The Public Purpose
Number 58 - May 2003

Transit: The Politician's Best Friend

By Wendell Cox

I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Toronto recently, in connection with a presentation to the Greater Toronto Area Transportation Summit. During that time I was struck by the promises of area politicians, to solve the problem of traffic congestion (the hysterical term is "gridlock,") in the Toronto area by improving public transit.

  • Never mind that local taxpayers are finding it increasingly difficult to support the expensive subsidy requirements of the bulbous Toronto Transit Commission, which takes pride in meaningless comparisonsto even fatter and less expensive American systems that are an international embarrassment.
  • Never mind that the Toronto area added nearly 800,000 residents in the last decade, while daily transit ridership dropped more than 200,000.

  • Never mind that virtually all transit services in the Toronto area provide automobile competitive service only within or to the core, with little or no automobile competitive service between the suburbs.

  • Never mind that virtually all population and employment growth has, for decades, been outside the core of Toronto.

  • Never mind that there are no plans anywhere to establish a transit system that provides auto-quality mobility between suburbs, not in the Toronto area, and not in any metropolitan area between Stockholm and Sydney or Vienna and Vancouver (there's good reason for this --- it would take most or all of the gross metropolitan product every year to do so).

One might wonder whether stopping the continuing transit losses (much less market share losses) in Toronto might be a more reasonable goal that trying to do what has never been done anywhere in the world --- getting substantial numbers of drivers out of their cars and into transit

But it is not surprising that Toronto area politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere, are so effusive in their invocation of transit as the solution to traffic congestion. Transit gets them off the hook. So long as politicians can blather on about transit they are freed from making the tough choices about solutions that work.

In fact, virtually all planning agencies in the affluent world project virtually all of the new future urban travel demand to be for personal vehicles --- automobiles and sport utility vehicles. There is only one way to accommodate more highway demand, and that is creating more highway capacity, whether through expansion of the roadway network or more effective traffic management. Any politician who suggests otherwise either defies reality or just doesn't know (often misled by bureaucrats whose career ambition is to take a high-paying job with one of the international rail building firms that specializes in the equivalent of selling ice to Arctic residents).

Part of the problem is caused by the misinformation of a well-financed anti-automobile lobby, which naively suggests that if there is more "infill" development and less suburban development, traffic congestion will be less. In fact, evidence from around the world shows that more intense traffic congestion is associated with higher densities, not lower. In fact, it is hard to find genuine gridlock except in the most dense international urban areas that are also home to the best transit systems. The view is also peddled that expanding roads is futile, because they are soon filled up by the "induced traffic effect" --- the assumption that more roads create more traffic. This is as absurd as arguing that building maternity wards increases the birth rate. In fact, new roads encourage little additional driving, according to research by the US Federal Highway Administration. Even Britain's Blair government, which took office on an anti-highway, pro-rail transport platform has come around to view the absurdity of the induced traffic doctrine, and has now embarked upon an aggressive road building program. There's good reason for all of this --- most of us have no interest in spending more of our day driving --- a factor overlooked by the planners who know so much better than we how we should live our lives.

Then there is the matter of air pollution. If you believe the anti-automobile lobby, air pollution is getting worse. They should check the data. Improved vehicle emission technology has reduced pollution by automobiles, so much so that the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that the total tonnage of light duty gasoline vehicle carbon monoxide emissions are down 56 percent from 1970, volatile organic compounds are down 68 percent and NOx is down 31 percent, at the same time as driving is up 130 percent.

Some politicians hope that Ottawa will come to the rescue. They have been misled by local transportation planners hoping to replicate the US federal transit program that has done so much to keep transit from achieving its potential by turning transit agencies into resource rich colonies run on behalf of labor, all too often by managers whose desk calendars still show 1899. US federal transit labor regulations have imbedded what may be the world's highest costs, while a cadre of international infrastructure firms and starry-eyed transit managers spend billions on rail lines that are more costly per year than leasing a new car for every new rider (in the worst cases, paying the average house mortgage would cost less). In fact, outside the United States, the trend is away from central government support of local and regional transit. Both France and Germany are in the process of decentralizing transit funding, recognizing that fiscal responsibility requires the communities that build and operate the systems to also pay for them. Perhaps Ottawa should, to use the Canadian transit parlance borrowed from America's "national pastime" (baseball) "step up to the plate" and pay for local garbage collection too.

Reality means little in the world of myth. The situation is made worse by a compliant public that believes either that the next overly costly rail line will take the car in front of them off the road. Some day, perhaps, their elected leaders will stop believing (or claiming to believe) in Santa Claus. Until then, transit is the politician's best friend, providing a mindless mantra that makes it possible to avoid dealing with the real problem.

Wendell Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy (Demographia), demographic, transport and public policy firm based in St. Louis (USA). He is a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Artes et Metiers (a French national university) in Paris and served three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and one term on the US congressional Amtrak Reform Council. He served as chairman of the American Public Transit Association's Policy and Planning Committee and was a founding member and chairman of its Governing Boards Committee..

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