Vanishing Automobile update #11

Responding to Pro-Rail-Transit Rhetoric

A March, 2000, conference sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association held a session titled "How to Respond to Anti-Transit Rhetoric." The session featured Portland's liberal Representative Earl Blumenauer and conservative Paul Weyrich in a mock radio show. In lieu of radio callers, the two accepted questions from the audience that were obviously planted in advance.

The statements made by Blumenauer and, especially, Weyrich were rife with outlandish errors and fabricated data. You can read a transcript of the entire session at Here are some responses to the more concrete claims presented by Weyrich and Blumenauer.

Blumenauer noted that, since he was a liberal and Weyrich a conservative, increased transit funding should appeal to everyone regardless of their politics. Weyrich added that:

"The real opponents of public transit are libertarians; they're not conservatives. Libertarians are ideologues, and they have an ideology every bit as much as the communists had. And they want to fit all reality into this ideology. So when they are confronted with something like a public transit system that's doing very well, they have to invent ways that it isn't doing well; otherwise, it contradicts their ideology."

I am one of those libertarians, but I am also a transit advocate. I don't like driving and I have always commuted to work and school by transit, bicycle, or on foot. So I would like to be "confronted with a public transit system that's doing very well."

So far, I haven't found such a system outside of, possibly, New York. By almost any measure that I can think of -- cost effectiveness, worker productivity, market share, congestion relief -- American transit systems are doing very poorly.

Weyrich then says that autos and highways are poor examples of the free market at work. "If you didn't have massive government intervention in highway construction, beginning in the 1920s," says Weyrich, "you would not have the situation that you have today."

In fact, that "intervention" consisted of the government taxing autos and gasoline and using those taxes for highways. Over the past eighty years, subsidies (that is, non-user fees) to highways, adjusted for inflation to present-day dollars, have averaged just 0.6 cents per passenger mile (less in more recent years). By comparison, subsidies to transit over the past few decades have averaged more than 40 cents per passenger mile, or nearly 70 times as much as highway subsidies. And unlike most transit systems, highways carry freight as well as passengers, reducing the effective subsidy to autos.

Transit and Congestion

Blumenauer and Weyrich then opened the discussion to questions. The first question asked, "Why should the government spend my hard-earned tax dollars on transit when only the riders are benefiting?"

Weyrich responded that "If the lady wants to have an even more fun time driving, she'll be supportive of public transit because it will take a lot of the people off the road that are impeding her from a full enjoyment of her automobile." In fact, there is no evidence that increased investments in public transit will have any discernible effect on congestion.

For example, the San Francisco Bay Area has spent billions on rail transit, yet transit carries only about 10 percent of commuters and only about 6 percent of all travel in the region. The area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently estimated the effects of further investments in transit. It found that investing $8.5 billion in more rail transit would add less than 0.1 percent to transit's commuting market share and would increase its total market share from 6.2 to just 6.4 percent.

The study also found that spending three-quarters of a billion dollars on express buses would have a bigger effect than spending twelve times that amount on rail. But the effect was still tiny: Transit's commuter share would increase from 10.5 percent to 11.1 percent and its total share would increase from 6.2 percent to 6.6 percent. (Source:Bay Area Transportation Blueprint for the 21st Century, Evaluation Report, Table 11, June 2000.)

The next question asked, "Aren't most rail riders former bus riders? If so, how would rail reduce congestion?"

Weyrich responded that "It certainly does [reduce congestion] when the systems are well done. We have a few examples where, unfortunately, very few people have shifted. But then we have some examples where half the riders are brand new riders. Portland is an example where the switch in ridership is very high."

In fact, as described in a report by former Metro planner Michael Cunneen (available at, when Portland opened its first light-rail line, the transit agency asked riders how they previously traveled. The results were so discouraging -- at least two-thirds previously rode buses -- that the agency stopped asking the question. While we don't really know how many light-rail riders previously drove, we do know that traffic growth on the freeway paralleling both the 1986 and the 1998 light-rail lines accelerated after the light-rail lines opened.

Weyrich then says, "Right now, the Portland light rail system, the two lines are pushing about 70,000 riders a day. You take those folks and put them out in the street, and let's see whether it makes any difference [in congestion]. There isn't a system in the country, maybe Buffalo, but there is hardly a system in the country where you could shut it down and not have a very significant traffic problem that doesn't exist at the present time."

We know this isn't true because it happened last year. The Los Angeles transit system -- both rails and buses -- was shut down for a month by a transit strike. The strike had no discernible effect on congestion. If only the rails had shut down, rail riders would have taken buses, again with no effect on congestion.

