Op-Ed: The myth about modern national transit

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The American Public Transportation Association reported this month that U.S. transit ridership hit an all-time high last year. The March 10 report came with a caveat - "all-time" means "after 1956," but the numbers nevertheless sound impressive.

Transit users took 10.65 billion trips in 2013, topping the previous record of 10.59 billion trips in 2008. These numbers were widely reported in the media, including in The Washington Post, often with commentary suggesting a fundamental change in American travel behavior: a nation moving away from driving and toward more efficient and sustainable public transit.

But the association's numbers are deceptive, and this interpretation is wrong. We are strong supporters of public transportation, but misguided optimism about transit's resurgence helps neither transit users nor the larger traveling public. Transit trips did rise between 2008 and 2013. But so did the U.S. population, from 304 million to 316 million, as did the total number of trips made. Simple division suggests that, if anything, transit use fell between 2008 and 2013, from about 35 trips per person annually to 34. Many numbers look impressive without denominators, but anyone who examines transit use as a rate - whether as trips per person or share of total travel - will find that transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.

Transit receives about 20 percent of U.S. surface transportation funding but accounts for 2 percent to 3 percent of all U.S. passenger trips and 2 percent to 3 percent of all U.S. passenger miles. In fact, use of mass transportation has remained remarkably steady, and low, since about 1970. There is nothing exceptional about last year's numbers; they represent a depressing norm.

This is not to say that public transportation is unimportant. Most U.S. transit use occurs in a handful of dense cities, and in these cities transit provides vital mobility, especially for poorer people (particularly immigrants) who don't own cars.

New York alone accounts for a third of all transit travel. A close look at the report shows that while U.S. transit trips increased by 115 million from 2012 to 2013, trips on New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority rose by 123 million. In other words, transit use outside New York declined in absolute terms last year. This fact shows how crucial public transportation is to our largest city and how small a role it plays in most other Americans' lives.

So there is no national transit boom. Why does this matter? The U.S. transportation system is deeply troubled. The country has difficulty financing improvements to its aging infrastructure, and heavy reliance on driving creates congestion, increases carbon emissions, pollutes our communities, and is a leading cause of injury and death. No one should pretend these problems are spontaneously solving themselves because Americans have decided en masse to ride transit instead of driving.

Nor should we misdiagnose problems caused by too much driving as problems caused by too little transit. Building transit systems is not the same as having people ride them, and people riding transit more is not the same as people driving less (plenty of transit riders are people who used to walk). Additionally, transit is not the only viable alternative to using a car. The environment is helped when drivers switch to buses but also when drivers switch to bikes.

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Resting our hopes on a transit comeback distracts from our real transportation problem, which can be summarized in four words: Driving is too cheap. Drivers impose costs on society - in delay, in pollution, in carbon, in wear and tear on our roads - that they don't pay for. As a result, many of us drive more than we otherwise would. Ending this underpriced driving - through higher fuel taxes, parking and congestion charges and insurance premiums based on miles driven - is a central challenge for local, state and federal transportation officials.

Charging the right price for driving would give drivers a better-performing system, both by reducing congestion and raising revenue to help repair roads. It would help communities and the planet by reducing pollution. And, not least, it would help public transportation by leveling the playing field between transit and private vehicles. Increased subsidies for public transportation have neither reduced driving nor increased transit use. But ending subsidies to driving probably would do both.

Ending these subsidies will be hard work, politically. Yet we will have no incentive to do this work if Americans continue to believe that transit is making a comeback on its own. It isn't. Transit, like the rest of our transportation system, is in trouble. We need to act quickly to save it.

David King is an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. Michael Manville is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University. Michael Smart is an assistant professor of city planning at Rutgers University.

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