So says an article in the Atlantic Cities about "what really matters for increasing transit ridership".
It cites an upcoming article reporting research that ranks measures to increase the cost of car use well above capital expenditure on improving rail transit and reducing rail fares as a way to achieve mode shift.
In an upcoming issue of Transport Policy, a group of Chilean researchers led by Louis de Grange of Diego Portales University investigated these three ideas to see which emerged as most effective. Using data from 41 major cities around the world, de Grange and company ran a total of 16 econometric models comparing these methods. After controlling for key demographics the researchers found a consistent pattern: System expansion increases transit ridership a little. Car regulation increases it a lot. And fare subsidies have no effect at all.
Now I will wait until I read the article in detail to see if the statistics used are comparable. For a start, I don't think there is much evidence to demonstrate meaningful increases in rail usage in London and Stockholm from congestion charging, but rather meaningful reductions in car use. The key mode shift appears to be increases in bus use. However, it is entirely plausible that 10% expansion of rail system capacity may only increase usage by 3-4%, and the more damning view that increased public transport subsidies may simply reduce productivity and increase costs with little effect on patronage is worth consideration, against those who advocate higher fare subsidies as a way of achieving mode shift.
The implied lesson is that people are more likely to be dissuaded from cars to public transport by being priced out of driving, rather than being lured by cheap fares. Free public transport wouldn't have a significant impact, compared with charging road space more efficiently.
So if the policy goal is mode shift, it may be time for cities to think more about pricing roads and targeted improvements in networks and services, rather than reducing fares, suggesting that pricing scarce road space more to match demand with supply makes more sense than underpricing public transport to attract more demand.