“4 Hard Truths About [mass] Transit”

A new report from a Toronto-area panel argues there are key points that need to be understood about mass transit:

1. “Subways are not the only good form of transit.” There’s a tendency to see subways as the optimal form of urban transportation. For sure, an efficient subway system, with the power of moving thousands of people quickly through crowded corridors, can make a great city even greater. At the same time, heavy rail is extremely expensive and only appropriate when levels of existing density demand it…

2. “Transit does not automatically drive development.” Hard truth number two picks up where hard truth number one left off. It’s become increasingly fashionable to suggest that transit alone can boost the local economy by attracting businesses and retail development. Again, to be sure, public transportation that increases access to a dense area can produce so-called “agglomeration economies” — in other words, they can be worth way more than their cost to a city…

3. The cost of transit is more than construction. Canadian governments, like those in the United States, separate capital costs of constructing public transportation from the operational costs of running it. The Ontario panel argues that this practice can obscure the total investment needed to pay for a new line or system throughout its functional life. As this chart shows, capital costs are in many cases just a fraction (though a sizeable one) of 50-year costs for a mode..

4. Transit users aren’t the only ones who benefit from transit. This point is perhaps the panel’s most important. The discussion about public transportation often dissolves into an emotional debate about whether or not all city residents should pay for a system used by only some. It’s an odd contention, really, since few people also argue that paying for police, hospitals, schools are worthwhile — although not everyone uses these public services, either.

It is good to take a sober look at large-scale infrastructure projects. But, I wonder if a mass transit proponent wouldn’t look at this list and think that the first three are fairly negative: a good mass transit system offers multiple options, transit doesn’t guarantee development, and the costs are long-term.

If these are good principles, perhaps the next question to ask is then how to build a good system in a city. If there is not much there to start, which might be the case in denser or larger suburbs or newer big cities, how does one overcome the high initial start-up costs? Additionally, how do you move more Americans out of cars as it seems that when they have the choice to drive or not, they will choose driving?

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