Most transit is much slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling.
There’s a myth that Americans have some kind of irrational love affair with their
cars, and they don’t ride transit because of that irrationality. In fact, there are
very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in
urban areas while transit provides less than two percent.
One of the most important reasons is that transit is slow. According to the American
Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book, the average
speed of rail transit is 21.5 miles per hour, while the average speed of bus transit
is 14.1 mph (see page 7). So-called rapid transit, known to the Federal Transit Administration
as heavy rail, averages just 21.1 mph, while light rail is 15.6 mph and streetcars
are a pathetic 7.7 mph (see page 40).
Among forms of rail transit, commuter rail is fastest at 32.5 mph, while hybrid rail
(a form of commuter rail) is 28.0 mph. But commuter rail typically operates only
during rush hours, while hybrid rail exists only in special limited circumstances.
Monorails and other automated guideways average 8.8 mph, which helps explain why
monorails never became popular.
Commuters buses, averaging 26.0 mph, are the fastest form of bus transit, while ordinary
buses are just 12.5 mph and trolley buses (which, like streetcars, tend to be limited
to urban centers) are just 7.1 mph. So-called bus-rapid transit lines in this country
average 10.5 mph, 2 mph less than ordinary buses, which suggests that most cities’
implementation of bus-rapid transit leaves a lot to be desired. The only really rapid
transit is the form of transit that’s closest to cars: vanpools, which average more
than 40 mph (see page 35 for bus and highway transit modes).
By comparison, the average speed of auto travel in most American cities is more than
30 mph. The slowest city is New York, at 17.6 mph, which helps explain why New York
also has the highest rate of transit usage. The only others under 20 mph are San
Francisco and Washington. At the other extreme, average speeds in Kansas City and
Tulsa are more than 40 mph, probably because those cities, unlike so many others,
haven’t actively tried to discourage driving in a doomed effort to get people to
Taken as a whole, urban transit averages 14.1 mph, less than half the speed of driving
in most cities (and slower than many cyclists). This doesn’t count the time spent
getting to and from transit stops, waiting for transit vehicles, or transferring
from one to another, all of which make transit even slower. But slow speed is only
the first reason why Americans don’t ride transit. The Antiplanner will be reviewing
more reasons in the next several days.
Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to anymore. If
you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless.
This week, the Antiplanner is exploring the myth that Americans don’t ride transit
because they have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars. In fact, there
are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel
in urban areas, and transit’s limited destinations is one of them.
The Portland urban area, for example, has around 15,000 miles of roads and streets.
The region’s 80 miles of rail transit don’t begin to reach the number of destinations
that can be reached by car. Adding the roughly 1,000 miles of bus routes helps, but
still requires many people to walk long distances to and from transit stops.
Worse, almost all of the transit in the region, along with every other major urban
area, is oriented to downtown. For example, the Sylvania campus of Portland Community
College is about seven miles from Beaverton. But taking transit from one to the other
requires a trip downtown and back, nearly tripling the number of miles of travel.
Transit systems started their downtown orientations in the late nineteenth century
when almost all urban jobs were downtown. Today, however, only about 7.5 percent
of urban jobs are still located in downtown areas. In the New York urban area, 22
percent of jobs are located in downtown Manhattan, another reason why transit ridership
is high in that region. But elsewhere, the percentage is much smaller.
Transit planners try to compensate for this by designing transit systems that connect
regional and town centers with the downtown areas. Such a policy might have made
sense sixty years ago when most jobs that weren’t downtown were located in such centers.
Today, however, less than 30 percent of urban jobs are located in either downtowns
or regional and town centers.
For example, Denver is spending billions of dollars building a rail transit system
that aims to connect all of the regional and town centers in the area. Yet, when
it is done, planners predict that only 26 percent of the region’s jobs will be within
one-half mile of a rail transit stop. (Of course, most of the people working those
jobs won’t live within a half mile of a rail stop.)
The reason for the decline of regional and town centers is the growth of service
jobs. In 1920, nearly 40 percent of all American jobs were in manufacturing, which
tends to be concentrated, and there was just one-and-a-third service job for every
manufacturing job. By 2010, there were ten service jobs for every manufacturing job,
and those service jobs tend to be finely spread across the landscape.
