The Livable Communities Coalition

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

Category Archives: Anti-transit myths

Anti-transit myth #11: No one uses transit

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

Myth 11: On average, most of the seats on a bus or train are empty.

The anti-transit troubadours usually sing this line only in passing, as a quick reference to “empty buses” or “empty trains.”

And how many seats are occupied in the average automobile? Even in rush hour, the answer is usually one, out of four or five. During the same rush-hour, if you look at the average bus or rail car, all the seats are taken and some passengers may be standing.

Transit systems must be designed to handle rush-hour volumes of people. They can and do adjust to some extent to non-rush-hours, by running fewer buses or trains and perhaps shorter trains as well. But their ability to adjust is limited. A bus or rail car has a fixed number of seats. Shortening or lengthening trains several times a day can cost more than is saved by running shorter trains. In most cities, bus drivers and train operators are paid for an eight-hour shift, whether they are working or not. And off-peak service must be provided, for commuters who have to get home early, people who work non-standard hours and the wide variety of non-commuting transit trips.

If total ridership is averaged over the number of hours transit is provided, the average may appear low – even though the trains and buses are full to bursting during the morning and afternoon rushes. But even if we compare averages, transit still comes out ahead – dramatically so, if we look at passenger miles per vehicle mile. Both heavy and light rail fill double the percentage of seats that automobiles used in commuting fill, and generate 20 times as many passenger miles per vehicle mile.


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.

Anti-transit myth #8: Transit increases crime

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

Myth 8: Transit brings crime into a community.

Quite rightly, Americans fear crime and want to do everything they can to keep it away from their families, homes and neighborhoods. Needless to say, the danger of crime is too good a theme for transit critics to ignore. But this myth is a bit different from the others, because it is local people who usually raise the issue. They do so honestly, because they are scared.

A 1997 Transportation Research Board study, “Improving Transit Security,” states, “The dimensions of transit crime in the United States are not currently subject to reliable assessment…Only recently have efforts begun to compile a national database.”

However, the data on crime on transit is better, so let’s take a look at it first. The TRB study, “Improving Transit Security,” goes on to say that:

Data that are available, using Uniform Crime Report (UCR) classifications, suggest that transit crime is of a less serious nature although serious crime does occur regularly. Disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, fare evasion, theft,, and simple assaults appear to be the five most frequently occurring offenses…As would be expected, serious and violent crime is more characteristic of larger transit systems, measured both by statistical incidence and crime per passenger trip.

Both of these basic facts given here are almost certainly relevant to the rail transit line proposed for your community. First, serious and violent crime is less likely than statistical averages might suggest, because most of that kind of crime occurs in the biggest cities.

Second, most of the crime your system may face will be of a “less serious nature.” What, exactly, does that mean? Another study, the “Transit Security Handbook,” dated 1998, gives a detailed answer. That study states, “Quality-of-life and property crimes account for 93 percent of all crimes on [rail transit systems]. Violent crime occurs relatively infrequently, accounting for only 6.6 percent of all [rail system] crime.”

In 1993, a survey of San Diego Trolley riders found an interesting difference between the perceptions of those who actually use the trolley and those who do not.

This suggests that, at least in San Diego, the issue of crime on board light rail is a problem of perception rather than a reality. In summary, serious crime on rail transit systems is uncommon. This is true even on light rail systems such as Los Angeles’ Blue Line, which goes through several neighborhoods with high crime rates.

What about our second question? Does rail transit bring crime into a community? Here, unfortunately, the data situation is worse. We know of no studies done on a nationwide basis.

The transit authority responsible for the light rail line in San Jose, California, [however] noted in a short study that:

Records compiled by Valley Transportation Authority pertaining to light rail accidents and crime statistics support the conclusion that safety and security in neighborhoods are not significantly affected by implementation.

What can we conclude from all this? In our view, the conclusion is clear: Rail transit can create a crime problem, both on-board and in neighboring communities, but it need not do so.

Unfortunately, in today’s America, any new development can bring crime. It should not surprise that rail transit can do so. A carefully designed program to stop crime before it starts should be part of the planning for the rail line itself.

We have devoted considerable length to the question of rail transit bring crime because, as conservatives, we take crime seriously. We would oppose any development in our neighborhoods that would bring more crime, and we would expect you to do the same.  Rail transit need not, if planning includes security issues from the outset.

Anti-transit myth #7: Rail transit does not spur economic development

Myth 7: Rail transit does not spur economic development.

It is rail transit, not bus service, that spurs economic development. The reason is simple. Bus service can change overnight. A bus route can be discontinued or
rerouted easily. No developer can invest on the basis of something so ephemeral. A rail line, in contrast, is a fixed, high-value asset. It cannot get up and move, and the amount of capital invested in it makes service discontinuance highly unlikely.

And the asset of rail transit service is very real. In one city after another, rail transit – heavy rail, light rail or commuter rail – has brought increased investment, higher property values, higher rents and more customers.

