NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 27, 2004

Public mass transit is not the solution to traffic congestion, says Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution. Most Americans live in low-density areas that mass transit cannot efficiently serve. Furthermore, he says "The privately owned vehicles are more comfortable, faster, more private, more convenient in trip timing, and more flexible for doing multiple tasks on one trip than almost any form of public transit."

This is true worldwide, says Down: As incomes rise, people switch to private automobiles and trucks. In the United States, there is little that public transit can do to alleviate traffic congestion:

  • In the year 2000, 89.3 percent of Americans used private vehicles in their daily commute, while only 4.7 percent used public transit -- outside of New York City, only 3.5 percent.
  • If existing public transit were TRIPLED and used to its full capacity, road congestion would be reduced by only 8 percent, as drivers changed their commuting habits in response to less congested traffic conditions.
  • A survey by the National Association of Homebuilders of indicated that a substantial majority (83 percent) of Americans prefer to live in the suburbs, as opposed to high-density urban areas near mass transit.

However, there are steps that can alleviate congestion without dramatically altering driving habits, including:

  • Creating high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that would allow those in a hurry to a choice without keeping lower-income drivers off the road.
  • Building more roads in peripheral areas to respond to population growth.
  • Speeding the flow of traffic with the use of Intelligent Transportation System devices (electronic freeway signs, GPS equipment in cars and trucks, and better coordination of signal lights).

Finally, Downs notes that congestion is often the outcome of economic prosperity, and only a severe economic recession would substantially reduce the problem.

Source: Anthony Downs, "Traffic: Why It's Getting Worse, What Government Can Do," Policy Brief No. 128, January 2004, Brookings Institution.


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