The Imminent Irrelevance of Randal O’Toole

Two things were clear at this morning’s hearing of the Senate Banking Committee concerning green investments in public transportation. First, transportation experts and leading legislators are very much in agreement on how transportation spending should change. And second, Randal O’Toole’s days as anything other than an anachronism are numbered.

rotoole.jpgCato Institute fellow Randal O’Toole testified in the Senate today. Photo: Cato

The committee heard from five witnesses, one of which was Cato Institute fellow O’Toole. Also invited were Michael Replogle of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Rutgers University urban planning professor Clinton Andrews, West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon, and Ernest Tollerson of the New York City MTA.

O’Toole aside, the witnesses largely agreed in their recommendations: New transit investments are absolutely necessary for economic and environmental reasons, but most of the benefits from such investments will be missed without tight integration between transportation investment and land use planning.

It was a message almost perfectly tailored to rebut O’Toole before he ever spoke.

As is his habit, O’Toole began by noting that 40 years’ worth of transit investments have not produced significant reductions in driving or greenhouse gas emissions. A good talking point, perhaps — but as previous testimony had made clear, this was largely due to 40 years’ worth of disregard for the importance of land use rules.

O’Toole continued by criticizing smart growth in his home state of Oregon, declaring that efforts to change land use patterns were failures and falsely alleging that transit ridership in Portland has declined since 2000. He cited his own analyses, which attempt to demonstrate that transit is actually dirtier than personal automobile use. And he railed against the evil of transit subsidies, a market-distorting abomination in his view.

The performance earned dismal reviews. One by one, the other witnesses pointed out that failure to adequately examine land use effects rendered O’Toole’s analyses worthless.

Mode choice isn’t just about direct energy use, they explained; it’s about how increased driving or transit use affects development patterns and broader economic activity. Moreover, increased transit use improves the efficiency of driving by reducing congestion.

Mayor Cabaldon pointed out that a one percent increase in transit ridership in his city corresponded to a 10 percent decline in congestion, saving millions of dollars in lost time and wasted fuel.

Neither were the witnesses the only ones to hit back at the Cato fellow. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) icily noted that the last transportation bill included some $200 billion for highways. "That’s a subsidy," he said.

Replogle piled on, noting that the failure to toll crowded roads appropriately or charge for "free" parking constituted yet another massive subsidy to drivers, encouraging auto-oriented land use patterns.

O’Toole fired back, arguing that those touting the benefits of transit investment overwhelmingly cited New York City. In his view, it appeared, transit is vital to New York but irrelevant to all other metropolitan areas in the country.

This seemed to irk Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), whose Northern Virginia constituency is part of a Washington metro area in which over 1.2 million trips are taken on transit every weekday. He countered O’Toole’s negative assessment of transit’s success rate in shifting land use patterns, citing Arlington County. There, an effort to build densely around Metro’s Orange Line has led to population and jobs growth and massive private investment, all without an appreciable increase in congestion.

Ultimately, O’Toole was left complaining that attempts to build private transit systems were illegal — illegal — in most cities in America. He was seemingly oblivious to the irony: that sprawl, which O’Toole considers a perfect expression of consumer demand, has flourished thanks to the fact that for decades it has been illegal to build dense, walkable neighborhoods in most of America’s big cities.

O’Toole was without friends in a room of leaders that finally seemed to grasp how planning had gone wrong in the last half century. At this moment — with vehicle miles traveled falling, with central city population growth rates increasing as suburban growth rates fall, and with central city housing prices showing resilience as exurban neighborhoods continue to experience rapid decline — Cato’s myth of sprawl as the American dream seems more hollow than ever.

Happily, legislators — at least those who attended today’s hearing — increasingly seem disposed to acknowledge reality.

  • Bill Nelson

    Transit as an “investment”? No, it’s not an investment when it with other people’s money.

    Say what you will about the benefits of transit vs. highways, but at least call transit financing what it is: The coercive taking of taxpayer’s property to suit the personal vision of thers.

    And maybe that’s a good thing to take the money. But your propagandist euphemism makes me rather suspicious of what you represent.

  • Steven


    And how is taking $200 billion of taxpayer money for roads not “The coercive taking of taxpayer’s property to suit the personal vision of theirs?” How is allowing tax writeoffs for businesses building “free parking” at their stores and office buildings any different?

  • Jon

    You’ll waste your time heading down a slippery slope when you start playing semantics and defining and re-defining words as Bill Nelson has done, but the point behind referring to the money we put into transit as an “investment” is that we expect (and practically know) that the money we put into mass transit will result in some future benefit or return, just like “regular” investments do.

    In this way, whatever you want to call it, “investment” (or “pilfering” or what have you) in mass transit is probably a good idea, and probably a better idea than continuing to subsidize highways (vis-a-vis cost-to-benefit ratio).

