The Importance of Productivity in National Transportation Policy


For years, transit funding advocates have claimed that national policy favors highways over transit. Consistent with that view, Congressman James Oberstar, chairman of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wants to change the funding mix. He is looking for 40 percent of the transportation funding from the proposed stimulus package to be spent on transit, which is a substantial increase from present levels.

This raises two important questions: The first question is that of “equity” – “what would be the appropriate level to spend on transit?” The second question relates to “productivity” – “what would be the effect of spending more on transit?”

Equity: Equity consists of spending an amount that is proportionate to need or use. Thus, an equitable distribution would have the federal transportation spending reflect the shares that highways and transit carry of surface travel (highways plus transit). The most commonly used metric is passenger miles. Even with the recent, well publicized increases in transit ridership, transit’s share of surface travel is less than 1 percent. Non-transit highway modes, principally the automobile, account for 99 percent of travel.

So if equity were a principal objective, transit would justify less than 1 percent of federal surface transportation expenditures. Right now, transit does much better than that, accounting for 21 percent of federal surface transportation funded expenditures in 2006. This is what passes for equity in Washington – spending more than 20 percent of the money on something that represents less than one percent of the output. Transit receives 27 times as much funding per passenger mile as highways. It is no wonder that the nation’s urban areas have experienced huge increases in traffic congestion, or that there’s increasing concern about the state of the nation’s highway bridges, the most recent of which occurred in Minneapolis, not far from Congressman Oberstar’s district.

In addition, a substantial amount of federal highway user fees (principally the federal gasoline tax) are used to support transit. These revenues, which are only a part of the federal transit funding program, amounted to nearly $5 billion in 2006. Perhaps most amazingly, the federal government spends 15 times as much in highway user fees per transit passenger mile than it does on highways. Relationships such as these do not even vaguely resemble equity.

Moreover, truckers would rightly argue against using passenger miles as the only measure of equity. Trucks, which also pay federal user fees, account for moving nearly 30 percent of the nation’s freight. Transit moves none. Taking money that would be used to expand and maintain the nation’s highways will lead to more traffic congestion and slower truck operations – which also boosts pollution and energy use. This also means higher product prices.

Productivity: For a quarter of a century, federal funding has favored transit. A principal justification was the assumption that more money for transit would get people out of their cars. It hasn’t happened. Transit’s share of urban travel has declined more than 35 percent in the quarter century since highway user fee funding began. State and local governments have added even more money. Overall spending on transit has doubled (inflation adjusted) since 1982. Ridership is up only one third. This means that the nation’s riders and taxpayers have received just $0.33 in new value for each $1.00 they have paid. This is in stark contrast to the performance of commercial passenger and freight modes, which have generally improved their financial performance over the same period.

It’s clear spending more on transit does not attract material numbers of people out of cars. Major metropolitan area plans are biased toward transit but to little overall effect. At least seven metropolitan areas are spending more than 100 times more on transit per passenger mile than highways and none is spending less than 25 times.

The net effect of all this bias has barely influenced travel trends at all. Since 1982, per capita driving has increased 40 percent in the United States. Moreover, the increases in transit ridership (related to history’s highest gasoline prices) have been modest relative to overall travel demand. Transit captured little (3 percent) of the decline in automobile use, even in urban areas. Most of the decline appears to be a result of other factors like people working at home or simply choosing to drive less. It is notable that none of the transit-favoring metropolitan area plans even projects substantial longer term reductions in the share of travel by car.

The reason for this is simple. Transit is about downtown. The nation’s largest downtown areas, such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, contain huge concentrations of employment that can be well served by rapid transit modes. Yet relatively few Americans either live or work downtown. More than 90 percent of trips are to other areas where transit takes, on average, twice as long to make a trip – if there is even service available. Few people are in the market for longer trip times.

These policy distortions are not merely “anti-highway.” They are rather anti-productivity. This means they encourage greater poverty, because whatever retards productivity tends to increase levels of poverty. It would not be in the national interest for people to choose to take twice as much of their time traveling. By definition, wasting time retards productivity and international competitiveness. These are hardly the kinds of objectives appropriate for a nation facing perhaps its greatest financial challenges since the Great Depression.

For years, national transportation policy has been grounded in hopeless fantasy about refashioning our metropolitan areas back to late 19th Century misconceptions. It’s time to turn the corner and start fashioning a transportation strategy – including more flexible forms of transit – that make sense in our contemporary metropolis.


Urban Transport Statistics: United States: A Compendium

Regional Plan Spending on Highways and 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.

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Oil price increase in the

Oil price increase in the world market results to a fare increase causing fissures to the pockets of commuters. Some would rather prefer buying their own vehicles to somehow save money. The GM PUMA is already drawing fire as GM's feeble attempt at a green vehicle but I don't think it's going to catch on. The GM PUMA is a two wheeled seated electric scooter, co-designed by some of the team that designed the Segway scooter. It's likely going to cost a payday loan or two to get, at least, as it is designed to be a full service city vehicle. Interest isn't taking off yet – but it’s still in the development phase. If it does take off, perhaps the taxpayers won't have to give GM another payday loan because of the success of the GM PUMA.