In our first study, “Conservatives and Mass Transit: Is It Time for a New Look?,” we offered the Washington D.C. Metrorail system as an example of rail transit spurring economic development.

Washington’s Metrorail system is a heavy rail system; what of the effect of light rail on development? St. Louis and Dallas offer examples, and both point to the same conclusion: Light rail can have a strong and positive impact on development.

If light rail was going to fail anywhere, Dallas would have seemed the place. After all, Texans were wedded to their cars, and only the poorest used public transit.

Since DART opened in 1996 – on time and within budget – it has carried more riders than projected: 42,000 per weekday by the latest count. And it has had an immediate and positive effect on development. DART Board Chairman Jesse D. Oliver recently wrote:

Developers are building on the success of DART’s $860-million light rail system with more than $800 million in ongoing or planned projects near the stations – those already built, and those opening in the near future. That’s almost a dollar-for-dollar return on this public investment in just four years. I know of no other transit system in America that has generated so much economic activity so quickly.

Rail transit benefits individual homeowners, not just developers and businessmen, by raising the value of existing homes.

Edward A. Reusing, president of Downtown St. Louis, Inc., summed it up best. Having seen for just two years what light rail did for that city, he said in January 1995, “Extending MetroLink and the bus system which feeds it is the smartest economic development step St. Louis can take.” When the anti-transit troubadours sing that rail transit has no effect on economic development, it’s time to start heaving old shoes.

Anti-transit myth #6: Rail transit only serves cities

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

Myth 6: Rail transit can only serve city centers, but most new jobs are in the suburbs.

This anti-transit myth is a bit different from the others, because the problem itself is not a myth. The myth is that the problem has no solution.

Downtowns remain important centers of employment in most regions, and even Wendell Cox admits that transit serves downtowns well. But it is also true that much job growth is in the suburbs.

There are solutions, and rail transit has an important role to play in them.

One solution stems from the nature of much suburban job development. It is not always spread out evenly across the map. Rather, it often follows certain corridors – corridors that can be served effectively by rail.

Rail transit can do more than serve corridors where job growth is concentrated. It can also help create such corridors.

A major reason why rail transit has difficulty serving suburban growth in many American cities is that there just isn’t enough of it. A single light rail line can only serve a limited area. But if a rail system is large enough, it serves much more than downtown. Washington’s Metrorail is an example: This five-line, 103-mile system serves not only downtown Washington, D.C., but also such major employment centers as Crystal City; the Pentagon; Rosslyn, Virginia; and Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland.

Serving suburban job destinations requires not fewer rail lines, but more.

Anti-transit myth #5: Buses are better than rail

[AUDIO] Some in Cobb County have questioned the presence of the proposed Cumberland light rail line, instead arguing for other options that could include enhanced commuter bus service to employment centers. At Wednesday’s roundtable meeting, Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee announced the county’s intent to submit an amendment to reduce potential funding for the proposed light rail line.

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

Myth 5: Where transit is needed, buses are better than rail. Buses cost less and provide the same or better service.

Lind visited Atlanta in June to help metro Atlanta make the conservative case for transit. The Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable's draft project list outlines a significant transit vision with 55 percent of the projects being transit projects. The full 21-member roundtable will submit a final project list by the Oct. 15 deadline.

Buses and rail transit are at least as different as apples and oranges. With a few exceptions, they serve different purposes and different people – so different that it may be more of a hindrance than a help to lump them together as “public transit.” In
general, buses serve the purpose of providing mobility to people who have no car or cannot drive – the transit dependent. Rail transit serves the purpose of reducing traffic by drawing to transit riders from choice, people who have cars and can drive if they choose to do so.

So why do the anti-transit troubadours always tell us to stick with buses and not build rail? Well, if the objective is to keep people in their cars, that is a pretty good prescription.

Let’s look at a few of the transit critics’ more specific objections to rail:

  • The content that buses are more “flexible” because bus routes can be moved virtually overnight while train track are in a fixed place. This is true. But it turns out to be one of the advantages of rail, not a disadvantage. One of the more important purposes of any infrastructure is to spur and channel development. Bus transit has no effect on development, precisely because of its here-today-and-gone-tomorrow “flexibility.” No developer can count on its being there once his building is completed. Rail transit, on the other hand, is a major spur to development, because once it is there, it is there for the long term. A developer may buy land, erect a building and get tenants, knowing that those tenants will still have rail transit service next week, next month, next year and next decade.
  • The critics also claim that buses cost less than rail. This is true of capital costs, but not of operating costs. In St. Louis, light rail had an operating cost per passenger mile in FY 1995 of 22 cents compared to 68 cents for buses, a cost per passenger trip of $1.18 compared to $2.31 for buses, and a farebox recovery ratio (FY 1997) of 41.8 percent compared to 20.3 percent for buses. In Portland, Oregon, the operating cost per boarding passenger is $1.67 for buses, $1.40 for light rail. In Dallas, the operating cost per passenger mile of the DART light rail system is just 60 percent of that of buses. On a nationwide basis, the latest figures, from the Federal Transit Administration 1999 “National Transit Database,” show the operating cost of light rail as 45 cents per passenger mil, compared to 55 cents for buses.
  • Another assertion by the critics is that buses on dedicated rights-of-way – busways or HOV lanes – are better than light rail. In actual experience, buses on busways do not compete effectively with rail transit, at least in the minds of potential riders.

