America in the midst of a transit revival?

Articles like this one might give that impression.

As gas prices hit record highs during the third quarter of 2005 ââ?¬â?? reaching an unprecedented $3.05 in California on Sept. 9 ââ?¬â?? Americans jumped on public transit, 3.3 percent more than they did the year before, according to the American Public Transportation Association. APTA’s report also found a decline ââ?¬â?? albeit a small one ââ?¬â?? in how much people used their cars during that period, reporting a 0.2 percent decrease in miles traveled and the amount of times Americans parked their cars.

Every year we hear about studies like this. This 2002 article from Brookings’ Anthony Downs looks at a different study from a few years back:

A new day has dawned in American travel: Transit is gaining sway over highway travel. That’s what some public transit advocates have been claiming, based on a Surface Transportation Policy Project report in December 2000 that showed public transit boardings rose 4.8 percent in 1999 while vehicle miles of driving rose only 2.1 percent. Then, after reporting last November that there were larger percentage increases in transit usage than highway travel in 2000 and 2001, STPP said, “No precedent exists for this massive shift in travel behavior.” A less partisan view shows these claims are exaggerated.

Downs gives two background facts:

First, a significant percentage of all public transit travel occurs in the New York City area and on its MTA, which accounts for 20 percent of all U.S. transit passenger miles and more than 27 percent of all unlinked passenger trips. So, although about 5 percent of all commuting is done by public transit, that fraction is only 2.2 percent outside New York. Second, the absolute amount of total travel in private automobiles dwarfs public transit’s totals: In 2000, transit provided about 46.6 billion miles of movement while passenger miles traveled in the same year on highways totaled about 4 trillionââ?¬â??2.5 trillion in cars and another 1.5 trillion in small trucks and SUVs. That’s 86 times greater than passenger miles on transit. In fact, transit’s share of all passenger miles traveled in the U.S. from 1985 through 2000 averaged only 1.26 percent. Consequently, even very small percentage gains in highway travel involve vastly larger absolute increases in miles traveled than much larger percentage gains in transit travel. In 1999, a year about which STPP said that “growth in public transit exceeds growth in driving,” total transit travel grew by about 1.7 billion passenger miles. But growth in car passenger miles was at least 51 billion miles and that in small private vehicles (excluding motorcycles and buses) was at least 80 billion miles. (These totals may be low because I adjusted the official data downward to reflect STPP’s estimates of percentage gains.) Thus, the annual increases in highway passenger miles traveled in 1999 exceeded those in transit passenger miles by ratios of either 31 or 48 to 1. That hardly indicates that growth in transit was exceeding growth in driving. True, transit usage has had a notable recent growth spurt. Between 1985 and 1995, transit usage declined in every year but 1989, falling overall from 8.6 billion trips to 7.8 billion, or by 10 percent. Then in 1996, transit usage began rising, reaching 9.3 billion trips in 2000ââ?¬â??a gain of 20 percent over 1995. But driving travel was also increasing in that period. Although auto gains were smaller in percentage terms–11.9 percent–they were massively larger than transit gains in absolute terms: 425 billion passenger miles versus 9 billion. Thus, even during this period of transit’s resurgence, 98 percent of the increase in total passenger miles traveled occurred on highways. Transit advocates may hope that if transit continues to grow faster than highway travel in percentage terms, transit may eventually attain a much greater share of total passenger miles. But transit has two handicaps in this “race.” It starts with a very low shareââ?¬â??1.15 percent in 2000ââ?¬â??and total passenger travel on highways is rising all the time. A simple simulation model shows that if both types of travel start with their 2000 absolute levels, and transit usage increases 5.36 percent per year (its highest recent annual rate of gain) and highway travel gains only 1 percent per year, then the share of transit in total ground passenger miles would not reach 5 percent until 2036. Even if highway driving did not rise at all while transit did, transit would not reach 5 percent of all ground passenger miles until 2029. If transit usage rises at its actual compound annual growth rate from 1995 to 2000 (3.74 percent) and highway travel rises at its similar rate (2.27 percent), transit would not reach a 5 percent share until the next century.

Another bit of perspective on the ongoing transit revival: Telecommuters outnumber transit commuters in 27 of the top 50 metro areas, and that’s with roughly zero public dollars going to telecommuting.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.