Skip to main content

Less Driving Is Killing Public Transit

I've been using public transit in Cleveland for years. Until this summer, it was generally pretty busy, but never outright packed. Nowadays you need to board near the beginning of the line, or expect to stand on a full to capacity bus. Some of the regulars are getting frustrated; obviously demand for public transit services are up and numbers support the anecdotes, so basic economics would dictate that more buses should get put on the road to meet the increased demand, right? Unfortunately, that isn't how it works, and ironically, less driving is actually killing public transit across the country.

First, it is important to understand that transit agencies are not profit maximizing corporations and, therefore, are not governed by traditional economics. Plus, even if transit agencies were privately owned companies, they would probably be failing for the very same reasons that airlines are failing: the operating costs are too high and the demand for service is too elastic. Americans are willing to fly or to use transit, but only granted that prices are rock-bottom. Start raising fares and all of a sudden driving seems like a great alternative, even given the current price of fuel.

Where does government funding for transit come from? It varies from city to city; big capital projects are usually funded primarily by the federal government and operating funds come from local municipalities. In Cleveland, funding for operations comes from a sales tax levied in Cuyahoga County, which creates an interesting bind. If we're driving less, that could mean we're not driving to places like shopping malls and movie theaters; or, if we're not driving less, by the time we get to the mall, we have less disposable cash to spend on goods and services. Either way, less sales tax is being collected and funding for transit is stalled.

In May, vehicle miles traveled fell 3.7% from a year earlier. Fewer miles driven, combined with some switching to slightly less inefficient vehicles means fewer gallons of gasoline are being purchased. The federal gasoline tax hasn't been raised in over a decade, despite the fact that labor and materials costs have soared, and not surprisingly, the national Highway Trust Fund is expected to be more than $3 billion in the hole next year. There are folks who are still convinced that technology will save us, and thus see a need to continue funding road infrastructure (they talk about "technological breakthroughs", even though the problem isn't that tech doesn't exist, but rather that it is not economically competitive). The Bush Administration has proposed raiding the Department of Transportation's mass transit account to make up the difference.

If you are baffled by all of this, you aren't alone. Fuel prices have skyrocketed; they may come down temporarily, but we have been warned, and yet, our country's leadership is trying to do the exact opposite of what it should: they are stealing money from high demand transit projects in order to fund driving which, for the first time in decades, is seeing a decrease in demand. Really, less driving isn't inherently killing public transit, but the way we're responding to it certainly is.


Anonymous said…
Hey, thanks for the add on 20sb! It's nice to see another Cleveland blogger around :-)
I'm a huge proponent of the RTA, but it's definitely obvious that they're facing some tough times. I've already started seeing the backlash of their announcement to cut back on certain routes, and fares are supposed to go up by about $.50. Definitely a downer...
Rob Pitingolo said…
The proposed fare increase certainly is a downer. Just about every transit agency is facing the same challenges, but Cleveland is particularly unique because Cuyahoga County is losing population faster than just about anywhere else in the country.

So even though RTA ridership per capita is about as high as ever, the primary funding source is dwindling and RTA will have a tough time controlling its own destiny.
Anonymous said…
Interesting post - like your thoughts. I saw the link to your blog on the Daily Dish today. I'm a big Sullivan fan too. Anyway, just wanted to show you some blog love and say "keep up the good work." If you're interested, my blog is
Rob Pitingolo said…
Matt, thank you for stopping by - I will certainly give your blog a look.

Popular posts from this blog

In Praise of Southwest's 'C' Boarding Group

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet from someone complaining that their Southwest Airlines boarding pass had been assigned A20 (meaning they would be at least one of the first twenty passengers to board the plane). Apparently this person though they should have been assigned a higher number, less their flight experience be considerably spoiled.

Despite the complaints, Southwest has resisted demands to assign seats on its flights, a decision which I personally applaud. I'll admit that I was skeptical when they rolled out the newest boarding procedure, assigning both boarding groups and a line number; but in hindsight it seems like one of the best operational decisions they've ever made. If nothing else, it effectively eliminated the infamous "cattle call" whereby fliers were getting to airports hours in advance and sitting in line on the floor as if they were waiting for the midnight showing of the new Star Wars movie.

When I was an intern at Southwest Airlines last winter, I…

So You Want to be a Southwest Airlines Intern?

My personal website must have pretty decent SEO - because in the past year, I've received about two dozen emails from aspiring Southwest Airlines interns looking to draw on my experience in search of their own dream internship. In the past two weeks alone a few new emails have already started rolling in...

(from flickr user San Diego Shooter)

If you've found your way here, you might be hoping for the silver bullet; a secret tip that will propel you above the competition. Unfortunately, I do not know any inside secrets. I can only share my experience as an internship candidate about two years ago and, rather than responding individually to future emails I anticipate to receive, I hope that potential interns will find the information posted here valuable.

Understand: Southwest Airlines is a very unique company. The corporate culture at Southwest is truly unlike that of nearly every other company. But you probably already knew that, since it now seems mandatory for every management,…

Commuting Meets Technology

I'm finally out of the dark ages. I got an Android smartphone over the weekend and have since been in the process of exploring the Android apps market.  One thing I've immediately noticed is the really wide range of usefulness in the apps. For example, the WeatherBug app is fantastic. It automatically determines your location and gives you exact conditions for that location. On the other end of the spectrum, Google's Goggles app is supposed to be a type of 'visual search' where you snap of photo of something and Google searches for it. In each of my attempts to use it, the app hasn't returned any search results. I even took a photo of a bottle of Pepsi (figuring it as a common houseful item) and got nothing.

Somewhere in the middle is this app called Waze. Have a look at their 'guided tour':

Some people might look at it and comment on the amazing evolution of technology or on the incredible value of social networks. To me, Waze says something important ab…