Blog Hurray For Transit, But It’s No Silver Bullet

With U.S. gas prices blowing through the roof, transit ridership is growing along with enthusiasm for green vehicles that will run on electricity and liquid fuels, a.k.a. plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs. Cascadia Center has championed expanded transit for Central Puget Sound through proposals for an Eastside commuter rail line adjoining a walking and biking path, and regional passenger-only ferry service.
We will continue to do so. We also back more and better bus service across the region, employer-provided transit such as Microsoft’s outstanding “Connector” service, car and van-pooling, and telecommuting. We see variable-priced highway lanes as essential to capping peak-hour solo drives, and also highlight improved roadway and vehicle technologies to ease congestion and pollution.
But all that said, vehicles are here to stay, and we’d better make them clean and green. That’s where Cascadia Center’s support for PHEVs comes in.
We need green vehicles in part because expanded transit is no silver bullet. Here in environmentally-aware, pro-transit metro Seattle, it’s important to note that although the numbers are ticking upward, transit is used on only a small percentage of all trips within the region. This past October, the Puget Sound Regional Council reported on its 2006 Household Activity Survey. In the fourth item from the top, here, you’ll see that across the four-county Seattle region, transit’s share of 2006 trips is in the low single digits, about four percent based on the bar graph. Single- and multiple-occupant vehicles accounted for 84 percent of trips, with transit, walking and “other” dividing the remaining 16 percent. The four percent estimate is confirmed on p. ES-6 in the survey’s executive summary.
Urban affairs and transportation writer Miro Cernetig of the Vancouver Sun earlier this year discussed Vancouver transit ridership in light of British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell’s bold $14 billion plan to beef up rapid transit rail (SkyTrain station at Burnaby pictured at right) and bus service in the next twelve years.

The premier hopes that by 2020 at least 22 percent of all our travels in Metro Vancouver will be on public transit, up from our current 12 percent.

The far-reaching Campbell is one of our favourite public officials, a North American leader on curtailing man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and using innovative public-private financing models to pay for transit and highway improvements. The current 12 percent transit share for metro Vancouver is quite impressive and 22 or 25 percent would be outstanding.
Especially considering the baseline. A recent USA Today story accenting new highs in transit usage contains a sobering counterpoint left out of most similar stories.

Still, only 5% of workers commute by public transit, according to a U.S. Census survey in 2006. (American Public Transit Association President William) Millar says no more than 20% of households have easy access to buses or trains.

Thanks in part to the gas price jump, which is likely permanent, transit’s share of trips within regions is growing. But many recent media reports focus on percentage growth in transit use versus the recent past, rather than the more revealing share of trips for transit, which remains exceedingly modest in most metro regions.
One response is that increased density will change that. Except that in Puget Sound, as former Washington State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald painstakingly documented in the online newspaper Crosscut, newcomers are moving to the edges of the region more than the inner rings. There is a limit to the coercive power of the government, and also a wide gap between between transit advocacy and current transit market share in most locales.
Suppose transit use in the four counties grew five-fold from the PSRC’s 2006 survey levels, due to high gas prices and growing concerns about man-made greenhouse gas emissions? That would still leave at least four-fifths of trips occurring via non-transit travel modes.
Q: How do we approach this broad segment of intra-regional non-transit using travelers, while easing traffic congestion and carbon-bearing vehicle emissions? A: In a wide variety of ways, including more robust promotion of ride-sharing and telecommuting; plus regional expansion of variable pricing on highway lanes; and encouraging automaker success in developing affordable, reliable green vehicles such as PHEVs. (A PHEV-centric discussion of clean-source electricity versus fossil fuel-derived electricity is found toward the end of this post).
In the meantime, take this to the bank: Beware the man with the silver bullet.