In one city after another, light rail has shown that it can draw a great many riders from choice who would never board a bus. The same is true for commuter rail. The anti-transit troubadors dislike rail transit not because it doesn’t work, but because it does.

Anti-transit myth #4: Transit does not relieve congestion

Myth 4: Transit does not relieve congestion.

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

Transit can and often does relieve congestion. St. Louis’s MetroLink light rail line provides a good example. MetroLink’s singe 18-mile [line] carried 14.2 million passengers in 1999. According to a 1997 riders’ survey, 69 percent were commuting to work. Most were doing so in rush hours, when highway congestion is at its worst. And only 27 percent of MetroLink’s riders either did not drive of had no car available.

The fact of the matter is that some kinds of transit have a strong effect on highway congestion, but other kinds do not. In general, buses running on city streets have little effect on congestion, because they do not prove a better level of service than the autos that impede their flow.

One study after another shows that high-quality transit, especially rail transit, can reduce congestion.

And what about the myth that a rail transit line has less capacity than a single lane of freeway or even a major arterial road? The facts are clear enough:

The basic problem with urban/suburban freeways is that they take a up so much space for the capacity they deliver. At 1500 cars per lane per hour, a six-lane freeway’s maximum capacity is about 11,000 people per hour…within a 300 foot right of way. Urban rail systems can deliver as much more capacity in 100 foot or less [right of way]. The Dallas light rail line when completed to Garland and Richardson will be able to deliver at least 20% more hourly capacity than a six lane freeway (13,760 people per hour) at 14% less capital cost per mile. Heavy rail systems like the Washington Metrorail have five times the capacity of a six lane freeway in about one third the space and cost about the same per mile as the Century Freeway in Los Angeles.

Anti-transit myth #3: Cars are faster than trains or buses

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

Myth 3: Commuting by rail is slower than commuting by car or bus.

If rail transit is slower than driving, why do so many people drive their cards to rail transit parking lots and take the train into town?

Both speed and commuting time comparisons used by transit critics tend to be misleading, because they compare apples and oranges. Cars are faster if they are on freeways away from city centers at rush hours, where traffic congestion is relatively low. Once the cars are in or near city centers during rush hours, highway speed drops drastically. That is the logic behind park-and-ride: the train bypasses the clogged highways in or near the central business district.

In comparing car vs. rail commuting times, the critics introduce another spurious factor. Many of the commuting journeys represented in their “average commuting time by car” figures are short, suburb-to-suburb trips, not trips from the suburb into the city. The latter usually takes more time because they run into the congested traffic in the city center, and because the journey itself is usually longer.

On the train, your time is not wasted. You can read, think, perhaps even write on your laptop. Behind the wheel, the most you can hope to do in the way of useful work is talk on your cell phone, usually to tell someone you are caught in traffic and will be late. And if you walk to and from the train station, on either or both ends of your journey, you get to add some exercise to an otherwise sedentary day without taking time to go to a gym or health club.

The train is fast. But it is also civilized, far more than a traffic jam. There is a reason so many people who have cars and could drive are taking trains to work instead. And it’s not because they can’t read a watch.

Myth-busters: Transit is no longer relevant.

Conservative transit advocate Bill Lind outlines 12 anti-transit myths at the Atlanta Sustainable Roundtable in June. Lind maintains that transit is not only relevant but also experiencing a renaissance in the U.S. with cities such as Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City and St. Louis establishing successful light rail service in recent years.

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

Anti-transit myth 2: Transit is a declining industry.

In general, the facts are these. From the advent of the Model T until quite recently, transit was a declining industry. This is not surprising, because government offered massive subsidies to cars and highways. Most transit systems were privately owned and operated and, far from receiving subsidies, had to pay taxes. As is usually the case, government intervention caused massive market distortions, to the point of almost wiping out public transit.

But recent years have seen a change. Beginning in 1996, transit’s total ridership has risen every year. In 1999 and 2000, the growth in trips on transit actually increased more than the growth in trips by automobile travel.

A new pattern is emerging, in one city after another. Once the first light rail line opens and people experience the high-quality service it offers, they want more. Referenda to expand the light rail system or speed up construction usually pass, often by large margins.

Dallas offers a good example. There, the people faced a ballot referendum on speeding up the construction of light rail. Despite the usual descent on the city by the anti-transit troubadors, the referendum passed by 77 percent.