THE MARRIAGE OF TRANSIT AND AUTOS:
How to Make Transit Popular Again
By Melvin M. Webber
Melvin M. Webber is Professor Emeritus of planning at
the University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1720 and the
former director of the University of California
Cars have become the overwhelmingly favorite
transportation mode in all the developed countries, and
they're rapidly taking over in the rest of the world, as
well. They've been one of the most powerful forces for
economic and social change wherever they've been adopted,
changing the ways we do business, the ways we live out our
daily lives, and probably the ways we think. Like telephones,
autos have the fantastic capacity to shrink geographic
distance, permitting people to maintain close contact with
each other, even though they live miles apart. They've made
it possible for most of us to leave the old urban centers and
move into decent houses in the spacious suburbs. They permit
most of us to live where we choose and then to accept jobs
located at any compass point from our homes. We're free to go
wherever we wish and whenever we wish, freed from the rigid
schedules of common carriers.
These freedoms have mixed consequences. During this, the
century of the automobile, the high-density downtowns of most
cities have stabilized or declined and, with them,
proportions of downtown jobs, radial patterns of travel, and
use of public transit. Declining transit riding must be the
most tragic of those effects. Transit patronage has been
falling during most of this century, except for that brief
period during World War II when gasoline was rationed and
there were no new cars to buy. In the years since the War,
transit riding has fallen steadily-from 114 trips per capita
in 1950, to 37 in 1970, to 31 in 1990. Since 1964 the federal
government has spent more than $100 billion to improve and
expand transit service, and yet trips to and from work in
urbanized areas, the ones widely believed to be most amenable
to transit, have been falling even more dramatically: from 25
percent of work trips in 1960, to 14 percent in 1970, to 10
percent in 1980, down to perhaps 5 percent today. In the
suburbs, transit use is down to about 2.5 percent of trips to
work. Nationwide, people use transit for only 2 percent of
their urban trips. With the exception of walking and bicycle
trips, virtually all the rest are by private car.
Cars Travel Best
Journalists keep telling us that "Americans have a
love affair with the automobile," as though some
irrational infatuation has seized us. But they're wrong.
Americans-and Europeans and Asians and Africans-have simply
discovered that the automobile is the most effective
surface-transportation system yet devised. Unlike all other
modes, it provides no-wait, no-transfer service and, owing to
substantial subsidies, it does so at tolerable cost. Where
parking is available, as in most suburban settings, it
provides door-to-door accessibility. It's no wonder that
Americans, and everyone else who can do so, have adopted cars
as their primary mode of travel.
Moreover, travel times for automobile commuters have
been falling-falling slightly but falling nevertheless.
Between 1983 and 1990, the national average commute trip by
car ebbed from 20.4 minutes to 19.7 minutes. During the same
period, commuting times via public transit increased-from
46.1 minutes to 49.9 minutes. (That's roughly 20 minutes by
car and 50 minutes by transit.) During that same period,
average mileage distances increased for auto commuters (from
9.9 to 10.6 miles) and decreased for transit commuters (from
15.1 to 12.6 miles). For most automobile users the trends are
toward fewer minutes and greater access. For most transit
riders, it's just the opposite-more minutes and less access.
The time savings are surely one reason commuters choose cars
over buses and trains.
What About Nondrivers?
Even in America, all adults do not yet have
discretionary use of cars. About 11 percent of U.S.
households still don't own one. About 10 percent of the
driving-age population aren't licensed to drive; they're
either too old or too disabled-or they live in New York City
where they can scarcely use a car, even if they've got one.
Perhaps a fourth of unlicensed adults can't afford cars.
About a third of U.S. households still have only one car that
all family members share. Thus, even though automobiles
dominate our transportation system, even though there are
more cars than licensed drivers, many Americans still don't
have access to them.
That inequality poses a central issue for transportation
policy. It compels us to ask, How can we bring the advantages
of automobile accessibility to everyone? One way, of course,
is to expand car ownership - but that might increase
congestion, pollution, and energy consumption.
Alternatively we might invent a kind of public transit
offering accessibility for the carless comparable to that
which car owners enjoy.
The Car's Consequences
It's important to remind ourselves of two value-laden
facts: First, automobiles were a major force behind the
geographic explosion of metropolitan areas, extending a
long-term historical trend. Autos, like telephones, permit
direct connection from everywhere to everywhere, and that's
what allows our contemporary suburbs to thrive economically
and socially. It would be a great loss if that widespread
connectivity were to be weakened by anti-auto mandates
constricting free use of cars.