As a result, transit just doesn’t work for most people. Making transit systems work
for more people would require using more small-box transit: small buses, vans, and
so forth. Instead, many transit agencies want to emphasize big-box transit: huge
buses, railcars, and trains. This just shows how out of touch transit agency leaders
are with the people they are supposed to serve.
The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that,
for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit.
Public transit is the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in the United
States, with subsidies per passenger mile that are 50 to 100 times greater than subsidies
to driving. But people who use transit are only dimly aware of the subsidies. Even
without counting the subsidies, most people don’t ride transit partly because the
alternatives, including driving, cost so much less.
AAA, however, assumes that everyone buys cars when they are brand new, pays full
financing charges, and then replaces their cars every five years. That may be the
way some people buy cars, but most cars last far longer than five years. According
to the latest data, the average age of cars on the road is 11.6 years, which means
cars last an average of 23 years. The AAA numbers fail to account for 78 percent
of a car’s lifespan, during which time monthly payments and finance charges may be
If you have a car, no matter how old it is, you only pay the variable cost whenever
you drive it on any particular trip. According to the AAA data, that variable cost–fuel,
maintenance, and tires–averages less than 15 cents a mile, and would be even lower
if you had a more fuel-efficient car. So right there you are saving at least 13 cents
a mile over transit.
If you don’t live alone, you probably often drive with a passenger. That cuts your
cost per passenger mile in half. Transit makes no sense if you and one or more other
people in your household regularly travel together.
If you don’t have a car and live alone, transit might cost less than buying a brand-new
car. But what about buying a used car? If you spend, say, $5,000 on a used car instead
of $25,000 on a new one, then your depreciation is less than $1,000 a year instead
of the $3,759 calculated by AAA. Insurance on a used car costs a lot less than a
new one. If you pay cash for it, you save the $683 in annual finance charges calculated
by AAA. AAA also estimates taxes, license, and registration fees of $687 a year;
in Oregon, which has no sales tax, it’s only about $40. But not everyone lives in
Counting the higher number for taxes and fees, but lower numbers for insurance and
depreciation, annual fixed costs might be around $2,500 a year. If you drive 15,000
miles a year, that’s less than 17 cents a mile. Add the fixed costs of 15 cents a
mile and the cost of driving your car each mile is slightly more than the cost of
riding transit. But you could have saved money by buying a more fuel-efficient car,
an older model that costs less than $5,000, getting basic insurance instead of full
comprehensive coverage, or any of a number of other ways. Most importantly, if you
have a passenger in your car at least some of the time, the cost per passenger mile
quickly drops below the cost of riding transit.
Bottom line: If you already have a car, the variable cost of taking your car on any
particular trip will be far less than the cost of riding transit. If you don’t already
have a car, it is easy to find ways to buy a car so that, even including the fixed
costs, driving costs less than transit–which explains why 92 percent of American
households have cars.
Many people buy their first car because they need it to do something that transit
can’t do. But, once they own it, the variable cost of driving is so low that they
use it on trips that could have been taken by transit. That’s the basic story of
transit decline in the 20th century.
This doesn’t even consider the alternative of cycling, which costs less than either
driving or transit, but in many cases is faster than taking transit (and sometimes
faster than driving). Driving is still the mode of choice for the vast majority of
Americans, but the low cost of cycling helps explain why the American Community Survey
found that the number of people cycling to work grew by more than 21 percent between
2010 and 2015, but the number of people taking transit grew by less than 15 percent.
Cycling and walking, not transit, are fast becoming the modes of choice for people
Rather than maintain transit systems in a state of good repair, the transit industry
has chosen to build more transit lines that it can’t afford to maintain. Transit
riders respond to delays and dilapidated transit by finding other methods of travel.
The Department of Transportation’s latest assessment of the nation’s transit systems
found an $89.8 billion maintenance backlog. Moreover, the backlog is growing by $1.6
billion a year, because rather than fix transit systems, transit agencies are building
To eliminate the backlog in 20 years, the report calculated, every single dollar
now being spent on transit improvements must be transferred to maintenance and preservation.
Alternatively, the industry must find at least $5.8 billion in new subsidies each
year (see page Roman numeral L).
