Rethinking Public Transit

"Just get it done.  Just get it done!" snapped an exasperated commuter to a radio reporter last week at a BART train station, talking about the strike.  Whatever his thoughts about the union's successful attempt to wrench more from a public transit monster that eats 63% of the Bay Area's transportation dollars to carry only 14.6% of its passengers to work, what he needed most right now was his ride to work.

About 200,000 of the 7.2 million Bay Area residents depend on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains to get where they're going each day, making for 400,000 trips per day.  So what would our roads be without public rail transit?  Impossibly snarled nightmares, right?

For the immediate future, yes, of course.  And it sure looked like it in July when the train drivers went on strike for four days.  Although BART only carries about 5 percent of the Bay Area's workers, that means a lot when all those workers get dumped out onto an already strained road network.  No major freeways have been built here in decades, and only 4% of our 25-year transportation budget is devoted to highway expansion, so many freeways run beyond capacity at rush hour (which actually decreases throughput).  Even when BART isn't striking, delays on the Bay Bridge corridor cost 11,588 person-hours every morning.  San Francisco employment may increase enough over the next 25 years to create demand beyond the peak capacity of the Bay Bridge and BART combined.

Public transit is the supposed panacea to our transport ills, or at least the necessary evil.  "Everybody takes the train in Europe," reports the knowledgeable tourist, having seen enough to confirm the prescribed narrative.  The transit complex even convinced a majority that we need an enormous train-to-nowhere project that even the transit-sympathetic mainstream media makes fun of.

Where did we get these notions?  What does public transit actually do for us - and at what cost?  We weren't building freeways for the last 40 years in the Bay Area - so where has the money gone?  A classic objection to public transit is the loss of individual autonomy.  But in merely economic terms, does rail transit make sense?

First, most people in Europe use cars - not trains.  Less than one-tenth of Europeans get where they're going by rail.  The rest of them mainly go by car.  Trains carry only 7.1% of passenger miles in Europe (passenger miles, E-27, 2010, excluding air).  Passenger cars carry 84.1%.  Buses have 8.8%.  Even France, which emphasizes rail more than much of Europe - coming in at 4th from 27 countries in highest rail usage - is only 9.9% rail, 84.4% auto, and 5.8% bus.  (Eurostat).  That compares to 86% passenger vehicles (including the 4% that trucks carry), 10.6% air, and a whopping 0.56% rail in the United States.   (Wiki.)  (Excluding air, that's roughly 99.35% autos vs. 0.65% rail.)

Second, U.S. mass transit doesn't deliver even close to a commensurate return on the huge share of our money it consumes.  It is enormously inefficient and consumes a starkly disproportionate share of resources while contributing pitifully little to the job of moving people around.  For example, BART (the U.S.'s fifth-largest transit system) and the other area transit agencies collectively burn 63% of the Bay Area's $5 billion annual transportation dollars - the highest share of almost any U.S. metro area - yet carry only about 14.6% of the passengers.  In other words, $118,000,000,000 will be devoted to transportation over the 25 years leading up to 2030, and public transit will eat $74,000,000,000 of that (63%).  To carry 14.6% of us.

The entire BART rail network doesn't even carry more people than a proper freeway.  BART carries about 400,000 trips per day (~200,000 commuters/day) (SFGate).  Admittedly 63.5% of those are to or from the critical nerve center of downtown San Francisco.  (BART moves about 21,000 people per hour to the west side of the bay through the Transbay Tube at morning rush hour, compared to 24,000 on the Bay Bridge (14,000 vs. 23,000 in 2007).)  But just one major Bay Area freeway carries about the same volume.  For example, I-80 at the Bay Bridge carries 494,000 vehicles per day (counting both directions); I-880 at Oakland carries 414,000; CA-24 at the Caldecott Tunnel carries 319,000; and I-680 at Walnut Creek carries 511,000.   And many of those vehicles have more than one occupant.

Why do we burn almost three-quarters of our transit dollars on a system that carries only a sixth of us around - when it does carry us around, assuming the public servants who run it are not holding us hostage to a system we paid for?  And how did it come about that these secure public servants make their generous living - paying nothing for their generous pension and only $92/month for healthcare - and are entrenched enough that they can go on strike without fear?  We can't even ban them from striking without changing state law, and Bay Area legislators are too scared of the unions to suggest that change.  In the wake of a poll showing citizens side with management 2-1, Gov. Jerry Brown stepped in to save the unions from a losing public opinion battle and ordered a 60-day cooling-off period.

