The publication of two articles this past week prompted the composition of this essay. The first was the LA Times Editorial Board, “COVID’S Toll on Public Transit.” (August 16). The second appeared in Fox&Hounds, “California’s Search for Equitable, Sustainable and Safe Transportation Choices,” by Karen Philbrick of the San Jose State University Mineta Transportation Center.
Both make references to or assumptions about the positive environmental and ridership performance of transit; both deny the dismal reality of such performance. Both use the politically correct, but not necessarily valid, buzzwords such as “climate-friendly,” “sustainable” and “equitable transportation.”
The lack of candor in dealing with the declining impact of transit and the reliance on these worn-out buzzwords has become the basis for justifying an anti-mobility bias in state transportation policy and for the propagation of the myth that more public money will produce a more productive public transit system.
I will deal with five claims/assumptions explicit or implicit in these articles which do not reflect reality:
That public transit provides a cost efficient alternative to driving
That public transit investment has been equitable
That public transit is cleaner than driving
That “closing streets” and “road diets” will produce environmental and economic outcomes
That high speed rail (HSR) will produce positive environmental and transportation outcomes
- Pre-Covid transit ridership trends have been a disaster; Covid will make it worse.
From 2013-2018 LA Metro’s ridership declined 19%. Similar patterns occurred in most US cities and wealthier cities around the world including London, Madrid, and Toronto.
LA Metro bus ridership declined 24% from 2013 through 2019. Rail ridership was down 5% even though new rail lines opened.
From 2017 to 2019 for every 10 rail riders added to the system, 68 bus riders were lost.
These ridership declines and therefore the increasing cost per passenger mile pre-date the Covid effects. In the short term since March most metropolitan areas have seen 40% passenger reductions. In the long term work-at-home alternatives will have lasting impact, particularly on high-cost rail systems which depend on higher-income riders for a greater percentage of their ridership than other transit.
The ridership declines and cost increases have produced this unsustainable spiral: every year we expand the public transit network (recently primarily rail service) and every year there are fewer passengers. Every year the transit system costs more per passenger mile. Every year public subsidies per passenger mile increase. Did someone say something about “sustainable”?
In spite of spending more than 50% of all transportation funds on transit in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (over the next 20 years) transit represents only 5% of market share (number of trips) and is projected to remain about the same.
- Public transit is not necessarily equitable and may not serve the needs of the poor versus less-expensive alternatives.
Proportionally new rail has received the greatest increase of publicly funded transportation investment over the last 20 years. Bus system service has frequently been reduced. This is an equity issue. Buses are used mostly by low-income, often minority, riders and those who have no choice. Conversely, rail use is highest among riders earning $125,000 to $200,000 and lowest for riders earning $10,000 to $50,000.
Professor Brian Taylor of UCLA states it this way, “Transit’s emphasis in the past 40 years on commuter oriented express bus and rail service is increasingly at odds with the inner city ridership base of transit, who lack adequate access to private transportation due to age, income or disability. The resulting inattention to many inner-city bus services raises troubling questions about how current public transit policies affect poor and minority urban residents.”
An equitable transit policy perhaps should emphasize providing the poor with access to an automobile – their own or an Uber type trip. And perhaps it is time to stop making taxpayer-funded transportation investments (such as rail and high speed rail) which primarily benefit the most affluent.
Some social justice groups claim we have an “inequitable transportation system.” Do we have an inequitable transportation system or is the system inequitable because many lower-income people lack access to modes of transportation that would better serve their needs.
- Autos are cleaner than transit
Another assumption in the above cited articles is that because the transportation sector produces around 40% of California’s carbon emissions that the solution is to reduce vehicle miles traveled and move these trips to transit. In fact private vehicles are responsible for about 25% of California’s carbon emissions and its share is declining vs. the other modes such as air, trucks, ships, freight rail and service vehicles.
This “move to transit” policy rests on the fallacious assumption that transit is “cleaner” than driving.
These are the unfortunate facts: on average autos produce less carbon emission per passenger mile than transit. Every year transit produces more greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than the year before. Every year vehicle carbon emissions per passenger mile decline.
Bob Poole has written: “Yet the assuming that transit is always more environmentally-friendly is wrong. In 93 of the largest 100 metro areas, cars emit less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than transit buses.”
- Closing streets and “road diets” are unlikely to produce possible environmental and economic outcomes and reduce mobility.
In recent years the State Legislature and Cal Trans transportation policy has become distinctly anti-automobile with the stated intent to remove cars from the road rather than make congestion-reducing improvements. The average Californian would be surprised at this.