Outside of New York, there is no urban area in the country where transit carries more than 15 percent of commuters and more than 10 percent of all travel. New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and San Francisco are the only urban areas where transit carries more than 10 percent of commuters and 5 percent of all travel. In every other urban area, transit could disappear entirely and no auto driver would notice.

Advocating Transit Subsidies to High-Income People

The next questioner challenged the "waste" of transit funding, saying that "It's only low-income people that ride those subways, anyway." Instead of arguing that we needed to provide transportation for low-income people who can't afford cars, Weyrich argued that we need to have huge subsidies for rail transit because many of the riders of rail transit are wealthy!

"Take Metra in Chicago," says Weyrich. "There you have the preponderance of riders, high-income people, professional people, you know, people who definitely fit the profile of the conservative voter that we're talking about. And this is increasingly true of the newer transit systems that are coming on-line."

It is worth noting that average transit subsidies are about 45 cents per passenger mile, but subsidies to rail transit -- the kind of transit that Weyrich says is needed to attract high-income riders -- are double or triple the average. It is surprising that anyone -- liberal, conservative, or liberatarian -- would think that increased subsidies to high-income people are a good thing.

The next questioner asked, "Can't you take the subsidy and give everyone a BMW?" After claiming that he invented this argument years ago when he considered transit to be wasteful, Weyrich says this "is a totally phony argument, and particularly as it relates to these rail systems, and I'll tell you why.

"The rail system, the investment, is good for at least 50 years, maybe longer. Look at some of the rail systems that have been operating for even longer than that. A good rail system is good for at least a 50-year investment. The average car gets amortized over five years. So you'd have to buy that person at least ten of these automobiles, not just one."

Weyrich acknowledges that this argument has been made by Wendell Cox. But Weyrich is either innumerate or he deliberately distorts Cox's argument. Cox's calculations show that the annualized cost of rail transit -- that is, the capital and operating cost amortized to be equal to an annual cost in perpetuity -- is enough to pay for a lease for a new automobile for every new transit rider in perpetuity. In other words, rail transit DOES cost enough to "buy that person at least ten of these automobiles" -- in fact, many more than ten.

Weyrich is also wrong about transit investments being good for at least 50 years. The oldest section of the Washington Metro rail system is only 25 years old, and half the system is less than 15 years old. Yet Metro says that it needs to spend more money over the next ten years rehabilitating the system than it originally cost to build. It is not reasonable to assume that rail investments will last more than thirty years.

The next questioner asked, "I just spend more of my time stuck in traffic. So I want to know, when are they going to build more roads?"

Weyrich responds with the old "can't build our way out of congestion" argument.

"The fact of the matter is that it is impossible anywhere in the country to build our way out of congestion. The only way that we can in any way provide some relief is to provide some alternatives to get some people, at least, off of the highways. We're never going to get everybody off the highways, nor would I want to. But you've got to get some people off the highways because, otherwise, it becomes an absolute exercise in futility."

As previously stated, investments in rail do not take significant numbers of people off the highways. If the goal is to get people off the highways, then investments in buses are much more cost effective, but still won't get many people off.

The reason why building new roads doesn't seem to reduce congestion is that traffic growth has been much greater than the growth in highway capacity over the past three decades. This has led to such congestion that people have responded by changing their travel times, routes, modes, or not traveling at all. Anything that reduces congestion leads people to change back, and thus congestion doesn't seem to change at all. Yet the congestion reduction still creates benefits because it makes it possible for people to travel at times, routes, or modes that are less expensive or more convenient.

The question becomes, "what is the most cost effective way of achieving these benefits?" While the answer varies from place to place, only in rare instances will the answer involve rail transit. Buses can help a little, highway improvements can help more, and peak-period road pricing can help the most.

Transit and Smart Growth in Portland

The next questioner stated that smart growth was "stupid" because it "put a straightjacket on economic growth and then make the cities unaffordable for the poor people." This should have been a "gimme" for Earl Blumenauer, who may be the leading proponent of smart growth in Congress. But his answer was weak, probably because the case for smart growth is weak.

"First of all," Blumenauer said, "the notion of adding 180,000 jobs [in the Portland area] in the last ten years, having living standards increase and property values going up, is not necessarily an indication that the local economy is stagnating." In addition, he pointed out, "We've had a 42 percent increase in the population over the course of the last 20 years."

Against these arguments are several important facts. First, Portland's urban-growth boundary did not begin to influence housing prices until about a decade ago. Second, Portland's other smart-growth policies were only adopted four years ago. So 42 percent growth over the past two decades is meaningless. What is more meaningful is that many other western urban areas that do not have smart-growth policies, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Reno, and Boise, have grown faster than Portland over the past decade.

