NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 25, 1997

The notion that the solution to our traffic and pollution woes lies on two tracks is a favorite in some circles, but analysts say that public transportation has not reduced either congestion or pollution, despite massive subsidies.

Even though public transit service has increased over the past three decades, ridership from 1965 to 1995 continued to decline:

  • Bus service increased from 1,500 million miles annually to around 2,200 million.
  • Heavy rail service increased from under 400 million miles to over 500 million, and light rail stayed flat at about 40 million.
  • Passengers per vehicle mile fell from 4.0 to below 3.0, and the number of passenger trips fell from 7.9 billion to 7.8 billion annually.

Air quality has improved, but the evidence shows that it is not due to mass transit.

  • Over the past 20 years ambient carbon monoxide has dropped by about 50 percent.
  • On a per-vehicle-mile basis, a car built today emits 97 percent less hydrocarbons, 97 percent less carbon monoxide and 90 percent less nitrogen oxide than a car built in 1970.
  • Mass transit typically runs at 20 percent of passenger capacity; therefore its energy efficiency is about the same as automobiles -- indicating it does little to reduce air pollution.

However public transit has required massive subsidies for construction and operations.

  • Cumulative federal, state and local subsidies from 1964 to 1995 were more than $150 billion.
  • Public transit relies on taxpayers for 67 cents of every dollar spent, says the American Public Transit Association.
  • By comparison, highway users pay 66 cents of every dollar government spends on roads -- and including taxes that go to general funds, road users pay 150 percent of costs.

Thus even when such external costs as air pollution and congestion are included, transit fares poorly compared to the automobile. According to the environmentalist Natural Resources Defense Council, the total social cost of transit is two to three times that of cars.

Source: John Semmens, "Public Transit: A Worthwhile Investment?" Arizona Issue Analysis No. 144, April 25, 1997, Goldwater Institute, 201 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85004, (602) 256-7018.


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