Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

September 8, 2003


Traffic: Thereís no silver bullet

Thereís no silver bullet when it comes to dealing with traffic congestion. In this country we have tried heavy rail, light rail, monorails, ferries, skyway, BRTís ó you name it ó every variant of public transportation known to man.

We have spent over $200 billion ó note the b ó just in the ten years from 1991-2000 in federal, state, and city subsidies for public transportation in the U.S.[i] And the number of commuters using transit has declined despite there being 12 million more commuters. These commuters all decided to drive alone.

Thatís for the nation as a whole but letís look at the three cities that had the greatest increase in transit commuters during this time.[ii]

Changes in commuters, 1990-2000


San Francisco



 Drive alone








Note that the increase in commuters driving alone totally overwhelmed the new transit riders.

Now letís look at the worst three cities ó those having the greatest decreases in transit commuters.  

Changes in commuters, 1990-2000


Washington DC



 Drive alone








Honolulu was an anomaly since we had a 6 percent decline in jobs, a 16 percent decline in commuting by TheBus, and a 10 percent decline in carpooling. The net of that was a slight increase in those driving alone.[iii]

The reason for this downtrend in transit, both nationally and locally, is that these days people see a greater value in commuting by car rather than by public transportation. Some of those reasons are:

  • More complicated daily travel patterns not easily accomplished by transit, e.g. home to gym, gym to work, work to kidís games, kidís games to home.
  • More shopping at large supermarkets and big box stores for which transit is not appropriate.
  • More people residing in remoter suburbs where transit service is infrequent.
  • People placing a greater value on their time.

These trends are not going to change. They have been in place since the 1920ís and, wars and Depressions aside, it has been a steady downhill slide for public transit since then. There was a one-time increase that came after the first surge of federal spending in the 1970s after which transit continued its decline.

However, there has been continued voter support for heavy public transit subsidies. The primary reason would appear to be that they see transit as the solution to traffic congestion. It seems so logical, and they believe the other guy will get out of his car to free up space for them on the freeway.

But thatís just wishful thinking. Reviewing the Census data over the past 40 years[iv] one can only come to the conclusion that while there are many reasons to support public transportation, the hope for a significant reduction in traffic congestion is not one of them.

Especially if you consider what can be done with the money we spend on it ó but that is for the next column.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist who footnoted columns are at: www.lava.net/cslater


[ii] Comparative analysis 1990-2000 obtained from Census data analysis by Nanda Srinivasan at Federal Highways (e-mail Nanda.Srinivasan@fhwa.dot.gov). The table data to the left of the bold line is Census data, that to the right are my calculations from that data as are the three lines below the table.

[iii] For 1990 Census data (page 2) & for 2000 Census data (page 3) for City & County of Honolulu.