Mass Transit: Preferred over Cars, Except When It Isn’t

Data show that when people have a choice between a bus and a car, they opt for the latter.

Photo Credit: Getty

For decades, environmentalists and urban planners have been on a mission to get Americans out of their cars and on to buses, light rail, commuter trains, bicycles, their feet, and, these days, even electric scooters. For reasons that have shifted over time from the Arab oil embargo to smog to climate change, advocates have pushed a similar suite of policies to make mass transit more attractive than private car ownership. The world of anti-car advocacy is also full of arguments that transit activists will be treated as liberators by millions of Americans who secretly hate driving, disdain the country’s low-density suburbs, and desperately yearn for an authentic big-city subway experience.

So why don’t these millions of supposedly self-loathing motorists make the jump? The pro-mass-transit argument is that while most Americans do want to move from cars to mass transit, they’re unable to because they’ve been failed by generations of “car-brained planners” and politicians who have spent all the available transportation budget dollars on freeways rather than communal mobility options. What we need, we’re told, is more government investment in transit infrastructure. This would include lowering transit fares and shrugging off concerns about cost recovery from users (and ignoring the fiscal cliff created by the long-term liabilities of U.S. mass transit, let alone its short-term problems in cities such as New York).

A recent article for Fast Company provided some fascinating data relevant to this debate. The piece describes the experience of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which decided a decade ago to drop all of its fares for local residents on buses, trains, and trams inside the city (visitors still pay). This was not primarily designed as an environmental initiative to lure people out of their cars and onto other transit modes. Rather, it was portrayed by its supporters as an economic-justice measure, letting the city’s lowest-income residents (who probably couldn’t afford a car in the first place) get around without having to pay. In reality, grubbier pork-barrel considerations almost certainly counted for much more.

That said, in a weeklong citywide referendum held in 2013, 75 percent of Tallinn’s voters approved of the elimination of fares. Then again, only 20 percent of them bothered to vote. Regardless, Tallinn’s move has been praised as an enlightened, forward-thinking measure that will be good for both the environment and society at large. A 2021 story from the environmental website Grist in particular celebrated how Tallinn’s transit pricing has “incentivized” suburbanites to move into the city center, and the socialist magazine Jacobin was particularly effusive, claiming that fare-free public transit like Tallinn’s is both “socially just” and “politically transformative.”

Read the full article on National Review.