A new study from the Mineta Transportation Institute which reviewed and analyzed existing literature on the benefits and costs of US public transit systems has found that the financial benefits of existing transit networks are "measurable and strong," not only in big cities, but also in rural and "small urban areas."
The study, The Benefits of Transit in the United States: A Review and Analysis of Benefit-Cost Studies, organized the benefit/cost estimates according to the variety of each study area (such as urban, rural, small urban, etc.) in order to identify the categories of financial transit benefits. The estimated value of each benefit category was then divided by the total (estimated) costs of providing those transit services, which allowed for a "benefit-specific" benefit/cost ratio and the equal comparison of benefits from each study.
According to the abstract, some of the differences in benefits could be attributed to differences in densities of service areas and the size of the population, with small urban and rural areas "generally" yielding lower benefit/cost values than large urban areas. The study found that some differences remained, even after accounting for differences in context, which suggests that "appropriate" investments in transit systems in rural and small urban areas could yield substantially greater benefits than costs.
The key findings, according to Mineta, include the above statement ("appropriate investments in rural and small urban areas"), as well as the fact that transit systems typically pay for themselves in "congestion relief benefits" in mid- to large-sized urban areas, that some of the largest benefit categories of transit were economic stimulus and jobs, that public transit saves people money as well as improving health care access and outcomes while also reducing those costs, and that "transit saves lives" by reducing accidents and related costs.
The results of the study stated that lower benefit/cost ratios were in the safety and security benefits, with this explanation addressing that finding:
"Two possible explanations were offered for the low b-c ratios found for the transit safety and security benefits. First, because people in the U.S. choose driving instead of transit, the safety and security benefits of transit to society are small. But before concluding that transit is not an effective tool for improving public health and well-being in the U.S., the second explanation—building on the first—suggests that Americans choose to drive instead of ride transit because of a history of underinvestment in transit services in the U.S., coupled with the predominance of auto-oriented land use planning and development."
The study didn't cover the implied environmental and health benefits of transit systems of improved air quality, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, or increased property values, but the author, Christopher Farrell, Ph.D, stated that these categories "should be considered" for future studies.
The full study is available at Mineta Transportation Institute: The Benefits of Transit in the United States: A Review and Analysis of Benefit-Cost Studies (PDF).
Image: Sakeeb Sabakka