• 04.23.13

Just A Few Extra Transit Riders Can Do Wonders For Traffic

The common argument against more funding for public transit is that it doesn’t actually cut down on congestion. That argument might be bunk.

Mass transit critics occasionally write jeremiads against the evils of trains, buses and other subsidized public mobility. “The real reason for progressives’ passion for trains,” writes columnist George Will in Newsweek, decrying $53 billion in proposed federal funding for high-speed rail, “is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”


Perhaps. Or it may be that people hate to wait in traffic. A new study by Michael Anderson at the University of California, Berkeley (PDF) challenges a vein of economic research in recent years claiming that the public benefits of rail lines, often highly subsidized by local, state and federal governments, is negligible. Two researchers at the Brookings Institution and U.C. Berkeley, argued in the Journal of Urban Economics in 2006:

“We find that…every system [except the San Francisco Bay area’s BART] actually reduces welfare and is unable to become socially desirable even with optimal pricing or physical restructuring of its network. We conclude rail’s social cost is unlikely to abate because it enjoys powerful political support from planners, civic boosters, and policymakers.”

Anderson suspected these estimates were deeply flawed. Most of these studies treated everyone in a city more or less as an average driver (among other issues). But that’s not actually true. Public transit passengers are far more likely to cram already heavily congested roads than someone without a grueling commute. Taking even a few of these drivers off heavily traveled routes should make a big difference. To test this hypothesis, he turned to the 2003 transit strike in Los Angeles.

Anderson found the data bore out his theory. During the strike, delays jumped 47% (0.2 minutes per mile) during peak periods, several times larger than the literature predicted, while freeways with parallel transit were hit hardest. Benefits from congestion relief, estimates Anderson, came in at about $1.20 to $4.10 per peak-hour transit passenger mile. That’s a lot of money for L.A.’s drivers: $1 billion to $4 billion per year. And the voters seem to recognize it. In 2008, a majority of Los Angeles County residents (67%) voted for $26 billion transit spending during the next 30 years.

Critics maintain that America pours too much money into public transit. In 2010, state, local, and federal transit spending exceeded $40 billion in 2010 and covers 63% of operating costs and 100% of capital costs. That’s 23% of federal highway and transit outlays for just 1% of passenger miles traveled, states the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Anderson’s research suggests how we spend our transit money is not about the numbers of miles traveled. It’s also who travels them, and with whom we share the road.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.