This backlog is definitely hurting transit ridership. American Public Transportation
Association ridership reports reveal that 8 percent fewer people rode the Washington
Metro rail system in the first half of 2016 than in the same period in 2015. This
decline was largely due to people finding other alternatives because the subways
have become so unreliable, not to mention unsafe. Although the agency began slowing
trains to do trackwork late in the second quarter, the ridership decline began before
Yet, aside from a few conferences during which mid-level agency officials pay lip
service to achieving a state of good repair, the transit industry is ignoring this
problem. Boston’s MBTA, for example, says that it has a $3 billion maintenance backlog
and needs to spend $470 million a year just to keep it from growing, yet it is spending
just $100 million a year on maintenance. Instead of restoring the system, it is spending
well over $2 billion on a 4.3-mile extension of its light-rail line to Medford, Massachusetts.
Similarly, rather than contribute its fair share towards restoring the Washington
Metro system, Maryland wants to spend more than $2 billion building the Purple Line
light rail. Across the state line, Virginia is doing the same thing: building the
Silver Line rather than assist in maintaining the existing system.
Similar problems can be found in Atlanta, Portland, San Francisco, and many other
urban areas: rail transit systems declining, yet agencies are putting their resources
into building new lines rather than repairing existing ones. Over the past decade,
overall transit ridership has fallen in Atlanta, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Sacramento,
and other cities, and deteriorating infrastructure is one of the reasons.
Groups opposed to new highway construction used to have a mantra: “Fix it first.”
Groups today that sincerely support public transit should apply that mantra to the
transit industry if they want to avoid further ridership declines.
Compared with the aura of security offered by riding inside of an automobile, many
people avoid transit because they feel vulnerable and threatened by other riders.
Crime, sexual harassment, and other invasions of privacy are common on metro systems
throughout the world. Sexual harassment is especially bad on Tokyo subways, and a
survey of 600 women transit riders in Paris found that 100 percent of them reported
having been sexually harassed.
Such harassment often depends on the anonymity that comes with extreme crowding,
but most American transit systems don’t get that crowded precisely because Americans
won’t accept the invasions of personal space required for such crush conditions.
Still, there are numerous complaints of sexual harassment on the New York City subway.
Crime is rapidly rising on the DC Metro as well.
Crime, including thefts of smart phones, as well as violent crime, can be a big problem
on light rail, partly because there is rarely anyone aboard to keep vehicles secure.
Bus drivers presumably provide a modest deterrent to crime, but still there is the
problem of bus-stop crime.
Some researchers argue that transit doesn’t really increase crime near transit stations.
But for potential transit riders, perception trumps reality. A woman may only have
to suffer one or two experiences with groping or other forms of sexual harassment
before she decides to never ride transit again. A man who is beaten and robbed of
his coat because the coat happened to match a particular gang’s colors is also going
to avoid transit.
Some transit systems have designated women-only cars to protect women from harassment,
but results have been mixed. Short of putting a guard on every bus and railcar, the
issue of transit security cannot be easily solved.
Transit works best going from point A to point B if you happen to be near point A
and want to get to point B. Transit doesn’t work well for trip chaining, going from
point A to point B via points C, D, and E. Because life is complicated and people
don’t want to spend all their time traveling, trip chaining works best in an independent
vehicle such as a car.
On your way to work, you might want to drop off your kids at school or daycare, drop
off your suit at the laundry, and get a cup of coffee. On your way home, in addition
to picking up the kids and laundry, you may want to go grocery shopping. This is
called trip chaining, and it is a lot easier to do in a car than by transit. (Yes,
there’s probably a Starbucks next to your transit stop, but your transit agency probably
doesn’t allow you take beverages on board.)
Some analysts wonder whether people choose to drive because they want to trip chain
or if they trip chain because they have cars. But this is the wrong question. The
reality is, life is complicated, and cars do a better job of helping people deal
with that complexity.
Other studies find that people who live in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods can
accomplish more of their tasks on foot and don’t need to drive as much. But this
ignores the self-selection issue: people are more likely to live in a walkable-mixed-use
neighborhood if their lives aren’t as complicated–for example, if they don’t have
kids–but even then, a bicycle can handle trip chaining better than transit. That
doesn’t mean such neighborhoods can significantly simplify other people’s lives.
