Mass transit vs. cars: And the winner is . . .

Published March 1, 2001

Critics of privately owned automobiles and trucks often claim that if external costs were taken into account and taxpayer subsidies ended, many people would abandon their cars for environmentally “superior” modes of transportation, especially transit. Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute ( is perhaps the most persistent exponent of that view.

While the claim is often made, attempts to prove it are rare. Mark Delucchi, of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California – Davis, has performed a careful analysis of the subsidies given to cars, trucks, and trains, and the environmental harms, or costs, imposed by each form of transportation. He finds that honest pricing of urban transport would be a disaster for enthusiasts of transit and “alternative” transport.

Delucchi has run the numbers. He reports that in the United States, the external costs and subsidies to automobiles are actually much lower than the external costs and subsidies to transit. And electric cars don’t compute either. So, if we “got the prices right,” there would be more incentive to use our present cars and roads, and even less to use transit.

Writing in the Spring 2000 issue of Access, a bimonthly publication of the University of California Transportation Center, Delucchi notes: “It really doesn’t matter how one does the accounting. In virtually every case the total subsidy to transit greatly exceeds the total subsidy to auto use, per passenger, in both absolute terms and relative to the prices users currently pay.” Delucchi continues,

the elimination of subsidies in accordance with a plan for marginal social cost pricing (MSCP) and optimal investment would, on average, reduce, not increase the use of transit. . . . In certain places, at certain times, (implementation of charges for external costs) might add up to noticeable reductions in congestion, air pollution, accidents, or energy use. But it is inconceivable that social-cost pricing, by itself, would dramatically reverse the heretofore ineluctable, long-term, worldwide increase in ownership and use of motor vehicles.

The private benefits of motor-vehicle use are too great, and the costs of alternatives too high, for MSCP to have anything more than marginal effects.

Recent studies of the effects of pricing on mode choice and travel, along with evidence of growing auto ownership and use in countries with much higher vehicle and fuel taxes than the United States, support this conclusion. The wealthier a society gets, the more cars it buys and the more miles it drives. To price modes at MSC will not reverse this trend.

Makes great sense, and the numbers look credible. Transit is just not in the same cost ballpark. And, of course, for most trips it offers a lesser service as well . . . so even if it were in the same cost ballpark, it often wouldn’t fly.

Unfortunately, Delucchi goes on to say that despite the fact that cars impose fewer social costs than alternative transit, “society can decide” to put “social constraints” on the automobile and to control it by quantitative restraints. Land use planning, he says, can be used to restrict the automobile and favor transit.

But why? If, as Delucchi calculates, the social costs of alternatives are so much greater than the costs of the automobile, what possible justification is there for government policies that thwart or reduce auto use?

Delucchi throws up some vague phrases as answers–distributive fairness, uncertainty and risk, ecological stability, quality of life, and equal opportunity–as if these justify “society” placing restraints on the automobile. “Society,” however, does not decide anything. It is not an entity that makes decisions. That kind of language is a dangerous euphemism to put a positive spin on arbitrary government intervention. George Washington said it best: “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is power.”

It is possible to have a dialog with anti-auto environmentalists as long as they are prepared to compute costs and benefits, respect people’s right to choose, and let the chips fall where they may. But when they say “To hell with those calculations, we know what’s best and we’ll use our political muscle to get it,” then they are beyond the pale. Just another bunch of righteous powermongers wanting to impose their particular vision on others.

This article first appeared in the Toll Roads Newsletter. For subscription information, contact editor/publisher Peter Samuel at 301/631-1148, email [email protected], or visit the newsletter’s Web site at

For more information . . .

Mark Delucchi’s article in Access is available on the Internet at