Issues in Focus: Public Transportation

Georgia, known for its great weather, good food, and recent economic boom, is also known for its terrible traffic problems. The most recent survey by INRIX, a traffic information leader, ranks Atlanta as the 9th worst U.S city for traffic, with 59 hours per commuter wasted annually. This is due, in part, to the neglect of Atlanta’s public transit systems. But, just how much does traffic really impact Georgia?

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, a premier transportation research institute, public transportation saved Georgia and its citizens about $200 million in congestion costs in 2009. However, traffic congestion still cost Georgians $3.2 billion that year [1]. Within these costs is the additional 52 hours of travel time per year for each commuter due to traffic congestion. These costs do not include air pollution costs that can be significant both in terms of dollars and human lives. Additionally, major economic drivers, such as State Farm and Mercedes, are demanding that Atlanta place transit stations within their proximity to get employees to work more efficiently [2].

It is well known that traffic congestion costs Georgians enormous amounts of time and money, but can the expansion of public transit actually mitigate these costs? In a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, researchers found that public transit does absolutely lower transportation costs. Reductions in travel costs can be anywhere from $1.20 to $4.10 per passenger per peak mile traveled. Through mathematical analysis, it was found that highway traffic congestion increased by 47 percent when public transit services stopped [3]. The study also found that without rail service, average driving delays are 3.4 minutes per mile. With rail service, these delays drop to 0.5 mins per mile on routes commonly used by commuters. Trains are much cleaner per passenger than cars because they emit about 75 percent fewer nitrogen oxides and nearly 100 percent fewer hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide per passenger per mile than a single-occupant car.

The current policy to reduce traffic congestion is to expand the highways, but this method is likely exacerbating the congestion problem. The fundamental law of traffic congestion says that vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT) increases in exact proportion to highways. The formula for VKT is number of vehicles times their collective distance travelled. Using this law and the equation for VKT, the law states that highway extensions increase the number of vehicles on the road or their distance travelled or both. Multiple studies, including one by the Texas Transportation Institute, find that highway extensions do both. [4]

Additionally, it costs Atlanta around $10 million for one mile of highway lane. A rail line provides up to 18 times the passenger capacity of a highway lane the same length. In addition to efficiency gains, public rail transit can repurpose abandoned industrial rail lines for passenger lines. This reduces construction costs significantly and does not require that new land be acquired. [5].

Many opponents of public transit argue that expanding rail stations or bus routes will increase crime in low-crime areas, specifically metropolitan Atlanta suburbs. However, research by Keith Ihlanfedlt on Atlanta metropolitan areas finds that rail transit does not increase crime in suburban areas and actually decreases crime. As well, rail transit can increase employment in central areas of cities, which can deter crime by providing legitimate income alternatives for potential criminals [6]. While studies will not provide definitive, permanent answers, there is little evidence that fully supports the notion that public transit increases crime and most evidence suggests there is a nonexistent or small relationship between the two.

Public transit creates about 31 percent more jobs per dollar than spending on highway construction. The Smart Growth America think tank report emphasizes public transportation spending as one of the most efficient means of creating jobs in the transportation sector. It also gets money into the economy faster than building new highways [7]. Perhaps more importantly, public transportation establishes more long-term employment than highway construction because it requires drivers and maintenance workers throughout operation. Public transportation also has significant positive impacts on the communities it serves. By lowering the barriers to transportation, more people are able to get an education and a job [8]. The result is an increase in quality of life for potentially thousands of citizens.

Hopefully, Georgians can get behind public transportation and let others know what it can do for Georgia. While public transportation could significantly reduce traffic, it could also do so much more for Georgia by creating jobs and making life better for many.