In today's CityLab, Eric Jaffe expresses concern about the fact that support for public transit in many American cities is far exceeding its ridership.
Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: "98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others." But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.
This is entirely a good thing, given the state of transit in America today. If transit were only supported by its existing riders it would be in a death spiral, because most American transit isn't currently useful enough to penetrate a large part of the travel market.
The "support-usage gap," as Jaffe calls it, does not mean that Americans support transit just in hopes that others will use it. We don't need that psychological speculation because the real explanation is factual: For most Americans, in the context of their lives and locations and situations and priorities, the transit that exists today is not a rational choice. Many Americans who support transit but don't use it may be saying that they want transit to be an option, but that it currently isn't.
This is exactly what we should expect in a country with such low quantitites of transit per capita, and where the public consciousness about the need for transit is way ahead of the political process of funding and designing it. Canada, for example, has more than twice the transit service per capita, therefore more than twice the ridership per capita, therefore more of the population on transit. But the support for transit in urban populations is high in both countries. Support and usage are, and should be, unrelated. That's because people are thinking about what they want, not what they have.
In my experience as a consultant, the real problem with the support-usage gap is one of education. Working in Canada, I always notice that the public and stakeholder conversation about transit is just a little more informed than it is in the US. The common confusions (see Chapter 3 of my book) don't have as much impact on the discussion. That difference arises from the fact that a bigger share of the Canadian population has personal experience with transit. If you use transit regularly, there are some things about it that you'll just naturally understand better. If nothing else you won't fall into common motorists' errors like overvaluing speed and undervaluing frequency, or assuming that technology choice is more important than where a service goes, and how soon you'll get there.
But do you support transit but don't find it useful? That's great! Help us make it better! Welcome aboard!