Second, and equally important, the auto's popularity and
the expanding suburbs have caused the decline and, in some
places, the virtual demise of mass transit services. Trips
between dispersed origins and dispersed destinations of
contemporary suburbs are not readily served by conventional
mass transit's large vehicles; instead, they inevitably get
served by small, individualized vehicles-that is, by
automobiles. Most often by automobiles carrying only the
driver. As a result, carless persons who remain dependent on
transit are made worse-off. In something akin to a national
social disaster, the rise of the automobile and the decline
of transit have meant that many citizens are deprived of
access to suburban jobs and hence to a livelihood and to the
many advantages of modern urban life. To be sure the plight
of the jobless can't be blamed solely on the transportation
system; but, just as surely, automobile transportation is
implicated in the tragedy.
So, what can be done to reverse that decline of public
Ridesharing as Public Transit
Bryan Clymer, the former administrator of the Federal
Transit Administration, redefined transit to include all
passenger vehicles carrying more than a solo driver. He was
declaring in effect that modern public transit includes
carpools and other small vehicles having multiple passengers.
If we're willing to accept his concept, my question can be
modified to ask: What incentives might induce solo drivers to
share their cars with others? Or: What's needed to turn
solo-driven cars into transit vehicles? Or: How can we turn
more drivers into riders?
It's something of a paradox that, despite all the
complaints about highway congestion, we enjoy a tremendous
excess of capacity. As Wilfred Owen of the Brookings
Institution once observed, because most American cars are
carrying only the driver, at least three seats remain
empty-enough empty front seats to carry the rest of the U.S.
population and enough back seats for the entire population of
the former Soviet Union. That fact has led to many efforts to
encourage carpooling, but the sad part of that story is that
ridesharing has been on the decline. Nationwide, carpooling
fell from about 20 percent of work trips in 1980 to about 13
percent in 1990. Can we now reverse that trend?
High-occupancy vehicles lanes (HOV lanes) have proved
somewhat successful in encouraging ridesharing in places like
Virginia's Shirley Highway. The San Francisco Bay Bridge's
toll-free HOV lanes for vehicles with three or more persons
triggered a telling unplanned response: solo drivers now stop
at BART stations and bus stops to pick up two
passengers-strangers who've been waiting in polite queues.
With three persons in the car, the former solo-drivers now
save up to 20 minutes by avoiding the toll gates, and the
$1.00 toll besides. That bit of casual, one-directional
car-pooling has raised car-occupancy on the bridge from the
regional average of 1.1 to 1.9 persons in the westbound
morning peak-a 73 percent improvement. It's an instructive
clue for transit-system redesign.
In addition to creating incentives for voluntary
ridesharing, improvements must be made in more formal public
transit systems. Because the contemporary suburban pattern
consists of dispersed origins and destinations, the most
promising strategies for public transit are those that use
small vehicles, such as cars and vans-vehicles sized for the
few persons making the same trip at the same time.
A merger of automobiles, telephones, cellular phones,
radios, satellite locators, and computers could support new
transit systems that are compatible with modern suburbs.
Following Robert Behnke's lead, we envision computer-based
dating systems that, in real time, would match drivers and
potential passengers having the same origins, destinations,
and schedules. A phone call to "Multi-Mode Transport
Central" would permit residential neighbors with common
destinations to fill some of those empty seats on any given
day and hour, even though they're total strangers. The
incentive to the passenger is a convenient trip by car at
tolerable cost. The incentive to the driver is reduced travel
cost and perhaps even supplemental income.
The Federal Transit Administration is now exploring the
idea, as are increasing numbers of state and local
transportation agencies. Under the banner of APTS (Advanced
Public Transportation Systems), they're conducting
experimental field tests of potentially integrated
communication-transportation transit systems. We can now
foresee metropolitan-wide transit systems, each focused on
Transport Central's computer. A person wishing to go from
here to there at a specified time phones the transport help
line, say "711," and places a request by punching
the phone buttons. The computer then searches for a neighbor
traveling at that time to that place and willing to share an
empty seat for a fee. If none is found, it searches for the
nearest publicly or privately owned bus, or van, or taxi
which it then sends to the caller's front door.
Being virtually guaranteed a ride at an acceptable price
and at the right time, many who are now solo drivers might be
enticed into becoming carpoolers-i.e., transit riders.
