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I was reading a rather famous attack on the notion of transit, and wanted to set the record straight on a couple of things about transit.

Transit and traffic networks are commonly compared, in terms of cost, ridership, and vehicle miles traveled. It always comes up woefully short in all places except New York, Chicago and Boston.

The reason this is an invalid comparison is that transit is compressed traffic.  Transit does not functionally compete with traffic, but complements it.

Many bus systems in the US have the same numbers that they did in the 1900s as streetcars, and those streetcar routes were first plied by enterprising horsecar operators as early as 1840.  The horsecar operators would not go to the trouble of laying tracks, stabling horses and keeping cars along a disused route.  They should choose routes that were congested and busy for most of the day, and set up their horsecar routes along those routes.  If their profits to cover their operating costs were based on fares, then they would be fools not to choose routes that were busy.  Transit is compressed traffic.

It was not until 1890 that the first interurban streetcars ran between towns along remote farm lots, with little opportunity for passenger fares along the way.  It was not until the 1890s that the first speculative development of a horsecar suburb was built to attract people to a new trolley line (I.e. Gary, IN, Inman Park, GA, or Chevy Chase, MD.  The railways had already proved this model in 1853, with Llewelyn Park, NJ.

Compare this with the traffic network.  In order to work as a well as it does, traffic requires:

  • Wide and predictable ways along on publicly held land,
  • Continentally applicable laws (I.e. Every one drives on the same side of the street, red means stop, striping, and signage),
  • Parking on private property and
  • Universal contact.

Everyplace in America has a street address, because it “should” be possible to reach it in traffic.  This is miraculous and laborious, to the tune of 4.5 million miles of road connecting 800 million parking spaces for 250  million vehicles to drive on.  It is also very expensive.  If the average cost of a new lane mile is $2 million and the cost of maintenance for that same lane mile is $8,000, then the amount governments spend on roads dwarfs what they spend on transit.

But this ignores the fact that many more people use the roads than use transit.  The fallacy here is that “the roads” are the same as “transit”.  Just as I have a maximum of five traffic routes to get to work, I have two transit ways to get to work.  Every transit user on a line is using that line, getting on and off a t different stops that they reach on foot, other transit, bike, or by traffic.  Every traffic user on a one is using a braid, with turn on and off of every arterial road several times a mile.  Both transit and traffic users end their journeys on foot, but traffic users have to walk through a parking lot, while transit users are likely to alight downtown.

These are things about transit as it has operated to date.  This says nothing about federal financing.  A canard of libertarianism was that transit would have been more successful if governments had not intervened to regulate it in 1890.  The level of regulation and standardization of transit back then was minuscule compared to today.  So were the networks and fuel efficiencies of the hat matter.  Streetcars were still, the fasted, most comfortable way to get around, where you could find them.


Traffic is extensive and provides access to everywhere for anyone with a vehicle.  Transit is intensive to specific routes, often chosen where traffic is congested, and provides access to stop and station areas.  It is up to the cities and the transit agencies to ensure those areas are worth traveling to by transit.  We haven’t done this well for nearly a century.


This is the first post on my new laptop, and the first post since I started trying to grapple with the literature.  At least I’m learning to read again. Been too busy with various things to post.

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