(Editor’s note: This is first in a series on why Americans don’t ride transit)
There’s a myth that Americans have some kind of irrational love affair with their cars, and they don’t ride transit because of that irrationality. In fact, there are very good reasons why autos provide well over 95 percent of mechanized travel in urban areas while transit provides less than two percent.
One of the most important reasons is that transit is slow. Most transit is slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book, the average speed of rail transit is 21.5 miles per hour, while the average speed of bus transit is 14.1 mph (see page 7). So-called rapid transit, known to the Federal Transit Administration as heavy rail, averages just 21.1 mph, while light rail is 15.6 mph and streetcars are a pathetic 7.7 mph (see page 40).
Among forms of rail transit, commuter rail is fastest at 32.5 mph, while hybrid rail (a form of commuter rail) is 28.0 mph. But commuter rail typically operates only during rush hours, while hybrid rail exists only in special limited circumstances. Monorails and other automated guideways average 8.8 mph, which helps explain why monorails never became popular.
Commuters buses, averaging 26.0 mph, are the fastest form of bus transit, while ordinary buses are just 12.5 mph and trolley buses (which, like streetcars, tend to be limited to urban centers) are just 7.1 mph. So-called bus-rapid transit lines in this country average 10.5 mph, 2 mph less than ordinary buses, which suggests that most cities’ implementation of bus-rapid transit leaves a lot to be desired. The only really rapid transit is the form of transit that’s closest to cars: vanpools, which average more than 40 mph (see page 35 for bus and highway transit modes).
By comparison, the average speed of auto travel in most American cities is more than 30 mph. The slowest city is New York, at 17.6 mph, which helps explain why New York also has the highest rate of transit usage. The only others under 20 mph are San Francisco and Washington. At the other extreme, average speeds in Kansas City and Tulsa are more than 40 mph, probably because those cities, unlike so many others, haven’t actively tried to discourage driving in a doomed effort to get people to ride transit.
Taken as a whole, urban transit averages 14.1 mph, less than half the speed of driving in most cities (and slower than many cyclists). This doesn’t count the time spent getting to and from transit stops, waiting for transit vehicles, or transferring from one to another, all of which make transit even slower. But slow speed is only the first reason why Americans don’t ride transit. The second reason, that transit doesn’t go where you want to go, is available here. The third reason, that transit is more expensive than driving is here. The fourth reason, a lack of security and privacy, is here. The fifth reason, that our cities aren’t built for it, is here. And the sixth reason, that transit infrastructure is crumbling, is here.
Randal O’Toole directs the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. A version of this article originally appeared in his blog, TheAntiplanner.