The economics of that traffic-transit gif in yesterday’s Atlantic

The Atlantic posted a story yesterday with this gif:


It’s a fantastic way to visualize how much more efficient transit is than cars are for moving people. And that’s what most people were pointing out yesterday after it showed up on The Atlantic.

But it’s also a good way to visualize the economic costs of transit vs cars, especially because transit proposals often sink for their alleged priciness.

For starters, take the absolute space used by each of these modes. In the gif above, we see a four lane street vs a single lane of transit. It should be obvious which one of these two things are cheaper to build: the streetcar.

The great thing about this gif, then, is that it puts these two modes of transportation on equal footing; transit doesn’t seem like an “extra” or a “luxury” when spending on car infrastructure is no longer automatic or taken for granted. In other words, transit is absolutely cheaper than road building but it seems expensive because we never actually compare it to road building.

In Utah, for example, some people complained about the cost of the recently completed FrontRunner commuter rail. But at the same time that UTA was building the rail lines, UDOT was building more freeways, a project which was vastly more expensive and is ongoing.

The gif above this point explicitly clear: transit requires less space, few materials, etc. and is consequently cheaper.

Consider also the cost of the vehicles themselves. One streetcar is expensive, but less so than the 50+ private cars that are required to transport the same number of people. Yes, the money for these different vehicles comes from different places, but the point is that the overall cost to society is lower. If people were not spending money on cars they would also be free to invest that money more efficiently on things that appreciate, for example, like stock or real estate or whatever. The point is that increasing the overall efficiency of the system results in greater overall wealth.

It’s also likely that people in the gif could afford higher taxes and/or living costs without cars. That saved money could then be used for transit, either via taxes or fares. This, of course, is what happens in some larger cities.

And again, the gif helps to visualize this point; everyone can either pitch in and buy a streetcar, or go at it alone and buy their own automobiles.

The same principle applies to pollution, maintenance, storage costs and a myriad of other things. Ultimately, pooling resources to build a shared transportation solution is vastly more efficient for everyone. That has always been true, but as The Atlantic pointed out the gif is a mezmorizing way to visualize these issues.

(The gif can be found on the blog of Peter from Texas.)


One comment

  1. Pingback: Provo leadership needs to stop being cowards on cycling | About Town

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