Ridesharing is overtaking urban mass transit, and we should rejoice


Thanks to new services such as Uber and Lyft, the nation’s transit industry is fading away, leading some people to declare an “emergency.” In fact, we should rejoice that transit, one of the least productive industries and most expensive forms of transportation in America, is disappearing.

Data recently published by the Federal Transit Administration show that ridership in February was 2 percent lower than the previous February. This continues three years of declining ridership caused by increasing auto ownership and growing competition from other transportation providers.

Ridership declines have prompted transit consultant Jarrett Walker to argue that “city governments have an urgent imperative to do what’s necessary to make it attractive for people to use” transit. Walker apparently believes that cities exist for the benefit of transit systems, rather than the other way around.

Transit’s importance to American cities peaked in 1917, when the average urban resident rode transit 287 times. By 1964, it had declined to a mere 62 trips per urban resident.

In that year, Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act, promising federal funds to cities and states that took over private transit systems.

Since 1970, American taxpayers have spent more than a trillion dollars (adjusted for inflation) subsidizing urban transit. This is how well it has worked: In 2017, transit ridership was down to 37 trips per urban resident, the lowest in recorded history.

Inevitably, some of the subsidies to transit went to lobbyists who’ve come up with ever more creative ways to justify further subsidies. Transit, they say, helps the poor, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and relieves congestion.

None of these is true. All but about 4% of American workers live in a household with at least one car. Giving a chronically poor person a used car will do far more for their job prospects than giving them a free transit pass.

Nor is transit greener than driving. Nationally, transit uses almost exactly the same amount of energy and emits the same amount of greenhouse gases per passenger mile as automobiles. Encouraging people to drive cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars will do more for the environment than failed efforts to get them out of their cars and onto transit.

What transit does do is cost money. Americans spend an average of 25 cents per passenger mile driving. Subsidies to driving ought to be eliminated, but those subsidies average less than two cents a passenger mile. By comparison, urban transit cost $1.17 per passenger mile in 2016, 89 cents of which came from taxpayers. No other form of travel — not flying, nor driving, nor Amtrak — is so expensive or receives such huge subsidies.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the forthcoming book “Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.”

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