Planes, Trains or Automobiles: Does Public Transit Make Sense?

The Wasatch Front Regional Council recently published a 30-year Regional Transportation Plan for Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties that calls for a $15 billion investment in 296 miles of major public transit projects. These new projects include 12 miles of light rail (TRAX), 6 miles of commuter rail (FrontRunner), 11 miles of streetcar lines, and 267 miles of bus services. The intent of these proposed investments is to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution as the urban population along the Wasatch Front grows – worthy goals, to be sure.

But this raises a policy question: Will dropping $15 billion in taxpayer dollars on new public transit projects contribute significantly to this worthy goal? Unfortunately, the likely answer is no.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution on mass transit in U.S. metro areas highlights why. According to that report, only 11.1 percent of jobs in the Salt Lake City metro area are accessible by public transit within 45 minutes. If you expand the commute to 60 minutes or 90 minutes, public transit can reach 26.5 percent and 58.9 percent of jobs in the Salt Lake City metro area, respectively. In the Ogden-Clearfield metro area (including parts of both Davis and Weber Counties), public transit can reach 9.8 percent of jobs in 45 minutes, 17.8 percent of jobs in 60 minutes, and 42.2 percent of jobs in 90 minutes. In other words, the likely one-way commute for a Salt Lake, Davis or Weber county resident using TRAX, FrontRunner or bus is going to be one to 1½ hours, or two to three hours round trip.

On the other hand, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average commutes in Salt Lake, Davis, and Weber counties are 21.8 minutes, 20.7 minutes, and 21.9 minutes, respectively. This makes sense when you think about it, since most Wasatch Front residents commute using a car, and driving to work avoids all of the waiting, walking and transferring that comes with commuting via public transit.

Needless to say, the sales pitch of “take TRAX and double (if not quadruple) your commute time!” is not likely to convince many Utahns to stop driving their car to work, and reasonably so.  After all, what would you rather do: spend two to three hours commuting on a bus or a train every day, or spend 40 minutes commuting by car and have an extra one or two hours to be with your family or work on a personal hobby?

In other words, for the large majority of Utahns, it simply does not make sense for them to commute via public transit. It is not very convenient since it can’t get them to work in a reasonable amount of time, and driving a car allows them to spend time that would have been used sitting, walking or waiting to do things they would much rather be doing.

Based on these common-sense realities, it seems very unlikely that a $15 billion boost in public transit will significantly reduce congestion or air pollution as the Wasatch Front becomes more populated. More likely, residents will continue to drive to work, and in the short term may even be more likely to do so once public transit projects come online, because advocates for public transit are claiming that these projects will mean fewer cars on the road (i.e., the freeway commute will be even faster due to less traffic once public transit projects are completed).

It is certainly worthwhile as a matter of public policy to try and encourage reduced traffic congestion and air pollution. But public transit is a poor tool for accomplishing this worthy policy goal.