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Why People Don’t Save Money When They Move Closer To Public Transport


A new academic paper uses long-term panel data on thousands of American households to show that when a household moves closer to public transportation hubs, they do not end up saving much money on transportation. This is an interesting finding to transportation experts, because it has conventionally been assumed that public transportation was more cost effective for most people, and would enable them to reduce car ownership and usage, which saves money in the long run. The finding that savings were in fact extremely small was very surprising.

The study’s methodology is pretty straightforward, and there has been little serious disagreement with its core empirical findings, including its finding that a key predictor of transportation expenses is simply household size, that is, the number of children a family has. Unfortunately, America’s progressive public transit advocates are having a hard time coping with reality.

When I made the very basic point on Twitter that having kids makes owning a minivan more economical than paying for five transit fares every time you want to go somewhere, or that loading up multiple kids onto multiple cargo bikes is kind of a hassle when it’s raining or snowing, public transit advocates on twitter practically swarmed to attack.

The responses used by transit advocates to defend their precious trains can be lumped into four categories: an appeal to Europe, attack on the idea of children, assumption that I’m biased and ignorant, or ridiculous claims about car costs.

An Appeal To Europe

The most common response by far to the anodyne claim that public transit isn’t a good option for getting three kids to three different after-school lessons was to suggest that I was ignorant and had clearly never been to Europe, where public transit usage by large families is common.

Just a few examples:

It’s true: public transit usage is much higher in other countries! In many of them this corresponds to lower fertility rates, but even some countries with larger average family sizes use more public transit. This often corresponds to lower income countries and people, as higher-income people tend to prefer the privacy and flexibility of cars in most countries, but there are plenty of countries where middle-income families with kids make far heavier usage of public transportation than the United States.

It’s also fatuous: progressives appeal to European models across many policy debates, but the key problem with that method is that we are not Europe. What I mean is, we can’t undo a history of suburbanization easily. We can’t arbitrarily terminate the spatially distributed nature of American life. At the end of the day, Americans have created cities and social norms built around using whole metro areas for their shopping, schooling, and entertainment, not just their immediate local neighborhood. European cities built themselves around transit networks for the most part, and before that have dense, Medieval-period cores during a period when the lack of fast, safe transportation encouraged extremely high density.

The United States has no such history; the vast majority of our urban areas reached critical mass during the industrial period, and many became serious cities after the arrival of cars. So while it may be perfectly possible to live a family life without a car in Europe, the United States is not Europe. This helps explain why moving closer to transit didn’t impact family transportation expenses in the study in question: even if the family lives near transit, many of the things they need to get to are not near transit. And as any transportation planner will tell you, transit usage isn’t predicted by the residential population near transit, but by the destination amenities near transit.

An Attack On Breeders

Some progressives responded in a way that is particularly abhorrent but to which I’m accustomed by now: an attack on children.

It’s garden-variety progressivism by now to assert that any challenge families face is their own fault for having kids, and society owes them nothing for that. Apparently, the continuation of the species is of no interest to the general public. Of course, many people also responded, even fairly progressive people, that they agreed on the kids point: putting a carseat in an Uber or a rental car is a pain, waiting around on the platform for a train with a crying baby is less than ideal, and paying the fare for several kids gets expensive.

But again, this argument reflects a basic detachment from reality among public transit advocates. In response to a point that transit isn’t a great solution for the majority of Americans who live in households with children, their response was, “Have fewer children.” As if the ruling factor in having children should be transportation convenience. The reality is that transportation exists, quite literally, as a means to an end, not an end itself.

The ideal transportation system would be one that Americans never need to think about when making life decisions, whether about childbearing or otherwise. The reality is that car ownership allows families more flexibility about future choices, and especially neighborhood of residence, which matters a lot for families with children, especially as they reach schooling ages. Rather than recognize that this issue is real and imposes a limit on how much proximity to transit can do to reduce car usage, advocates would rather adopt the nonsense view that riding public transit should be an end in itself, and a reason not to have kids.

An Ignorant Hillbilly

Being from Kentucky, I’m accustomed to stereotypes about ignorance and backwardness. They’re commonplace from people on both sides of the aisle. But public transit advocates are particularly prone to crass stereotyping of rural people, or people they perceive to be less urbane than they are. As just two of the milder and more polite examples demonstrate:

The trouble here is that these people assume that I must be some angry suburban dad peeved he can’t park wherever he wants when he homes into town for a monthly errand. The reality is quite different. I live in a dense-mixed use neighborhood in the urban core of DC, less than 100 yards from a metro stop. I take the metro to work every day, except days where I use the municipal bikeshare instead or, sometimes in the summer, my wife drops me off on her way to work. We have no kids, and I’ve lived in dense urban cores for literally the entirety of my adult life (although I grew up in a rural area).

Identity politics have infected the entire political spectrum. Right-wing identity politics are just as prominent and poisonous as left-wing identity politics. But in this particular case, progressive advocates simply cannot conceive of the possibility that a person would simultaneously have the identity “urban transit-user” but also the belief “car-culture is unlikely to change and not a horrible thing.” Similar to the numerous advocates who responded assuming that my defending family choices meant I must have kids (sadly, I do not yet have any little Stones rolling around anywhere), these advocates see the argument and jump to the assumption that it signals identity.

