On paper, public transportation is a fantastic idea. You can move more people with less vehicles. You can move more people with less energy. You can keep less vehicles on the road, causing a decrease in emissions and pollution. And you can offer low cost transit to people who can’t afford personal vehicles.

Boiled down into even simpler terms, public transit means less congestion, less pollution, and greater efficiency at a low price.

At least, that’s the theory. And in a few places the theory holds up pretty well. Who can imagine traversing New York City without subways and busses? In 2004, nearly one-third of the nation’s public transit users lived in NYC, with over 50% of New Yorkers using public transit for commuting to work. In DC, it was 37%, Boston and San Francisco 31%. This makes sense too, because these metropolises have huge populations concentrated into relatively small areas. Imagine the traffic congestion and accompanying pollution if every one who worked in NYC drove to work alone in a car?

But get away from the east coast (well, okay, and San Francisco) and public transit usage drops way down- 12% in LA, 6% in Houston- so that the national percentage of Americans using public transportation to commute to work in 2004 was only 5%.

Being that it is a public enterprise, public transportation funding comes from a combination of fares and taxes. Fares from actual users, taxes from everyone regardless of whether they ever step foot on a bus or train. A major chunk of the taxes come from fuel excise and sales taxes. This funding system actually relies on a larger number of people NOT using the service to keep it afloat financially. Paradox #1.

When fuel tax revenue declines, public transit coffers suffer. For public transportation, more efficient vehicles plus more public transit users means a loss of revenue and an increase in costs for its own fuel requirements to accommodate more users. So fares go up. And ridership declines.

If one of the benefits of public transit is a reduction in environmental pollution, it should be a goal of public transit agencies to increase public usage. But to do this, public transit authorities have to develop a system that is both expansive and convenient. Out west, historically low usage of public transit has not encouraged systemic expansion, meaning that would be users of public transit face longer and more difficult commutes to get from point A to point B and choose to drive themselves. A lack of comprehensive transit stops and connections reinforces the inefficiency of the system and puts more cars on the road that could otherwise be parked. Paradox #2.

So public transit relies on people NOT using the service to keep financially solvent and poorly designed public transit actually keeps MORE cars on the road due to its inefficiency. Except for New York City, public transit seems to be a net loser, in spite of its valuable service to lower income Americans.

But wait! Gas heads towards $5 a gallon and a lot of people start looking at public transit as a reality. Demand for public transit is increasing. Fewer people can afford high gas prices, and even more are trying to help reduce pollution. But the more efficient cars that continue to drive use less fuel which decreases income for public transit, even as fare paying costumers increase. What’s a transit authority to do?

Raise fares of course. And cut services too.

I guess the message is that public transit is a great thing-just so long as not too many people use it.

Just at a time when we should be increasing public transit and making it more available and affordable, public transit agencies are talking about reducing stops and raising fares. Just at a time when the larger public finally seems to consider the benefits of public transit, agencies are forced to make it less attractive just to stay in service.

So if you try to save money, energy, and reduce pollution by using public transportation, you’re really making public transit authorities cut their services and raise the fares for everyone by overloading the system and not paying enough taxes. Why do you hate America?

Maybe we should all just stay home.

(cross posted at Bring It On!)