For most Americans, transit doesn’t serve the complexity of most of their adult lives.
Carrying large packages, suitcases, or shopping bags on transit is awkward at best
and impossible at worst. Anyone who expects to travel with such cargo, even if only
some of the time, will do best with a car.
In 2007, Ikea opened its first store in Portland. It is 280,000 square feet, has
around a thousand parking spaces, and is near a light-rail station. How many people
who plan to do more than just window shop do you imagine carry their purchases home
on the light rail?
Drag right to see the Cascades light-rail station, which is much further from Ikea
than any of the parking spaces.
The land was available for Ikea because the city of Portland had given it to Bechtel
in 2001 as partial payment for its no-bid contract for constructing the airport light-rail
line. The city zoned the land for small-box retail, because who would want to take
a light rail to a big-box store like Wal-Mart? It turned out the real question was:
who would build small-box stores in a shopping area with no big-box anchor stores?
The answer was no one, so Portland reluctantly rezoned the land to allow for two
big-box stores so long as neither of them were Wal-Mart. Apparently, Portlanders
were okay with a store selling cheap furniture made in Asia if the store is from
Sweden, but not from Arkansas.
Fifteen American airports are served by rail transit lines. Yet few if any of these
lines have baggage racks or any other convenient place to put luggage. Just 15 percent
of air travelers take the train to Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport, and just
12 percent take the train to Boston’s Logan Airport. As near as I can determine,
it is less than 10 percent for every other airport. Most of the riders on airport
trains are airport or airline employees.
Unless you go grocery shopping every day, it simply isn’t feasible to carry your
purchases on transit. A bicycle with large panniers can carry more groceries than
can easily be carried on a bus or train.
Moving to a new home? Buying gardening supplies? Taking a load to the dump recycling
station? Transit’s no help. Most people don’t even trust transit to bring their dry
cleaning home (at least, I’ve never seen anyone carrying dry-cleaned clothes on the
transit lines I’ve been on).
People don’t carry Ikea furniture or ten bags of groceries on every trip they take.
But those who sometimes do will probably have a car to do it in. As previously pointed
out here, once most people have a car, it becomes their mode of choice for nearly
all travel that is beyond walking distances.
Housing, jobs, and other destinations are so diffused throughout American urban areas
that they don’t generate the large numbers of people moving from one point to another
that mass transit systems need to work.
“Transit worked when American cities were denser,” is the mantra of today’s urban
planners. “If we can increase their densities, transit will work again.” Reality
is a lot more complicated, and that reality explains why transit can’t work in American
urban areas even if their densities increase.
From about 1880 to 1913, transit and cities co-evolved thanks to new technologies
that benefited both. The same steam engines that powered commuter and early rapid
transit trains also powered downtown factories. The same Bessemer steel that made
the rails that streetcars and urban trains rolled upon also provided the structural
beams that allowed construction of skyscrapers. The same electric motors that moved
electric streetcars also powered electric elevators that gave people quick access
to the upper floors of those skyscrapers.
These technologies created monocentric cities by concentrating jobs in urban centers
surrounded by residential areas that fed into the centers on transit. Never before
in history had cities been like this, yet people today still imagine that cities
ought to be monocentric, a myth that drives too much bad policy.
This was transit’s Golden Age, but it was far from perfect. Transit was too expensive
for unskilled workers, so they had to live in high-density tenements located within
walking distance of downtown factories. To make a profit, rapid transit and streetcar
operators used just enough vehicles to carry people but not enough to give them breathing
room, at least at rush hour. Many transit lines had been built from the profits of
the real estate developments they accessed, and while fares covered operating costs
they were insufficient to rehabilitate these lines as they wore out.
Urban and transit evolution parted ways in 1913, when Henry Ford built the first
moving assembly line to make his Model Ts. Cheap cars were an obvious threat to transit,
but a bigger threat was less visible: unlike steam-powered, belt-driven factories,
moving assembly lines required lots of land, so factories moved to the suburbs. When
the suburbs refused to be annexed to the cities, monocentric cities became polycentric
At least through the 1970s, urban planners and central city officials pretended their
cities were still monocentric, and they wrote numerous downtown plans, urban renewal
plans, transit plans, commuter-tax plans, and other plans designed to maintain the
preeminence of downtown. The construction of the San Francisco BART and Washington
Metro systems were among these plans, but were as doomed to fail as all the others.
