The Public Purpose
Number 68 - August 2003

The Illusion of Transportation Choice:
Transit Service for the Elite
(The Illusion of Transit Choice)

By Wendell Cox

The Objective: Transit Choice: Often, advocates of smart growth and rail transit suggest “transit choice” as a justification --- the concept that people should have transit as an alternative to the automobile. As reasonable as this might sound, it is simply not feasible --- not in the United States, not in Europe and not in most of the world’s major urban areas.

The Dispersed Modern Urban Area: Modern urban areas are very dispersed, both in their residential and employment locations. Public transport can serve historic downtown (central business district) locations well and often at automobile competitive travel times. But downtowns are no longer the economic generators that they once were. Since World War II, almost all US employment growth has been outside downtown. Now, on average, only 10 percent of metropolitan jobs are in downtown areas. Employment dispersion has happened in urban areas as different as Phoenix, Portland, Los Angeles and New York. Similarly nearly all employment growth in Europe and Japan has been outside central business districts for the last few decades.

New York’s Manhattan,  the second largest business district in the world (after Tokyo), has only 20 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s employment,  But downtowns do remain by far the most dense (concentrated) employment areas, and most remain the largest employment centers in their respective metropolitan areas. Public transport rightly concentrates its services there, because there is generally insufficient demand to provide large amounts of automobile competitive services elsewhere.

This means that, on average, 90 percent of jobs are outside downtown, and therefore in areas that are not well served by public transport. This is so even in Portland, Oregon, which has adopted a wide range of so-called smart growth policies, including massive increases in transit service. There, the average non-downtown employment location is accessible by automobile competitive transit to barely five percent of the area’s residents.

Transit Choice for the Many: It is surely theoretically possible to provide a much higher level of transit service and to provide automobile competitive services to areas other than downtown. Suffice it to say, however, that it would be prohibitively expensive.

If transit choice were to be adopted as the genuine object of policy, the starting point would be a metropolitan transit service specification. Metropolitan service specifications are virtually unheard of in the United States.

For example, a transit system designed to provide transit choice for the whole community might be designed based upon a service specification to the effect that all persons in the metropolitan area should be able to reach any other location in the service area within a time no more than 50 percent more that of an automobile trip (data just released by the US Bureau of the Census indicates that transit commute times remained double that of automobiles in 2000).

A Transit System Offering Transit Choice: To test the cost of such a service specification, a model was constructed of a 400 square mile urban service area, called "Smartland" for the sake of this exercise. For simplicity, it was assumed that the urban area would measure 20 miles by 20 miles and would have a downtown area at the core. It was also assumed that the urban service area would have approximately 3,000 people per square mile, which is similar to the US average for urbanized areas over 1,000,000 population. Thus, the population of Smartland would be 1.2 million persons.

Because of the great affinity so much of the transit industry has for rail systems, it was assumed that the system would be rail based. Moreover, to make it possible to achieve the journey speed required by the service specification, it is necessary for the rail system to be fully grade separated.

Generally, people with a choice (people with cars) will walk no further than one-quarter mile to reach a transit stop. Thus, there must be stations and service within one-quarter mile of every point within the service area. This means that rail lines must be spaced no more than one-half mile apart. It is assumed that the most efficient transit system design meeting the service specification would be a grid, with rail lines running east to west and north to south every one-half mile. This would enable travel from any point in Smartland to any other, with most trips requiring a transfer.

It is a well known fact that automobile users are particularly averse to transferring between transit vehicles to complete their trips. This aversion may be mitigated, to some degree, by making service intervals so frequent that transfer times are very short. Moreover, it is necessary to minimize transfer times between rail lines so that journeys can be completed within the time required by the service specification. Automated single car trains could be operated one minute apart, using technology similar in concept to the Skytrain system in Vancouver, BC.

Costs A Rail System: Based upon current capital and operating costs, such a system would be very expensive indeed. It is estimated that the annual capital and operating costs for a comprehensive system providing transit choice to the entire community would be more than the total personal income of the metropolitan area, equal to 108.6 percent of per capita income. This is nearly 350 times the present annual per capita expenditure on transit in major metropolitan areas (over 1,000,000 population).

Costs: A Bus System: A lower estimate is achieved by relying on the work of John Kain, et al and the United States Government Accounting Office indicates that bus rapid transit solutions tend to cost one-fifth or less than that of rail systems per passenger mile. If it is assumed that the transit choice service specification can be provided with buses for one-fifth the cost of the rail system, the cost is still prohibitive, equal to more than 20 percent of per capita income, or nearly 70 times the current spending level. While the bus alternative would be less expensive (and it might be possible to design a less expensive rail solution), the cost is still well beyond any amount that can be imagined as reasonable or achievable.

Scaling Back the Specification: It might be suggested that, if transit choice is too expensive to provide for all, then perhaps it could be provided for a more modest service specification. For example, a service specification might be adopted to provide transit choice to 50 percent of the origins and destinations I the urban area. But, as the service specification is made more modest, there is a diminishing return. Such a system would not provide for 50 percent of the trips, it would rather provide for 25 percent of the trips (0.50 of the origins times 0.50 of the destinations).

Transit Choice for the Few: Because of the cost structure of transit, and the limited demand in areas other than downtown, transit choice can only be provided for the few. For example, The Public Purpose estimates that transit choice is available for perhaps 15 percent of work trips in the Portland area (downtown and elsewhere). The figure would be much smaller for other trips.

My former Amtrak Reform Council colleague (Free Congress Foundation President)  (and transit rail advocate) Paul Weyrich has rightly noted that people will use quality transit service where it is provided. There is good evidence for this, as the experience of services to central New York, Paris,  London and Chicago indicate. But in each of these places, the trips to the central area represent a minority (1/5 or less) of travel. Whether in the suburbs of Phoenix, Portland, London or Paris, unless the trip is to the central area, there is little transit choice, and the automobile is dominant. Except for an few elite, transit choice is beyond the means of the modern metropolitan area.

Factor Per Capita Compared to Per Capita Income Compared to Current Average
Rail $30,884 108.2% 347.0
Bus $6,177 21.6% 69.4
Maximum 1999 Spending (New York) $465 1.6% 5.2
Average 1999 Spending (Major Metropolitan) $89 0.3% 1.0
Exhibit: Per Capita Income $28,546 100.0%  
All data in 1999$      
Assumes current average operating and capital costs.    
Capital costs discounted at 7 percent over 40 years.    

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