An online forum hosted by the National Journal magazine recently posed that question to a diverse group of transportation stakeholders, myself included, and I will share here the reponse I posted for them.
While the question of whether mass transit’s time has arrived is an interesting one, I think it is a component of a broader question: how can transportation best serve national goals and purposes like economic growth, environmental and energy sustainability, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, and safety? Improved transit can and should be an important component of transportation programs that serve those purposes – but objectivity is required to assess realistically how far transit can move us in the right direction.
Transit is well-suited to many situations, but not all. Improved transit in high-density areas can improve accessibility, reduce environmental and energy security damages, and foster economic growth in ways that simply adding more highways might not. At the same time, however, transit works best when used in conjunction with a program of policies, such as road pricing, that encourage system flexibility and incentivize transit usage. Transit capacity will meet the goals people want it to serve only if it is actually used. An approach that integrates the planning and prioritizing of road, rail, and transit programs is key to maximizing each mode’s performance towards national goals.
The long-running debate about how to allocate money between the various modes is out-of-date. If we are speaking about the federal role, we should be focused on funding that achieves outcomes tied to national goals, not in preferring one mode over another. Many people would agree that significant transit expansion in major metropolitan areas is likely to be a valuable tool in meeting national goals – but we also cannot ignore that improving the operations of existing highway and road networks might also play an important role. We need to understand trade-offs and to prioritize operations and projects within broad, cross-modal programs.
So before we jump to a conclusion about how to allocate funding - whether to give transit or highways more money - let’s ensure that we have a performance-based approach that can help us identify and prioritize programs that achieve national goals.
To that end, the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Transportation Policy Project, which I direct, is bringing new voices to the transportation debate and creating a dynamic and enduring framework for the next transportation authorization and beyond.