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Transit often gets insulted as a boondoggle by default, a “loser cruiser” for those without the means to buy and maintain a car to add their bulk to traffic.  The accusations are most strident against rail transit  because the cost of rail transit is so great.  A blended average of $56ml per mile, including everything from streetcar to commuter rail, everything from at-grade operations to tunnels through unstable soils.  Even the cost of a bus is significant, about the retail cost of a Ferarri or Lamborghini.  The public had better get their money’s worth out of that thing.

The objection of many transit skeptics is that the transit serves so few compared to traffic, and couldn’t possibly justify the cost of building the tracks and stations.  But there are few transit ways compared to roadways.  Perhaps a 10:1 ratio in even the most heavily transit served areas.   If the problem with transit is that few people use it compared to the total population of the city, the problem with traffic is the same.  Few people use any particular road.  When everybody in town uses a road, that road becomes a citywide scandal of pain and congestion.

Every single traffic user consumes only a tiny fraction of the road network of their city, between home, work, play, and shopping.  People love roads that are lightly used, going the last mile to their home or work.  Even if that road carries less than a hundred passengers per day, it still costs around $2ml per lane to build that last mile of road.    We all know our roads, but put us one block north, and we would be in a different world.  If you dropped me off on a random street in Atlanta, I might be able to tell from the houses where I was, but the first thing I’d need to do would be to walk to a familiar road.  And I’d have a 50/50 chance of choosing the wrong direction to walk for that road.

In my native Atlanta, there are 48 miles of transit rail, serving 38 stations, and 132 bus routes, serving over a thousand miles of routes along roads built for traffic.  I don’t think there is a single dedicated bus lane or bus turnout in all of Atlanta, but I could be wrong.

In that same city, there are thousands of miles of roads.  In the 33 counties of the metro Atlanta area, there are thousands more miles of roads, each used at a fraction of their capacity.  Highway engineers get antsy about adding more lanes when the lanes in a road get to 40% of their capacity (800 vehicles per hour (vph) of a 2,000 vph maximum capacity).  Any one Atlantan is not going to use a single percent of these roads.

Just as relatively few citizens of most American cities are served by a particular transit line, few citizens are served by a particular road.  The power of the road is that it connects to nearly every other road in continental North America, however.  The power of transit is that passengers don’t need roads and traffic when they get where they are going.  But we don’t use that asset nearly as much as we could.


Mostly roads, but mostly transit passengers shown here.

More on that Monday.  Maybe even some numbers.