Putting aside the ongoing union-administered slow-bleed of operating expenses, from a capital perspective, BART has been a ravenous monster.  Back in the starry-eyed days of the Apollo moon shots, BART was originally advertised as a fast, quiet ride that would give everyone a seat and cost just under $1 billion (the largest locally paid public works project in the U.S).  None of those promises came true.  The $1 billion grew to $1.6 billion when it opened in 1972 (or $15 billion in 2004 dollars (wiki)).  The 2003 SFO airport extension, which carries about 10,500 passengers day, cost about $170.5 million a mile for 8.7 miles.  As of 2002, BART had consumed over $6.8 million in capital since inception, or over $14 billion when adjusting for the time value of money.  Why haven't we learned to distrust the notoriously bad estimates for these kind of public works projects?

To illustrate the massive flow of dollars, with the $15 billion that BART will spend over the next 20-25 years maintaining its aging 40-year-old infrastructure, you could buy roughly 250,000 brand-new $60,000 Teslas.  And with the $1.5 billion BART spends per year to operate, you could buy enough electricity to run them 33.75 billion miles per year, or enough for 2.8 million commuters who drive a round-trip of 50 miles a day [240 workdays/year; 90 mpg equivalent at $4/gal] - or seven times what BART carries.  (Of course the cost of the roads has to be factored in too; this simply illustrates the size of the resource burn.)

Trains are a fun way to travel and at this point a reality of life - and the symbol of the industrial revolution.  But before committing more resources to public transit, we must examine what it is doing for us, what it is costing us, and whether there is a more intelligent way forward than allowing a system that carries 5% of us to consume half our transportation dollars.


  "In the last 38 years (since a 1972 public referenda that rejected the Southern Crossing), regional and local Bay Bridge corridor policy has been to increase the efficiency of the current transportation network and prioritize investment in transit. As a result, there has been no significant increase in highway capacity in the corridor since the Bay Bridge was converted to 10 lane operation in the early 1960s."  (Arup, p.23.)

Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Final Transportation 2030 Plan (Oakland, CA: MTC, 2005), p. 35.

Randal O'Toole, Gridlock (Cato 2009) p. 73-74 and 178-179, citing studies.

2011 American Community Survey (Washington: Census Bureau, 2011), Table S0802, showing 301,844 out of 2,061,006 or 14.6% of workers in SF/Oakland/Fremont took public transit.  When including Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, the number is only 9.6%.  See O'Toole, citing 2005 American Community Survey Table GCT0804.]

"Just get it done.  Just get it done!" snapped an exasperated commuter to a radio reporter last week at a BART train station, talking about the strike.  Whatever his thoughts about the union's successful attempt to wrench more from a public transit monster that eats 63% of the Bay Area's transportation dollars to carry only 14.6% of its passengers to work, what he needed most right now was his ride to work.

About 200,000 of the 7.2 million Bay Area residents depend on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains to get where they're going each day, making for 400,000 trips per day.  So what would our roads be without public rail transit?  Impossibly snarled nightmares, right?

For the immediate future, yes, of course.  And it sure looked like it in July when the train drivers went on strike for four days.  Although BART only carries about 5 percent of the Bay Area's workers, that means a lot when all those workers get dumped out onto an already strained road network.  No major freeways have been built here in decades, and only 4% of our 25-year transportation budget is devoted to highway expansion, so many freeways run beyond capacity at rush hour (which actually decreases throughput).  Even when BART isn't striking, delays on the Bay Bridge corridor cost 11,588 person-hours every morning.  San Francisco employment may increase enough over the next 25 years to create demand beyond the peak capacity of the Bay Bridge and BART combined.

Public transit is the supposed panacea to our transport ills, or at least the necessary evil.  "Everybody takes the train in Europe," reports the knowledgeable tourist, having seen enough to confirm the prescribed narrative.  The transit complex even convinced a majority that we need an enormous train-to-nowhere project that even the transit-sympathetic mainstream media makes fun of.

Where did we get these notions?  What does public transit actually do for us - and at what cost?  We weren't building freeways for the last 40 years in the Bay Area - so where has the money gone?  A classic objection to public transit is the loss of individual autonomy.  But in merely economic terms, does rail transit make sense?

First, most people in Europe use cars - not trains.  Less than one-tenth of Europeans get where they're going by rail.  The rest of them mainly go by car.  Trains carry only 7.1% of passenger miles in Europe (passenger miles, E-27, 2010, excluding air).  Passenger cars carry 84.1%.  Buses have 8.8%.  Even France, which emphasizes rail more than much of Europe - coming in at 4th from 27 countries in highest rail usage - is only 9.9% rail, 84.4% auto, and 5.8% bus.  (Eurostat).  That compares to 86% passenger vehicles (including the 4% that trucks carry), 10.6% air, and a whopping 0.56% rail in the United States.   (Wiki.)  (Excluding air, that's roughly 99.35% autos vs. 0.65% rail.)

