Does Canada need a national transit strategy? According to a new Frontier Centre for Public Policy study, it does not. Frontier’s Senior Fellow Wendell Cox argues that while federal funding for transit is often sold as a panacea for gridlock, it is little more than expensive snake oil. Rather than curing gridlocked cities, a national transit strategy could well exacerbate the illness.
There are three faulty assumptions that are used to justify a national transit strategy. First, federal funding is required to fund public transit expansions. Second, increased transit capacity will significantly increase ridership. Third, public transit is the most efficient way to move people around metropolitan areas.
Proponents of a national transit strategy are correct to point out that municipalities do not have the fiscal capacity to increase transit service significantly. They extrapolate that higher levels of government, which have far greater fiscal capacity, ought to fund public transit. At the same time, many of these proponents argue that residents of big cities are paying more to the federal government than they are receiving back in services. Yet they ignore the logical conclusion: if big city residents are paying too much to the federal government and not enough to the municipal government, we ought to give municipal governments more fiscal capacity. In addition, involving more than one level of government inevitably makes things more bureaucratic, and increases costs.
The argument that improving transit capacity will significantly increase ridership is equally misguided. As Cox notes, transit is only efficient in dense urban cores. These are the very places where ridership is already high. While there are certainly places where public transit ought to be expanded or upgraded, much of the expansion envisioned by national transit strategy advocates is in the suburbs. Dense urban cores are already well served. However, few suburbanites are likely to give up their cars. After all, it is far more convenient to own a car when living in the suburbs than it is to rely on transit. The level of transit that would be required to approach the convenience of automobiles in the suburbs would be prohibitively expensive.
The assumption that public transit is the most efficient way to move people around cities seems intuitively correct. After all, given that cities are gridlocked, it is easy to assume that putting people into buses will reduce congestion, therefore moving people around quickly. However, the assumption ignores the fact that most people don't commute to the core of cities. Only 14% of employment is located in the central business districts of major Canadian urban centres. Given that areas outside of downtown are 1/50th as dense, public transit cannot service these areas nearly as efficiently as automobiles. It is the reason that the average transit user spends 17 minutes more than the average driver for a one way work trip. As Cox points out, expanding transit and dissuading automobile usage could in fact reduce mobility, and the productivity of metropolitan areas.
Instead of advising the federal government to funnel billions of dollars into public transit, Cox recommends investing in research to determine best practices for reducing congestion. It may seem mundane, but there is a surprising lack of data available in the Canadian context. There are many studies that demonstrate the efficacy of tools such as road tolling and congestion charges in major centres across the world, but such policies would only be part of the solution, and are not necessarily practical in every area. One hopeful sign that Cox identifies is the increasing number of people who are telecommuting. The best way to reduce congestion is to not have people travelling at peak times in the first place. It may be an area where the federal government could take a lead. As the country's largest employer, it has plenty of opportunities for experimentation.
Though it is always tempting to offer grand plans and to craft a comprehensive national strategy for any perceived problem—energy, health, competitiveness, and so on—such strategies ignore the fact that most problems are simply local problems. This is especially so in the domain of transportation policy. Rather than spending billions of dollars annually on public transit, the federal government should allow municipalities to experiment with policy measures of their own choosing, and provide research to establish best practices. The federal government should cease direct funding of municipal infrastructure and encourage the provinces to grant them greater fiscal capacity instead. It would be far more prudent than raining money down on municipalities.