RALEIGH — North Carolina is urbanizing. One of its urban areas, Charlotte, has an extensive transit system that includes rail lines. Another urban area, the Triangle, is currently embarking on a major expansion of transit service, including some rail. Leaders in the Triad, Asheville, Wilmington, and other places are also working on, or at least dreaming of, large-scale transit systems.
Do these developments excite you, annoy you, or bore you? If the former, you are probably a progressive Democrat. If either of the latter, you probably aren’t.
Count me among the annoyed. I understand the politics. While most North Carolinians, even urbanites, have no plans to use transit on a regular basis, they believe that others will — and that such a shift of commuters from automobiles to buses or trains will make it easier to drive to and from work. Thus these voters express support for transit, particularly if they think the cost can be shifted to taxpayers elsewhere in the state or nation.
Such politically appealing notions bear little relationship to reality. Outside of New York and few other large cities, transit accounts for a tiny fraction of daily travel. That’s not going to change.
In the Charlotte area, transit is used for about one-half of a percent of all trips, about 3 percent of all commuting, and just 4.4 percent of the commuting to and from the center of the city. In Raleigh, the shares are even lower — two-tenths of a point for all trips, 1.1 percent for all commutes, and 2.1 percent for downtown commutes.
North Carolina’s cities are less dense that those of most other states. While some infill development and multi-occupancy projects are happening, our densities will remain far below the average. So no matter how many billions of tax dollars we spend on buses and trains, we can’t expect the share of our commutes carried by transit to rise into the double-digits anytime soon.
Transit boosters insist that automotive transportation is just as subsidized, if not more so, but this is simply bonkers. Motorists or their customers bear the vast majority of the cost of operating the system — even if you include externalized costs such as air pollution — through fees, tolls, taxes, and direct charges.
The latter source, “direct charges,” is the largest. Keep in mind that public streets, roads, and bridges are only the surface where automotive transportation happens. The system itself mostly consists of private operation of private assets. That is, about 80 percent of the annual outlay is to buy, fuel, maintain, repair, insure, and operate cars and trucks. If you factor in the monetary value of the time we spend driving ourselves, that ratio would rise still higher.
Some people are shut out of automobility due to poverty or disability. There are ways to address their needs that don’t involve massive capital expenditures or intrusive attempts to engineer transit-friendly “smart growth.”
Unfortunately, the issue rarely comes down to practicality. As on so many other issues, there is a clash of visions here. While even among hard-core Democrats the share of voters who use transit regularly is small, progressives are overwhelmingly in favor of transit subsidies. Conservatives are overwhelmingly against them.
More generally, according to a recent set of polls by the Pew Research Center, about 70 percent of the group of voters it calls Solid Liberals say they would prefer to live in communities where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.” On the other hand, about 70 percent of those classified by Pew as conservatives say they prefer communities where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.”
To the extent government regulation inhibits the dense neighborhoods that many urban progressives desire, I’d end it. But not enough residents will join the progressives in those places, and give up their cars, to justify large-scale transit systems. That’s not in North Carolina’s future. Alas, lots of wasteful spending is.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.