 14) Might some or all of the $226 million in extra operating subsidies that the Moving Beyond Congestion folks seek for public transit be better spent on funding scholarships for post-high school education?

Some people (e.g., Wendell Cox) may be too quick to dismiss the benefits of public transit. Their mistakes do not excuse others (e.g., the Moving Beyond Congestion folks) who argue in a vacuum that increased investment in public transit will do wonders for the region. Perhaps in the end right-sizing the region's public transit system will mean funding other more promising drivers of economic growth such as education, health care, and the highway transportation infrastructure that carriers most of the people and goods in the region.

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