by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
The most obvious fact of transportation in America in the 21st century is that people overwhelmingly prefer personal automobiles (see chart). Cars offer the greatest range of mobility and fastest arrival at destinations, along with privacy, choice, adaptability to wants and needs, and individuality. This freedom is reflected in a well-known expression for being in control of a situation: to be in the driver’s seat. That is what people prefer, and that choice is what good transportation policy recognizes.
— JLF City & County Issue Guide, 2014
There are plenty of good reasons to encourage mass transit, but arguments about the hidden costs of the automobile fall on deaf ears because people, unconsciously or not, factor time and convenience into their decision making. The average driver knows perfectly well why she drives.
—University of Wisconsin at Green Bay professor Steven Dutch, Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit
I couldn’t help but think about those two pieces when I read the problems Southern California planners are having getting people to ride mass transit.
Charlotte, which is much smaller, has been dealing with the same problem — but for the same reason. People prefer cars to buses and light rail, even other people’s cars via Uber. And don’t think Raleigh will magically avoid this reality.
Here’s what’s going on in one of the few areas of the country where one might expect mass transit to be gaining:
“The overwhelming factor is that, from 2000 to 2015, the region added a lot of automobiles,” says Michael Manville, assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA. …
Southern Californians purchased cars at a rate four times higher than they did during the 1990s. Manville says the rate of car-ownership increased disproportionately among the predominantly poor and foreign-born, demographics that are most likely to ride transit.
That last paragraph is especially surprising.
Naturally, the urge is to ignore people’s choice and try to figure out how to make them switch — to “encourage” drivers to opt for mass transit. Usually such terminology is euphemism for artificial government disincentives and penalties on people choosing the “wrong” option, or subsidies and incentives for choosing the “right” one.
But again, metro areas far, far more population-dense than Wake County can’t sustain rail ridership. Trying to force it here would be a monstrous waste of public resources, as dozens upon dozens of transportation experts and planners have made clear.