The N&O editors still suffer from Rail Consensus Denial

The editors of The News & Observer continue to demand rail transit. They still have no idea how bad, wasteful, and unworkable an idea that is for the Triangle.

The occasion for their latest editorial, “The Triangle should regroup around a new regional transit plan,” is the publication of a report commissioned by the regional transportation authority GoTriangle to explain why the Durham-Orange light rail project failed. This report amounts to an autopsy report for the $2.7 billion project, but it reads a bit like blaming Acme and anvils for Wile E. Coyote’s multiple contusions and ignoring the fact that he walked off a cliff.

The coyote should know what kids know: that you can’t violate the law of gravity. The editors should know what 76 transit experts and planners consulted about it know: this region is too decentralized, too spread out, and not nearly population-dense enough to support expensive light rail.

That’s the elephant and the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. Eventually, even the light-project’s advocates could no longer pretend.

But the N&O still sticks with their one idea. Afflicted for years with Rail Consensus Denial, they even accuse people of “transit denial” as if that can magically change the facts on the ground. (A highlight is how they tout transit as “driving up property values” and then, a sentence later, leading to “more affordable housing.”

Here’s their core argument:

It’s clear that the Triangle cannot move forward as an urban area if it lacks mass transit. Better bus systems are part of the answer, as are the bus rapid transit lines that are coming into place. But rail — both commuter rail and light rail — ultimately must be part of the mix.

What’s actually clear is that fewer commuters are interested in mass transit, especially rail.

More and more, North Carolinians prefer cars

Just last month, I wrote a research brief about North Carolinians’ commuter choices. Here’s a snippet:

But the goal of transportation policy isn’t to satisfy the local newspaper editor’s dream of dutiful workers lining up to take the train, it’s to move people effectively and efficiently.

And it’s certainly not about reimagining the community or defining away people’s primary mode of choice. Planners should build to serve people’s needs, not try to make them “need” something else.

Why do North Carolinians choose cars? Because we are blessed with room to spread out.

The research brief discussed data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. I provided a chart and summarized those data here:

I explained what that shows:

  • Nine out of 10 people going to work in North Carolina take a car.
  • Over 60 percent of the rest work from home.
  • About half of the ones left over walk or bike.
  • Of the remaining 2 percent, half of those take a taxi, motorcycle, or other.
  • That last 1 percent? They’re the ones who take public transportation.

To the rail consensus deniers: When 99 percent of commuters are riding in cars, working from home, walking, or riding a bike — when fewer commuters than ever are taking public transit — they’re not “denying” transit, they’re choosing a more preferable option.

Fixed-rail transit is a nineteenth century answer to a question no one seems to be asking in this era of telecommuting and ridesharing apps.

Jon Sanders / Director of Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...

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