Public transportation

Paper: Public Transportation Can Work — If We Punish Private Drivers

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Bus

Apparently, Americans' might be broken of their love affairs with nasty, take-you-where-you-want-to-go, when-you-want-to-go, automobiles and taught to love lovely, communal bus and train timetables, through some simple, if unpopular, policy changes. That's the conclusion of a study published by Transport Reviews Journal, which compares the post-World War 2 experiences of Germany and the United States in shifting back to civilian economies and the divergent policies that resulted in different travel habits among the populations. What the paper doesn't delve into, however, is why Americans, or anybody else, should consider doing anything of the sort.

In Demand for Public Transport in Germany and the USA: An Analysis of Rider Characteristics (PDF), by Virginia Tech's Ralph Buehler and Rutgers University's John Pucher, made available by theNewspaper, there's a lot of data about public transportation usage, taxes and regulatory differences between the two countries, but the money quote is the very last sentence:

Without the necessary policies to restrict car use and make it more expensive, American public transport is doomed to remain a marginal means of transport, used mainly by those who have no other choice.

In terms of usage, the paper points out that Americans have much lower usage of public transport than most other developed countries:

The largest increase in public transport mode share for work commuters was in Germany, rising from about 13% in 1993 to 16% in 2008. The censuses for Canada and Australia report slight increases in public transport mode share over the past two decades, while mode share declined in Ireland. There has been almost no change in the share of American workers commuting by public transport, remaining about 5%, a third as high as the share in Germany.

Car

There are a lot of policy choices the German goverment has used to drive passengers to its transport systems, in preference to private cars, but a combination of taxes, fees and outright restrictions have been key. By example, the average sales tax for a new car in the U.S. is 4.9 percent, while it's 19 percent all across Germany. Drivers licenses cost about $100 in the U.S. and $2,000 in Germany. About 15 percent of the price paid by Americans for gasoline is tax, compared to 61 percent in Germany. And German governments ban cars from many downtown areas and restrict the availability of parking spaces, which are subsequently more expensive.

So, by design, driving a car in Germany is a pricey proposition, and potentially prohibitive unless you have a lot of cash to burn. Of course Germans look for alternatives. But while Buehler and Pucher seem pretty clear on the policy path that led Germany to where it is today, transportation-wise, they never tell us why that emphasis on public transport should be preferred over one on private means or, even better, simply letting people make their own choices and shoulder their own costs.

Here's a thought: If people will choose what you want them to choose only if you artificially hike the price and restrict the availability of alternatives, you might want to do some soul-searching about your personal comfort level with twisting people's arms.

See also, Brian Doherty's take on light rail, and Calvin Thompson's look at public transit's ongoing troubles in the U.S.