We have to be able to talk about cars, too

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Cars, not subways, seem to be what the people need — in most of the US, at least:

A 2011 Brookings Institute study (PDF) found that in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas, only 22% of low- and middle-skill jobs were accessible by public transit in under 90 minutes, suggesting that today’s working-class riders cannot access needed opportunities. And a new study (PDF) released in March 2014 by the Urban Institute found that public transit access had little effect on economic outcomes. While tracking households that had participated in two federal housing voucher programs, it found that car owners were twice as likely as transit users to find jobs and four times likelier to retain them. Car-owning households were also able to locate near better neighborhoods and schools. This reaffirmed previous work by the Progressive Policy Institute arguing that car ownership plants the seeds for upward mobility.


“In the academic research, the dominant ideas have been about improving and investing in transit,” [one of the Urban Institute study’s authors, Rolf Pendall] told the Washington Post. “But I think we have to be able to talk about cars, too.”


Another idea might be subsidizing actual car ownership, something raised as a thought experiment last decade by transportation consultant Wendell Cox. He argued that providing cars to every American transit user would cost $10 billion, compared to the $25 billion spent annually on transit subsidies, and would increase people’s mobility. Cox didn’t go so far as to suggest actually giving away cars, but a minor subsidy program could mirror the voucher-based model of other government services. This would enable poor people to shop the private car market, rather than being consigned to government transit, and would be cheaper, he argued, even when accounting for road expansions needed for the extra traffic.

Of course, increasing car use wouldn’t be feasible in some places. If New York City, San Francisco, or one of America’s few other dense cities started encouraging everyone to drive, they’d be wracked with even worse gridlock than they have now. But most cities — especially ones with populations below 100,000 — don’t have nearly these traffic levels. Their transportation problems are defined less by over-driving, than by the fact that they even attempt to sustain comprehensive public transit.

My hometown of Charlottesville, VA, is a great example. The 43,000-person, 10-square-mile city currently operates a $6 million bus system. Its daily ridership averages under 7,000, and runs along 10 routes. Like elsewhere, the system includes full-size buses, salaried drivers, a fancy central terminal, and a morning-through-night schedule. Also like other systems, it serves a city where most housing is suburban in style, and where increasing density is discouraged politically.

Together, these factors make it wildly inefficient.

That emphasis is mine, and I think the emboldened factoid deserves repeating: providing cars to every American transit user would cost $10 billion, compared to the $25 billion spent annually on transit subsidies.


  1. Anomaly UK says:

    I have pondered previously on the very high cost of (particularly) rail.

  2. Sam J. says:

    I didn’t see where they gave any info on whether it was new cars or used cars or anything about insurance, gas etc. I wonder what the $10 billion means?

    Instead of giving them cars could they get cab or lyft fare? I can see in a decade or so the transportation problem could be licked with lots more Uber.

  3. Overhere says:

    We have never quite got over the idea that public transport is good because it is always available, is cheap and goes just where you want it to.

    Any examination of public transport timetables, consumer costs (putting aside generous subsidies which are never discussed but shoved through on a nod) and locations of stations tends to show the weakness of those concepts for what they are. Add to the ‘service’ that it can become very risky at times to travel on public transport, even if you didn’t mind the smell of urine everywhere makes you see why people prefer to travel in cars.

    Still, I expect I will change my mind when they put a rail station 100 yards from my house in a semi-rural area, run trains often for a handful of small change and no one pisses on the seats.

  4. Sam J. says:

    Just had an old geezer flash back. I remember Ronald Regan once said of a public transport system built, I think it was in Miami, that we could have bought everyone that rides it Cadillacs for cheaper.

  5. Bob Sykes says:

    At Antiplanner and other economic blogs, it has been speculated that self-driving cars, especially if owned by Uber et al., would practically eliminate intra-urban rapid transit systems. Inter-urban systems like Amtrak would likely continue to operate, although private bus systems already move as many people between cities in the NE as does Amtrak.

  6. No True Catholic says:

    TL;DR : I do not see any integration of the many subsidies of cars here. The federal, state, and local government give huge subsidies to cars.

    To compare cars with trains is to compare apples and oranges. You need to compare trains versus cars + roads + parking (both public, commercial and on private residence). Comparing buses versus cars is a bit more fair, but you still need to take into account all the subsidies given to cars by the US federal and local government: the public parking, the zoning regulations favoring cars, the subsidies for highways which favour cars more than buses or trains, etc.

    Japan has a modern, safe (low criminality anyway), clean, and cost-effective (self-sustainable) modern public transport. And they have high car-ownership. (They also make parking proof mandatory.)

    A few good links I advise if you are not convinced, about subsidisies, about “we will all use Uber“, about the return of the subsidies to cars versus to public transportation, and how the subsidies to cars are a form of tax ponzi scheme.

    None is my blog. I just like urbanism because of a random article in hacker news (y combinator) about it.

    For once I have something to contribute.

  7. Bill says:

    Wait and see if fully autonomous vehicles actually work in the real world, by which I mean that they are as good as a taxi service or Uber. If they work, you won’t need buses or light rail, at all, period. No one who could make use of such a service would put up with the endless inconveniences of mass transit.

    The only reasonable case IMHO for rail in the USA is that it is probably the best way to overcome the vast distances of city to city travel (it is the consequence of having 1/10 the population of other 1st world nations) since speeds of 150-250 mph are not safely attainable with cars.

