Photo by Wm Jas.

Many of our transit systems are bursting at the seams, yet only provide about 2% of trips nationwide. It takes decades to build new transit projects.  The existing public agency model for providing public transportation services is totally inadequate to rapidly meet the challenges we face, particularly the urgent need to deal with climate change. 

We need to break our reliance on individual vehicles and fossil fuels.  Public transportation needs to expand rapidly to help us do that, but is not effectively designed to do so.  Could the private sector, with its profit motive, provide solutions?

Currently, public transit provides only a tiny fraction of the transportation miles taken by Americans. For 2006, transit carried 52,000,000,000 miles, while passenger cars traveled about 2,650,000,000,000 miles — 50 times greater. And car passenger miles are even higher, since some of these cars had more than one occupant.

In the DC area, MWCOG’s State of the Commute 2007 reported 71% of all commuting trips by SOV, with another 7% by carpool/vanpool.  Given that transit trips on average tend to be shorter than car trips, the passenger miles of transit commuters is considerably under 20% of the commuting miles in total. 

Commuting, though, only makes up about 25% of all trips, and transit is used for an even smaller percentage of non-commuting trips.  So even in the DC area, which has significant transit infrastructure and operations, it accounts for well under 10% of all the travel — probably closer to 5%.

Even so, our Metrorail and Metrobus systems are often running at or above capacity, particularly during rush hours and for certain special events. This displaces less than 20% of commuting miles/10% of VMT.  Transportation is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, and it is growing.  Global climate change necessitates drastic and enormous changes in our emissions from all sources, including transportation.

That percentage needs to increase dramatically over at most a couple of decades, from less than 2% nationally to something like 20%, or 50%, or more. We can’t just keep driving cars 2.6 trillion miles per year.  Reducing that 2.6 trillion just a little to 2 trillion by shifting to transit would require a 12-fold increase in transit capacity. What does that mean for WMATA?  Or BART?  Or SEPTA? Or RTD?  What would it require to make a 10- or-20-fold increase in capacity? 

Transit agencies and governments work too slowly and incrementally for this kind of increase. It will take at least 16 years from the first real plans to build the Silver Line out to Dulles airport and its completion — longer, if you also count the time it was being thought about, proposed and debated. The FTA issued a decision on a short, 5-mile extension of BART in 2006 that will open 8 years later, in 2014. DART’s 2030 plan includes a paltry 18 additional miles of light rail (less than 1 mile per year). And let’s not even get started on the Purple Line.

How can we possibly increase the capacity of our public transport systems by an order of magnitude or more if it takes decades to complete a single project?

Lincoln said it best:

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

The occasion is global climate change, and we must think and act anew.  Somehow we need to change the model for transportation such that the private sector benefits from providing transportation with close to zero emissions. 

Private streetcar companies built thousands and thousands of miles of lines in just a couple of decades around a hundred years ago.  Some streetcar barons made millions of dollars in the process, but to great public benefit as well.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know the wrong answer is just to keep doing what we’re doing now, but just a little better or a little faster or a little different. Just another billion dollars here or a dedicated funding source there.  How can we best engage the private sector to invest and invent and move forward? 

Some ideas, for what it’s worth:

  • The HOT lanes in Virginia are controversial, but they are getting built quickly.  The private consortium is motivated by the profit motive to get this project done as rapidly as possible.  No doubt it is not perfect, but it is an example of engaging the private sector’s profit motive to expedite progress.  Given that the US is a big place, experimenting with different ideas in different places across the country will help us discover the ideas that work and those that don’t.
  • One could imagine a rail system in which the operators are private entities but the infrastructure is not.  This is analogous to our air transportation system: the government runs air traffic control, airports are usually quasi-government entities, and the airlines are private companies.  What if the Northeast Corridor, for example, were opened up to private operators.  They could buy “slots” like airlines do and provide varying levels of service at varying levels of price.  There would likely be Wi-Fi on some trains by now if that were the case; even the Acela trains do not have Wi-Fi today.

The trick is to make the financial incentives align with the societal goals.  If the goal is to reduce miles being driven, then private companies could be paid per mile reduced.  They would then strive to find solutions.  One example of this is the contract Houston has with a company called NuRide (disclosure: I used to work for NuRide).  NuRide is paid by VMT reduced.  They offer incentives to people to rideshare and take other modes.  If they are successful, they get paid; if not, they don’t.  So it is in their direct financial interest to find the incentives that will get people to change their behavior.

Transit agencies, as they are currently organized, do not have to worry about not getting paid if they don’t perform or, conversely, make a gazillion dollars if they over-deliver.

I don’t have all the answers, but rather hope to begin a discussion about rethinking the current public agency model of transit that is incapable of delivering the massive market transformation that is required.  What do you think?

Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver.