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Does Rapid Transit Subsidize Sprawl

by Aaron Houck

January 8,2009

As we enter 2009, the pro-transit crowd is celebrating. Sure, the recession is hurting CATS, just as it is hurting most organizations. But 2008 was a great year to say “I told you so” to transit opponents. Ridership numbers exceeded expectations, and very few of the predicted problems manifested themselves. In fact, most problems that did occur – such as too few cars and inadequate station amenities – were the result of cutbacks.

Pointing to the successful Blue Line, urbanists are clamoring even more loudly for additional routes. The Blue Line extension to UNC Charlotte and the North Commuter Rail Line are presently both being engineered. The transit lifestyle is ascendant, it would appear, along with a newfound appreciation for urban living. The urbanists cheer light rail as the first step in a move away from the suburban model of development that has dominated the Charlotte region for years.

But is the rapid transit plan, as conceived, a boon for smarter growth? Let’s take a look at the Blue Line. As you leave downtown Charlotte, it is clear that light rail has sparked significant dense development. But the development stops once you pass the South End. For the next several miles, South Boulevard looks much like it did before the Blue Line was built, and the free CATS parking lots have plenty of empty spaces. The activity picks up again toward the end of the line, where – though there is no dense, urban development – the park-and-ride lots are packed.

Here’s where we can see one of principal effects of light rail: shaving time (and costs) off commuting from the suburbs.

Champions of mass transit who also consider themselves opposed to sprawl would do well to keep in mind that the most effective argument against the far-flung suburbs is not aesthetic (“aren’t those big box stores ugly”); nor sociological (“suburban life retards the development of social capital”). Rather, the anti-sprawl argument most compelling to the most people is the economic argument that the suburbs do not pay their fair share.

Suburban life, the argument goes, is subsidized more than any other mode of living. Developing infrastructure for sprawling areas is more expensive due to the larger acreage. Those living in the suburbs make greater use of public roads – both by driving more miles and by making more trips – and use more public utilities such as water and energy. Of course people choose to live in the suburbs, this argument continues, because those living in the suburbs are getting the best deal.

The economic argument against the suburbs is that when someone chooses to live in the suburbs, the private cost associated with that decision is less than the social cost. So from the larger community’s perspective, the number of people living in the suburbs is too high.

One of the few times a resident of the suburbs must internalize the costs of her geographic decision is when she is stuck in traffic. The frustration and wasted time associated with traffic figures into individuals’ and families’ decisions regarding where to locate their homes. The extension of rapid transit into the suburbs decreases the costs of commuting from the distant suburb to downtown by providing free parking and a cheap, stress-free ride and by taking drivers off the road. In effect, rapid transit further subsidizes suburban living.

I am not trying to throw a wet blanket on the idea of rapid transit. The transit plan has had some real successes: the development in the South End, the plans for dense “villages” at the North Line’s stations, and regional cooperation. Moreover, transit will help ease traffic congestion – which is a social benefit. And, to be fair, CATS has invested in numerous enhancements and extensions to existing bus service. But the bulk of funds for capital improvements to our transit system have been marked for rapid transit routes extending into the suburbs.

Again, this is not to say that transit is a bad idea. But transit was sold to our community as part of a larger, holistic approach to growing in a more deliberate way. And as such we should consider the broader consequences of our transit investments, including the ways in which it may facilitate sprawl.

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