Economics of transit vs. carsI came across this pretty interesting analysis of the cost per passenger mile of using a car vs. transit. Cars turn out to be surprisingly efficient, on both a cost and pollution basis. Cars work out to about $0.22 per passenger mile, while buses are about $0.92, commuter rail is $0.65, and light rail is a hefty $2.03. Even the often demonized "highway subsidy" only adds 0.38 cents per passenger-mile, bringing it to $0.224. When all the transit modes are blended together:
"So transit costs 84 cents per passenger mile, nearly four times the cost of driving. Transit fares average 20.4 cents per passenger mile (interesting how the transit industry keeps fares close to the actual cost of driving), so the subsidies are nearly 64 cents per mile."And after factoring in "social costs" like pollution...
"So transit costs are nearly three time auto costs, while transit subsidies are more than eight times auto costs."His conclusion:
This doesn’t mean transit is evil. What this should suggest instead is that the transit industry needs to make itself more efficient. This could be done by introducing competition into the industry or, at the least, contracting out transit to private operators who spend about 60 percent as much, per passenger mile, as public agencies. It goes without saying that an efficient transit industry would not sink billions into rail capital improvements when buses can do everything rail can do at a far lower cost.My thoughts? I do think it's good to debunk the common myths of transit cost-effectiveness and environmental benefits vs. cars. But there are caveats.
First, this is a blended average of transit costs. Even the bus number is mostly based on substantially-empty buses covering local routes. I'm sure nearly full express commuter buses are far more efficient than cars on a per-passenger-mile basis. They also use limited freeway capacity (HOV/HOT) more efficiently during peak hours. So I think that's still a very legitimate transit strategy, albeit one where his suggested privatization could bring improvements, not just in cost, but in schedules, service, and routes.
Transit's core mission to provide mobility to those without it, whether they can't drive or can't afford a car, is also still a perfectly legitimate social good, regardless of this analysis. Yes, it's not cheap (mainly because the buses aren't full enough at the required frequency and coverage), but we've still made a choice as a society to provide it as the transportation option of last resort with comprehensive coverage.
I think it makes a valid point on rail, especially commuter rail in modern, dispersed, auto-centric cities like Houston (remember, that "almost reasonable but still too high" $0.65 number above is for cities designed around commuter rail like NYC, Chicago, Boston, and DC - it would be far, far higher here). My thoughts on Houston's core LRT/BRT plan are more nuanced. The economics clearly don't justify it. So it's essentially a city amenity - like sports stadiums or parks or libraries - that the citizens/voters choose to provide because, well, they want it. For tourists. For the "urban lifestyle." To support a dense core of pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. To enable errands, lunch, and outside meetings during the day for those who use commuter transit. Whatever the reasons, they voted for it, and the economics are only a piece of the equation, same as for other subsidized amenities like stadiums, parks, and libraries.