- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2001

As a recent study of 68 urban areas by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) demonstrates, rush hour isanything but. "The last time that 'rush hour actually lasted that long," concluded TTI, "Richard Nixon was the president, lava lamps were popular and Rowan & Martins 'Laugh-In was the hottest show on TV."
Nowadays, rush hour consumes up to six hours of the day in most cities, including Metro Detroit, causing massive driver frustration. TTI claims such congestion is costing the nation $78 billion a year, including 4.5 billion hours of extra travel time and 6.8 billion gallons of fuel wasted while sitting in traffic.
Pro-mass transit forces have seized on the TTI study as yet another reason — on top of soaring gasoline prices — to get Americans out of their cars and into buses, trains and subways. Within hours of the TTI study, the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) in Washington hustled out a report asserting that while road capacity had increased almost 15 percent in the last five years, population grew only 11.4 percent. "This strongly suggests the rise in congestion is caused by increased driving and not a shortage of roads," concluded STPP.
If you only build it, goes the theory, people will come. Alas, the facts strongly suggest otherwise. Transit use may have climbed in recent years, but it remains in long-term decline. Indeed, it accounts for a mere 1.6 percent of total urban rides (with New York accounting for a third of that). In only a few cities do more than 10 percent of commuters use mass transit. Thus even a doubling of mass transit would scarcely make a dent in automobile use.
Economist Randall OToole, who has studied transit issues for the Thoreau Institute, a market-oriented think tank, found that while traffic congestion is indeed increasing, it has grown even more rapidly in cities, such as New York, Washington and San Francisco, where mass transit has been a priority. According to TTIs own data, the most rapid growth in congestion has occurred in none other than Portland, Ore., which is generally lauded as a model of what planners are pleased to call "smart growth."
Thats not to say simply building more highways will solve the problem. But it might help, as even TTI carefully noted. Yes, the new highways will soon fill up. But what of it? This reflects the distinct preference most people have for cars over buses or trains, which seldom go where you want when you want. As real-world commuters tend to see it, congestion is one of the prices they pay for having a car at their command and being able to live in nice surroundings distant from the office downtown.
In other words, for average Americans, the benefits tend to outweigh the costs. Thats true even if you take government subsidies into account, argues Mr. OToole. Virtually all of the cost of building and maintaining highways comes out of gasoline taxes. The people who use the roads pay for them. Less than a penny per mile traveled comes out of general taxpayer funds compared with more than 40 cents per mile that taxpayers must fork over on behalf of the few people who use mass transit.
Mass transit certainly makes sense in a few places like New York, whose suburbs are denser than many American cities. And some day, Americans may decide they have had enough and seek the kind of living patterns in which fixed rail systems and buses make economic sense. But as a former denizen of New York, I always ask those who complain about automobile congestion at rush hour in other cities this question: Have you ridden a hot, smelly, jammed New York subway car at rush hour lately?

Tom Bray is a columnist with the Detroit News.


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