The problem with mass transit

| January 11, 2010

How it looks in the planners' minds.

One fundamental economic problem with mass transit is that it rarely, if ever, is financially self-sufficient. This is usually explained away with something like, “Well, if we get enough people riding it, the benefit to the environment will be worth it.” Besides the fact that this generally isn’t true, there’s the additional problem that when (a) fuel prices go up and/or (b) economic times get tough, mass transit fares go up and services face cutbacks — right at the time when mass transit would might make more sense.

(Another fundamental problem is that mass transit, like most ‘alternative energy’ sources, lacks the density, carrying capacity, and convenience to make it worthwhile. But that’s another discussion.)

California, which never saw a green idea it didn’t like (and totally screw up), is facing this problem with mass transit right now (hat tip to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit):

For three years, Veronique Selgado took BART from the East Bay to her job working for an airline at San Francisco International Airport. But she recently switched to driving because BART raised fares and upped its SFO round-trip surcharge from $3 to $8, boosting her daily trip cost to nearly $20.

“It’s outrageous,” Selgado said. “At what point do they stop raising the prices,  when it’s $50 a day to go round-trip to work? At what point does BART stand back and say, ‘People can’t pay that much to commute’?”

One of the comments to the article points to this Onion classic:

WASHINGTON, DC–A study released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association reveals that 98 percent of Americans support the use of mass transit by others.

“With traffic congestion, pollution, and oil shortages all getting worse, now is the time to shift to affordable, efficient public transportation,” APTA director Howard Collier said. “Fortunately, as this report shows, Americans have finally recognized the need for everyone else to do exactly that.”

Of the study’s 5,200 participants, 44 percent cited faster commutes as the primary reason to expand public transportation, followed closely by shorter lines at the gas station. Environmental and energy concerns ranked a distant third and fourth, respectively.

Note that I lived in and around Washington DC for eight years and was a great fan of the Metro system — but I still have to admit it’s poorly run, poorly maintained, and heavily subsidized.  ..bruce..

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Category: Economics, Environment

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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