Detroit News: If we build mass transit, they won’t necessarily come

Recently, we have covered some new developments in transportation in two Twin Cities area as doubts build over plans to extend the light rail. The article below, by Leon Drolet, a Macomb County Commissioner and chair of Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, appeared in the Detroit News recently, and shows that the concerns in the Twin Cities are shared elsewhere.

Mass transit use is declining across America despite substantial tax increases intended to prop up buses, light rail and trolleys. According to the American Public Transportation Association, mass transit use has declined in 24 of 30 major U.S. cities since 2014. Metro Detroit is experiencing this national trend. [Mass transit use in Minneapolis fell by 5.9% between the third quarter of 2014 and the third quarter of 2017] In 2014, Macomb County voters approved a 65 percent increase in the property tax subsidizing the SMART bus system – and SMART ridership declined by more than 7 percent from 2013 to 2016 according to Michigan Department of Transportation data. SMART anticipates even fewer riders this year, according to their 2018 budget.

Traditional mass transit’s failure to attract riders despite substantial increases in subsidies is illustrated by Los Angeles. That city voted to hike mass transit taxes twice since 2008, only to see ridership decline by almost 20 percent since.

Why the decline in traditional mass transit use? Some experts speculate the emergence of ride share services like Uber and Lyft play a role. Others believe the improving economy and low gas prices have allowed more people to afford cars. But those reasons are part of an overriding reason: traditional mass transit is slow, inconvenient, impersonal, and a dismal experience compared to alternatives. Using most mass transit is like using public bathrooms: people only do it when there is no other choice.

Who wants to walk to a bus stop, wait around in weather, then sit through countless other bus stops before finally being dropped off blocks from their destination? Compare that experience to sharing an Uber that picks riders up at home and delivers them to their destination’s front door.

The future is bleak for old school, lumbering buses because technology is expected to deliver even better shared transit in the near future. Driverless cars may soon allow those who can’t drive (or don’t want to) to summon an automated vehicle to their home.

John Phelan is an economist at Center of the American Experiment