When Saving 90% is Not Enough: The Transit Savings Report


The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is publishing monthly Transit Savings Report to illustrate the purportedly great savings that can be achieved by giving up the car and traveling by transit instead. APTA compares the average cost of buying a monthly transit pass to replace a car, which is assumed to travel 15,000 miles annually.

The latest edition was made public on April 6 and reveals astounding savings, as was reported by The Wall Street Journal and other press-release echoing press outlets. The APTA release indicates that households could save from $8,174 to $13,784 annually by giving up a car for transit in the 20 urban areas with the highest transit ridership. Overall, the APTA figures calculate to an average savings of $10,183. The APTA press release does not say how much the monthly bus pass would cost. However, our own quick survey of 17 major transit systems indicates that a monthly pass averages approximately $90 per month, or $1,080 per year. This means that getting rid of the car and riding transit instead saves approximately 90%, ($10,183 divided by [$1,080 + $10,183]) at least according to APTA (Note).

With savings such as these, a visitor from Mars to APTA's Fantasyland might expect that nearly all urban travel should logically be by transit rather than by cars. But, alas, no. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, cars, which APTA tells us cost nearly 10 times transit, account for more than 98% of motorized travel in US urban areas.

Profligate Americans? What could possibly explain this paradox? Surely, there is plenty of evidence that Americans would much rather spend less than more on products of equal value. This has been painfully evident to "legacy" airlines that have had to lower their prices to compete with discount carriers like Southwest Airlines. Traditional supermarkets have lost hoards of customers stores like Wal-Mart or Costco over amounts that pale by comparison to the savings that APTA would have us believe are so readily available by rejecting our "love affair" with the automobile.

Of course, the choice is not that simple. Americans no more have a love affair with the automobile than with flush toilets or refrigerators. The American (and Canadian, Australian, European and Asian) love affair is not with products, but rather with the better life style that the products make possible. People have refrigerators because they keep food fresh and prevent spoiling. Under certain circumstances, however, refrigerators are not practical, such as when one uses a cooler instead at a picnic. Transit is like that. It makes sense for some trips, but not a large share in the overall scheme of things.

The Largest Downtowns: Where Transit Works Best: For the overwhelming majority of trips, the automobile provides much faster and generally more comfortable travel than can be made available by transit. There are times, however, when transit is superior. For example, the car is particularly impractical for commuting into crowded Manhattan, which is served by an enormous subway, commuter rail and bus system that extends to the further reaches of the metropolitan area.

This is evident in data from the latest US Bureau of the Census American Community Survey, which indicates that transit accounts for 80% of the motorized commuter travel to Manhattan. Manhattan's business district has nearly 2,000,000 jobs in a relatively small area, and riding transit and the average transit commute is only slightly longer than the average car commute. With Manhattan's world class traffic, transit is a demonstrably superior competitor to the car.

This, in reality, simply demonstrates that transit is "about downtown." Consumer preferences demonstrate that commuting to some of the nation's largest downtown areas is better by transit. The impressive skyscrapers can leave the impression that downtowns are dominant in metropolitan employment. However, downtowns represent only 10% of metropolitan employment. The largest downtowns are well situated for transit service, by virtue of their high employment densities and the fact that transit systems focus on them.

These include central business districts, including New York's Manhattan and Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco. All of these downtown areas where transit is dominant were added together, they would cover barely one-third of the expanse Orlando's Walt Disney World. But consumer preferences also show that the car provides superior mobility to virtually all other destinations. Our already heavily indebted public sector could not begin to provide a level of service to replicate transit's downtown access throughout the urban area.

Transit even has difficulty competing in the dense outer boroughs of New York City. While slightly more people commute to Brooklyn jobs by transit than by car, the reverse is true in the Bronx. Twice as many people commute to jobs in Queens by car than transit, despite the borough's having a population density greater than that of San Francisco, the nation's second most dense large municipality.

Transit's share falls off even more sharply in the suburbs of New York. Nine times as many people commuting to jobs in inner suburban Nassau County use cars as use transit. Commuters to outer suburban Suffolk County use cars 40 times as much as transit.

Consumers make these choices not because cars are inherently superior to transit or vice versa. A commuter who lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey and works in Manhattan, usually takes a New Jersey Transit train or bus to work, because the car competes poorly for such a trip. The neighbor, however, who works in the suburban I-287 corridor takes the car, because transit cannot compete for that trip.

It remains true that for the overwhelming majority of trips cars meet the needs of consumers far better than transit. Cars are faster and deliver people within walking distance of their destinations.

Even the ultimate -- making transit free -- makes little difference. In 1990, Austin, Texas eliminated fares. Yet the share of travel in the Austin area by car declined about a quarter of one percent. For most urban travel, transit is so uncompetitive that you can't even give it away.

Note: None of the above should be interpreted to be an acceptance of the APTA figures. APTA assumes annual parking costs of $1,850, yet most parking outside downtowns. Some might object that there is a cost to this free parking, but to ignore its costs is quite appropriate, given that APTA's figures do not include subsidies to transit, which would quadruple its cost. Further, APTA uses especially high costs for automobile use, which assume that everyone purchases a new car every five years. This substantially overstates the cost of cars relative to transit.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

Photo: New Jersey Turnpike