Can a Cap-and-Trade Tax Salvage Mass Transit?

Charlottesville bus — endangered species?

by James A. Bacon

While social engineers plot ways to increase the cost of driving single-occupancy vehicles and push people into low-carbon transportation alternatives like bicycles and mass transit (see the previous post by Steve Haner about the Transportation & Climate Initiative), Virginians stubbornly stick to their cars. Mass transit ridership is down sharply across Virginia — even in the People’s Republic of Charlottesville with its environmentally conscious electorate and super-woke elected officials.

Five years ago Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) had a ridership of 2.4 million. This year the transit expects to serve only 1.7 million riders, reports Greater Greater Washington (GGW). The situation is so dire that CAT’s new director, Garland Williams, says the transit agency is in a “death spiral.”

The transit system, in Williams’ estimation, is plagued by unreliability, decreasing coverage, and one-way routes. A housing-affordability crisis is pushing lower-income residents into surrounding counties that the transit system doesn’t reach.

GGW quotes Charlottesville-area transit advocates as suggesting the solution may be closer collaboration between the City of Charlottesville’s system, the University of Virginia service, and a program that serves regional commuters in outlying counties. Functioning as a regional transit authority might allow these entities to unlock new state and federal funding.

Yeah.  Maybe. But, then, there’s the problem that people would rather drive their own cars: going where they want, when they want, taking the passengers they want, playing the music/talk radio they want, and carrying whatever gear they want.

Mass transit is one of those things that people like in the abstract, especially when they envision “other” people riding the buses. People tell themselves that they “really ought to” ride the bus (or rail system) more often… but rarely get around to doing so because, let’s face it, most of the time it’s a lot more convenient to drive their own car.

Mass transit in the Charlottesville region serves mainly lower-income people. As the economy improves, more lower-income people get jobs. One would think that would increase the demand for transportation services as lower-income people commute back and forth to work. But wages are rising as well. Instead of riding the bus, I’ll bet the data shows, more lower-income people are buying cars. The evidence definitely shows that Virginians as a whole are driving more. After being mostly flat for several years following the Great Recession, Vehicle Miles Traveled began shooting higher in 2015.

Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled. Data source: Virginia Department of Transportation

GGW may be correct to suggest that continued suburban sprawl contributes to the decline in transit ridership. On the one hand, the densification of housing in Charlottesville should increase the number of potential bus riders. On the other, with gentrification, lower-income households with a high propensity to ride the bus are displaced by affluent households more likely to own their own cars. I would be most interested to see a careful analysis of how those conflicting demographic trends affect bus ridership.

Getting back to the social engineers and their cap-and-trade idea… Advocates of the Transportation & Climate Initiative suggest plowing revenues into clean transportation modes like electric vehicles and mass transit. If the GGW hypothesis is right — if lower-income households are being pushed to the  suburbs and exurbs where bus transit is not remotely economical and they have no choice but to drive cars — higher gasoline prices will fall disproportionately upon those least able to afford it. Greenies can put all the buses they want on the streets, but given current trends, one can legitimately ask whether people will be induced to abandon their cars.

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15 responses to “Can a Cap-and-Trade Tax Salvage Mass Transit?”

  1. AlongThePike Avatar

    I remember when requiring activities to account for and pay for their negative externalities was a conservative idea. Now apparently it’s “social engineering” to try to get driving to not push its environmental costs onto the public at large.

    1. I’d be a lot less skeptical of the Transportation & Climate Initiative if, after collecting revenue reflecting the social costs of carbon, it returned those revenues to the people being taxed. But that’s not the plan. The plan is to spend it on all manner of green transportation initiatives.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        but that’s better than being opposed to any/all proposals because you don’t think ANY will work. That’s an essential difference. You have to be willing to try and fail ..before you will find what does work.

        Otherwise – we end up with folks who will only do the status quo and blame others for the problems – they won’t agree to try to solve.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      Hear hear!

