For whom is transit?

In the May 11 Finance and Commerce, Matt Kramer, a local Chamber of Commerce representative lobbying for additional public transit and transportation spending (currently being debated at the Minnesota Legislature) is quoted as saying “Every person who is riding transit is one less person in the car in front of us,”

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

This is a fascinating quote. First is the use of “us”. So the Chamber of Commerce (probably correctly) identifies riding transit as something someone else does (since “we” are still in the car). And goes on to imply that it benefits us because there will be fewer cars. (Actually he says fewer people per car, but I think he meant fewer cars, not that it would reduce carpooling). And I suppose he could mean he rides the bus, and the car in front has fewer people (or there were fewer cars in front), but I don’t think that’s what he meant, since the arguments in the legislature are mostly about building  and operating new facilities – such as LRT lines or freeway BRT, rather than supporting existing buses driving in traffic.

This evokes the famous Onion article: Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.

But it also suggests transit reduces auto travel. The converse is almost equally true, building roads reduces transit crowding. But that is not an argument road-builders make. [It is an argument urbanists make against roads.]

Of course, some transit users would have otherwise driven, but many would have been passengers in cars, walked, ridden bikes, or telecommuted. No one really knows what the alternative untaken mode would be. We have models, but the form of those models dictates the answer. Logit models, which are widely used by travel demand forecasters to predict mode choice (and whose development resulted in an Economics prize for University of Minnesota graduate Daniel McFadden), have the property called “IIA”, which is short for Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives. In short, if you take away a mode, IIA means people choose the other modes in proportion to their current use. So let’s say there are 3 modes: walk 25%, transit 25%, drive 50%, and there is a transit shutdown (like in 2004). IIA implies the 25% of former transit users would split 1/3 (25%/75%) for walk and 2/3 (50%/75%) for driving. We all know that is not true, and there are various techniques to try to fix the models and use more complicated functional forms. But the question of what is true is not at all clear.

While there are surveys that have answered those questions, they are all context specific. For instance, Googling turns up a Managed Lanes Case Study report:

95 Express bus riders were asked how long they have been traveling by bus and what was their previous mode of travel before using the bus service. 92 percent of respondents (307 out of 334) mentioned they have been traveling the 95 Express bus before the Express Lanes started. Only, 8 percent respondents (27 out of 334) began using the bus after the Express Lanes opened. Among them, 50 percent (13 out of 27) had their previous mode as drive alone and none of them carpooled previously. Therefore, 95 Express bus ridership consisted primarily of those who have been using the service prior to Express Lanes implementation and the small mode shift from highway to transit was mostly from SOVs. Note that the number of respondents is too small to make any conclusions (Cain, 2009).

Undoubtedly other services would have different numbers. But mostly transit lines are not a direct substitute for driving.

The line of reasoning in the opening quote suggests the primary purpose of transit is reducing auto travel, rather than serving people who want to, or have to, use transit. In other words, building transit is good because it reduces traffic congestion (and almost no one argues building roads is good because it reduces transit crowding).

That is at best a secondary benefit, a benefit which could be achieved must more simply and less expensively through the use of prices as we do with almost all other scarce goods in society, even necessities like water.

Transit today is, in almost all US markets, slower than driving. People who depend on transit can reach fewer jobs than those who have automobiles available. Some people use transit by choice, for instance to save money (if they need to pay for parking), and the rest without choice. In my opinion, it is more important to spend scarce public dollars to improve options for those without choices than to improve the choices for those who already have alternatives. Perhaps ideally we could do both, in practice, one comes at the expense of other.

The idea that transit is for the other person is true for the 95.5% of people who don’t use transit regularly. But it warps thinking that the aim of public transit funding is to benefit those non-transit users.

Cross-posted as “Who Benefits from Other Peoples’ Transit Use” at

9 thoughts on “For whom is transit?

  1. Isn’t this majority benefit line of reasoning necessary for other issues of public good, such as public schools and social security, as well? We agree to pay taxes for public schools even if we don’t have children because it will benefit us indirectly.

    I am totally for funding public transit for the sake of public transit, but it seems very logical to me that if 95.5% of the people paying taxes aren’t going to be using the system, it will be necessary to tell them why it will be good for them that this transit system exists – the more direct the benefit the better.

    It seems to be a separate issue of whether or not the line of reasoning is actually TRUE. Advocates of transit (users and non-users both) will find it useful to give the majority reasons to support the cause.

    One line of your post seems to point to the problem with this: “it is more important to spend scarce public dollars to improve options for those without choices than to improve the choices for those who already have alternatives.”

    Is your point that advocating for transit in this way has lead us to wasteful projects like SWLRT, Gateway BRT, etc. instead of service improvements in the core cities? Is this the “warp” you are talking about?


    1. Great comment, Eric!

      Critical thinking is widely missing in transportation planning. Rather than being fact and principle based, it is mostly political.

      Thank you, David Levinson for this clear thinking article


  2. A noteworthy (and telling) exception. When policy-makers talk about rail transit to an airport, it’s always for us, not them, and no one promises to relieve auto congestion.


  3. I think there’s a particular mentality at play here, too. Streetsblog had a great article ( around the discussion of raising gas taxes for roads. In short, they argue against it, and in favor of general fund financing of roads and transportation, because people who only ever drive tend to think that gas/other car taxes entirely pay for roads, and thus private cars should be entitled to anything they want on the roads (meanwhile gas taxes only pay for about 50% of roadway costs). I think saying “us” can be extended to “our roads”, and finally to “which we own”, as if people who want transit are not road owners and do not share in road ownership (which we all really do, since the other half of funding comes from general funds).


  4. Good points, Joseph.

    But, it is important to know which types or roads are supported by gas taxes and which are supported by general funds.

    Dr. Jack Mallinckrodt, a retired electrical engineer, has shown that the federal gas tax and other car/truck-user taxes support the national freeway system more than 100%.

    Local roads are partly supported by state gas taxes and partly by local and state fuel and other car-user taxes.


    1. OOPS.

      I should have said local/state roads are mostly supported by road-user fees and general funds.

      Congress should establish a new income stream just for transit.

      Then, Congress must make sure that the planning and funding of rail and brt projects actually do conform to previous Congressional Mandates that these projects are professionally analyzed for actual performance/justification… and use valid data… and are ranked by those criteria. The dreadful MAP21 bill trashed the long-standing previous rerquirements for evaluation of major projects seeking federal funding.


  5. Great article, but I think there’s a missing presupposition here: “Of course, some transit users would have otherwise driven, but many would have been passengers in cars, walked, ridden bikes, or telecommuted. No one really knows what the alternative untaken mode would be.”

    I would guess that there’s also a significant number of transit users who would have just not done the trip instead of making that particular trip, if the transit option hadn’t existed! That includes stay-at-home parents who take up a part-time job because transit makes it convenient, or people who go out to a restaurant for dinner because they know they won’t have to worry about parking or having a drink or two, or people who make an extra shopping trip downtown, or people who take a better job farther from home because they don’t have good options within walking distance, in addition to the telecommuters.

    Even if not one person is diverted from any other mode, the transit option can make people’s lives better.

    (Of course, this is just the dual of the “induced demand” argument about roads – more roads means more trips, just as more transit means more trips. Those extra trips are generally good, but neither does much about congestion, if that’s the only thing you care about. And extra car trips generate a bad of increased parking demand at either end, while extra transit trips are closer to pure goods.)


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