Much of the political debate about public transit, as so many issues are, isn’t about public transit at all. It’s about identity. It’s about the kind of people progressives wish Americans were: less individuated, more heavily using overt government services, keeping their lives centered in a few dense networks, never longing for the open road. As such, they can’t imagine why somebody would keep a car when they move nearer transit; being near transit should change that person’s material interests, which should change their political identity, which should change their beliefs and values. The idea that beliefs and values might come first, and be independent of material interests, is positively anathema to many modern politicos of all stripes.

An Appeal To Cost

Numerous transit advocates responded to me by simply denying the whole thrust of the empirical study I cited. This is ironic given the favorite progressive claim that “reality has a liberal bias.” This denial came in the form of asserting that car ownership has enormous costs, and the implication that the study must, somehow, some way, be wrong. Many of the people arguing this admitted that they had not actually read the study in question when I asked them.

Here’s the reality: car usage does have many hidden costs to individuals and society. I have done the math for my own family on transportation options, and it shows how the math can work out. For my wife and I to both use cars to commute, our total transportation costs over five years would be about $126,000. About two-thirds of this cost is not actual money that came out of our bank account, but time wasted commuting to work. I consider 100 percent of time commuting to be wasted, and I value time wasted at each of our individual wage rates. Since both my wife and I also do self-employed hourly work on the side which actually has a higher hourly rate than our main jobs, this is probably an underestimate of time costs. I incorporate depreciation of the vehicles, resale value, maintenance costs, gasoline for plausible mileage, etc.

But for both my wife and I to use public transportation to get to work would still cost us $121,000 over 5 years. We would need to use Ubers or car rentals for many trips and vacations, which gets very expensive very fast, and my wife’s commute time would be longer (mine is actually shorter if I commute by public transit). In other words, we can reduce our total economic cost of transportation by approximately 4 percent by switching to full transit usage, at the expense of a lot of lost time.

But there’s another option. My wife can drive to work, and I can metro, each of us taking the fastest commuting option, and maintaining the flexibility of a car. This option lowers our costs to about $113,000 over 5 years, which is a more significant decline. And since we have no kids, this works just fine. This is, in fact, what my wife and I actually do. We got rid of the second car years ago after doing precisely this calculation. But the catch is that the total number of miles driven only falls a bit: I estimate dropping the second car only reduced our miles driven by about 10 percent.

Most social costs of cars, like environmental impacts or safety risks due to collisions, are not associated with car ownership, but with vehicle miles driven. Getting rid of our second car only reduced our miles driven a small amount, much smaller than public transit advocates might want. And when we have multiple kids, a second car may become necessary, especially if urban rents become too expensive for us to remain in the city center.

In other words: getting rid of one car didn’t have the big social impacts advocates want, and getting rid of the second car would raise the economic cost of transportation for us by a decent amount, about 12 percent.

The Real Argument For Public Transit

There is a good argument for public transit that public transit advocates rarely make, possibly because it just isn’t the language they speak. That argument is the exact same argument made in favor of cars: freedom. Having more transportation options gives people more freedom. It means if the car breaks down, they aren’t totally dependent on taxis. It means if they can’t afford a car, they can get to work. It means families can have more flexibility and don’t have to shuttle their middle school kids to activities all the time; they can just hop on the train. A mixed-mode transportation system that makes it easy, affordable, and convenient to drive, bike, walk, train, bus, or park all over the city is almost certainly the best path forward given American social and urban norms as they exist today. As it is, we have massively overbuilt our highways, even as our rail networks have so few destination points that they are of little use even to people who need or want to use them.

Plus, the reality is, drivers don’t pay their fair share of transportation costs. Data from the Census of State and Local Government Finances suggests that combined revenues from gas taxes, license fees, tolls, and parking only covers about 53 percent of state and local spending on highways and parking. The Federal budget runs an additional transportation deficit on top of that. Covering the state and local gap would take a toll of about $0.03 per mile driven. For reference, the cost of gasoline is about $0.05 to $0.17 per mile, depending on gas prices and car, so the toll would be a substantial increase in the cost of driving. But practically speaking, taxpayers, including nondrivers, are footing the bill to provide socialized roads to parasitic drivers not paying their fair share.

Of course, the same is true of public transportation! While I was unable to find comprehensive statistics on public transit revenues and expenditures across the whole country, in most individual jurisdictions, public transportation is not self-supporting, but requires outlays by the government funded by taxpayers.

Any reasonable conservative should be opposed to this socialized transportation. People should pay their own way whether on roads or trains. And especially given the tens of thousands of deaths caused by cars every year, it’s reasonable to suggest that society could, on the margin, benefit somewhat fewer miles of driving.

But when transit advocates make overwrought claims unsupported by evidence, like the idea that adding transit will greatly reduce total transportation expenditures for individuals, they fail to advance their cause. And when they double down on the ideological preference for trains over cars, making it a debate over fundamental values about children, liberty, and national culture, they obliterate any hope of being persuasive.

The United States is a car culture that is likely to remain for generations to come. Adding better transit options and ensuring all transportation modes are priced fairly is good and reasonable, and conservatives should get on board that liberty-enhancing market-oriented train. But let’s avoid making the transit debate about identity politics, okay?