By: Darnell Grisby, Director of Policy Development and Research
American Public Transportation Association
In a recent City Lab blog post, Eric Jaffe asked the question, “If So Many People Support Transit, Why Do So Few Ride?” While it is interesting for policy wonks to analyze voter intent and question their collective wisdom, a deeper analysis proves that voters seem to at least have a firm grasp on mobility issues. Jaffe’s assessment needs further discussion on three points. First, the nature of highway and public transit network coverage; second, the impact of funding decisions on ridership; and third, the nature of both economic and spatial development in the United States.
Highway vs. Public Transportation Coverage
The statistic that five percent of all Americans use public transportation is often quoted on a regular basis. However, while America is known for having a well distributed road network that provides access for nearly all Americans, our public transportation network is not available to millions of Americans. In fact, according to the 2009 Census, 45 percent of American households have NO access to any public transportation. The 55% of American households that do have access to public transit still do not universally have access to frequent public transportation service that would allow them to take public transportation for a higher percentage of trips. Of course, this issue comes down to funding.
Impact of Funding Decisions on Ridership
Jarrett Walker, in his landmark book Human Transit, sums up a conundrum. Can and should a community provide the frequent service on a handful of routes that would allow mode shift in a few corridors or should they provide coverage service that provides a lifeline, but at lower frequencies? Often communities find it fiscally difficult to do both well, and therefore the real solution to the coverage vs. ridership quandary is more funding. In fact, funding is also a key to addressing the spatial development of the American landscape.
Economic and Spatial Development
Many cities in the US are multi-nucleic, which means as public transit networks are expanded and new centers are connected, prior mode share plateaus will be broken. In fact, Los Angeles, a city noted in Jaffe’s piece is a case in point. New extensions of Los Angeles’ rail system will reach some of the highest density employment and residential areas on the west coast. These connections will make the entire transit system more useful to more people. Clearly, drawing early conclusions, seems to contradict the realities on the ground.
Therefore, it is perfectly logical for voters to support public transportation investments, not only because of the community benefits but because voters seek a transportation system that is more useful for themselves personally. When voters understand the community benefits of public transportation, even if they do not themselves ride, voters are in fact aiming for a transportation system that provides increased mobility options.