It is appropriate to consider the future of transportation as we stand at the threshold of a new
millennium. During the last quarter century, information technology has revolutionized how we live
and work. Little of that change, however, has impacted transportation. Indeed, many of our
transportation policies appear to have the intention of restoring 19th century technologies and
mobility patterns. But that is soon to change.
As we survey the late 20th century, the
following is evident:
The street and highway system
continues to carry the overwhelming
majority of passenger trips and
passenger miles --- more than 95
percent of surface passenger miles.
It is also evident that the least
expensive forms of transportation are
private modes --- automobiles,
intercity buses and airlines. The most
expensive modes of passenger
transport are also the most highly
subsidized. School buses are an
exception to this rule, being 100
percent subsidized, but being very cost effective.
The street and highway system carries virtually all freight, some over the entire journey and
the balance in supplementing air, rail and water transport.
At the same time there is considerable concern about highway impacts, especially air pollution,
traffic congestion and the fear of future petroleum supply shortages. In response many analysts
suggest that there is too much personal mobility, and that we should return to the transportation
strategies of the 19th century, such as urban rail and intercity rail. These systems served the
community well, especially when urban densities were 15,000 per square mile or more. Today's
urban area, with 3,000 per square mile, falls
far short of the critical mass necessary to
justify a return to the past. Even Portland,
with its aggressive densification policies will
fall short of achieving Los Angeles densities
if its 50 year plan is successful (itself an
optimistic assumption). The reality,
however, is not as stark as has been claimed.
Considerable progress has been made
in reducing air pollution. Even in
Los Angeles the number of poor air
quality days has been radically
reduced. The air in our cities is
cleaner than it was before the
Traffic congestion ---"gridlock" --- is costly, but compared to what? Average commuting time
on transit is double that of automobiles. Without understating the costs of congestion, it is
well to note that the market responds. Businesses locate to less congested areas, and people
seek to reduce work trip travel times by changing jobs or residences. The resiliency of the US
highway system is indicated by the fact that little urban freeway construction took place in the
1980s, single occupant automobile commuting rose one-third (22 million trips daily in two
directions), yet average work trip travel time increased an imperceivable 45 seconds.
Moreover, "gridlock" of the type reported by the media, located in New York, Washington
and Los Angeles is foreign to all but a few other metropolitan areas.
The world is in no danger of running out of petroleum. Reserves continue to be discovered
at a rate that increases the identified stock of petroleum. It should be remembered that the
"gas shortages" of the 1970s had more to do with the failure of government allocation systems
than the market. Since market mechanisms have been allowed to operate there has been no
shortage of petroleum. When supplies truly begin to "run out" we will all be aware of it, as
market prices skyrocket by two or three times.
Airlines: Virtually the same concerns exist in the airline industry. We are warned that "winglock" is
around the corner, and that we cannot create more airspace. But technology is doing just that. The
nation's air traffic control system is being upgraded from 1960s technology to 21st century
technology, while strategies such as "free flight" will further expand the nation's airline capacity.
Airline usage continues to grow, as the skies are "democratized" (according to Southwest Airlines
television commercials) by deregulation and competition. Airline travel is increasing so rapidly that
it is slightly eroding the percentage of travel by automobile. Despite the claims of the critics, the
"sky is not falling," and virtually every crowded airport in the nation is underway with the planning
or construction necessary to meet continually increasing demand.
For more than a quarter century, federal, state and local policies have sought to entice people away
from automobiles and into public transit. More than $350 billion (1998$) in public subsidies have
been expended to support transit --- more than was spent to build the 40,000 mile interstate highway
system. The overall failure of these policies rivals that of the "war on poverty."
Since 1970, automobile and light truck use has increased 85 percent, while transit use has
declined by three percent. Most of transit's decline has occurred since 1983, the last year
before transit receive a dedication of funding from federal highway user fees.
Today transit represents less than one percent of the nation's surface passenger travel.
Transit's share of travel has declined so much that doubling or tripling ridership would have
an imperceivable impact except in a very few of the nation's largest central cities. Each
school day, school buses carry three times as many passengers as transit.
During the 1980s, transit's work trip market share declined in all but two of the 39 largest
metropolitan areas, and in all of the metropolitan areas that built or expanded urban rail
The 1990s are proving to be even worse than the 1980s with respect to transit ridership.
