How to Fix OKC’s Transit: Get Rid of It

Feb 17, 2020 | Blog | 0 comments

As a new resident of Oklahoma City’s downtown, I have had the “privilege” of getting acquainted with the city’s public transit system. I don’t have a car, so I rely on alternative means of transportation; so far, none of the public options have impressed me. The streetcar is pretty, but I walk faster than it generally moves to my destinations and have yet to benefit from it. The buses aren’t much better, so I have resorted to private solutions like Lyft to get around town.

Unfortunately, my experience with OKC’s public transit system isn’t unique. Sadly, public transportation often doesn’t work all that well, especially given the cost. Only 20 percent of OKC residents are satisfied with the city’s public transportation system, according to OKC’s most recent survey of residents. Any private sector service with numbers that low would be starved for business, creating room in the market for a better company to provide service to consumers. However, Embark’s 2019 budget of $16.9 million was increased in 2020 to $18 million, following a general trend of increased funding for public transportation by about $1 million every year.

Given the cost and the lack of satisfaction, it would be best to privatize our public transportation system. Economists from Cornell and Johns Hopkins Universities found that privatizing the entirety of a city’s bus operation would generate 30 percent cost savings for cities in the United States. In all likelihood, even more money can be saved by privatizing it all.

Government agencies are allowed to run giant deficits because they don’t rely on serving consumers for funding; they rely on taxpayer dollars. These funds are distributed based on how much an agency spends, not how well they spend it, or the worthiness of the programs they are spending on. Private companies also have a superior ability to experiment and take risks, while public agencies are not inclined to make changes unless they are forced to. The ability to take risks and experiment always results in lower prices and better outcomes for consumers.

Just over a year ago, Oklahoma City launched a fleet of shiny new streetcars. As the shininess of the trams continues to wear off, ridership will decline in favor of convenient private options or just walking. This $135 million boondoggle covers less than five miles, and the city received no federal funding for its construction; instead, the funding came from a special sales tax. Advocates touted it as a way to “provide reliable, frequent public transit for everybody.” Yet these streetcars appear to be empty most hours of the day. The monthly ridership of the streetcars has declined by 50,000 from January 2019 to January 2020. Streetcar ridership numbers, by the way, for any month after October 2019 are not easy to find, while ridership numbers for any of Embark’s other services are readily available in Oklahoma City’s Yearend Performance Report. Actually, the Performance Report only notes milestones met for the streetcar. It seems like Embark is afraid of the public knowing the hard numbers its streetcar. Oklahoma City had a streetcar from 1903 to 1947, that streetcar shut down for a reason; we didn’t need to bring it back.

One of the most common arguments in favor of streetcars, and indeed public transit in general, is that they are cleaner than other forms of transportation. This, however, is a lie. The construction of streetcar lines costs enormous amounts of energy. In cities where electricity is primarily derived from burning fossil fuels, air emissions are equivalent to or higher than buses and even personal vehicles. The reduced emissions idea works a little better for buses. It makes sense if you transport fifty people in one vehicle, less fuel will be burned than if you used fifty cars. But that effect is only achieved if you have people riding. In my experience using Embark’s bus system, I saw no more than eight people on a bus at any single time. Embark’s official numbers for 2019 are an average of sixteen passengers per service hour for the entire bus system With 29 routes, this means many buses are driving along empty. And the buses will run, not necessarily on schedule, whether or not people are on them. Private companies don’t have to operate on a fixed route system and can tailor their routes to current need.

Private alternatives to public transit are hard for many to imagine, but the streetcar already has one. At $3 a ride, Shuffle covers a slightly larger service area than the streetcar, picks riders up where they are, drops them off where they want to go, and can do so faster than the streetcar. Buses aren’t immune to privatization either. A private bus company has been able to provide free rides to citizens and students in Detroit since 2011. These rides are funded by a combination of profits from other services and private donations. The Detroit Bus Company runs on software called Hyper, which allows riders to hail a bus and then creates a route that will enable the driver to drop off passengers quickly. And the developers behind Hyper intend it to be widely adopted. With the launch of platforms like Hyper, it is easier to start and run a private bus or minivan service; all you need is a bus or a van. Private companies have more incentive to be efficient, which means greater fuel efficiency and more on-time buses, Embark’s buses are only on time 69 percent of the time.

The savings from privatization along with revenue from selling transit assets like busses and bus stations could be directed to more useful ends, such as repairing roads and other infrastructure; only 20 percent of residents are satisfied with OKC’s roads. Or perhaps we should use the money to add overpasses on major thoroughfares, saving residents from one of the real villains of our daily commutes: the train.

Spencer Cadavero is Research Associate at 1889 institute and can be reached at scadavero@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.