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Public Transit Problems

Last week David Alpert and I ran a post over at Greater Greater Washington about the cost of commuting by car vs. public transit. There's a lot going on in the post, including the point I make toward the end about changing variables - a point that goes mostly ignored among the many comments.

(from Flickr user nj dodge)

I hear it over and over again, every time a transit agency raises fares or cuts service, people cry foul, then threaten to switch to driving. It happens like clockwork. Some even go as far to make comments like, "these changes are so terrible that everybody is going to start driving!

I wrote on this same topic last summer:
These threatening comments illustrate an elementary error that people make in every day game theory: they consider what's in their best interest while ignoring what everyone else might do. See, if a monthly subway pass goes up by $20, then I might personally be better off driving in a car... but only if nobody else comes to that same conclusion.
In a city like Washington or New York or Chicago, which are already notorious for traffic and congestion, if everyone who used public transportation switched to driving, the result would be utter chaos. Even if it were true that driving was slightly cheaper before everyone came to this realization, it would absolutely not be true after they took action.

For transit systems in crisis, the decision always boils down to a question of service cuts, fare hikes, or a combination of both. In almost every case, service cuts are the worse outcome.

Dan Malouff does a good job explaining that service cuts lead to a death spiral that can devastate a system. While people gripe about fare hikes, service cuts cause real damage to peoples’ lives. You need to look no further than New York City - the city with America's "best" transit system - to see how life has changed for people after MTA killed two subway lines and numerous bus lines to preserve fares at their current level.

Service cuts are so devastating because they leave people without real options. Fare hikes are less dangerous than they often appear to be because inflation causes the price of everything, including driving, to increase over time. We can look at inflation-adjusted fares over time, but that’s only a useful exercise if we also look at the inflation-adjusted cost of alternatives.

Ultimately, fare hikes upset people and they make driving look more attractive. But as people take to their cars, a new equilibrium is established. Service cuts, on the other hand, push people into cars without giving people a real (even if more expensive) alternative. This is bad for commuters, and it’s really bad for cities.


efc said…
I don't know, Rob. In places that I've seen public transit really work (like Vienna, Austria), the choice is never between fare hikes and service cuts. In fact, in Vienna they now have a greater percentage of the population using public transit than driving their own cars and are considering making transit free (not that this is likely to actually happen any time soon).

I don't think we in the US have any idea what responsible public transit can be. We have systems that maybe just might share GPS data so we can know just how late that next bus will be. Responsible transit runs on time and posts schedules at every stop. We have systems that struggle for upgraded equipment, responsible systems rotate new equipment in every year, no big deal. We have cities that debate cutting service or upping price, responsible cities realize that transit is essential lifeblood to a vibrant economy and truly invest in it.

What we need is to encourage greater ridership. Neither increasing costs nor decreasing services has any chance to do that. The real failure is believe that these are the only two options we have.
Peter said…
i don't even think it's necessary to talk about what 'other people' will do in the case of service cuts -- i maintain that people who take transit don't drive, because they can't afford to drive, or it's still so much more expensive to drive than use a limited transit service. there are some exceptions to the rule, but the 'service cuts will make people drive' is just untrue -- a fantastic fantasy.

but further, people who take transit are more likely to start walking and biking and possibly even carpool than they are to start driving -- a scenario which has been playing out in cities across the country, including San Francisco. this trend will continue.

also, we need to give people the option to walk and bike, so service cuts aren't so devastating in the future. if a service cut happens in a place that is very walkable and bikeable, at least folks still have a way to get around. and, importantly, we should be providing people a way to walk and bike, first. forget transit and driving -- they're both garbage. if and when we solve the problem of allowing people to walk and bike places, _then_ we can start thinking about the 'transit' or 'driving' problems.

Infrastructure is destiny!

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