Public Transit Update

CNN has some good news about the habits of Americans. They have actually begun to change in a meaningful way. As the article cites, there were an additional 85 billion public transportation trips taken in the first 3 months of this year compared to last, not world saving numbers but an impressive increase, nearly 3.5%. Americans have also driven fewer highway miles for 6 consecutive months relative to last year. Effective public transit not only cuts the energy usage of its riders, but also reduces congestion, reducing congestion for those who insist on driving.

Just how impressive of this change? Consider that there is a fixed cost of learning public transit routes and schedules that serves as an entry barrier to usage. Also consider that many commuters have invested in parking spots, cars, and garages and are likely to fall into the sunk cost fallacy and insist on driving, even if it would be more rational to ride. The fact that we are still seeing such a commitment to changing habits, at least from some Americans, is encouraging.

There are some caveats. The article mentions one, dubbing it the “public transit paradox”. This being that when people are switching over to public transit, the economy is struggling. Falling property values and lower consumer spending have cost state and local governments a great deal of revenue (property taxes and sales taxes). Whereas the federal government will simply borrow, local and state governments are often forbidden or discouraged from it. So there is much less money to spend on improving, modernizing, and extending the public transit system. Local and state governments already have a reputation for shying away from large lump sum investments, because they try to balance their budget each year. This can mean buying less efficient systems for a lower initial investment. Poor planning like that takes away some of the potential benefit of public transit.

The other factor that should dampen enthusiasm a little is that while the people in the vicinity of the city can immediately adjust habits to be less dependent on their cars, people living in the exurbs aren’t near high volume public transit. While driving to a “park and ride” site can still be beneficial, there will be diminished returns. It may not make sense to simply extend train and  bus lines outward, since population density can be very low in the exurbs. Moving forward, people will actually have to relocate in order to make their daily commute less energy intensive, and this is not something that can change in less than a year like the statistics in this article. We must continue this progress into the long-run and start making large investments in a way that reflects increasing energy costs. It is still nice to see that Americans have lost some of our stubborness regarding public transit.

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2 Responses

  1. I read similar articles, but, I agree with you more in regard to “park and ride” facilities optimally utilized.

  2. […] to cut routes, cut investment in equipment, and raise fares. We’ve touched on the so-called public transit paradox before. When the economy is in its worst shape, and more consumers would turn to public transit […]

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