WHY POPULARITY DOESN'T ALWAYS PAY
Public transportation in the United States is finding it does not always pay to be popular. As more Americans leave their automobiles at home and go by bus or rail for local travel, they are straining many transit systems nearly to the breaking point.Skip to next paragraph
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Forget the basic economic law of supply and demand. With conventional mass transportation, an increase in riders usually means greater financial losses to be made up by government subsidy. That is because most new ridership comes during the peak commuting hours, forcing transit systems to invest in more employees and equipment which for most of the day runs nearly empty and loses money.
This axiom puts conventional public transit at a crossroads: Should it expand and improve service, as Americans apparently want, and worsen its already shaky financial position? Or should it maintain the status quo, effectively discouraging new passengers?
Taxpayers, urban planners, transit operators, and independent transportation analysts offer various answers. But there is wide agreement that this issue will be the key in determining to what extent public transit grows as a transportation option in the 1980s:
* "Transit in the 1980s has the potential for both boom and bust . . . ," a top federal government transportation official notes.
* "It costs us $1.20 for each new rider we get, and our average fare is 41 cents," says the general manager of one major urban transit system. "Our constituency wants more service, but the more riders we get, the more money we lose. It boils down to a delicate balancing act of never being too far out in front of what the public is willing to pay for."
* "There is a growing perception that the fiscal appetite of public transit is voracious and nearly impossible for elected officials to control," a leading transportation scholar asserts.
* While the strength of support for public transit "at the moment appears quite robust . . . the national mood appears increasingly to be toward the limitation of government expenditures and toward 'balanced budgets,'" a transit analyst at a large research institute warns.
Another way to look at the question of costs is to ask what taxpayers get in return for the growing public subsidy that transit is enjoying.
About 6 million households in US central cities do not have autos, and for many of them urban transit is a necessity for working, shopping, and recreation. For many suburban commuters who work downtown, particularly in older cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago, mass transit is essential, given the cost and shortage of parking facilities in town.
In a broader sense, where mass transit is well planned and well used as an alternative to the automobile, "you get reduced congestion, somewhat less air pollution, and some energy savings," says Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Still, transportation analysts point out that a poorly planned and poorly used transit system may offer no social benefits, or at least far fewer than justified by the costs.
For example, studies of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system in San Francisco contend that given the total cost of building and operating the system , it remains cheaper to drive a car during the peak commute and that overall highway congestion is not much improved, since many BART riders were previously bus patrons. But arguments such as this typically call into question the use of one mode of public transit vs. another -- rail vs. bus, for example -- rather than the basic notion that mass transit can make society more efficient in moving people.
What seems clear from the stacks of studies on the costs and benefits of mass transit is that (1) it is prudent to preserve and upgrade the existing major urban transit systems, which are integral to the survival of many of the nation's largest cities; and (2) in cities with reasonably high population densities and worsening automobile congestion, public transit can help increase the efficiency of the local transportation system. In these cases, analysts say , experience has shown that conventional bus systems and streetcars are generally more successful than heavy-rail systems.
"With rapid rail, the capital cost is so enormous that no matter how well it works, it carries a tremendous built-in subsidy that is almost impossible to recover," says Kenneth Small, an assistant professor of economics at Princeton University.