Public Transit’s Problems Have Little To Do With Money

California’s public-transit systems are facing a crisis, as already-declining ridership levels fell another 80 percent in the midst of COVID-19. They have only rebounded to 60 percent after the end of the shutdown. Most agencies are facing fiscal calamity and, predictably, state lawmakers are seeking to infuse them with additional cash now that federal pandemic-related subsidies are subsiding.

Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!

With the state government now staring down a $25-billion deficit, there’s no extra general-fund cash to prop up struggling systems. That may be a silver lining. Transit’s problems have little to do with inadequate subsidies, so perhaps this challenge will force policymakers to rethink the fundamental problem: Our transit systems are so unpleasant that people don’t want to use them.

State planners have been dumping record amounts of money into transit for years in the hopes that Californians will abandon their cars, but to no avail. The Southern California Association of Governments found that the region’s “median” resident made zero transit trips in a year – and that transit ridership is concentrated in a fraction of the area’s census tracts.

“Without the state stepping in,” transit agencies “say they may have to cut service or increase fares,” according to a CalMatters report. That’s the definition of a death spiral. Because of less revenue, the agencies will reduce and charge more for their already shoddy service. As a result, fewer people will use the service and that will lead to more cutbacks and higher fares. Transit’s problems predate the pandemic, by the way. Per-capita transit use plateaued in 1970.

If you peruse California’s transportation documents, you’ll find little focus on the nuts-and-bolts of transportation. Instead of improving the roads that most of us rely upon and building quality transit for those who depend upon it, the state is devoted to a policy of planned congestion that seeks to make us so miserable we abandon the cars that we rely upon. Just check out the trendy “road diets” that eliminate vital traffic lanes in favor of bike lanes.

The transit systems we’re supposed to hop aboard ultimately operate as jobs programs for government workers and schemes that battle climate change. On the former point, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system has a janitor who earned $270,000 in total compensation in a year. They view the rider – or potential rider – as an afterthought. That undermines their own stated goals.

“Getting more people out of their own gas-powered cars is essential to meeting the state Air Resources Board’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 48 percent below 1990 levels by 2030,” the CalMatters article added. The state has been underinvesting in freeways given that it perceives transit as the future – and lawmakers are busy trying to re-order development patterns so that more of us live in high-density, transit-dependent neighborhoods.

But no one stops to ask, “How are we going to entice (rather than force) Californians onto these mass-transit systems? And they plow ahead with a $100-billion “high speed” train that might one day take a handful of residents from Merced to Bakersfield.

Meanwhile, those people who take transit complain about constant delays, long travel times, uncomfortable and dirty buses – and crime. BART is enduring a crime wave. An L.A. Metro survey last year found that ridership among women has fallen off a cliff – with the key cited reason being crime and a lack of cleanliness. After that system experimented with free ridership during the pandemic, vagrants overran their buses and trains. Go figure.

Such mundane consumer-oriented concerns explain why people increasingly avoid transit, yet the California Department of Transportation’s main planning document is preoccupied with promoting “vibrant communities,” advancing “racial and economic justice” and bolstering “public and environmental health.” Those goals are fine, but the agencies can’t even manage systems that commuters feel safe to use.

Transit agencies face a conundrum. Because they view transit ridership largely in equity terms, they design the systems largely as social-welfare programs designed to provide poorer residents with a means to get around. Yet when they dump billions of dollars in boutique rail lines, they inevitably cannibalize funds from the bus routes that serve the bulk of their riders – and few drivers end up taking those rail lines, anyway.

The state’s progressive leaders seem to disdain cars, so they prefer hectoring drivers about their climate footprint and punishing them for driving pickup trucks. They forget that the bulk of lower-income people also rely on their cars – and that car ownership remains a key stepping stool into the middle class.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register


  1. The powers that be need to ride these crime ridden public buses and metro trains. Who want to spend and hour and half dealing with homeless and druggie when you can be there in a half hour with no hassle. I laugh because the people who pus public transportation never ride it!

  2. JLSeagull says

    The powers that be really ought to set the example by routinely taking public transit to and from their work.

  3. Cars Are Basic, Inc. has been making this statement for 2 decades.

    “State planners have been dumping record amounts of money into transit for years in the hopes that Californians will abandon their cars, ”

    Big Government ignores the truth, waves the middle finger at taxpayers, and states they (tax and spend not so civil servants) will force the public to accept failure for philosophy. CAB has fought repeatedly for facts and the general public sits back and takes it. Why?

    As a long term Transportation Advocate we have legal standing. and can represent the pubilc.

    The anti car groups from bike guys to “car free” have lost. The only thing propping up this wasteful spending and massive long term government retirement / benefits are corrupt or arrogant politicians you voted for.

    Need a transportation advocate?

Speak Your Mind