As both jobs and people left city centers after World War II, most major central
cities began to lose population even as their suburbs grew. Since 1950, Buffalo,
Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have all lost more than half their
populations. Cincinnati lost 41 percent; Baltimore 35 percent; Boston and Minneapolis
30 percent; Washington 29 percent; Chicago 25 percent; St. Paul 13 percent; San Francisco
and Oakland, 12 percent. Except in New York, one of the few major central cities
that had more people in 2000 than 1950, this decentralization greatly reduced transit’s
By the 1980s, planners began to realize that urban areas had become polycentric,
and today polycentricity is a fundamental part of the New Urbanism. Too late: cities
had changed again with the decline of manufacturing jobs and the growth of service
jobs. In 1920, nearly 40 percent of all American jobs were manufacturing, and there
was one-and-a-third service jobs per manufacturing job. Today, less than 10 percent
of jobs are manufacturing, and there are ten service jobs for every manufacturing
Even if they weren’t in city centers, manufacturing jobs were at least concentrated.
But service jobs in such fields as health care, education, wholesale and retail trade,
and utilities, were diffused throughout urban areas. As noted in Reason #2, less
than 30 percent of urban jobs today are located in downtowns or regional or town
centers. Other things once concentrated in downtowns, such as shopping, churches,
and theaters, also became diffused.
These trends had the least impact on New York, but even in the New York urban area
(which includes suburbs in northern New Jersey, southwest Connecticut, and New York
state), as opposed to the city itself, transit is pretty marginal. While transit
carries 57 percent of New York City commuters to work, it carries just 14 percent
of suburban New York commuters.
The diffusion of jobs and other destinations throughout an urban area returned cities
to be more what they were like for thousands of years before the late nineteenth
century. Simply increasing population densities, as regional governments in California,
Oregon, and Washington have done, doesn’t help because those jobs and other destinations
remain too diffuse for transit to work for any but a small minority of the population.
These changes are not only irreversible, there is no reason why we should want to
“Exact change only.” “Carry proof of fare with you at all times.” “No food or beverage.”
“No playing music aloud.” “Take off your backpack and put it between your legs so
we can cram more people onto your transit vehicle.”
Some of these rules are for the convenience of other passengers, but most of them
are for the convenience of the transit agencies themselves. Take, for example, the
request–which could easily become a rule–to passengers to not wear backpacks while
on board a transit vehicle.
You might think that this was for the convenience of other customers so more people
can fit on board. But if the vehicles so crowded, why isn’t the agency running them
at greater frequencies so they don’t get so full? In the case of the light-rail car
pictured in the story at the above link, the answer may be that the agency picked
a high-cost but low-capacity form of transit and now is stuck with that choice.
In general, transit loses money most of the time, but during rush hour many routes
make money simply because so many people are jammed on board. “The profits are in
the straps,” transit executives used to say when the industry was private, meaning
that they lost money when everyone was able to find a seat but made up for it when
people had to stand and hold on to the straphangers. “If a day ever comes when transportation
during rush hours is done without crowding, the companies doing it will fail financially,”
said August Belmont, the owner of New York’s first subway.
One of the reasons why San Francisco, New York, and other big cities municipalized
their transit systems before the federal government started funding transit is that
transit riders objected to the crowding that was necessary to earn profits for private
owners. When Belmont was slow to build new lines to relieve overcrowding, New York
first funded more subways, then took over the entire system to relieve crowding.
But the same economic reality facing private owners confronts public owners as well,
which is that resources are limited. At least in big cities, transit agencies can’t
afford to run enough transit for everyone to find a seat during rush hour.
On the other hand, if you have a car you are pretty much guaranteed a seat. You can
play your music as loud as you like, eat and drink to your stomach’s content, and
don’t have to worry about exact change or proof of fares. So many people put up with
rush-hour roadway traffic simply because it is less demeaning than putting up with
rush-hour transit crowding.