  • Bill Nelson

    Steven: Road financing is also coercive. I felt no need to mention that, as I was commenting on the author’s use of transit “investment”.

    Jon: Quantifying the “returns” on any public investment is a nearly impossible task. And unless you can demonstrate (without the gibberish of a 200-page consultant report) that my $100 “investment” will yield a “return” of a precise amount, then I will remain convinced that “investment” is just a propagandist term.

    Now, with “pilfering”, we are getting somewhere.

    I am not a fan of Mr. O’Toole, but he is onto something with private transit systems. As a (poor) example, take the San Diego light rail, which was built without Federal subsidies. True, California had to pay for it, but they were able to work around the rat’s nest of Federal regulations.

    Now, take that a step further, and think of the flexibility that private investors can have in transit and highway networks. Or, we can continue to wait another 50 years for the next Second Avenue subway.

    Incidentally, transit systems in Japan and Hong Kong are privately operated, and put the American systems to shame. (Though some of that might be cultural differences as well.)

  • vnm

    As is his habit, O’Toole began by noting that 40 years’ worth of transit investments have not produced significant reductions in driving or greenhouse gas emissions. A good talking point, perhaps

    Actually, it’s not that good a talking point. How is a pittance supposed to reduce driving when we’re spending a fortune encouraging driving? And the population is growing, and growing wealthier and demanding more overall travel of all modes. It is ridiculous to not fund transit and then ask it to reduce driving. A better question would be: Has 40 years of transit investment put a small dent in what would have been an even more meteoric rise in driving and greenhouse gas emissions being encouraged by the federal, state and local governments?

  • clever-title

    Being opposed to taxing people to subsidize transit for some people does not mean that you are in favor of taxing people to subsidize highways for others. Both transit and highways should be left to profit-seeking companies to provide the infrastructure people are willing to voluntarily pay for.

  • Geck

    The problem with private transit and roads is that the market fails to account for hidden cost like pollution and congestion, or the military cost of maintaining a flow of cheap oil (or to timely prepare for its demise).

  • “The coercive taking of taxpayer’s property to suit the personal vision of thers.”

    News about political science: in a democracy, the majority can vote to pass taxes and can use the revenue to promote what the majority believes is the common good.

    Some people are such fanatics about private property that they want all parks, all libraries, all roads, all public transit, etc to be provided by private corporations for profit – but they are an extremist fringe.

  • “[West Sacramento] Mayor Cabaldon pointed out that a one percent increase in transit ridership in his city corresponded to a 10 percent decline in congestion, saving millions of dollars in lost time and wasted fuel.”

    This uncritically reported statement by Cabaldon, which is virtually impossible mathematically and probably vastly exaggerated, mars an otherwise excellent and important post.

  • Bill Nelson

    Geck: It’s public ownership and underpriced transportation that creates congestion to begin with. As for pollution, you are correct in the abstract, but you could say the same thing about private housing markets where families aren’t compelled to double-up to save energy.

    Charles Siegel: You are correct about how democracies work, which is why the USA was designed as a constitutional republic, and not a democracy. That is, minorities have protection from the majority.

  • Greg

    O’Toole’s work is so intellectually dishonest, its disgraceful he is given the level of exposure he receives.

  • bikerider

    “…and falsely alleging that transit ridership in Portland has declined since 2000.”

    It is possible O”Toole was referring to transit mode share in Portland, not total ridership.

    It should also be noted that many transit activists are also highly critical of these hugely-expensive, Federally-funded transit capital projects due to their poor ROI. But that isn’t meant as a criticism of transit in general, just the very stupid way planning and transit is done in the USA.

  • J:Lai

    Transportation infrastructure produces externalities, has “free-rider” issues, and in general is an excellent example of an area where a purely private, for-profit system of allocation will produce sub-optimal allocations. Roads and trains are some of the classic textbook examples of why state intervention in private economies is necessary.

    However, all of us who support more public resources for transit would do well to proceed cautiously. The negative consequences of the last 50+ years of public policy, things like sprawl, congestion, and high energy use, were all unintended and mostly unforseen.

    There is no reason to believe that we would do much better with a planned transit infrastructure.

    While it is clear that some public investment (yes it is an investment) is required, and quite possibly a very large amount, I think it would be a mistake to exclude elements of private, for-profit transit. We don’t want to end up with 3 express lines to the Javits Center but no good connector between Brooklyn and Queens.

  • I \v/ NY

    my favorite o’toole claim is that the new times square plaza wont work because a pedestrian mall in kalamazoo didnt work.

