News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. dodged a public-transit bullet, study says

Proponents of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project were issued a crushing blow by the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, which terminated the project in early April.

But a recent study says termination was a good thing. (See update at the end of this story.)

The study’s author, Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole, describes the influence of mass transit projects as “a pattern of leaping into projects without sufficient planning or public debate, and then retrenching under a barrage of public criticism when the projects fail to live up to expectations.”

Based entirely on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the study finds people are eschewing mass transit for their cars.

Using North Carolina as an example, in 2007 about 83% of North Carolina workers said they drove alone to work each morning. In 2017, the number rose to 86%.

Meanwhile, proponents of mass transit overlook a new phenomenon in the workplace: the steady growth of work-from-home opportunities. In 2007, 4% of Americans said they worked from home. In 2017, that number increased to 5%. In North Carolina, nearly 4% of the population reported working from home in 2007; the number increased to about 4.5% in 2017. This also fails to factor in workers who have the opportunity to work a limited number of days from home, or people simply choose not to work from home.

Advocates of mass transit often cite the racial gap between those who commute to work by car and those that have to rely on public transportation. Yet, the study argues a different reality.

Black and Latino commuters have been slowly abandoning mass transit while white commuters have remained stagnant in their commuting habits.

Nationally, 65% of Latino commuters said they drove alone to work in 2007; in 2017 that number increased to 71%. In North Carolina, 56% said they drove alone to work in 2007, with that number dramatically increasing to 71% in 2017.

For black commuters, the numbers painted an interesting picture. In North Carolina, 78% of black commuters reported driving alone to work in 2007, while the number increased to 80% in 2017. Nationally, 71% of black commuters reported driving alone to work in 2007; in 2017 the number increased to 72%.

Meanwhile, both nationally and in North Carolina, white commuters’ preferences about driving alone to work haven’t changed. In North Carolina, about 82% of white commuters reported driving alone to work in 2007 and 2017. Nationally, 79% of white commuters reported driving alone in 2007 and 2017.

In a recent Carolinal Journal op-ed, John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation and one of the project’s opponents, wrote, “North Carolina is a populous, fast-growing, and urbanizing state. But that doesn’t mean our settlement patterns are friendly to large-scale rail transit, or likely ever become so. Our ‘urban’ counties are really suburban places for the most part. Most people still opt for homes in low-density developments. Most don’t work, live, or shop in downtowns.”

Other critics argued against the project because of its $2.7-billion price tag and a lack of cooperation from Duke University. Still other said the project wouldn’t reduce traffic congestion and was a bad fit for North Carolina.

Editor’s Note: This story linked to a Thoreau Institute post by O’Toole previewing a study he was completing for Cato. The link to the Cato study, released June 4, is here.