Second, U.S. mass transit doesn't deliver even close to a commensurate return on the huge share of our money it consumes.  It is enormously inefficient and consumes a starkly disproportionate share of resources while contributing pitifully little to the job of moving people around.  For example, BART (the U.S.'s fifth-largest transit system) and the other area transit agencies collectively burn 63% of the Bay Area's $5 billion annual transportation dollars - the highest share of almost any U.S. metro area - yet carry only about 14.6% of the passengers.  In other words, $118,000,000,000 will be devoted to transportation over the 25 years leading up to 2030, and public transit will eat $74,000,000,000 of that (63%).  To carry 14.6% of us.

The entire BART rail network doesn't even carry more people than a proper freeway.  BART carries about 400,000 trips per day (~200,000 commuters/day) (SFGate).  Admittedly 63.5% of those are to or from the critical nerve center of downtown San Francisco.  (BART moves about 21,000 people per hour to the west side of the bay through the Transbay Tube at morning rush hour, compared to 24,000 on the Bay Bridge (14,000 vs. 23,000 in 2007).)  But just one major Bay Area freeway carries about the same volume.  For example, I-80 at the Bay Bridge carries 494,000 vehicles per day (counting both directions); I-880 at Oakland carries 414,000; CA-24 at the Caldecott Tunnel carries 319,000; and I-680 at Walnut Creek carries 511,000.   And many of those vehicles have more than one occupant.

Why do we burn almost three-quarters of our transit dollars on a system that carries only a sixth of us around - when it does carry us around, assuming the public servants who run it are not holding us hostage to a system we paid for?  And how did it come about that these secure public servants make their generous living - paying nothing for their generous pension and only $92/month for healthcare - and are entrenched enough that they can go on strike without fear?  We can't even ban them from striking without changing state law, and Bay Area legislators are too scared of the unions to suggest that change.  In the wake of a poll showing citizens side with management 2-1, Gov. Jerry Brown stepped in to save the unions from a losing public opinion battle and ordered a 60-day cooling-off period.

Putting aside the ongoing union-administered slow-bleed of operating expenses, from a capital perspective, BART has been a ravenous monster.  Back in the starry-eyed days of the Apollo moon shots, BART was originally advertised as a fast, quiet ride that would give everyone a seat and cost just under $1 billion (the largest locally paid public works project in the U.S).  None of those promises came true.  The $1 billion grew to $1.6 billion when it opened in 1972 (or $15 billion in 2004 dollars (wiki)).  The 2003 SFO airport extension, which carries about 10,500 passengers day, cost about $170.5 million a mile for 8.7 miles.  As of 2002, BART had consumed over $6.8 million in capital since inception, or over $14 billion when adjusting for the time value of money.  Why haven't we learned to distrust the notoriously bad estimates for these kind of public works projects?

To illustrate the massive flow of dollars, with the $15 billion that BART will spend over the next 20-25 years maintaining its aging 40-year-old infrastructure, you could buy roughly 250,000 brand-new $60,000 Teslas.  And with the $1.5 billion BART spends per year to operate, you could buy enough electricity to run them 33.75 billion miles per year, or enough for 2.8 million commuters who drive a round-trip of 50 miles a day [240 workdays/year; 90 mpg equivalent at $4/gal] - or seven times what BART carries.  (Of course the cost of the roads has to be factored in too; this simply illustrates the size of the resource burn.)

Trains are a fun way to travel and at this point a reality of life - and the symbol of the industrial revolution.  But before committing more resources to public transit, we must examine what it is doing for us, what it is costing us, and whether there is a more intelligent way forward than allowing a system that carries 5% of us to consume half our transportation dollars.


  "In the last 38 years (since a 1972 public referenda that rejected the Southern Crossing), regional and local Bay Bridge corridor policy has been to increase the efficiency of the current transportation network and prioritize investment in transit. As a result, there has been no significant increase in highway capacity in the corridor since the Bay Bridge was converted to 10 lane operation in the early 1960s."  (Arup, p.23.)

Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Final Transportation 2030 Plan (Oakland, CA: MTC, 2005), p. 35.

Randal O'Toole, Gridlock (Cato 2009) p. 73-74 and 178-179, citing studies.

2011 American Community Survey (Washington: Census Bureau, 2011), Table S0802, showing 301,844 out of 2,061,006 or 14.6% of workers in SF/Oakland/Fremont took public transit.  When including Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, the number is only 9.6%.  See O'Toole, citing 2005 American Community Survey Table GCT0804.]

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