The Blog

The Search for the Holy Rail

Rail transit systems all over the country are losing riders and hemorrhaging money, yet city governments keep building them.

11:00 PM, Mar 12, 2003 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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Most rail transit is built to serve the downtown business districts in cities. But the days when downtowns functioned as the primary centers of employment are long gone. Since about 1955, when people and office equipment began taking up more space, most new jobs have been created in industrial parks and small office parks--areas outside of downtown. Now, less than 10 percent of the nation's employment in metropolitan areas is located in the old central business districts. So for more than 90 percent of commuters, rail transit isn't an option.

Yet this fact is not an argument for extending rail transit into the suburbs. Employment outside of downtown areas is spread too thin to support rail transit. And any system serving the suburbs would have to include an expansive shuttle network to ferry commuters from transit stops to their homes or offices. So far, commuters have shown little interest in such a system. As transportation expert Wendell Cox puts it, "The problem has to do with the environment transit tries to serve. There is not a transit situation that can be superimposed on [a large city] that can get people to and from and around the suburbs."

So is there a place for rail transit anywhere?

If it makes sense at all, rail transit only seems to do so in the nation's largest cities like New York and Chicago, where more than 30 percent of commuters ride transit to work. But in other places the numbers plunge. And where transit extends into suburban edge cities, like Bethesda in suburban Maryland, or Perimeter in Atlanta, the trip share of rail transit is miniscule.

But there is an even more compelling reason rail transit will never be a serious transportation alternative in more than a handful of places: It can't match the convenience of cars. Most people prefer to come and go on their own schedule, not one set by a mass transportation authority. Plus, in cars they can travel privately in much less time than a typical transit trip takes. Transportation consultant Alan Pisarski estimates that in most situations the average auto travel time is less than half that of rail transit.

What's more, people do a lot of "trip-chaining." That is, they make side trips while they are out. A trip to the dry-cleaners might include a side trip to the bank, to the pharmacy, and to the day-care center. No transit system can replace the convenience of cars for these kinds of needs.

BUT DOESN'T mass transit ease traffic as supporters contend? The evidence shows otherwise. Between 1960 and 2000, 1,500 new miles of transit were built and 64 million new jobs were created. During the same time frame, 71 million more commuters drove to work and 1.7 million fewer rode mass transit. In Washington, D.C., where the high ridership volume makes the subway somewhat of a success (though not a profit maker), the traffic is still the second worst in the country. "There is no documented case of mass transit making a material traffic reduction anywhere in the United States," Cox says.

If the average commuter--the one who keeps voting for rail transit expansions--can be forgiven for not knowing the facts, what about elected officials and their advisers? Why do they consistently show such a willful disregard for those same facts? The answer has to do with several different groups which support rail transit. There are those who despise cars, roads, and SUVs, and want to limit them as much as possible--the "smart growth" types who would be perfectly happy to see people living the way they did 100 years ago. They subscribe to the "Field of Dreams" justification for transit, the idea that if you build it they will come.

Then there are the civic boosters, whose desire for rail transit stems from the same impulse that motivates politicians to fund expensive stadiums to lure sports teams: The desire for status. As with big-time sports, most cities believe that they are not "big league" unless they have an extensive rail transit system. And lacking justification for the massive amounts of money it involves, rail supporters often appeal to civic pride as a way around economic accountability.

In Baltimore, Mayor Martin O'Malley has come up with the novel justification that "if we don't have any better mass transit 20 years from now than we have today, we are going to be continually chasing our tail." But, when it comes to rail transit, it's the taxpayers who are chasing their tails. And they will continue to do so. That is, until they demand a reckoning of costs versus benefits and insist that elected officials at all levels stop making decisions that would get any CEO and his board of directors fired for incompetence.

Rachel DiCarlo is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.

Correction appended 3/17/03: The article originally calculated that Miami's rail transit share is .003 percent. It is .4 percent.

Also, the article originally stated that "The mass transit fleet consumes more energy than the entire auto fleet, including SUVs." Mass transit consumes less energy than the auto fleet. Any auto, including SUVs, with an average occupancy has greater fuel efficiency than a bus or an urban train at average occupancy.