Certainly this is true of the City of LA’s misnomerd “Mobility 2035 Plan.” Phil Washington, CEO of Metro LA County states, “It’s too easy to drive in this city. We want to reach new riders that left and get to the new ones as well. And part of that has to do with actually making driving harder. Sometimes you have to tell people what’s good for them.”
Recently the state has decreed that the primary standard for assessing the need for highway improvements is the reduction of vehicle miles traveled; replacing a standard based on reducing congestion. .
In her article Philbrick refers to closing streets to cars: “All of these conditions reduce traffic, and reduced traffic also means improved air quality and environmental changes.”
The claimed carbon reduction impact (from increased biking and walking) of these very costly closures is insignificant to the scale of miles traveled and is achieved at great public cost and increased traffic congestion. As traffic congestion increases traffic speeds decline and carbon and other polluting emissions increase.
Furthermore, increased transit ridership will decrease access to jobs compared to auto commutes. The average transit trip to work is double in time compared to an auto trip. Employees reach exponentially more jobs by auto than by transit in the same period of time. Oblivious to this reality the LA Times stated in a 2018 editorial that “Investing in buses, trains and bike infrastructure is about giving people more transportation choices so they don’t have to waste productive time stuck behind the wheel.”
Lost in the rhetoric of road diets and transit-to-the-rescue is that we have lost track that the purpose of transportation is to provide people access to what makes their life fulfilling: jobs, leisure, friends, shopping. No one will disagree that our transportation systems should reduce its environmental impact in fulfilling this mission. There is no evidence that taking cars off the road and substituting public transit is economically feasible, will result in fewer emissions or will improve access to jobs and commerce.
- California’s High Speed Rail (HRS) project is far more expensive than highway and airport alternatives
Philbrick: “Providing the same capacity as high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles would require 4,300 new highway lane miles, 115 additional airport gates and four new airport runways.”
This statement and its variants was the main theme voiced by Governor Brown during the 2008 HSR bond campaign. “We can build more airport runways, more freeways over the next 50 years. That’s twice as expensive. I’m just saying it’s cheaper than the alternative. ” It was not true then; it is even less so now.
Think of it this way: The statement implies that only the tiny percentage of interstate motorists who would switch to HSR would have benefited from the highway expansion alternative if they had not converted to HSR. However, there is great benefit of the added lanes to the 99% plus motorists who will use these expanded lanes for both short and long trips. With population growth constructing HSR and not building the highway lanes will result in greater congestion than building the lanes and not building HRS. With population growth the lanes will be needed regardless.
Furthermore, the projected cost to build HSR has increased fantastically relative to the increased cost of highway expansion. Voters were told in 2008 that the total cost would be $30 billion. Present estimates by the Authority exceed $100 billion and that is without the San Diego – LA line which was eliminated in a bait-and-switch maneuver by the Authority. Independent estimates project much higher costs.
Contrary to what was promised to the voters in 2008 the Authority now concedes that operating subsidies will be needed, indicating that yearly subsidies of $40 to $90 million for the 171 mile Bakersfield to Merced project. A Stanford professor has projected that the HRS full system will require “a subsidy forever” in the range of $123 million to $1 billion or more annually.
Any claim about cost advantages of HSR relative to highway and airport expansion, false to start with, are further falsified by HRS’s increased construction costs and the future cost of operating subsidies.
During the campaign for Measure M in 2018 to extend the transportation sales tax Metro executive director Phil Washington impossibly claimed that in 20 years Metro would “convert 20-25% of commuters in the county to transit users.”
At the time no one took the time to examine the assumptions upon which this statement was based: that in 2018 only 7% of commuter trips were transit and only 20% (meaning 1.4% of total transit riders) were “choice” riders – meaning riders who have access to an auto alternative. With the “non-choice” market saturated and declining, the 25% target can only be achieved by attracting thirteen times more non-choice riders than in 2018.
Through 2019 total Metro ridership has fallen 25% in 10 years and this was pre-Covid losses. It is likely that many of these losses will not be regained. To expect that 25% of commuters will convert to transit by 2038 when transit is in substantial decline or that sufficient public funds can be found to subsidize these increases is delusional and it is time for the public transportation industry to acknowledge this.
Ignoring the reality of transit performance is comfortable because we don’t want it to be that way. But denial does not lead to an honest and realistic debate and assessment of what our solutions should be.
Perhaps it is time to admit that public transit as it presently exists and the state’s anti-automobile policies will not achieve our mobility, environmental or social justice goals.