In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Professors David King, Michael Manville, and Michael Smart criticize APTA’s annual ridership report that showed public transportation ridership reached its highest level since 1956. The three professors have written much about public transportation in their respective research, but in this instance they made omissions in their analysis, and mischaracterized the findings of the report.
The professors state that public transit ridership was outpaced by population growth from 2008 to 2013, resulting in a decrease in per capita public transit ridership. Their analysis misses an obvious confounding factor– the Great Recession and its subsequent impact on job growth. Employment levels in 2013 were only 0.85 percent above the 2008 level. Since the majority of public transit trips are work trips, employment levels have a greater impact on ridership than population levels. Public transportation ridership growth has outpaced population growth since 1995, and more recent shifts point to increasing public transit use. In fact, our analysis shows that the 2005 gas price shock, combined with demographic shifts, established consistent behaviors that lead to the highest public transportation ridership since 1956.
Moreover, they state that public transportation only makes up 2 to 3 percent of passenger trips, but receives 20% of surface transportation funding. Their use of such statistics, however, represents an incomplete picture given that the measurement reflects all day travel, even though the majority of public transportation trips are in the peak hour, with 60% being work related. Furthermore, 45% of American households do not have access to any public transportation at all, and that the majority of Americans do not have access to the high frequency public transportation that leads to shifts in mode share. A 2013 APTA study of high-growth, mostly high-tech industry clusters found that public transportation investments around high-tech industry would remove the need for up to ten additional highway lanes in the vicinity of each economic center. In order to protect the half million jobs that could be at stake due to congestion, extra public transportation capacity is needed to move people around metro areas and increase the efficiency of the overall transportation system.
Public transportation provides benefits for people who do not use it. The professors wrote that an over reliance on driving “increases carbon emissions, pollutes our communities, and is a leading cause of injury and death.” They are correct that these are costs borne by the taxpayer at large. In contrast, public transit riders’ use of public transportation provides benefits, even to those who do not use it. Every ten people on a bus or train in your community during rush hour means nine fewer cars on the roads. That means less traffic congestion, fewer carbon emissions, and a safer community for all. Public transportation users should not have to pay for benefits that others receive, so the government picks up a portion of their costs. Fairness is not consistently applied in public policy. Case in point, the tax code, which provides a parking tax benefit that is over 90% higher than the tax benefit offered public transportation commuters. Most would say fairness is an important concept that should be applied to public policy when prudent.
The professors reused an argument from the Cato Institute, implying that public transit ridership in New York increased while ridership elsewhere declined. While the growth in trips in New York outpaced the nation as a whole, many other agencies across the country saw ridership gains last year. Cities that have invested in high frequency public transportation and transit-oriented development policies are experiencing significant ridership growth. This trend is evident since the end of the recession; fully 59.3% of ridership growth during the period occurred outside of New York City.
We also must disagree with the professors’ contention that recent trends do not indicate a shift in American travel behavior. Their assertion is inconsistent with the data reported by markets across the country. Americans have increasingly been moving to areas that are transit-oriented in nature.
Public transportation needs investment to fully contribute to America’s on-going economic recovery, as well as to meet the demand for service that the increases in ridership exhibit.