Public Transit: What Does Success Look Like?
There often is talk of trying to improve the public transportation system in Kansas City and Saint Louis, usually with expensive rail and streetcar projects. Both cities are in the process of creating starter streetcar lines, with proposals to build more. There is pressure in Saint Louis to expand Metrolink and Kansas City to build light rail. Activists point to low percentages of transit usage in both metropolitan areas, claiming that Missouri cities can reduce congestion, spur growth, and help the environment by getting people out of their cars and onto trains or streetcars. Unfortunately, transportation agencies and transit activists forget to ask what success looks like and how much it costs to achieve that success.
In Saint Louis and Kansas City, less than 4 percent of the population uses public transportation regularly. While both cities have bus services, Saint Louis has only two light-rail lines and Kansas City has none. Both have streetcar systems in the works, but they have not been completed. This, if we believe those who push for trains and trolleys, is failure. To them, success is a city like Portland, Ore.
Portland, with a comparable metro population to Saint Louis and Kansas City, has a light-rail system, extensive streetcar service, buses, transit-oriented development, and bike share programs. Transit heaven. However, according to the U.S. census, only 10 percent of Portland residents use transit to get to work while 81 percent drive (71 percent drive alone). Despite the city’s much publicized streetcar investments, the major growth category for commuting in Portland is telecommuting, not transit. Providing 10 percent of the population with transit cost Portland almost $4 billion in capital expenses in the last 20 years, none of which has been recovered from commuter fares. That number does not include the cost of maintenance and regular operation. In fact, Portland invested $1.7 billion of capital in transit since 2000 to see total public transit commuters rise from 7 percent to 10 percent.
To sum it up, if Kansas City and Saint Louis invest billions in infrastructure, cordon off growth, and subsidize transit-oriented development (as Portland has), they might get 10 percent of people to commute on public transportation. This is progress if the only measure of success is getting people on transit regardless of cost. However, if the goal is to create economically efficient transportation options for Missouri, this approach is ineffective. Even if your goal is to get as many people on public transit as possible, there has to be a better way.