Planners waste money on rail transit
3/25/02 - Although public transit carries less than 4 percent of all
travel in most urban areas, regional planners in many areas want to
spend the vast majority transportation capital funds on transit. Yet
their own planning documents admit that spending these funds will do
improve transit and will do much to reduce the mobility of many urban
The table below compares the share of capital funds that long-range
(twenty year) regional transportation plans propose to spend on transit
with the share of motorized passenger miles that used transit in 2000.
Passenger miles are taken from the 2000 National Transit
Database and 2000 Highway Statistics. Capital funds are taken from the
regional transportation plans published by the various metropolitan
planning organizations (MPOs) and are a share of transit plus highway
capital funds -- bicycle or other funds are excluded.
Transit's Share of:
|Salt Lake City
The "Disparity" column is transit's share of capital funds
transit's share of passenger travel. This says that Atlanta, for
example, is spending forty-eight times as much on transit passenger
miles as on highway passenger miles.
All of the plans shown call for huge disparities between transit
funding and transit's share of travel. The worst is the Twin Cities,
which wants to spend more than 70 percent of transport capital funds
on a transit system that carries just 1 percent of passenger travel.
Note that, except for Richmond, most of the urban areas shown are
building or want to build a rail transit system. Richmond is notable
for proposing to spend only 8 percent of its capital funds on
transit, where none of the rail cities want to spend less than 30
percent of their funds on transit. Yet Richmond is still spending
nineteen times as much on transit passenger miles as on highway
passenger miles, which puts it in the same class as Baltimore, San
Francisco, and Seattle.
Because transit's operating costs are paid by the transit provider,
while highway operating costs are mostly privately paid by auto
drivers and other highway users, we should expect an imbalance
between transit and highway public operating costs. But the disparity
between transit and highway capital costs should be much lower,
especially considering that highways also support bus transit riders.
What is the appropriate ratio of transit vs. highway capital
spending? A truly balanced plan would spend no more than $1 on
transit passenger miles for every dollar spent on highway passenger
miles. Even less than $1 may be justified because highways also
provide freight service while most transit lines do not.
Of course, transit's share of travel may not remain fixed at the 2000
level. If spending a little more on transit can significantly
increase transit's share of travel, than a small short-term imbalance
may be worthwhile in the long run. For example, it might be
worthwhile to spend twice as much on current transit passenger miles
as on highway passenger miles if doing so will double transit's share.
However, only one of these transportation plans project a doubling in
transit's market share: that for Portland, Oregon. Many are skeptical
about Portland's claim -- see
A few other plans project a small increase in transit's share -- 25
to 35 percent -- but this is not enough to justify huge investments
in transit. Most plans actually forecast a loss in transit market
share even after spending 20 to 70 times as much on transit riders as
on auto riders. This means that transit's share of spending should be
less than $1 per current passenger mile for every dollar spent on
current highway passenger miles.
Some might justify more transit spending using "environmental
justice," the idea that transportation spending should be skewed to
help poor people and minorities. Some of the plans include an
environmental justice analysis, which is apparently required by
TEA-21 (the 1998 transportation authorization act).
Based on these plans, however, environmental justice is not a reason
to invest in rail transit. The environmental justice analysis for
Cincinnati, for example, compares the share of the region's jobs that
are or will be within 20 minutes of auto driving or 40 minutes of
transit travel for poor, minorities, and everyone else. The plan's
findings are summarized in the table below.
Share of Jobs Within 20 Minutes of Driving
or 40 Minutes of Transit Travel
1995 2030 1995
53 20 16
Low income 99
83 21 18
Everyone else 100 100
The table shows that Cincinnati's plan to build an extensive rail
transit network significantly reduces the share of jobs accessible to
low-income people and minorities while it does not much change the
share of jobs accessible to everyone else. In their eagerness to
build a transit system that will supposedly attract white,
middle-class riders, planners are harming the future prospects of
poor people and minorities.
I attempted to get these numbers for many other urban areas,
including Boston, New York, Phoenix, and Washington, DC. But the
latest regional transportation plans for these cities do not include
details on transit and highway capital spending. Some other MPOs
don't have their regional transportation plans posted on the web. If
you have information about any other urban area, please forward it to
An alternative source of data to the long-term regional
transportation plans is the transportation improvement program, or
TIP, which planning agencies prepare every year. However, the TIP,
which looks ahead just two or three years, does not provide a long
enough time horizon to measure imbalances between transit and highway
Under ISTEA and TEA-21, MPOs must update their regional
transportation plans every three years. This has generated an endless
and expensive cycle of planning, most of which is paid for out of
highway user fees that are therefore unavailable to actually do
anything about congestion.
The planning process also transfers power from transportation
engineers, who tend to be biased in favor of efficient
transportation, to land-use planners, who tend to be biased in favor
of transit. Supporters of the American Dream of mobility and
efficient government spending should work to remove these planning
requirements from the next transportation authorization bill.
The Thoreau Institute
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