  8. Sam J. says:

    The link provided about subsidies to private cars I think is whacked. They say,”…Even parking in suburbs has been estimated to cost more than 850$ annually…”. First a surburban parking space does not cost that. They then multiply that cost to every parking space in the country to get their “subsidies”. Well car drivers pay gas taxes for all of this. They also pay user fees in cost for any commercial, think malls and restaurants, parking lots they use. I think their subsidies argument vaporizes into nothing if you take out the 850$ annual parking cost. The left wants to control people however they can. I’m not against public transport but it wastes an enormous amount of personal time waiting for it. It also proscribes what you can carry. The biggest problem is the Dindus take it over and attack people so that you can’t use it. They talk about the safety of Japans system but they’re Japanese and don’t attack people.

  9. Isegoria says:

    Donald Shoup’s explanation of the high cost of free parking should clarify how this is a case of free parking versus free markets:

    About 87 percent of all trips in the U.S. are made by personal motor vehicles, and parking is free for 99 percent of these trips (p. 590). But free parking is not a spontaneous outcome. The required parking lot at a restaurant usually occupies at least three times as much land as the restaurant itself. Shoup reckons this a subsidy to parking, and estimates the U.S. total of such subsidy between $127 billion and $374 billion a year.


    The extent of free parking is so enormous and so normal that people just think it nature’s endowment, like air. Everyone feels entitled to free air and free parking. Hence, “most people do not see it as being any subsidy at all” (591). “Because parking costs so much and motorists pay so little for it, the hidden subsidy is truly gigantic” (591).

  10. Sam J. says:

    “…high cost of free parking…”

    I get his numbers. I get that he adds all these numbers up I just reject the numbers he uses. How does he get that it cost,

    ”…Even parking in suburbs has been estimated to cost more than 850$ annually…”

    I don’t believe this for a minute. It’s silly. You pay for the driveway with the house. It’s not a subsidy. He’s taking a cost people pay for their house and calling it a subsidy. It’s double talk. I see an absolute ton of this these days. People just make shit up and call it something. It’s all over the news, this making shit up business. It gets on my nerves. Let’s go with his “cost”. He’s just adding up all the parking spots and calling it a subsidy. Well the roads are paid for by gas taxes, including the parking spots on them. The parking spots at malls, stores, etc. are all paid for by the people that go there. Actually all these people walking around are using all these nice spaces paid for by car owners. The car owners should be paid by the walkers and bike riders for all these nice level places to walk and ride on. There is NO subsidy. He just made the whole thing up. About the only way you can call this a subsidy is if you count interest deduction on interest for housing but there’s no way in hell you can get “…850$ annually…” out of that for a driveway.

    The gas taxes have actually been stolen for other uses and not been put to use as road building which is the reason they were levied.

    This is really an attack on personal freedom with some jacked up numbers that mean noting at all.

  11. Graham says:

    I’m in an odd position- never owned a car, drive only occasionally, can walk to work, but use both buses and taxis a lot. No urban trains in my city yet. There a lot of big holes for it but not ready yet.

    I like having public transit and ours is good. Sometimes vehicles are bit rough around the edges.

    Yet I’m usually on the pro-car side. So it goes.

    Sam J makes some good points.

    Of note, the price of gas is high and the bulk of it goes to taxes that were originally meant to support the costs of driving infrastructure. How well they do so I don’t know, but they’ve gone into general revenue for generations either way. [I generally don't support hypothecated taxes- that's how you get dysfunctional systems like Old Regime French finances. But it does help to answer questions like this.] If we’re going to consider ‘hidden subsidies’ like ‘free parking’, we need to consider now hidden costs like taxation of gas, imposed on the driver.

    Beyond that, this notion that ‘free parking’ is a hidden subsidy is curious. Cities of which I am aware here in Canada have always charged high per-time fees for municipal parking garages. Although the cost of the garage may have been originally covered by general taxation, in a population with a heavy plurality of car users at the upper end of the property tax scale, it’s hard to argue that this is a subsidy from non-car taxpayers to car-owners. Plus, the usage fees are high.

    Street parking I’m familiar with is free evenings and weekends, but that’s a municipal subsidy to restaurant and shop owners, not the drivers. The incentive structure is designed to prop up dining and retail in denser neighbourhoods by bringing in more than just the neighbourhood trade.

    One might consider the provision of city parking at all, using up lane space and lot/garage land, to be a sort of subsidy in kind and at the conceptual level, but in a city that also has expensive and extensive public transit I would say that everybody’s needs are being subsidized in that case, and at least evenly. Transit fees are kept relatively low. At this level, the ‘subsidy’ just amounts to actually balancing the transport needs of citizens as they actually exist. Seems fair.

    Of course, if your framework is that cities should provide some support, and balance with charges to users, for all citizens transport needs, then most major cities are doing it. If your framework is to use the incentive structure to manipulate people’s transport choices in an officially-preferred direction, then I guess there’s a different issue.

    This is where I get into what I assume is Sam J’s mindset. I love my public transit and wish it were incrementally better. But, if I might sum up my attitude to urban progressives, I don’t want to live in their f****** ant colonies.

    There, that’s better.

  12. Graham says:

    I was more struck by the use of malls and restaurants as examples.

    Parking provided by malls or restaurants with their own lots is not a subsidy of any kind. [I'm struggling with the idea that anything a private business can do for its customers could be considered a subsidy, even in theory. It's called customer service.] It’s private business incentivizing their customers to bother showing up by offering them a convenience.

  13. Isegoria says:

    Parking provided by malls is not a subsidy. The excessive amount of “free” parking mandated by the local government amounts to a subsidy.

  14. Graham says:

    Ah- misunderstanding on my part then.

    So that means government pressuring the business to provide such parking to customers.

Leave a Reply