Faulty Comparison

I appreciate the focus on productivity in this article, but it is a mistake to think of equity as a measure of financial efficiency.

The goal of equity is not intended to generate equal financial resources based on usage, but equal availability per individual. Hence, even though it may cost more to provide certain services, because they are social goods they should be provided nonetheless. Think health care, or policing, or water service.

The faulty comparison with regard to usage differences is that a comparison based on passenger miles traveled is misleading. More relevant would be the number of trips carried. The subway commute from Brooklyn to New York may cover only 3 miles, but it generates just as much economic activity as a 30 mile car commute. By this measure, each transit trip should equal ten car trips, not 1/10th. This may not change the outcome, but would be a more honest comparison. If possible it would be clearest to measure economic impact per trip, but that would still lack any concern for equity.

Additionally, the article is full of numerous generalizations that are not always accurate. Regional rail service is competitive both price and time-wise with driving in many metro areas. Highway congestion will not be fixed in those places by building more highways. Railroads move vast amounts of freight, while falling under the purview of the Fed. Transit Authority.

I have trouble imagining that all of these distortions were unintentional, and hence am disappointed in the ideological bent of this post. It does very little to advance the discussion of federal transportation policy, and has dampened my appreciation of this site.

Clear as mud

The reality of public transit in America is that it's primarily a support system for the poor. In most areas, you don't ride transit much if you can afford to own a car. Perhaps it's time to consider it in those terms and not focus so much on economic return. Do we think of food stamps and TANF in terms of their economic return? No, we view them as social services that the more fortunate provide for the less fortunate.

That said, there are plenty of dense areas where transit has a much broader appeal. The more expensive and logistically difficult it is to park a car, the more appealing transit becomes to the non-poor, and the less it falls into the social-service category.

Transit policy is so mired in politics and ideology that it's difficult to understand what is really going on. Using national statistics to generalize about transit muddies the waters more than it clears them. On the other hand, give me the details of an existing or proposed transit system in a specific place, and I would be able to take a position using whatever metric is most appropriate to the situation.

IF "The reality of public transit in America is..."

"...that it's primarily a support system for the poor."

THEN why don't we give poor people "car stamps".
You buy your liquor with FOOD stamps and your car with CAR stamps and drive drunk and die.
Problem solved.

Dave Barnes

Freedom versus...

Automobiles mean freedom.
Motorcycles and scooters mean freedom.
Walking and bicycles mean freedom.
Taxis mean freedom.

Freedom to go where YOU want when YOU want.
Free from the constraints of the relatively inflexible transit system.

What is the first thing that poor people around the world buy when they get a little money? Individual transportation. cf. China and India.

Pouring money into "public transit" systems is pouring money down the drain and I live in one those SMSAs (Denver) that is doing exactly that.

Dave Barnes


1) What do you mean by "surface" transportation? Are subways surface?

2) I know this document is about spending on transportation, but is biking and walking "transportation"? For instance, you mentioned 99% of travel is by the automobile and 1% by transit. I know walking and biking numbers are low in the US, it nonetheless is a slight percentage.

3) "Perhaps most amazingly, the federal government spends 15 times as much in highway user fees per transit passenger mile than it does on highways."

This is misleading. This is a "per mile" basis. Cars constitute longer travel miles than transit and completely skew the data. If you want to get technical, air travel is the most "economical" on a per mile basis - but utilizing this statistic is not beneficial in assessing a transportation system's cost effectiveness. If you think this, then we should all be flying planes because it is the most economical.

4) I want to review your sources, however, most of the links in your documents simply link to another document procured by your site(s) or are simply not working.

The problem with transit is it is trying to operate and compete in a landscape developed solely for automobile use that prevents viable transit transportation (as well as alternatives).

Humans will look to the most convenient method of transportation and when walking, biking, and transit are not viable due to out-of-date municipal codes and engineering techniques as well as inefficient land use patterns; the automobile dominates. Then you have people, yourself included, placing blame on transit rather than the reasons that created the scenario in the first place (reasons usually involving "equity").

There's plenty of examples of free market economics occurring in America, just not highways or the automobile.

I see transit as a service. I do not expect libraries to generate money or be propped by user fees. I do see automobile transportation, which creates massive need for foreign oil, pollutes water and air, and stresses public services and kills many people as needing to pay for itself better than it does.

Links Work


In federal parlance, “surface transportation” generally refers to highways and all modes of transit.

The two links in the article work. Our site is a source of information from other sites, which are referred to in the linked documents. Simply copy any link within the documents into your browser and you will get the source.

Best regards,
Wendell Cox

Wendell Cox

I tried to copy and paste

I tried to copy and paste some of the links and many of them were down. Maybe there was something wrong on my end, as I have never had problems viewing pages on your site. Who's Matt?