  • Transit is an important public need as schools, police, and even the military. It is necessary and the more efficient it is in moving people not cars the better it is for all. Rail transit wither it is LRT, Heavy Rail or commuter rail, it cost from below 20 cents to the mid 30 cents per a mile to move a passenger compared to 40 cents to over a dollar a mile to move a passenger in a bus. To move a person in a car is even more. Rail transit also normally runs on electricity which is pollution free and not dependent on imported oil. So this is an investment by saving millions of dollars in the cost moving eople in a more efficient rail vehicle instead of less efficient bus or car. Rail takes much less right of way than a highway and is much less damaging to the environment.

    If the rail transit where not there where would all of the people who ride transit be? The cost to build replacement highway would far exceed to cost to build and operate the current transit lines not to mention the time lost in longer commute.

    The cost of building rail lines are much more expensive than they need to be due to all of the politics and hoops that are required to build a new line or even upgrade a current line.

    Who is O’Toole anyway, where did he come from, what are his credentials, who gave him any creditability? Or is he a simple bought and paid for lobbyist of the highway and anti transit interest?

    Highways, parking, the hidden cost of imported fuel, lost space, highway and automotive repair and service infrastructure are all huge subsidies to support driving at the expense of transit. This is not a level playing field.

    So ignoring O’Toole the Cato instate and other “think tanks” with no real (pardon the pun) “street experience” may not be such a bad idea.

  • Daniel S.

    Just a nit-pick: electricity is not pollution free. It may be, and probably is, that we can realize less pollution per unit of energy by centralizing production in a power plant than we currently do by distributing production among numerous personal vehicles, but there is still a carbon cost to the energy. Aside from a pure carbon analysis, there are other obvious side effects, e.g. nuclear waste from nuclear plants.

  • Westside Bunney

    trolling trolling trolling…keep those trolls a’rolling….RAW HIDE!

  • Bill Nelson


    How is transportation a “public good”, as you imply?

    It is rivaled; i.e., If I take up a seat on a train, then you cannot use that seat.

    And it is excludable; i.e., If I do not pay a fare, I can be prevented from riding.

    What other “public good” criteria are you using to come to your conclusion?

  • rob bregoff

    Libertarianism, particularly big oil funded libertarianism is as much a failure in concept as Reaganomics are in reality.
    One need only to look at European nations to note successes that the US is still avoiding noticing.
    To think that the public infrastructure doesn’t benefit all of us is like living blindfolded, and must we again remind drivers that they are the biggest welfare recipients in the country, without even discussing the environmental and social damage that auto-based living has caused, and continues to cause.
    Transportation and land use planning are so tightly aligned that one can’t have a discussion of one without the other.
    We are now trying to recover from a century of “Fordism” and the right is trying to hold up these development patterns as “normal” rather than admitting that US-style “growth,” from cul-de-sacs to strip malls are a social aberration.
    Why is it not considered a national tragedy that 45,000 citizens are killed by automobiles annually? What about 250,000 children killed by autos each year internationally? And these numbers don’t reflect the thousands that die from health problems attributable to sedentary, suburban lifestyles.
    We can’t afford to go on like this. To give a person like O’tool a microphone or even a soap box speaks to the intellectual failure of our society.

  • Jolly Mon

    Bill- You do know you’re not actually supposed to “take” the seat when you leave the train…

  • J:Lai

    Bill Nelson,

    I don’t know if you are being deliberately difficult here or if you just don’t understand the terms you are using.

    Transportation is not rivaled, and it is excludable only in the very weakest sense. If you are riding on a train, that does not impact my ability to ride on the train also. You argument about the seat is equivalent to calling oxygen rivaled because if you breathe some of it, then I can’t breathe those molecules, which is just absurd.

    As far as being excludable, there are all kinds of pricing systems for transit, many of which are free. There is nothing inherently excludable about transit use because there is no transactional exchange of property. You can impose a non-zero price on a non-excludable good (e.g. to transfer the costs of externalities), and that certainly does not change the fact that it is still non-excludable.

    I suggest you review your economics.

  • Evelyn

    This sounds very much like a bunch of school girls saying “you won’t have any friends if you don’t agree with us.” What a childish, ridiculous editorial. “Ohhh, no one is going to like me.” O’Toole is advocating market alternatives — what could possibly be wrong with that? Isn’t that the people’s choice? Especially when what others are advocating, blatantly admits the need to eliminate property rights — called land use planning. I’d much rather retain property rights than have a pristine environment — I can manage any problem if I have property rights as opposed to being wholly subservient without them. The difference is that of individual choice and freedom, and being encaged in a beautful prison (or worse). This is a huge power struggle — and it surprises me not at all that someone like O’Toole is often seen to be standing alone — but here’s a ferverent hope that he wins out, because the loss of what he advocates is too horrifying to imagine. Can you imagine living under the thumb of all these people?

  • Andy Stahl

    How irrelevant will O’Toole look in today’s Republican-controlled Congress?

  • SWalkerTTU

    Seeing as how most of the GOP is divorced from reality and good sense, he’s probably quite relevant to them.


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