Here in Cleveland, public transportation is in crisis-mode. Funding from sales tax receipts is down, relations with organized labor is shaky, and big devastating cuts are imminent. So the transit agency (RTA) has called for a series of public meetings to discuss the state of affairs.

These meetings are little more than orchestrated political theater. RTA's strategy seems simple enough. First, announce more cuts than are necessary and get riders really riled up. Next, hold a series of public meetings across the city where angry and frustrated riders show up to yell at RTA management; make sure that there is plenty of news media present. Then, save a couple of bus routes that were slated to be killed and chalk it up to the 'democratic process' or 'grassroots organizing' or whatever makes people feel warm inside. Finally, while everyone is distracted by their small 'victories', slash most of the service and leave the system mostly crippled.

(from Wikipedia)

Aside from that, there is the perception of the role that transit systems should play in our cities. Increasingly, in Cleveland, a certain attitude is on display at these public meetings. Fewer people are arguing that Cleveland needs good transit to be a world-class city or to drive economic development. People are arguing that we must save transit service because people depend on it. The disabled need it to get to work, the elderly need it to get to the doctor, the poor need it because it's all they can afford, etc. No doubt, there are all reasons why transit service is vital to cities.

There are two distinct ways a society can view its transit system: either as a social service or a welfare service. When transit is utilized, serves, and is used by a diverse cross-section of society, it's a social service; when it's utilized to primarily serve those who, for whatever reason, can't drive cars, it becomes a welfare service. In Cleveland, the attitude toward transit is increasingly that it's a welfare service.

This is a problem because welfare services have strong negative stigmas that snowball and make problems more difficult to solve. In cities where transit is a social service, people don't think twice about getting on a train or a bus; nor do they make much of a deal about people who use transit services. In cities where transit is a welfare service, people avoid buses and trains, even in areas that are well served, and when someone says they're riding a bus, one sometimes wonders, "what? really? you can't even afford to drive a car?"

A system that's perceived as a social service still accomplishes the same goals as a system that's viewed as a welfare service, plus a lot more. It drives development, it gives people transportation options, and it builds a strong and well-connected constituency that is better suited to fight for its future. Once it devolves to a welfare system... well, I think you have a very frustrating situation like the one in Cleveland, and it's not easy to dig back out of that hole.


    What do you think about separating charity from transit, Rob? This might only work in places where there's enough demand for transit from the middle class.

    On January 17, 2010 Anonymous said...

    Are the Red, Green, and Blue lines perceived as a "welfare service" in Cleveland, or only the buses?