The latest Eric Morris Freakonomics post, which I hate, got picked by Stephen Dubner for Marketplace Radio's weekly Freakonomics segment. Kai Ryssdal's interview, and whoever wrote the Marketplace headline, trashed Morris's carefully constructed pox-on-both-houses framing and turned it into a standard Tom Rubin muddle-headed transit advocates attack.
As I said last week, the funniest thing is that Morris's general thrust is actually the main point that I've been hammering at for years. That said, given his earlier writing, I'm not sure that Morris didn't want all along to write a muddle-headed transit advocates attack, but then ditched it for the pox-on-both-houses frame. If his point was really that we should have congestion pricing, he sure buried it. So here's the article Eric Morris should have written - or at least what I would have written.
A major reason for supporting transit expansion is that increased transit use will draw people out of their cars and thus reduce pollution and help save the environment. That part is true, but we have to be very careful how we do this, because transit expansion will not automatically lead to increased transit use and decreased car use.
Increasing transit service without increasing its use can even be counterproductive: today in the United States, the average bus trip requires more energy than the average car trip, because the average bus only has about ten passengers. If the energy powering transit comes from a dirty source, like coal or diesel, it can compound the problem. Environmental advocates not only need to get more transit, but they need to make sure people ride it.
The key to this is realizing that if transit is going to get people out of their cars, they have to choose it over driving. When people choose to make a habit out of taking the bus or the train, it's because it provides a greater value than driving. When people choose to live in a place with convenient transit access instead of choosing to buy a car, it's because they want that transit-oriented lifestyle. Instead of just building transit, environmental advocates need to make it a greater value and a more attractive lifestyle. Here are five ways we can do that:
1. Stop building roads that compete with transit systems. Last year a faithful reader wrote a post about disappointingly low ridership on seven new commuter rail lines. For each of these lines I was able to find a parallel road expansion that had been built at roughly the same time, increasing the value of driving and keeping people in their cars.
2. Give transit its own right-of-way. Transit systems that operate in mixed traffic - buses and streetcars, typically - have very little advantage over driving. When transit can get through a bottleneck quicker than private cars, it offers greater value. The highest-ridership bus systems in the country all make use of a single high-capacity queue-jumper, the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane.
3. Charge market prices for driving-related expenses. Those Lincoln Tunnel buses are all competing (and winning) against high tunnel tolls. There is no easy way to drive from New Jersey into Manhattan without paying the tolls. Similarly with heavily subsidized purchases of gas and parking. You'd be surprised at how much better the bus looks if you have to pay five dollars for an hour of parking.
4. Sunset your park-and-ride lots. Having people drive to the bus or train may bring down the "cost per new rider" numbers, but the longer people drive to transit, the more pollution they emit. They will also probably drive for most evening and weekend trips. It may be strategically appropriate to build a park-and-ride to get people riding the new line right away, but the plan should be to get rid of the park-and-rides as soon as possible.
5. Legalize true transit-oriented development. The best way to keep people from driving to the station is to make it so that they can live near the station and walk to all their daily shopping needs. Sadly, in most of the country it is illegal to build an apartment building with a supermarket on the ground floor a block from a train station. We need to change that.
Of these five principles, Morris focused on number 3, charging market prices. That makes sense, since Freakonomics is mostly about prices, but at least three of the other factors are also Freakonomics-worthy. Number 1, keeping the road supply down, and number 4, keeping the parking supply down, are central to economic theory. Market prices tend to be lower when supply is higher. Number 5, legalize transit-oriented development, fits with Steven Levitt's libertarian leanings. Number 2, giving transit its own right-of-way, is the only one that requires substantial state intervention.
The main reason you didn't see these factors on Freakonomics, I'm guessing, is because they're not condescending or snarky enough for them. Sorry, guys.