The Public Transit Paradox

Gas is crazy cheap. Car sales are through the roof. So why isn’t taxpayer support for mass transit tanking?

Photo: David Stanley Chevrolet/Flickr

According to The Wall Street Journal, 2015 was the single best year ever for the U.S. automobile industry, with sales of new vehicles approaching $570 billion. (This year, analysts say, might be even better.) And as car sales went up, the price of gasoline kept going down. As I type these words, the average price per gallon has fallen to a jaw-dropping $1.88. Gas hasn’t been this cheap since 2004.

Sounds like a pretty ominous set of circumstances for the future of public transit projects, right?

Wrong. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE), which monitors the status of these projects nationwide, 2015 was “another great year” for mass transit at ballot boxes all over the country. The organization’s newsletter reports, “With 34 measures, [2015] saw the highest number of transit elections in an off-cycle year since CFTE started tracking measures in 2000, indicating that transit measures remain a popular method of seeking support for local projects and operations.”

Even more remarkably, more than two-thirds of those measures—most of which asked voters to fund various mass transit projects in their cities or counties through sales-tax or property-tax increases—passed. CTFE says the success rate for transit initiatives during 2015 was an impressive 71 percent, up 2 percent from the year before. These wins were spread across the country in 10 different states—including two of the reddest states on the map, Utah and Arizona.

So what’s happening here? Why would voters from across the political spectrum be supporting publicly funded mass transit projects at precisely the same time that they’re buying so many new cars and filling them up with so much cheap gas?

The answer: Because they’re buying so many new cars and filling them up with so much cheap gas.

Every year, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute issues its Urban Mobility Scorecard, which monitors and analyzes the state of traffic congestion in the United States. And guess what? It turns out that the combination of record automobile sales and super-affordable gasoline means more cars on the road. Lots more cars, actually. According to the 2015 scorecard, roadway congestion, too, is breaking all sorts of records these days. In the latest 12-month period to be studied, it notes, “travel delays due to traffic congestion caused drivers to waste more than 3 billion gallons of fuel and kept travelers stuck in their cars for nearly 7 billion extra hours—42 hours per rush-hour commuter.” And the carbon footprint of those 3 billion wasted gallons? More than 27 million metric tons.

Urban planners have a term, induced demand, to describe the phenomenon by which our efforts to make driving faster and easier—typically by widening our highways and building more lanes for cars—actually end up making driving conditions worse. As Jeff Speck, an urban planner and author of the (brilliant, highly readable, and insight-filled) book Walkable City, puts it, “Induced demand is the name for what happens when increasing the supply of roadways lowers the time cost of driving, causing more people to drive and obliterating any reductions in congestion.”

In a way, it’s an automobile-age iteration of the tragedy of the commons. Political economists of the Victorian era noted that cattle grazing on public pastures in England were “puny and stunted” and the grassland that they fed upon “bare-worn.” Why? Because when enough individuals act in their own rational self-interest by utilizing a shared public resource, the broader group interest—i.e., maintaining the quality and accessibility of that resource—necessarily suffers.

Widening an already congested highway, as Speck and many others have observed, certainly induces driver demand. But so does incredibly cheap gas—and so does, for that matter, owning a shiny, spiffy new car. All of these factors are undoubtedly contributing to our current traffic maladies, as diagnosed by the authors of the Urban Mobility Scorecard. “The problem has become so bad in major urban areas,” they note, “that drivers have to plan more than twice as much travel time as they would need to arrive in time in light traffic just to account for the effects of irregular delays such as bad weather, collisions, and construction zones.”

They go on to observe that the problem will only get worse if certain trends—including what we tend to think of as positive trends, such as the improving economy—continue. By 2020, they say, the annual delay per commuter will grow from 42 hours to 47 hours, the total delay nationwide will grow from its current 6.9 billion hours to 8.3 billion hours, and the cost of all this traffic congestion will rise from $160 billion to $192 billion.

On some level, beleaguered commuters seem to be intuitively grasping this paradox (and these projections). One of the more surprising aspects of the CFTE’s report is how support for major public projects is rising all over the country, including some places that we don’t usually think of as traditionally friendly to mass transit. Few would argue with the notion that sprawling, decentralized Phoenix is a “car city.” And probably even fewer would maintain that Arizonans, as a matter of personal politics, are totally down with the whole tax-and-spend thing. The state’s new governor, Republican Doug Ducey, has made tax reduction the central theme of his nascent administration, promising to slash corporate income taxes until they’re “as close to zero as possible.” And some are speculating that Arizona could soon become the 10th state to eliminate its personal income tax.

Nevertheless, last August Phoenicians voted to raise their own transportation sales tax from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent, and then to extend that tax for an extra 31 years beyond its original expiration date of 2020, all to fund a new transportation measure anchored by a 42-mile expansion of the city’s light rail system. And it wasn’t even a squeaker: Those voting yea on Proposition 104, the funding linchpin of Phoenix’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan, won by a margin of nearly 10 percentage points. This despite fervent opposition from local conservatives who claimed “the initiative discriminates against driving motorists at the expense of light rail. Multiple transit studies have shown that the preferred method of transportation for over 97 percent of Phoenix residents is the automobile.”

The late, great Yogi Berra once said of a highly popular Italian restaurant in St. Louis that “nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.” It appears that we may be seeing the same thing happen on our congested roadways.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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