From 1990 to 1995, the ridership loss exceeded the entire loss between 1980 and 1990.
Worse still, the largest losses have been in the metropolitan areas most dependent upon
transit, and where traffic congestion is the greatest.
The allure of urban rail is proving to be no more than an allure. In Los Angeles, where I
served on the transit & highway policy board (the Los Angeles County Transportation
Commission) transit ridership has dropped more than 25 percent since 1985 --- despite
opening three new rail lines and a comprehensive commuter rail system. Officials there have
imposed a moratorium on rail construction. The transit agency has taken on so much debt to
build its first three rail lines that it is unlikely that rail construction will resume without a
massive infusion of new money from state and local sources. Moreover, the new rail systems
are having little or no impact on highways. From St. Louis to Portland, highway traffic
volumes have continued to increase despite the addition of urban rail. Washington, DC's $12
billion metrorail system has attracted so few automobile commuters that the overall share of
work trips is lower today in that metropolitan area than before the system was built.
Transit productivity continues to decline. Since 1970, virtually every other mode of transport has maintained or improved its productivity (even Amtrak). Transit costs per passenger have escalated nearly 50 percent relative to inflation since 1983, which translates to $7.1 billion in annual spending above inflation.
In what is perhaps the most stunning development, automobile fuel efficiency has improved so much
that public transit bus energy consumption is 30 percent higher per passenger mile. Overall auto and
transit energy consumption per passenger mile, including urban rail, is approximately the same as
that of the automobile. Transit energy consumption is trending upward, while auto energy
consumption is dropping.
Why has transit policy failed? There are two fundamental causes --- transit policies that are anti-transit, and demographic trends.
Anti-transit policies: Federal transit policy discourages efficiency, both in operations and
capital projects, and as a result discourages transit use itself.
Operations: Federal policies force the cost of transit operations up artificially, especially
through labor protection provisions that require up to six years severance for laid off
employees. At the local level these policies create a situation in which transit agencies are
unable or unwilling to employ cost effective service provision alternatives, such as
competitive contracting, with the effect that transit costs per mile are often double what is
necessary. As a result, less transit service is provided, and there is lower ridership. Where
competitive contracting has been implemented, the results have been very positive. Denver
has been able to use the savings to expand service and increase ridership by 25 percent. San
Diego has increased service levels by half while operating costs have increased only three
percent. And, transit systems are being converted to competitive contracting around the world
--- London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, and soon the entire nation
of South Africa.(1)
Capital projects: Experience has demonstrated that there is no more expensive way to
improve transit than urban rail. Virtually all new rail systems have attracted so few drivers
from automobiles that it would have been less expensive to lease each a new automobile
every two years. A useful example is the plan for light rail in Milwaukee, which would cost
more than $25,000 annually per new commuter --- more than $1 million over a 40 year
working career. But it gets worse --- it is estimated that the cost per automobile removed
from the freeway by light rail would exceed $7 million over a career.(2) In the post-Soviet
world, it is difficult to identify more bankrupt public planning outcomes than rail projects that
require million dollar subsidies to new riders.
In spending more than necessary to implement urban rail, opportunities for more effective
improvement are forgone, to the detriment of the greater number of new riders who would be
served. Too often urban rail is driven by a desire to become a "world class city," a civic pride
that manifests itself in construction of publicly financed convention centers, domed stadia and
urban rail. To put it in Freudian terms, urban rail in America has more to do with
"infrastructure envy" than transportation.
Demographics: The most important reason, however, that transit policy has failed is that
transit systems are designed to serve areas of high density and concentration of destinations.
In most American urban areas, the only destination that can be effectively served by transit is
downtown. Transit is simply incapable of providing a reasonable level of mobility for the
suburb to suburb trips that predominate. To what degree transit's inefficiency has contributed
to these trends is unclear.
Amtrak: National policy with respect to intercity rail has been no more successful than transit
policy. Amtrak is near bankruptcy, having consumed more than $20 billion in federal subsidies,(3)
while carrying 0.1 percent of the nation's travel. Amtrak is now the nation's 13th largest intercity
transportation company, smaller than 11 airlines and Greyhound Lines. The largest airlines carry
more than 10 times as many passenger miles as Amtrak. Amtrak's cost per passenger mile is now
more than double that of automobiles, airlines and intercity buses.
