Joseph Stromberg wrote an explainer about why the US has worse public transit than any other rich nation in the world despite providing greater subsidies per rider. It isn’t just because the US is more spread-out or more enthusiastic about automobiles. Canada is much more spread out and every bit as much of an automobile culture and yet Stromberg says their public transit is much better than US transit:
“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”
Stromberg explains that city governments took over public transit from private companies in the 1950s because of thinking of transit as a welfare program.
When cities took over these companies… it was with the notion that they’d maintain these systems as a sort of welfare service — mostly for people who couldn’t afford to drive. Outside of a handful of cities like New York and DC, that mentality has remained in place. Nowadays, many local politicians don’t see transit as a vital transportation function — instead, they think of it as a government aid program to help poor people who lack cars.
On the one hand, this mentality has led cities to heavily subsidize public transit: In most cities, no more than 30 to 40 percent of operating costs are covered by fares, more than the vast majority of cities around the world. But there’s a huge downside to viewing public transportation as welfare — it prevents local agencies from charging high enough fares to provide efficient service, effectively limiting transit to those who are too poor to drive.
Because it’s often seen as welfare, investing in mass transit has become a politically charged issue — with conservatives unwilling to spend on what they see as a social program for the urban poor.
This doesn’t really happen in other countries, at least not to the same extent. While there’s some debate over transit spending in Canada and Europe, politicians on the right are much less hostile to the idea — it’s much more of a bipartisan cause, like, say, road building in the US.
“In attracting riders to transit, frequency is the biggest thing, followed very closely by reliability,” says King. “If you don’t have those, people won’t trust the system.”
Other countries have often managed to improve both these measures without spending more money — but in the US, the idea that transit is welfare has generally prevented this sort of innovation.
For instance, bus stops in the US are spaced very closely together, compared to elsewhere. Spreading them out would increase bus speed and frequency, but can be politically difficult because it’s seen as harming seniors and disabled riders.
Here is another example where a program intended to help the disadvantaged hurts the people it is intended to help. Public transit would be better for poor people in the US if we treated it as a vital service for the average American like we view road construction. That would reduce the stigma of transit and create greater reliability and ridership. Plus, many Americans hate welfare programs and when their political leaders come into power, they are happy to make welfare programs dysfunctional in hope that they will collapse.