The Public Purpose
Number 34 - January 2000

Does Transit Work?
Yes: For the Comparatively Few
Transit Competitive Trips

Paul M. Weyrich and Paul Lind have contributed useful concept for analysis of public transit in their recent paper, Does Transit Work? A Conservative Reappraisal. Does Transit Work? argues that transit should be judged on its effectiveness in providing "transit competitive trips,"(1) which is defined as "...trips for which high quality transit service is available."(2) It is further indicated that transit competitive trips are largely limited to work and entertainment trips. Does Transit Work's "transit competitive trips" is similar to the 1999 Texas Transit Opportunity Analysis characterization of "frequent, no-transfer" bus and rail service, which transit largely provides only to downtown areas.(3) Does Transit Work? expresses similar sentiment in noting:

    The fact is, in today's America, very few people have high quality transit service available.(4)

This is troubling because annual transit subsidies are nearing $20 billion ­ a figure equal to one-fifth of spending on the nation's streets and highways, which carry 100 times as many person miles as transit. A principal reason that so few people have quality transit service is transit's inferior productivity, which has prevented transit from providing considerably higher levels of service (above).(5)

Nonetheless, as Does Transit Work? argues, transit does serve a large market share to major downtown areas, such as New York (74 percent), Chicago (61 percent), Brooklyn (56 percent) and San Francisco (50 percent). It has already been noted above that transit serves more than 30 percent of work trips to nine downtown areas in the nation. The problem, however, is that market developments have passed transit by. Downtown represents, on average, 10 percent of metropolitan employment, and is losing market share virtually everywhere. And traffic congestion is no longer simply a downtown issue ­ in many metropolitan areas, the greatest traffic congestion is in suburban areas, not in downtown areas.(6) In addition, transit is simply incapable of capturing a significant market share of non-downtown employment, because of insufficient employment densities (even in suburban "Edge Cities) and its failure to provide high quality transit service (frequent, no-transfer service).

Despite transit's continually falling market share, Does Transit Work? indicates that the annual ridership per capita of households having "satisfactory" transit service doubled between 1976 and 1993. This is both indeterminable from the data sources referenced and implausible.(7)

Does Transit Work? includes three case studies (Chicago's commuter rail system, San Diego's light rail system and the St. Louis light rail system) and, noting transit ridership increases, suggests that transit in these urban areas is attracting a significant number of "transit competitive trips." While a principal justification for building urban rail systems is alleviation of traffic congestion, Does Transit Work? provides no information on the traffic impacts of new rail systems. As a recent Orange County, California grand jury report noted:

    A test of light rail's success is not how many people are on the trains; it is how many cars light rail has removed from the road, especially during peak hours.(8)

Indeed, as was noted above, the $400 million St. Louis light rail line, considered by many to be the most successful new line in the nation, has had virtually no impact on adjacent freeway traffic volumes. The reason is not that light rail is inherently ineffective, it is rather that the primary destination it serves is no longer so dominant. In 1930, 75 percent of downtown commuters traveled by transit in St. Louis;(9) in 1990 the figure had dropped to less than 11 percent. Moreover, despite ridership increases in the Does Transit Work? case studies of Chicago (commuter rail only) and San Diego, work trip market share dropped between 1980 and 1990.(10)

Transit competitive trips ­ work trips and entertainment trips ­ account for no more than 30 percent of travel. Even so, transit competitive trips represent only a small portion of those trips. Only 10 percent of employment is located where transit provides quality (frequent, no-transfer) service ­ downtown ­ and downtown continues to decline in relative importance. Entertainment trips are even less significant. They contribute little to the morning and evening peak hours in which so much of the day-to-day traffic congestion and air pollution occurs. It seems unwise to spend billions to construct expensive new rail systems that are incapable of materially reducing traffic congestion.

Finally, strong work trip market shares to a handful of downtown areas and downtown entertainment complexes would not seem to justify metropolitan, much less state or federal subsidies.

Does Transit Work?, itself sponsored by the transit industry, and the 1999 Texas Transit Opportunity Analysis both reach similar conclusions ­ that transit is competitive only with respect to a small portion of the urban travel market. It is to be hoped that rail transit advocates will take this conclusion to heart and no longer promise communities that new rail transit systems can make a material contribution to reducing traffic congestion.


1. Weyrich and Lind.

2. Other disciplines might benefit from similar measures. For example, organized labor might consider its market share in terms of a "labor union competitive job" measure, inasmuch as the labor union market share remains strong in industries with particular characteristics, while its overall market share has dropped precipitously (organized labor's private sector market share has dropped 72 percent, from 35 percent to 10 percent, while public transit's urban market share has dropped 89 percent, from 18 percent to 2 percent).

3. Because it is infeasible to provide meaningful volumes of frequent, no transfer service to other areas.

4. Weyrich and Lind.

5. Does Transit Work? does not evaluate transit productivity.

6. A recent poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that only four percent of respondents considered the worst traffic in the Atlanta area to be in suburban areas, not downtown (Cheryl Crabb, "Commuting in Atlanta: Where Should MARTA Go Next," Atlanta Journal-Constitution Internet site, June 27, 1999).

7. According to Does Transit Work?, "And here's the kicker: while annual transit rides per household nationwide remained virtually steady from 1974 to 1993, annual trips per household where satisfactory transit was available doubled over the same period, from a low of 150 in 1976 to 300 in 1993 (emphasis in original)." These data are calculated by dividing the annual transit ridership reported in 1976 and 1993 by the American Public Transit Association by the number of households that had adequate public transit service in the corresponding years, according to the American Housing Survey. There are two problems with this: (1) The 1976 Survey did not seek information on the number of households that used public transit, and so the 1976 figure cannot be known from this data. (2) The 1993 Survey did report information on the number of households that used public transit, but approximately 10 percent of such households considered public transit to be inadequate. Again, from the data, it cannot be known how many trips were taken by households with "adequate" public transportation. Moreover, transit's stagnant ridership trend and declining market share undermine any claim that ridership has increased among households with "quality" transit service (which Does Transit Work? equates with "satisfactory" service). It would seem more likely that casual use by people with automobiles has declined over the past two decades, leaving a core of high volume riders, most of whom have no choice because they do not have automobiles available (approximately 75 percent of transit riders in 1995 did not have an automobile available to make the transit trip, according to the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey).

8. Report of the Orange County Grand Jury, May 27, 1999 "Orange County Transportation Authority and Light Rail Planning. Internet:

9. Report of the Transportation Survey Commission of the City of St. Louis, July 1930.

10. Latest data available.

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