Subway Blues: Car Commuters Are Getting Bigger Tax Breaks Than Transit Riders

Right now, the government is signaling that it prefers people drive to work, despite the negative consequences of car commuting.

Just before New Year’s, on a packed NJ Transit train into New York City, I overheard a woman crystalize America’s attitude toward public transportation. One too many strangers had jostled her baby's stroller, and in exasperation, she said to her neighbor, “I’m just not a train person.”

Most Americans agree with her: Just 5 percent of us rely on public transportation to get to work, according to the latest figures [PDF] from the Census Bureau. But for two magical years, from 2009 to 2011, the federal government treated public transit riders as equal to drivers, giving the same tax benefits as car commuters. But at the beginning of this year, cars regained their lofty perch. To pay for parking, car commuters can set aside $240 (pre-taxes) each month, while public transit users can only use $125 pre-tax dollars. Over a whole year, that adds up to an extra $550 in taxes for those quirky public transit riders, The New York Times calculated.

In theory, tax benefits like these are intended to push individuals toward choices that benefit the population as a whole. In most places, commuters don’t have much of a choice: Service in most American public transit systems is too limited to rely on. Public transit is most popular in the same big cities where parking costs are highest—New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Chicago, and Boston. Right now, the government is signaling that it prefers people drive to work, despite the negative consequences of car commuting—traffic, higher carbon emissions, and parking lots that suck the life out of entire city blocks.

Because driving generally take less time than using public transit, commuters already have a powerful incentive to drive to work. The one time a roommate drove me to work in D.C., we completed the same trip that took a half an hour or more by bus in less than 10 minutes. The median monthly rate for a parking spot in downtown DC comes in at $260, though, and since the bus cost just $1.25 per trip, it made more sense for me to take public transportation, despite the inconvenience. For my colleagues who lived farther from downtown, the costs were closer to equal and the choice fuzzier. They could have taken the subway, but many drove. Now, the government's adjusted tax benefits will make that choice even easier.

There's some hope that the illogical situation will change soon: Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) is trying to reinstate parity between car and public transportation commuting rates. Imagine if the government went even further, though—if driving to work meant passing up free money, the subway ride might look more appealing. When deciding on a place to settle, commuters might decide to live a little closer into downtown, instead of in a sprawling suburb. Over time, more Americans might concede that they could be train people after all.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Kriston Lewis

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