As Charlotte tries to figure out how to pay for additional passenger rail service, Raleigh decides whether to join with Durham and Chapel Hill to create passenger rail service, and Triad communities decide whether to decide to create passenger rail service, those who pay close attention to actual commuter behavior will be yawning.

You see, the vast majority of North Carolinians — and Americans — will never use rail or bus transit on a regular basis. Indeed, most of them have and will never set foot in a city bus or regional rail car. Mass transit is irrelevant to their lives, except as an expense on their tax bill or a distraction from building or expanding the roads they use to get to work, school, shopping, or other destinations.

That’s not to say that transit is useless, or that localities ought not to fund transit service. The point is that transit is primarily a program of public assistance, a means of providing mobility to people who either can’t afford personal vehicles or can’t operate them for some medical reason. Transit has some convenience users and even a few ideologically motivated users, but not many.

Exceptions? Sure, there are a handful. New York City, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco — just a handful. These are places where high densities and high housing prices (related phenomena, by the way) combine with unique geography to create some demand for convenience use of transit. But in most metropolitan housing markets, the vast majority of consumers opt for low-density living in owner-occupied homes to the extent their income allows it. That usually means that as they marry, have children, and experience rising incomes, they move further away from urban cores and disperse in patterns poorly suited to rail service.

For all the talk about New Urbanism, “multi-modal transportation,” and the like, automobility not only remains the default option for North Carolinians and most other Americans, but also has been increasing over time, not decreasing.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported on a new study by the U.S. Census Bureau. It found that 76 percent of Americans drove to and from work by themselves in 2012, compared to 64 percent who did so in 1980. That automobility rate for 2012 is close to the all-time high of 77 percent, set in 2005. Why has automobility risen? Because incomes have been rising faster than car prices. To the extent people can afford to buy cars for personal mobility, they usually do so.

By comparison, carpooling went from 20 percent of commuters in 1980 to 10 percent in 2012. Transit’s market share dropped from 6 percent to 5 percent. Walking or biking dropped from 7 percent to 5 percent. Meanwhile, working from home roughly doubled, to just over 4 percent.

Again, to observe that about three-quarters of workers drive their own cars, and are unlikely to stop doing so without strong motivation, is still to recognize that about one-quarter of them are doing something else. There is nothing wrong with states and localities using high-occupancy-toll (HOT) lanes to encourage carpooling and express service by personal car or bus, or running efficient bus systems for the car-less, or ensuring that sidewalks are in serviceable shape for pedestrians. Governments should be particularly keen to eliminate all barriers to telecommuting, which is actually a growing phenomenon rather than a shrinking one.

But policymakers shouldn’t be spending such a disproportionate amount of their time, and the taxpayers’ money, trying to make transit into something that it will never be. What’s worse, policymakers who understand the clash between the transit-friendly development they envision and the auto-friendly development that most people want tend not to accept the verdict of the public. They resort to coercion — to intrusive land-use regulations, punitive taxes, and wealth redistribution — in an attempt to substitute their preferences for those of their subjects citizens.

The result won’t be some New Urbanist paradise. It will be a combination of higher costs, horrendous traffic, and public resentment. Let’s not go there, by any transportation mode.


Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.