The only public transit agency in the world* which makes a steady profit is the MTR in Hong Kong. To get a handle on Hong Kong’s population density, imagine moving the populations of Chicago, Aurora, and Joliet into Naperville — and, oh, cutting a really deep harbor through the middle.
Urbanized area of Hong Kong Island: 16.1 sq. mi.
Urbanized area of Kowloon peninsula: 18.1 sq. mi.
(Note: the above two areas are separated by one of the world’s busiest harbors, with just six fixed crossings, half of which are run by MTR.)
Population of above urbanized areas, 2005 est.: ~3.28 million
Total urbanized area: 34.2 sq. mi.
Population of Chicago, 2005 est.: 2,842,518
Population of Aurora, Naperville, and Joliet, the next three largest cities in the area (2003-2006, est. and Census): 443,176
Combined population of four largest Chicagoland cities: 3.285 million
Area of Naperville: 35.5 sq. mi.
You can either have profitable transit or suburban sprawl; drivers who say “hike the fares” can’t have your sprawl and eat it, too.
Oh, and 63% of MTR’s profits (and thus the funding for its capital costs, although many of its capital costs are also directly paid for by the government; note the financing sources for the line extensions mentioned at SEC EDGAR) come not from operations, but from real estate development — just like the old streetcar empires of yore.
Speaking of real estate values, nice quote in a Crain’s piece by Brandon Glenn:
“Whatever makes it harder for people to get to their jobs is bad for the city,” said Tom Kirschbraun, managing director of the real estate services company Jones Lang LaSalle Inc… Chicago’s hub-and-spoke transit system gives it a competitive advantage over most other U.S. cities, Mr. Kirschbraun said. “If you start dimming its effectiveness bit by bit, that competitive advantage starts to dwindle bit by bit,” he said.
* Tokyo’s privately owned subway systems are also profitable. I’m not sure about the public systems outside Tokyo.