Whether the vehicle that arrives is a neighbor's car, van,
small bus, or taxi, is probably inconsequential; whatever the
small-vehicle type, the operational service characteristics
are approximately the same. Any of these interchangeable
paratransit vehicles can provide door-to-door, short-wait,
no-transfer service, comparable to the level of service that
a private car provides-and, for some, without the hassle and
costs of parking.
The utility of auto-based transit service need not be
reserved to suburbanites. By far, the largest number of
transit-dependent adults today have low incomes, live in
central cities, and lack discretionary use of cars. Because
most new jobs are opening in the suburbs and because many
center-city residents cannot live near those jobs, the
decline of conventional public transit continues to worsen
their predicament. Where no bus routes run from nearby
inner-city locations to specific suburban job sites, some
fortunate job holders use gypsy cabs and other informal,
perhaps illegal, paratransit services. But these may be
expensive and unreliable. A great many other persons simply
remain unemployed. Far better that everyone be able to dial
711 and be assured a ride to work and a ride home at an
acceptable price or, for would-be drivers, a new source of
Jitney for Hire?
Other countries long ago demonstrated the viability of
automobile-based transit services. Jitneys are the main
components of transit systems in many Third World countries.
Some jitneys ply fixed routes while others operate like
collective taxis and take passengers directly to their
destinations. They offer employment opportunities for a great
many otherwise unemployed or underemployed persons. They
furnish low-cost transportation service that, in some places,
approximates that of private autos. In virtually all
places-in sharp contrast to the heavily subsidized transit
systems in the United States-they operate at a profit for
their private operators.
Although jitneys have largely disappeared from this
country, we still hold onto the memories of their
effectiveness and profitability. The new door-to-door airport
shuttles in Los Angeles and San Francisco suggest we may have
a rebirth of privately owned, profitable, small-vehicle
systems operating in public-transit modes. However, a high
barrier stands in the way of expanding paratransit service in
the United States. Strict regulations in many cities severely
constrain entry into the taxi-jitney business, largely
through limits on the numbers of licenses they allow-no doubt
a direct response to the wishes of the taxi industry.
However, if that oligopolistic constraint can somehow be
overcome-if the jitney-taxi business can be opened to new
entrants and if the attributes of high-tech communications
can be merged with the attributes of low-tech Third World
jitneys-we might generate a new high-quality transit
Any such paratransit system will have to deal with
passenger's potential fear of strangers. Recent experience
with Shirley Highway and Bay Bridge carpools and with
rideshare benches in retirement villages suggest that persons
living in the same neighborhood are likely to be fairly
trusting-and safe. Nevertheless, a formalized transit system
must provide reasonable assurance of safety, at least
comparable to that of municipal bus operators.
Of course, no transit system can become a panacea.
Real-time carpools might never attract more than 10 percent
of potential commuters. But, by serving only that niche
within the commuter market, it will go a long way toward
reversing transit's long-term decline.
Small Vehicles, Big Returns
If it's true that the automobile owes its tremendous
success to its door-to-door, no-wait, no-transfer service,
and if it's true that the structure of the modern metropolis
is incompatible with large-vehicle transit systems like
trains, trolleys, or even 50-passenger buses, then it must
also be true that workable transit systems in low-density
sections of the metropolis must be those using
automobile-like vehicles. I suggest that the ideal suburban
transit system will take its passengers from door to door
with no transfers, with little waiting-and that it will fit
the small numbers of persons having the same origin, the same
destination, and the same schedule. Only such a system can
compete with the private car on its own grounds.
So, if you're looking for a high-odds investment, just
dial 711, talk to the computer, and place your bets on
transit systems that rely on automobiles.
Robert W. Behnke, California Smart Traveler
System (Washington, D.C.: USDOT, Federal Transit
Administration, February 1992).
Robert Cervero, Fostering Commercial Transit:
Alternatives in Greater Los Angeles (Los Angeles:
Reason Foundation, Policy Insight No. 146, September
Allan E. Pisarski, Travel Behavior Issues in
the 90's (Washington, D.C.: USDOT, Federal Highway
Administration, July 1992).
Robert W. Poole, Jr. and Michael Griffin, Shuttle
Vans: The Overlooked Transit Alternative (Los Angeles:
Reason Foundation, Policy Paper No. 176, April 1994).
Martin Wachs, "Can Transit Be Saved? Of Course It
Can," in Proceedings of the Metropolitan
Conference on Public Transportation Research (Chicago:
University of Illinois, Urban Transportation Center, June
1992), pp. 1-25.
Last modified: January 16, 1998