If You Build It, They Won’t Come: The Failure of Field of Dreams Transit Planning

Following decades of excessive local government fare regulation that led to a terminal decline in the private mass transit industry, government began taking over the responsibilities performed by now-bankrupt private mass transit companies following the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. Over the span of a decade, the mostly-private mass transit industry was largely replaced by government transit monopolies.

Since then, politicians at the federal, state, and local levels have poured trillions of dollars of taxpayer funds into mass transit systems. By 2014, 28 percent of total surface transportation funds were spent on mass transit, with the majority of those dollars coming from fuel taxes paid by drivers. Yet, despite receiving more than one-fourth of the funding, mass transit still represents less than 2 percent of trips taken nationwide. Even when one looks only at commuting, where trains and buses do best, mass transit’s national mode share is less than 5 percent—down from more than 6 percent in 1980.

But transit is expensive, say the transit advocates, and the problem is much of the funding has been wasted on bells-and-whistles and not extending access to new potential customers. This is to say, the problem is that transit networks just aren’t extensive or robust enough. Therefore, we need to build more capacity in order to tap into this alleged latent demand. If you build it, they will come.

As it turns out, this appears to be yet another falsehood peddled by the transit lobby. Steven Polzin of the University of South Florida, coauthor with Alan Pisarski of the highly influential Commuting in America series, yesterday published a devastating critique of Field of Dreams transit theology. Polzin notes:

An often-cited constraint on the growth of public transit has been the assertion of resource constraints for providing the quality of service that would be attractive to more travelers who have other options. While transit supply remains well below the aspirational levels of many transit users and transit advocates, the data in the graph below indicates that supply has grown far more rapidly than demand for the past several decades. This is a report card on productivity that mom and dad would hardly be proud of. And a larger share of the ridership has moved to more capital intensive (and larger vehicle capacity) rail systems.

The source data for Polzin’s chart above can be found in the American Public Transportation Association’s 2015 Public Transportation Fact Book, Appendix A, Table 2 and Table 8. The trillions spent on mass transit have given governments many more empty buses and trains, but very little in terms of additional ridership. (Note also the irony of transit boosters obsessing over induced demand for highways. If only mass transit construction could induce demand for transit…)

As Polzin goes on to note, per capita mass transit ridership has been flat for the past 45 years (see his chart below). So, even when mass transit agencies tout absolute ridership increases, the (lack of) importance of transit to the typical American is essentially unchanged.

Mass transit can serve a very important, albeit narrow, purpose for people in limited settings. There is a reason that 40 percent of all U.S. mass transit trips take place in the New York City metro area. But it is wholly irresponsible for politicians to continue mass transit’s taxpayer gravy train, which is based on less substance than Kevin Costner’s dramatized auditory hallucinations. Fiscally responsible politicians should take to heart the other line from transit boosters’ favorite film and ease our pain.