Sixty Two Percent of Americans Prioritize Spending on Roads Over Public Transit

Although most Americans drive their cars to work each day, a sizable amount of policy debate centers on public transportation, especially as cities embark on urban planning. A recent Reason-Rupe poll of 1,200 adults on landline and mobile phones finds that 12 percent of Americans take public transportation at least a few times a week and 63 percent say they never take public transit.

Correspondingly, 62 percent of Americans prioritize transportation funding for roads and highways over funding for public transit. Nevertheless, 30 percent—substantially more than those who frequently use public transportation—would prioritize funding for public transit. However, it is unclear whether those who do not take public transit but want to prioritize its spending would personally use public transit if expanded or if they would just want others to use it to reduce traffic congestion.

When getting specific, a third of Americans say public transit funding should be commensurate with the percentage using it; in other words, government should spend the same amount of money per person who takes public transit as those who take roads. Another third believe government should spend more dollars per person using public transit than individuals using roads. In comparison, 15 percent would spend disproportionally more per person using roads. Among those who frequently use public transit to get to work, nearly half believe that more dollars per person should be spent on those using public transportation than those using roads. In contrast, 33 percent of those who primarily commute on roads and highways would rather government spend more dollars per person using roads.

Americans overwhelmingly believe tax dollars spent on transportation are spent ineffectively (65 percent), whereas only 23 percent believe the money is spent well. Interestingly, there are substantial differences between those who take public transit and roads and perceptions of government wastefulness. Sixty six percent of those who commute on roads believe government spends transportation dollars ineffectively, while only 21 percent disagree. In contrast, 41 percent of public transit users believe government does spend effectively.

Find full Reason-Rupe Q4 2011 poll results, question wording, and methodology here.

The Reason-Rupe Q4 2011 poll collected a nationally representative sample of 1,200 respondents, aged 18 and older from all 50 states and the District of Columbia using live telephone interviews from December 1-13. Interviews were conducted on both landline and mobile phones. The margin of sampling error for this poll is +/- 3 percent.

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Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Transit systems should be privately owned and operated with no public funding. AMTRAK is proof enough of that.

  • L_E_S||

    Outside of shipping, when has that ever happened? I guess if you want the state to use eminent domain for privately owned transit systems, which I doubt.

  • BakedPenguin||

    When the railways were built. Amtrak didn't build any rail lines, they took them over from private hands.

  • L_E_S||


    You're are kidding right?

  • BakedPenguin||

    Nope. Railroads were very crony crapitalistic, but they were almost all built by nominally private companies. The TC railroad was an exception.

  • L_E_S||

    'State and local governments often subsidized lines, but rarely owned them'

    Ok, so the problem isn't public funding of the building of track, or continued subsidization of operation, but that Amtrak is owned by the feds? So, the fed sells Amtrak to some idiot, and says the money will keep flowin like it always has, you're problem with Amtrak would be solved?

    It's socialist and dangerous to subsidize labor, and just a tad 'crony' to subsidize capital?

  • L_E_S||

  • Montani Semper Liberi||

    Oh, cool, you can use Wikipedia. Now go look up Great Northern Railway and get back to us.

  • Tonio||

    AMTRAK doesn't own any significant amount of track. They own rolling stock which they run on tracks owned by companies like CSX who found the passenger business unprofitable. My understanding is that there is a must-carry provision which forces CSX (et als) to allow Amtrak trains on their tracks. CSX doesn't like this very much, which is why Amtrak trains wait at sidings a lot while freights go by.

    Foreseeable consequences and all.

  • BakedPenguin||

    My bad.

  • romulus augustus||

    And every Amtrak train gums up the freight railway to the extent they can run one less freight train. That puts about 200 trucks on the interstate, belching pollution. Drop the train,
    take 200 trucks off the highway and
    add maybe 5 luxury buses to carry those too frightened (or fed up with TSA) to fly.

  • Matt||

    Yep. My trip on the Amtrak "starlight express" or whatever it was called was basically exactly like Peter Bagge's comic here:

    It got me from Los Angeles to Oakland in a blistering 18 hours (forget CERN's neutrinos, I think Amtrak might be above C at that rate!).

  • affenkopf||

    Roads should be privately owned as well.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    However, it is unclear whether those who do not take public transit but want to prioritize its spending would personally use public transit if expanded or if they would just want others to use it to reduce traffic congestion.

    Straphangers + treehuggers + shut-ins + selfish drivers = 30%.

  • ||

    Sounds like it could be an Onion article, doesn't it?

  • ||

    Well, I use roads, at least.

  • Flex Nasty B.I.G.||

    Why does Reason take a position on public roads vs. public mass transit? It hardly seems libertarian to promote one over the other. It's like arguing that we ought to increase public spending on Government Coke and reduce spending on Government Pepsi. The position that makes sense to me is to push for privatization of both, to remove them from the political sphere and allow consumers to choose for themselves.

    I suspect this has something to do with the foundation's donor base? Please do enlighten me, if I'm mistaken.

  • ||

    I don't know for sure, but I get the impression that they accept road funding as part of the status quo. Maybe something to change someday, but an accomplished fact of life. And roads have a definite utility and don't require the level of subsidizing that mass transit does, which I think is their big beef.

