One way to measure a city’s greatness is the ease of getting around: Does its public transit system improve or undermine its quality of life? In the 20th century, New York, London, Paris, Chicago, Berlin and Chicago were generally held in high regard for efficiently and quickly moving people through their mass transit networks.
At one time, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers deemed the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system – now widely considered a mismanaged, troubled, dangerous and poorly performing operation – as “the prototype” for modern rail services.
But our world has changed. Public transit, along rail and bus routes, is on a downhill slope. This wasn’t caused by the pandemic, as some might be inclined to think. The coronavirus outbreak merely accelerated the drop-off that stretches back for decades. Despite unrelenting efforts by policymakers to coerce people into ditching their cars and taking transit instead, most Americans are fleeing government-run transit, choosing the freedom that only automobiles can offer.
A 2018 study by UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies found that train and bus ridership in Southern California had slumped by as much as 15 percent in the previous five years. A Bloomberg report from that same year, two years before COVID-19, noted that, “even in New York City, subway ridership is well below its 1946 peak.” Annual per capita transit trips fell from 115.8 in 1950 to 36.1 in 1970 – a level that hasn’t grown much since then.
A couple of months into the lockdowns, when ghost trains and buses were wasting resources, Reason Foundation’s Baruch Feigenbaum predicted that “the pandemic promises to challenge these systems for months to come, if not permanently.” Not even officials’ efforts to arrest the flight from public transit is going to stop a trend that is now hard-wired into daily operations.
There are a number of factors affecting ridership, but one in particular stands out. “Riding public transit in Los Angeles can be scary,” reads the headline of a first-person story from Los Angeles Times reporter Justin Ray, who documented his bitter experience with the “bad behavior on trains” and buses. Ray talks about his experiences riding the rails over 3 ½ years, where he had to deal with people smoking meth, snorting cocaine, and openly stealing. He saw riders getting jumped and others engaging in loud arguments.
Criminal behavior on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s bus and rail line is far too common. In the first two months of 2022, violent crimes had increased 81 percent. In May, a 70-year-old Metro rail passenger was set on fire. This was a couple of months after an assault on a train left a young male victim dead. Only about one in 10 riders feels “very safe” riding on the Metro at night.
Los Angeles isn’t the only place riders are behaving like savages. The New York Times reports that across the country riders are “confronting transit crime rates that have risen over pre-pandemic levels in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.”
As governments have grown larger, they have shown themselves incapable of satisfactorily providing public services, and mass transit is no exception. Unless there’s an intervention, public transit will continue to grind itself into dust.
Because they are run by governments, public transit systems are the sole players in the markets where they’re located. That, says Feigenbaum, creates “several problems with our current service.” Transit agencies tend to “engage in empire building” and protect their monopolies “at all costs.” Rather than try “to compete on service quality, they use archaic rules to prevent any sort of competition.” Like so many other government “services,” transit agencies often let their product’s quality slip and at the same time allow costs to balloon because they have no incentive to do either.
Public transit has its many fanatical advocates, and they are constantly demanding that it be “fixed” (because to their thinking there’s nothing that is so wrong with it that it can’t be repaired). This usually means more taxpayer subsidies, additional central planning and intensified social engineering to force Americans out of their cars and into trains and buses. But a clear-eyed look shows that “America’s experiment with government ownership of urban transit” has been a disaster, as Randal O’Toole wrote nearly a decade ago in a Cato Institute policy paper.
Congress began dropping dollars into state and local treasuries in 1964, creating incentives for governments to take over private transit systems. Since then, worker productivity, measured by “the number of transit riders carried per worker,” according to O’Toole, has fallen by more than 50 percent. More recently, O’Toole, a long-time proponent of privatization, looked at the state of mass transit and concluded that all governments, from federal down to the local levels “should withdraw subsidies to transit and allow private operators to take over where the demand still justifies mass transit operations.”
It’s not as radical of an idea as it might seem. Before 1964, transit systems in most U.S. cities were private and profitable, even as ridership was slipping. It was at that time that “federal policy encouraged public takeover of the privately owned, self-supporting transit industry,” wrote the late Charles Lave in 1994, at that time a University of California Irvine economics professor.
Then “within a decade nearly all had been municipalized,” adds O’Toole. While public ownership successfully halted the long-term decline in ridership, added Lave, “it also led to an increasingly severe financial deficit.”
When privatized, transit operations can avoid the inefficiencies of government-run services; focus on rider needs rather than political policies; produce positive economic effects; and relieve taxpayers who fund agencies and cover their financial losses. Where private transit has been tried (and not outlawed by legislation), it has been competitive and profitable. The nation has quite a few private bus operators.
Tech firms have set up their own shuttle services – a $250 million network – busing employees into San Francisco from as far away as the Central Valley. In some instances, governments contract out services to private operators, sharply cutting costs, increasing quality, and improving safety. Privatization always creates competition, which benefits riders and minimizes inefficiencies and waste.
Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institute, says, “you don’t need to be a libertarian” to realize that privatization is “the only realistic hope for paring the huge inefficiencies that have developed in all modes of transportation under public management.” He believes that eventually “the political cost of sustaining urban transportation systems plagued by deficits and deteriorating performance will spur” the change needed to encourage “experiments in private urban transportation.”
Given the shaky state of public transit, those changes need to start now.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.