Monday, January 29, 2007

Less Is More When It Comes To Transit?

The premise of the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents is that shrinking the public transit system in the region is unacceptable and maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. They are recommending that the State of Illinois provide substantial new capital and operating subsidies to expand the region's public transit system. The upcoming final MBC report also likely will recommend that the five collar counties within the RTA's jurisdiction pay a higher RTA sales tax. Currently, the five collar counties have a 0.25% RTA sales tax while Cook County residents pay 1 percent. The price tag--$57 billion in capital dollars over the next 30 years plus untold billions of dollars in operating subsidies.

A recent article in the Washington Post by Ted Balaker and Sam Staley entitled "5 Myths About Suburbia and our Car-Happy Culture" questions the wisdom of the proposed general expansion of the region's public transit system. The authors make some relevant points:
  • Even in the areas with the strongest transit systems, travel by transit takes much longer than travel by car.
  • Reliance on the automobile appears to be a function of a nation's wealth. The wealthier the country the greater the reliance on the auto. Even in Europe, with its excellent public transit and high gas taxes, over three quarters of all trips are by auto.
  • Despite increasing levels of public funding for transit in the United States, the proportion of work trips by transit in this country fell from 63 percent in 1960 to 5 percent in 2000.
  • Transit's small market share means that in many areas even sizeable percentage increases in transit's market share will have a limited impact on reducing traffic congestion.
  • Further improvements in emissions controls (and gas mileage) are more likely to drive environmental improvements than driving more people to take public transit.
Balaker and Staley are associated with the Reason Foundation, so it is not surprising that they are not especially supportive of publicly subsidized transportation or especially concerned about global warming. Nonetheless, they do believe that there is an important place for transit in some areas:

But public transit still has an important role. Millions of Americans rely on it as a primary means of transportation. Transit agencies should focus on serving those who need transit the most: the poor and the handicapped. They should also seek out the niches where they can be most useful, such as express bus service for commuters and high-volume local routes.

Two immediate reservations about the article. First, by choosing 2000 as the end date of their ridership analysis the authors miss the upward tick in public transit market share in recent years. Second, in the cold, cruel world of politics telling public agencies to focus on the poor is a recipe for marginalization and inadequate support. Transit agencies likely are better supported when they have a significant percentage of so-called choice riders, voter and taxpayers affluent enough to have a car but who choose to take transit anyway.

Their critique of the arguments in support of indiscriminately expanded public transit, however, still deserves serious consideration. Perhaps the General Assembly's goal should be to facilitate the evolution of the region's public transit system from the current one-size fits all, maximum coverage model to a more nuanced model where transit funding and resources are focused only on areas likely to support financially viable public transit service. In other areas, "public" transit could be cobbled together with privately run bus, jitney and van pool services, perhaps with the help of grants from local governments and large employers.

In other words, government would have two functions with respect to non-auto transit. Public transit would operate service in key regional corridors such as Metra and CTA rail lines, arterial streets, and the like. They would provide the kind of high-volume, high intensity service traditionally associated with public transit.

In other areas--e.g., those many parts of the region populated with near-empty Pace (and sometimes CTA) buses, the government would shift to more of a broker function. This function would involve extending a common technological platform--e.g., fare media, real-time vehicle location information--for all forms of transit in the region. It would also involve efforts to coordinate disparate forms of transportation so that they fit well with the mainline service run by the public agency or agencies. Finally, government might subsidize some service, but only if that service provided substantial benefit to the mainline service.

Under this approach capital investment decisions would be made differently than the current consensus/log-rolling model. Transit investment would be driven by mode-neutral comparative assessments such as (1) transit trips generated per million dollars of capital investment and (2) cost of ownership over life of asset. Currently, there is no binding prioritization of transit investment decisions among the three service boards that make up the RTA. The Moving Beyond Congestion proponents have no plan to spare us from even more investment in areas ill-suited and sometimes downright hostile to public transit while investment in relatively densely populated areas gets pushed to the back burner.

Maybe less could be more when it comes to transit.

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