  2. I think NoVA is doing quite well on mass transit % use, out of necessity due to the traffic.

    I remember the old days we worked 8:15 to 4:45PM each day without exception and we had 4 or 5 or 6 baby boomers in a car pool to the workplace. Lot’s of good politics discussion in the cars too. Flex time came in, I dunno mid-1980’s and put an end to that lifestyle. We have a different society today which we need to keep in mind.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I doubt that Mass Transit will EVERY be the 100% replacement for all travel any time at all locations.

      It’s just not going to be that.

      We have folks in Fredericksburg who want METRO to come down the middle of I-95 – until they hear the cost.

  3. Randall O’Toole has predicted that mass transit is a losing endeavor — especially when the capacity of highways is increased dramatically with self-driving cars and more people tele-commute.
    Human beings want to be free; therefore, they like the freedom offered by driving their own cars, being independent. The government could make the maximum speed limit be 10 mph — that would end car driving. Actually, the government is doing just that by allowing 10 mph scooters to use the middle of car lanes that are marked as bicycle lanes.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Mass transit works just fine in high density cities all across the world. Shut down New York City’s subway and train system and the city would come to a screeching halt. Th problem in Virginia is that we don’t have the density to make mass transit work.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I do not think self-driving cars are going to happen in our lifetimes and if they actually do – they will not reduce congestion – they’ll increase it.

    Aggressive drivers are going to have a field day with “autonomous” vehicles.. Automous car “sport” will become a “THING” !! 😉

    The “freedom” we talk about is that everyone wants their own car – they don’t want to ride with strangers!

    The ONLY WAY that autonomous cars will “work” is in they have their own dedicated lanes… oh wait……….

  5. djrippert Avatar


    The City of Charlottesville is 10.2 sq mi. If it were a square it would have four sides of 3.16 mi each. That yields a hypotenuse of 4.47 mi. I’m not sure any “city” that small can yield much in terms of testing mass transit theory. As Charlottesville has continued to grow and become more dense maybe people are just walking more because there is more to do / see / shop at within walking distance.

    In Charlottesville there were 45,475 people in the 2010 census (48,117 estimated today). 14.9% were under 18 and 9.2% were 65 and older. That leaves 34,515 working age adults. As of 2016 11,129 of those people worked for the government – 376 for the federal government, 7,796 working for the state government and 2,957 working for local government. 32% of working age residents of Charlottesville work for the government. Maybe more liberal work from home policies.

    Finally, Charlottesville seems like a classic case of a city that should be able to annex parts of surrounding Albemarle County. Within the expanded city of Charlottesville there should be no restrictive zoning. Outside the expanded city (in Albemarle County) there should be very restrictive zoning. This would force density in Charlottesville I think.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    If you add the populations of Charlottesville and Albemarle County you’ll get 156,835 people or 1.8% of the state’s population. However, Charlottesville has 7,796 state employees out of a total of 68,000 for 11.5% of the total number of state employees. Quite the little bureaucracy.

    1. Atlas Rand Avatar

      That’s simply a result of the concentration of university employees. I’m sure you’ll see something similar with regards to Blacksburg and Montgomery County.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        I agree. But Charlottesville is so small that I have to guess that a lot of the city’s residents can walk to the University Hospital or to UVA.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Your chart is related to cheaper, undertaxed gas

  8. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    VMT has been rising since the end of the Great Recession. And Millennials are buying cars in much greater numbers during the last 5 years. The latter really upsets a number of anti-car, anti-suburb, bomb-the-exurbs Millennials.

    When do the Democrats pass legislation that grandfathers all existing development in areas likely to be flooded or otherwise under water in the next 25 years? No new development or new development. And when will they pass a tax that applies only to properties likely to need flood protection, including the roads connecting those properties to the “mainland”? They are the chief beneficiaries of various price increases for carbon-related fuels. Start stepping on the toes of the wealthy owners of riverfront and oceanfront properties, then I’ll all take lawmakers seriously.

    And, “yes,” I agree with Larry. Get rid of the taxpayer subsidies for flood insurance.

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