Moreover, Amtrak provides scant relief to highways. Our Cato Institute Amtrak report estimates that
Amtrak trains between New York and Philadelphia (Amtrak's busiest route segment) reduce
automobile traffic by no more than two percent of highway capacity --- Amtrak figures are higher ---
3.2 percent.(4) Either numbers is insignificant.
High Speed Rail: No more promising than Amtrak is high speed rail of the variety operated in Japan, France and other nations in Europe. The proposed Florida line from Miami through Orlando to Tampa would require heavy subsidies and have virtually no impact on traffic in the state, even if the highly optimistic ridership projections of the promoters could be believed.(5) The maximum reduction of vehicles from freeways due to high speed rail (HSR) in the corridor would be no more than 80 --- 1/30 of a single lane's capacity.
High speed rail would reduce traffic by so little in Florida that, even at today's high cost of highway
construction, high speed rail is estimated to be 64 times more costly per passenger than highway
expansion. High speed rail is estimated to be at least seven times more costly per passenger than
Miami's airport expansion (which will double capacity).
Moreover, high speed rail is unable to compete with the airlines on price. Latest US Department of
Transportation data indicates that the average airfare in Florida's high speed rail markets has
dropped to 38.4 percent below the projected average high speed rail fare.(6) Like Amtrak, high speed
rail is likely to require massive subsidies. If high speed rail charged air fares competitive with
airlines (which we would consider an absolute necessity), fares would be insufficient to cover capital
costs and debt service. Under these circumstances, in the best case,(7) the Florida project would
require $10 billion in state subsidies and federal bond guarantees. Our analysis indicates that bond
default is likely within five years.
Two recent national reports have concluded that high speed rail is not commercially viable in the
United States. A 1991 National Research Council report reviewed 33 potential high speed rail
markets and found:
In nearly all these markets, break even operation would require not only low costs but also
the ability to charge premium fares well above airline levels. The combined occurrence of
both these conditions in any one market would be extremely unlikely.(8)
A study by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) similarly found that commercial revenues
would fall far short of costs in all studied corridors over the period from 2020 to 2040.(9) The most
favorable performance was projected in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor, at 55.3 percent,
which would require a public subsidy of 44.7 percent. FRA projected that commercial revenues in
the Miami-Orlando-Tampa corridor would cover 37.7 percent of costs, requiring a public subsidy of
62.3 percent. FRA found ridership would be even lower where discount airlines operated, noting
that an air fare reduction of 30 percent would reduce high speed rail ridership by 30 percent.
Highways predominate in American transportation, and that is not going to change. But this is more
than an American phenomenon. Around the world, highways become more important as nations
become more affluent. Since the fall of communism, public transit's market share has dropped in
half in former east Germany, as the percentage of trips taken by auto now equal that in former west
Germany. As for America's "love affair with the automobile," consider the fact that Europe is nearly
as dependent upon autos as we are. This is despite more compact and centralized cities, lower crime
rates, better transit systems, and taxes that raise the price of gasoline to $4.00 and more per gallon.
For most trips, Americans cannot even use transit. Use of automobiles does not reflect a love affair,
it rather reflects reality. On the other hand, Europeans can use transit for a large percentage of their
trips, but do not. If there is a love affair with the automobile, it is in Europe, not America.
The nation has been well served by the interstate highway system. Travel times have been reduced.
A highly competitive trucking industry has emerged, reducing the transportation component of
product prices. The improved safety of interstates have provided great benefits. At least 187,000
lives have been saved --- more than the population of Salt Lake City. Further, nearly 12 million
injuries have been avoided --- approximately equal to the population of Washington, Oregon and
Colorado combined --- or all of metropolitan San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Seattle and Portland
combined. Accident related economic gains alone have exceeded the cost of building the interstate
system. Economic benefits are estimated to be at least $6.00 for each $1.00 in construction cost.(10)
And despite the claims of critics, highway user fees continue to be greater than highway
But our transportation system --- the highway system --- must be improved to accommodate growth.
The interstate highway system is a case in point. It was designed at a time that Las Vegas was
smaller than Yakima, Phoenix was considerably smaller than Youngstown, and the Salt Lake Valley
was home to only a fraction of its current population. Millions of people have moved west and south.
Yet the interstate highway system is little changed from its original design, which was for 1975
THE ROAD TO THE FUTURE
Twenty five years of policy failure has demonstrated that people will not be enticed out of their
automobiles. Nor will people be forced out of their automobiles by any legislature composed of
members interested in re-election.
