FreedomWorks Foundation Content

Mass Transit Is Not Green Transportation

Here in Portland, Oregon, we’ve been something of a test lab for mass transit. Our city council, long ago (starting under then Mayor Neil Goldschmidt), threw itself wide open to federal planning experts who wished to use Portland as the template for solutions to the energy crisis of the 70s. That crisis, of course, morphed into the global warming crisis, but the goals were the same – to convince ordinary Americans that their future, and the future of all mankind, came via a trip by bus or train, not in their own car. And here in Portlandia, we’ve been all too eager to continue the experiments, despite overwhelming evidence that the experiments long ago failed, and that the billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars poured down this rat hole have been a massive waste.

It is now abundantly obvious that mass transit will never be the solution to global warming, fuel consumption, the ozone hole, sprawl or any other man-made disasters.

What may be surprising about this conclusion is that we’ve known it for over 30 years. In an article in Atlantic Magazine in October, 1979, economist Charles Lave stated,

The Department of Transportation has used as incentives lower transit prices (even free transit), higher parking charges, higher bridge tolls, more attractive buses, more convenient schedules. It has also experimented with every conceivable kind of new technology. None of these innovations attracted a significant number of people away from cars.

Each transit innovation—from sophisticated, computerized heavy rail to light rail to people-movers—was to be the solution. The latest idea is a bus that lowers its body when it approaches a curb to make it easier for passengers boarding—the so-called “kneeling” bus.

The auto has easily resisted all these challengers because, from the point of view of its users, it is a greatly superior form of transportation: it takes people where and when they want to go and by the fastest, most direct route. It does cost the user more than transit but, given our high level of income, almost everyone can afford one. Except for a few situations, involving very high density cities or very long distance commuters, it is economically impossible to produce any form of public transportation that will be capable of luring a significant number of people out of cars.

Lave goes on to point out that in 1979, public transportation accounted for 3% of all passenger trips. Of course, the federal and local planners made it their goal to increase ridership and reduce the number of trips by automobile. While automobile trips have decreased in that time, that decrease has been modest at best – even with skyrocketing gas prices. And transit use is hardly making up the difference. According to the US Census Bureau, in Portland by the year 2000, an average of less than 7% of citizens reported using mass transit “on a regular basis” to commute to work.

According to a report to Oregon’s Metro Regional Government,

Despite significant investments in transit and bike systems, the overall number of trips taken in automobiles in the Portland metro area has barely decreased in the past two decades, according to a new transportation study.

Whether it’s the daily work commute or a quick dash to the supermarket, people choose to drive about 84 percent of the time, the Metro household survey shows. That’s a downward shift of just 3.6 percent since 1994, the last time the regional government conducted a comprehensive survey of household travel patterns.

Certainly, the portrait of Portland area travelers contains signs of progress on so-called “active transportation” planning that aims to get people out of their cars.

Based on demographically weighted estimates from the survey of 6,450 households in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Clark Counties, the share of workers commuting by TriMet and C-Tran has nearly doubled to 11 percent in the past 18 years.

However, in the Oregon suburbs, the transit-ridership numbers aren’t as impressive, with only 4.2 percent of residents choosing TriMet compared to 2 percent in the last study [conducted in 1994]. Clark County’s residents have an even smaller transit mode share: 1.4 percent.

Randall O’Toole, Senior Fellow at the CATO Institute, puts it plainly on his blog, The Antiplanner (citing the same article from 1979 in The Atlantic):

Charles Lave pointed out what he called the “law of large proportions”: “the biggest components matter most.” This means that, since 98 percent of urban motorized travel is by automobile, focusing on the other 2 percent is a complete waste.

Transit agencies that buy hybrid-electric buses, build rail lines, or do other things to be “green” are wasting taxpayers’ money. If we really want to be green, we need to focus on making the 98 percent greener, which we are already doing. Cars may not be greener than transit today, but they aren’t browner either. However, by 2025 or so, cars will be far more energy efficient, which transit is not likely to improve as much–indeed, transit uses far more energy per passenger mile today than it did 40 years ago. In all probability, in a little more than a decade, we won’t have to stop pretending that cars are greener because it will be true.

The point is clear. If mass transit is going to be greener than the automobile, it will have to average far higher ridership than it ever has before. The only way this has ever been accomplished is by some method of forcibly removing individuals from their overwhelming preference for transportation. Even then, the amount of fuel consumed per trip, or carbon released per passenger per trip, or whatever measure you wish to use has barely competed with the automobile in terms of consumption per individual per trip. Whether that’s in New York City or Portland, Oregon, that method is to make the commute so onerous, difficult and/or expensive that people make the conscious choice that public transportation is more convenient. Unsuccessful attempts were made for much of the 20th century to pursuade individuals to ditch the car.

We continue in the 21st century to pursue these fanciful goals, despite decades of failure as evidence to the contrary. If given a choice, the vast majority of individuals prefers to drive their own vehicle over sharing public transportation. Ironically, it turns out in this case that individual liberty – the freedom of personal mobility – is also the best thing to do for the greater good (if you believe in the theory of anthropogenic global warming). It’s high time that our public policy reflected this preference in the form of making automobile travel more convenient and affordable, not less.