Policy Position

Public Transit

in Government Regulation

Introduction

In 2016, North Carolina’s state and local governments spent well over $200 million on public transportation. However, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, only 1.1 percent of North Carolina’s workers commuted by public transportation. That’s even fewer than the 1.9 percent of people who walked. Around 80 percent commuted alone by car, with an additional 10 percent carpooling.

Most transit systems consist of some combination of buses, bus rapid transit (BRT), commuter rail, and light rail. BRT utilizes dedicated bus lanes, fixed stations, and priority treatment at traffic signals, among other features, to improve the speed of bus service. Commuter rail operates on the same tracks used by Amtrak and freight companies. Light rail requires new track and is, therefore, more expensive to construct.

All of these share a similar set of problems. Except in the densest of cities, none of which is in North Carolina, too few people live and work close enough to bus or rail stops to make them useful. Because of the distances from homes or offices to bus and rail stations, most people still need to drive at one or both ends of a journey. At the very least, this necessitates large amounts of land for parking, which increases the cost and decreases the convenience of public transit. Furthermore, these drives to and from bus or train stations add to the overall time and cost involved in using public transit. When these are considered, public transit may be more time-consuming than driving.

Additionally, public transit is less convenient for most people. Commuters don’t just go to work; they pick up children, dinner, or groceries, but those are detours that public transit cannot accommodate well. For most people, transit will remain a slower and less convenient form of transportation than private cars.

Despite being slower and less convenient, it is also expensive. Price tags easily run into the billions of dollars, usually requiring funding from sales taxes, bonds, fees, and state and federal grants. What tends to constitute a miniscule percentage of funding is farebox revenue. And, usually, there is no expectation that farebox revenue will ever contribute a significant amount to the finances of a transit system.

Key Facts

  • In 2016, North Carolina’s state and local governments spent well over $200 million on public transportation.
  • A 2016 survey of transit users found that frequency and travel time were the most important factors determining satisfaction with transit services. People need to be able to rely on a service that is there when it’s needed, rather than having to plan their lives around a bus or train schedule.
  • Transit functions well only in the densest cities, where people live, work, play, or conduct business within walking distance of stops. The average density of the 50 U.S. cities with the highest rates of transit use is 8,407 per square mile. North Carolina’s 10 largest cities have an average density of 2,284. North Carolina cities simply do not have the density necessary for successful transit.
  • Public transit systems require massive subsidies forever. They never become anywhere close to self-sustaining. Wake County’s recently approved transit plan, for example, called for a 96 percent subsidy in perpetuity.

Recommendations

  1. Use scarce transportation dollars to meet the needs of taxpayers, not attempt to change their preferences or behavior. Until a significant number of people across the state are using existing transit systems, taxpayers should not be asked to foot the bill for even more services that will be underutilized, inconvenient, and expensive.
  2. If money is indeed going to be spent on public transit at all, it should be focused on standard buses. Unlike BRT or rail, which have fixed routes and stations, buses are flexible and can be changed quickly, easily, and at little cost, as communities grow, change, and develop. Buses are the most practical and best value for taxpayers.

Data

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