  • ||

    Why does Reason take a position on public roads vs. public mass transit?

    Roads as a domain of the sovereign go way, way back. Building, maintaining, etc. is a traditional exercise of sovereignty predating the Constitution. Plus, Somalia.

    Mass transit funded with tax dollars? Not so much.

  • Apatheist||

    If the government is spending the money it should be spent efficiently.

    Besides, she is just reporting poll results. Your problem is with the American public.

    Why you think this has anything to do with the foundation's donor base is beyond me.

  • ||

    Very good, Apatheist, you'll be first in line to recieve the new, improved gambol-filtering monocle.

  • BakedPenguin||

    In addition to the above comments, they also like to promote a more rational way to do things. There were a fair amount of threads related to Bjorn Lomborg, who shares many of the same goals as the average progressive, but promotes a cost / benefit method of responding to perceived problems, actually looking at what might be effective rather than just taking the favorite "solution" de jour and pimping it. Naturally, progressives hate him with a burning passion.

  • ||

    I took the point as the government should be spending public money on things the majority of the public actually wants. The survey is exposing yet another area of government spending that seems to be controlled by cockeyed math and Puritanical lifestyle cops.

  • Market Urbanism||

    A Reason poll shows more people want to spend other peoples money on socialist highways than on socialist transit. Great, thanks.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Thanks for posting MU. I realized I haven't stopped by your blog in at least a month. Always good stuff over there.

  • Brendan||

    The reason for the difference was explained here:,1434/

  • ||

    What do you gus think? Should roads be privately owned, or is it acceptable for government to own/operate them?

  • ||

    Depends which govt and what roads, RPA. IMO, federal govt should be out of the roads business except those on federal lands (ie, military bases). If city/county govts want to operate roads, that's fine, but I believe that residents should be able to democratically privatize those roads. State govt - hmmm.

  • wareagle||

    I have no issue with govt doing roads; one of its usually-agreed upon roles is as provider of infrastructure, toward which we pay things like gasoline taxes. If those tax receipts are misused, that is another argument. It does not seem practical for roads to be a private venture though some housing areas go that route; seems logistically difficult to do on a mass scale.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    I would like to see roads privatized. At least at a minimum, I would like to see the federal highway system privatized. Of course, DC likes to use highway funds as leverage to get states to comply with various federal mandates. I imagine that many municipalities would like to be relieved of the burden of road maintenance as well (so they aren't beholden to state governments). Actually, yeah, privatize the whole fucking thing. Everyone wins.

  • Mike M.||

    I imagine that many municipalities would like to be relieved of the burden of road maintenance as well (so they aren't beholden to state governments). Actually, yeah, privatize the whole fucking thing. Everyone wins.

    No private entity is ever going to buy a road unless they can potentially make some money off the thing. That means tolls. Are you going to have a toll booth on every municipal block?

    It's one thing to have a manageable highway like the Dulles Greenway, but the idea of municipal roads all being in private hands is stupid and completely unworkable.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Are you going to have a toll booth on every municipal block?

    Local roads would most likely be owned and maintained by neighborhood associations (residential streets), and business improvement districts (commercial avenues). I suppose some residential streets could charge a toll, but that would make travel impractical, even for the resident owners (thus lowering property values). Business districts could charge a toll, but that would also seriously hurt access to the businesses (thus hurting sales). So, sure, if these folks want to put a toll booth on every block, go for it.

    Also, open your mind. Just because you have a hard time with new concepts and ideas doesn't mean they are stupid and completely unworkable.

  • ||


  • James C. Bennett||

    How about, "Ideally, the roads should be privately owned. However, road privatization should be the very lowest priority on the libertarian wish-list."

  • ||

    Privatized. Don't see much need for government funding, especially federal government funding.

    I suppose making the transition could be a bitch.

  • BakedPenguin||

    It would be better if they were private, but it's hardly the most pressing thing on the list.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Or what RC Dean said.

  • Matt||

    Roads should be privately owned, operated, and maintained. This would lead to better allocation of funding than we have now, where the direction and route that various highways take has more to do with political interests from powerful politicians than any actual need (see the reasontv video from a while back documenting this).

    Most highways would probably move to toll roads, while surface streets would probably be built and maintained by collectives of local businesses (who rely on those roads to bring in customers).

    Unlike the government the private organizations maintaining these roads have very strong incentives to make sure they are running smoothly. The government has no such incentives and couldn't give a damn about traffic.

  • ||

    Tell you what. After we have gotten rid of the welfare state, the warfare state, and the regulatory state, that would be a good time to talk about privatizing roads.

  • ||

    That's kind of where I am on this. First things first.

  • ||

    Yeah, no shit -- I was just curious.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Privatizing roads could be a good teaching tool, however. There are already good examples in the US, between toll roads, PUD's, etc. Maybe if people saw that one essential government service was privatized, and the country didn't turn into SOMALIA, they would be more trusting of finding private (market) solutions to welfare, warfare, etc.

  • ||

    Of course, if we could get this country back on track--very limited government, free markets--we'd have little need for roads, with our AI-controlled flying cars.

  • ||

    I thought you said "Al Gore-controlled flying cars". That would be through my internet.


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