Transit Reformers Ask All the Wrong Questions

by | Nov 15, 2023 | Opinion

By James M. Hohman

The transit policy debate is filled with people who make stuff up and ask the wrong questions.

“Michigan has long been seen as a car state, but public transit is a must have to attract and retain younger residents and promote dense, vibrant city centers,” Gov. Whitmer’s infrastructure work group states in its new report.

The work group, which is part of the governor’s Growing Michigan Together Council, unsurprisingly asks policymakers to spend more on transit. The idea that public officials need to provide people with more options than cars and trucks is nothing new. Nor is the view that young people want to live in transit-heavy cities.

But these views ought to be informed by experience.

If the choice is between cars and mass transit, cars win. Every state is a car state. There is no state where the majority of trips comes from something other than personal vehicles.

The Census Bureau asks people what they use to commute to work. Only 3% of Americans say they commute to work using public transit. In no state does the majority of workers commute via transit. There are only four states — New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Illinois — where more than one out of 20 workers use transit. The majority of people, 77%, take personal vehicles to work. The next most common option is working from home.

Personal vehicles give people the option to get wherever they want whenever they want to get there. They also offer a large carrying capacity, so people can bring along as much stuff as they want. Yes, there are consequences and costs for the services cars deliver. It costs money to own a vehicle; cars take up valuable space in cities; and there is often congestion. But people in Michigan don’t overwhelmingly choose cars because the automobile features in the state’s history and reputation. They do so because cars provide the transportation they want.

The members of the governor’s work group are also mistaken when they say young people want transit. They don’t. The states that attract the most young people are not the states with the most transit. Vermont, for instance, has the highest rate of net migration for people aged 18 to 29, and only 0.6% of people there commute via transit.

In practice, young people go where everyone else tends to go. If, as the work group claims, “many young people would prefer to rely on public or nonmotorized transit rather than bearing the expenses of car ownership,” that preference doesn’t show up in their behavior.

The group members also get the desire for people to live and work in dense city centers wrong. The public debate about whether cities or suburbs are the more attractive option has been going on for a long time, but the trends are very different from what people tend to think.

It used to be that cities and suburbs grew together. That is, in the different regions of the United States, the places that did well tended to have both growing cities and growing suburbs. The places that did poorly had low population growth in both areas.

As a whole, there wasn’t much of a change in the percentage of people in a metropolitan area who lived in the region’s central city. The line was essentially flat from 2000 to 2019. That’s why I called this my most interesting boring chart.

But this has changed. Since the pandemic, it’s clear that the suburbs are winning. In the largest 50 metropolitan regions in the country, the suburbs gained 1.8 million people while cities lost 655,000 people from 2019 to 2022.

It’s not just the suburbs. The mostly forested northern part of the Lower Peninsula is adding people, too, after generations of stagnation. It’s the kind of place that is anything but a dense city center.

So no, it’s not cars versus people. Young people are not moving to cities in the first place, let alone moving to them because of transit. It’s a story that’s been told for a long time, but it’s not a story that is supported by the revealed preferences of young people.

There are better ways to approach transit policy. Transit ought to be sold as a way to solve people’s transportation problems. Transit advocates should be making the case for how transit can get people where they want to go better than alternatives.

Transit advocates should be working to fix bad policy incentives that do not result in services that get people where they want to go.

Michigan taxpayers already spend a lot on transit and have been spending more, even as ridership took huge drops during the pandemic. Transit rides are down by 61% since 2019, while government spending on transit increases regardless of use.

Transit policy should start with one question: How can the service get people where they want to go? Answering that question is the way to design transit services that improve people’s transportation options. When it comes to transit, the state’s population growth council seems to be way off-track.


Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.

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