The Livable Communities Coalition

Working to improve Atlanta's quality of life through smart growth

Monthly Archives: November 2011

Anti-transit myth #10: The free market prevails

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind

Myth 10: Free Market Competition and Privately Operated Transit Is Better

Where the free market and private enterprise can be introduced to public transit, the public – riders and taxpayers – are likely to benefit.

However, as any free market economist will tell you, a free market demands a level playing field. If we want fair competition between transit and private automobiles, we would first have to level a playing field that, at present, is all hills and valleys.

Public transit is subsidized. According to the APTA 2000 “Public Transportation Fact Book,” in 1998, 65.7 percent of the expense of public transit – operating and capital costs – came from the taxpayer. The rest was from fares and other earnings. In dollars, the taxpayers’ annual contribution was $17.12 billion.

But what about highways? In 1994, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) estimated that total social costs for motor vehicle users range from $2,155 billion to $2,937 billion, with user fees covering $1,716 billion to $1,930 billion. That means highways received an annual subsidy of between $439 billion and $1,007 billion – the latter figure being more than a trillion dollars.

If we were to make transit and cars compete fairly, each would have to get the same subsidy or no subsidy. In addition, the price paid directly by the automobile driver and the transit rider would have to be paid the same way, so the payer could compare costs. It is not a level playing field, if for example, the fare every light rail rider pays on boarding the train includes the capital cost for the train itself, but the car owner only faces a similar capital cost when he buys a new car. Minds working the way they do, the car owner is not likely to remember that capital cost when he gets the car out of his garage. Driving will seem cheaper than taking transit.

If there were a practical way to create a level playing field between transit and automobiles, we’d be all for doing so and letting the best mode win. But so far no one has found the magical mechanism – magical because it would have to be retroactive, all the way back to the early 1920s, to make up for all those years when government-subsidized highways were destroying privately owned rail transit systems. In the world as it is, with automobiles receiving heavy subsidies in a myriad of ways, transit, to compete will have to be subsidized as well.


Anti-transit myth #9: Most light rail riders are former bus riders

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind

Myth 9: Most light rail riders are former bus riders.

The fact of the matter is that light rail has been highly successful in drawing people out of their cars and onto transit. We already noted St. Louis MetroLink light rail as one example: a 1995 passenger survey found that 85 percent of rail riders had not previously used the bus. In fact, bus patronage in St. Louis rose rather than fell when the light rail line opened. According to a Denver survey of light rail passengers, dated December 8, 2000, “For 50 percent of all Southwest Light Rail passengers surveyed, light rail was replacing trips they would have made, at least partially, by driving alone.”

Another way to look at this myth is by comparing bus ridership with light rail ridership in the same transit corridor. If most light rail riders come from buses, then ridership should not increase much when rail is substituted. But in fact, it usually does. San Diego offers two good illustrations. On the corridor now served by the San Diego Trolley Orange Line, bus ridership was just over 3,000 per weekday before rail was introduced. Now, on light rail, ridership in the same corridor is 18,000. Similarly, in the Blue Line corridor, bus ridership was 400 peak hour passengers; with rail, it is 1,800. Those bus riders would have to clone themselves in multiples to make up a majority of the people who now ride the trains!

So the transit critics not only have their facts wrong, they have turned them upside down!

Light rail’s proven ability to draw riders from choice, people who would otherwise have driven, usually alone, is important because it directly affects traffic congestion. Riders from choice represent cars removed from traffic, usually in rush hours, on almost a one-to-one basis.

But we should remember that offering rail transit to former bus passengers also has its benefits. Because rail transit represents high-quality transit, those former bus passengers are less likely to leave transit and start driving if they get a car. Buses also clog up roads in rush hour, so substituting rail for bus helps reduce traffic congestion. And since, one a nationwide basis, light rail costs less to operate than buses, getting people off buses and onto rail transit reduces the expense of transit to the taxpayer.