Out of Control Policy Blog

Auto-Mobility Trumps Transit--Even on a Bike

I've had two really important "ah-hah" moments during the last couple of years of transportation research (and building on two decades of urban policy research). One was when I was conducting research on travel patterns in Manhattan and the other four boroughs. It turns out, Manhattan is not so much a transit city as it is a walking city.

The second was when Adrian Moore and I traveled to China and studied transportation investments and travel choice. More than a third of trips in many Chinese cities are by bicycle. In Chengdu, public transit was a small share of overall travel, with bikes and walking capturing the lionshare of travel trips. While Chinese policy was focused on trying to boost transit ridership, we were skeptical because they were trying to substitute a less flexible and adaptable transportation choice (rail and bus) for a more adaptible and flexible one (bikes, walking, automobiles).

So, when I read the following article about the rise of bicycle ridership in DC in the wake of high gas prices, I was intrigued by the following comment by the author, Washington Post reporter Moira McLaughlin:

I don't mind public transportation, but I like the flexibility afforded by a bike. Walking is all right, too, but I'd take my eight-minute morning bike ride over a 20-minute trek.

That's why public transit is what economists call an inferior good. As incomes go up, the demand for mobility increases. Even bikes give us more flexiblity that transit.

The universal preference for mobility is a central theme of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Gloablly Competitive 21st Century due out this fall from Rowman & Littlefield, and written by myself and Adrian Moore. Stay tuned!

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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