The Mirage That’s Driving Mass Transit Expansion
If you build mass transit, they will come. That “Field of Dreams” thinking is one of the operating assumptions behind the unprecedented federal and state spending spree on public transportation. The Biden administration is doling out as much as $108 billion on mass transit, while states are planning enormous new projects of all kinds. As a working group established by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently put it, “Public transit is a must have to attract and retain younger residents.”
But it’s simply not true. Mass transit has long been touted as a draw, especially the younger generations that states and cities covet. Yet this belief is just that — not borne out by evidence. While public polling has long indicated that young people support public transportation in the abstract, their behavior reveals otherwise. Young people, like previous generations, use cars a lot more than buses, light rail, or any other mass-transit option.
Here are the facts. Despite decades of government spending on public transportation, costing untold billions of taxpayer dollars, a pathetic 3 percent of Americans use it to commute to work, according to the Census Bureau. That number cracks 5 percent in just four states — New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Nationwide, Americans are 25 times more likely to commute using their personal vehicle than they are to use mass transit.
Young people are no exception. If public transportation were a large draw for young adults, then why would Vermont have the highest net migration of any state for people between the ages of 18 and 29? A mere 0.6 percent of Vermont residents use mass transit. Young people want lots of things, and having a bus stop or metro station down the street is typically far from their top concern. They prize good-paying jobs, a strong community, and 1,000 other things that make a good life.
Young people are increasingly finding what they want outside of the cities where mass transit may make the most sense. Millennials were fleeing to the suburbs even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that only accelerated after cities shut down and crime spiked. As previously reported, “In the largest 50 metropolitan regions in the country, the suburbs gained 1.8 million people while cities lost 655,000 people from 2019 to 2022.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, and municipal COVID policies, may have chased people out of the cities and into the suburbs. It also drove people off buses and trains, and transit ridership hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. Nationwide, public transportation utilization rates are about 70 percent of what they were four years ago. Federal and state policymakers should ask what can be done to get people where they want to go. The answer is unlikely to be: “Build new streetcar systems and run more empty buses along existing routes.”
Mass transit needs a rethink so that transit serves people’s needs, not the dreams of transit advocates. What it doesn’t need is a massive infusion of taxpayer money. Yet that’s what everyone from the Biden administration to the Whitmer administration in Michigan focuses on: spending billions on “what we have already” projects. It’s a guaranteed way to waste the taxpayers’ money, funding new buses, trains, and subways that sit idle or empty while more and more people drive to work.
That includes the young people, who, policymakers say, are most interested in 21st-century public transportation. America’s transit systems waste money on a massive scale without solving people’s transportation needs. It’s a mirage to think that building even more, at an even higher cost, will take us to a different destination.
Editor’s note: This piece, posted Jan. 22, 2024, originally appeared in The American Spectator November 20, 2023.