All of this is not to suggest that change is not in the offing. On the contrary, transportation in the 21st
century could be as unlike that of the 20th century as that 20th century has been from the 19th century.
But the changes in the 21st century will not be the result of government policy --- they will --- as in
the past -- be the result of innovation and the market. The automobile will remain, but it will
operate in a much different environment.
21ST CENTURY TRANSPORTATION
Indeed, we stand on the threshold of a synthesis of personal mobility and mass transit --- a world in
which automobiles are used far more efficiently and safely through technological advances.
Automated Highway Systems (AHS) could increase the capacity of current freeways by 100
to 200 percent, with greatly improved safety. Automobiles will be operated automatically in
"platoons" as the highway controls steering, braking and collision avoidance. Japan expects to
have a fully functional roadway in day to day operation by 2005.
Navigation systems relying on satellites will provide drivers with improved information on
routing, improving the efficiency of the entire roadway system, not just freeways.
In the more distant future "autonomous automobiles" would combine the features of both the
automated highway and navigation systems. Autonomous automobiles would rely on geo-positioning systems capable of guiding automobiles within tolerances measured in inches. The
autonomous automobile will be capable of quickly transporting its passengers to virtually any
destination on the road network, improving roadway capacity, average speeds and safety.
Other technological advances are likely to provide relief as well. Improved traffic signalization is
already improving travel times in some corridors. Telecommuting is increasing, and it is likely to
increase even more in the future.
Perhaps an irony is that technological advances in highways could result in less, not more urban
sprawl. Critics of urban sprawl, who bring a religious fervor to their cause no less intense than
Crusaders exhibited against Muslims, have embraced strategies of the "new urbanism" as an
alternative. The problem with these strategies (particularly evident in the Portland Metro 2040 Plan)
is that they seek to impose the preferences of planners on people. In the long run, this is not likely to
be successful. On the other hand, creating new street and highway capacity through technology will
make our central cities and older suburbs more accessible, which could make them more desirable
places to live and locate businesses.
Finally, there will continue to be a need to expand the highway system, especially in response to
growth and removal of traffic "bottlenecks."
THE COMING REVOLUTION IN TRANSPORTATION
Recent developments in highway and automobile technology promise to prove the critics wrong. It will not be necessary for people to give up their personal mobility. Indeed, technology is likely to enhance it, by speeding travel times and greatly improving traffic safety. "Bridges to the past" was a losing presidential campaign slogan, and transportation policies that are "bridges to the past" will only waste resources, without changing the way we live, work, travel or commute. The time for reminiscence has passed. It is time to look to the future.
1. Wendell Cox, Jean Love & Nick Newton, Competition in International Public Transport: State of the Art, presentation to the 5th International Conference on Competition and Ownership (Leeds, UK), May 1997.
2. Wendell Cox, Light Rail in Milwaukee (Thiensville, WI: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute), 1998. Internet publication at http://www.publicpurpose.com/ut-millr.htm.
3. Joseph Vranich, Derailed: What Went Wrong and What to do About America's Passenger Trains (New York: St. Martin's Press), 1997.
4. Jean Love, Wendell Cox and Stephen Moore, Amtrak at Twenty-Five: End of the Line for Taxpayers Subsidies (Washington, DC: Cato Institute), December 1996.
5. Wendell Cox, Evaluation of the FDOT-FOX Miami-Orlando-Tampa High Speed Rail Proposal (Tallahassee, FL: The James Madison Institute), April 1997.
6. "Florida Average Air Fares Fall Below Average Fare Required to Cover High Speed Rail Fixed Costs," The Urban Transport Fact Book, Internet publication at http://www.publicpurpose.com/flhsrair.htm.
7. Assumes capital and operating costs would be no more than projected. The history of large capital projects renders this a highly optimistic assumption.
8. In Pursuit of Speed: New Options for Intercity Passenger Transport (Washington, DC: National Research Council, Transportation Research Board), 1991.
9. Overview Report: High Speed Ground Transportation for America (Washington, DC: Federal Railroad Administration, United States Department of Transportation, August 1996).
10. Wendell Cox and Jean Love, The Best Investment a Nation Ever Made: A Tribute to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, (Washington, DC: American Highway Users Alliance), June 1996.