Transit Blasphemies

Commentary, Urbanization, Frontier Centre

Rookie Mayor Sam Katz’s notion that we revive our floundering Winnipeg Transit system with a massive investment in light rail sounds wonderful, at least to urban planners who believe in “smart growth.” More than 70 cities in North America are romancing similar proposals. But when realities like efficiency and effectiveness are allowed to intrude, the idea looks amateurish.

A few years ago, environmentalist and transportation economist Randal O’Toole wrote The Vanishing Automobile and other Urban Myths. The book challenged much of the policy dogma that demonizes our car-based society. It remains the most devastating critique of “smart growth,” which in its most extreme form forbids urban development outside a pre-defined limit, uses zoning to force high urban densities and proselytizes religiously for expanded transit, particularly light rail.

O’Toole summed up his research in a recent interview. He speaks from personal experience, since he lives close to Portland, Oregon, ground zero for smart growth zealots. To control traffic congestion, for example, this city recently told a church it could only have 70 people worship at one time in its 400-seat sanctuary. O’Toole ties the clunky, central-planning mindset of today’s bossy, anti-car ideology to the 1980s’ collapse of socialism as an economic alternative. It became difficult to justify that philosophy in any other realm than the environment, with the result that the “anti-capitalist, government must own the factories and shoe stores” folks gravitated toward green activism.

Winnipeg’s silent tragedy is the continuing failure of an outmoded policy model based on high taxes, subsidies and intrusive government to deliver economic growth. Most job growth today is happening in the suburbs, not downtown. The panic to save downtown with grandiose multi-government planning agreements, subsidized stadiums, relocating Hydro, “downtown first” policies, Plan Winnipeg and obsessing with transit, etc., is a case of the tail wagging the dog. We should let it go, O’Toole says, and get the government out of the way.

O’Toole thinks we should focus on making downtown an interesting space to live and play by cutting high taxes and regulation. He prefers fixing urban problems without reducing personal freedom, with user fees, incentives and various markets rather than “command and control, telling people that you have to live over here and you have to take the transit and you don’t get to drive a car.” At first glance, his analysis of Winnipeg’s downtown and transit reveals a good news story. Our city has among North America’s most heavily used transit systems. He attributes this to our disproportionately large downtown – containing about 25% of city jobs – about the highest in North America.

We have an accidental downtown, a product of our rapid growth in the early 1900s, when a lack of transport options plus the need to be close to other businesses gave us the dense, high-rise inner city. In newer cities, jobs and housing are spread out. Los Angeles, its form determined by the emergence of the “street car” in its 1930s heyday, has a small central city and over 100 regional job clusters within its borders. Hyper-growing new cities like Phoenix, Houston and Las Vegas have vastly dispersed job and housing markets, and – again – insubstantial downtowns.

Why all the angst about saving downtown when we have among the densest, most congested central city on the continent? Transit works better here than in other places. Why the rush to transit solutions, especially to ultra-expensive light rail? Is mass transit a basket in which we should place all our policy eggs when cities and job markets are dispersing rapidly away from our sentimental notions of “downtown”? In fact, our transit system has worked comparatively well because we have had so little suburban growth. It is doing less well every year and can be expected to slide further due to orthodox public sector management. In 1986, transit carried 60 million riders annually. To save money back then, we cut service frequency, with disastrous consequences. Ridership today has fallen to 40 million.

O’Toole’s answer to that is straightforward. First of all, under no circumstances should Winnipeg waste its limited resources on light rail transit. An LRT is the slowest, most expensive and most dangerous form of mass transit. In cities with light rail, almost all riders are drawn to trains from buses, not cars, While the car wins hands down for speed and convenience, buses can work pretty well if we adopt less grandiose innovations to improve mobility, reduce congestion and reduce pollution.

Cities from London, England to Las Vegas have achieved major gains in efficiency and better service, and recaptured transit market share, with worker buy-outs and contracting out. More frequency, combined with fewer stops and dramatically improved speed, is the ticket. O’Toole is also a big fan of sophisticated traffic-signaling technology. For $15 million, or about half the cost of one mile of light rail, Winnipeg could co-ordinate all the city’s traffic signals with huge savings in traffic time and reduced congestion and air pollution. Ultimately, he would also put electronic tolls on congested lanes to divert traffic to non-peak times.

Finally, let’s recognize the car’s superiority in a mobile, dispersed society. From an effective social policy perspective, let’s help low-income people achieve car ownership to maximize their choice of job opportunities citywide. It will take us much farther than to plunge scarce resources exclusively into the declining mass transit mode.