Third, many of the 180,000 new jobs were subsidized. Beginning in 1993, Oregon offered high-tech companies huge tax subsidies to build chip plants in the state. These subsidies attracted close to a dozen new factories to the Portland area each employing thousands of people. These new jobs cannot be credited to smart growth.

Moreover, Portland-area incomes have not increased. In fact, relative to inflation, average household income has declined in the past decade. Meanwhile, the "property values going up" has benefitted landowners, but forced homeowners to pay more property taxes and priced many non-homeowners out of the housing market. With higher housing costs and lower incomes, it is doubtful that Blumenauer's claim of higher living standards is valid.

Transit and Auto Safety

The next question dealt with safety. "Public transportation has a lousy, very lousy safety record. As a matter of fact, I think it's safer for me to drive my car."

Blumenauer responded by asking, "Are you from rural Wyoming, by any chance? Because it's the only place in America I can think of where maybe it would be more safe to drive your automobile than it would be to ride public transit."

Actually, driving on almost any urban freeway is safer than transit. While transit may be safe for transit riders, it is dangerous for pedestrians -- and this is most especially true of light-rail transit. So while it is sometimes safer to ride transit than to drive, it is more dangerous to walk to the transit stations.

Weyrich added that "I was up in Minneapolis doing a debate on light rail the other day, and one of the opponents of light rail, a professor from Oregon, I believe, contended that buses were safe but light rail vehicles were deadly." Turning to Blumenauer, Weyrich said, "Since he comes from Oregon, maybe you could take care of that problem." Blumenauer, who must have been painfully aware that Portland's light-rail had recently killed five people (and a sixth a few days ago), merely said "Thank you, Paul."

Since I was that "professor from Oregon," I invite both Representative Blumenauer and Mr. Weyrich to look up federal statistics on the safety of urban highways vs. urban transit. Those statistics clearly show that light rail causes nearly twice as many fatalities per passenger mile as autos, and three times as many as autos on urban freeways (for complete references, see pp. 370-372 of The Vanishing Auto). Buses are somewhere between freeways and light rail.

The final question asked, "Isn't it true that car travel is private and it is paid for by users like me through that tax, while transit is a public, subsidized system that uses my tax to pay for their way?"

Subsidies to the Automobile

To which Weyrich responded, "If we charged you for everything that comes out of the general fund, you'd be paying about $17 a gallon for gasoline. How would you like that?" This is a huge exaggeration.

According to University of California researcher Mark Delucci, who is a transit advocate, not a highway advocate, total subsidies to the automobile, including the social costs of air pollution, noise, etc., are just 5 to 7 cents per vehicle mile. Two cents of this is air pollution and this is based on 1990 data; Delucci admits that more recent cars are cleaner, so the cost should be lower.

If the cost is 6 cents a mile and your car gets 25 miles per gallon, then a gasoline tax to cover that cost would be $1.50 per gallon. This would bring total gas prices to about $3.00 per gallon, not Weyrich's $17 per gallon.

Delucci warns that applying full-cost pricing to both autos and transit is likely to shift users from transit to cars because transit subsidies are far greater than auto subsidies. (For references to Delucci's work, see pp. 380-383 of The Vanishing Automobile.)

Delucci also notes that charging for social costs at the gasoline pump is not an effective policy. Instead, we should charge people to pollute. This would lead people to use pollution-reducing technologies. Since such technologies are not very expensive, this would probably have little effect on the number of miles people drive, but would do far more to reduce pollution than billions spent on rail transit.

The Big Lie: Equating Anti-Rail Boondoggles with Anti-Transit

Perhaps the biggest lie of all is the overt claim that anyone who opposes light rail and other rail boondoggles is a transit opponent. Although all of the questions dealt with rail transit, the title of the session was "How to Respond to Anti-Transit Rhetoric."

In various sites on the web, including the site for a group that calls itself the Center for Transportation Excellence, such pro-transit, but anti-rail-transit, analysts as Wendell Cox are listed as "anti-transit" writers. This is an obvious but unfortunately fairly successful (judging by the many newspaper reporters who have fallen for it) attempt to mislead people about both the value of rail and the goals of rail opponents.


It is clear that rail advocates such as Earl Blumenauer and Paul Weyrich understand the arguments against rail since most of those arguments were raised in the planted questions. Their responses to those arguments may soothe those who want to believe in rail, but are not very convincing to anyone who has the facts. The important thing is to make sure most people have the facts about the huge cost and negligible benefits of rail transit.

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