1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
I want to briefly go over each step and why I think it works. Step 1, exclusive right-of-way for transit, insulates the transit from the effects of Steps 2 and 3. The reason that both Step 2 and Step 3 are necessary is because drivers are a fairly diverse bunch. Some are very price-sensitive and will switch to transit as soon as the price hits a certain level, but are willing to sit in traffic indefinitely. Others are time-sensitive and will use whichever mode gets them there quickest, but are willing to pay more for that speed. So unless you hit both 2 and 3, you may not get enough riders to make a profit. And as I wrote before, even if the government pays for the entire cost of the transit system, high ridership is necessary to build a political base for those subsidies.
Turns out I'm not the only one saying this. Last month, L.A. Times columnist David Lazarus talked about it, quoting UCLA's Brian Taylor as saying, "We now keep the cost of driving as cheap as we possibly can. As long as we do that, we won't be able to make public transportation work." Lazarus repeated this in a Marketplace interview. But note that Lazarus - and Taylor - all talk about the cost of driving (Step 3), but not the difficulty of driving (Step 2).
Yonah Freemark gets at this indirectly when discussing ways to make high-speed rail competitive:
There are two ways to encourage people currently relying on road-based transportation to travel by trains: one, lower ticket prices; two, increase speeds.
In the comments to his post I suggested that a third way was to make driving more expensive or less convenient. But really, it's the same as his two ways. The key is that it's relative. To give transit a relative cost advantage, you can make them cheaper, or you can make cars more expensive. To give transit a relative access advantage you can make it faster, or you can make car travel slower.
Really, it's like all competition: you can boost yourself or you can bring your opponent down. You've got four options, and in a given situation any one of those options could be the best one. It depends on the political climate.
|Strong road lobby||Weak road lobby|
|Short-term financial hardship||Transit expansion||Highway toll increase|
|Long-term financial hardship||Transit fare reduction||Highway reduction|
Of course, a weak road lobby could be a small weakness, a chink in the armor. But it doesn't hurt to keep blasting wasteful projects to drive home the point that highways cost a lot of money, and don't necessarily accomplish all that much. If you keep blasting them all, one of them will probably go down.