Public transit and its discontents

Posted on September 9, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized |

A friend of mine who I’ll refer to as Schwabface recently accused me, to summarize, of being morally bankrupt for complaining about traffic on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. She may have forgotten that I am a serious public transit advocate – in fact, I am wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a bus on it as I write this. So why do I drive alone to work?

The short explanation is that while driving to work takes me about 25 minutes, and no more than 40 when traffic is unusually bad, taking public transit takes closer to an hour and a quarter. Driving to work is also roughly 1/3 less expensive than transit – see the cost comparison below.

Driving Transit
1.2 gallons gas $4 Muni bus $4
Bridge toll $4 AC Transbay bus $8
Roundtrip Total $8 $12

Clearly driving makes more economic sense at the margin. Including the cost of car ownership in the calculation does not make sense because I would own a car regardless; I need it for ski trips and such. However, if I could relinquish my car altogether, transit would be cheaper overall. On the other hand, transit would be more expensive than listed above if I took the fastest route, a Muni bus, BART train and AC transit bus, which would cost north of $16 round trip.

Transit in general has two main goals. The first is to provide lifeline-style transportation to those who cannot afford car ownership. As a policy goal, that’s hard to argue with, because it ensures that poorer workers can get to their jobs, improving the economy for everyone.

The second goal is to convince those who would otherwise drive to take transit instead. This has several benefits; it reduces direct energy use, since even an efficient automobile uses more gas than 1/60 of a bus; it reduces congestion, thereby reducing energy use by those who are still driving; and it reduces the need for parking, providing more efficient land use overall – which increases the number of people who can walk to their destinations and slightly reduces the cost of housing, office space, etc.

It’s generally accepted that people who can otherwise afford to drive will require high-quality transit to convince them to switch. San Francisco’s BART is an example of an attempt at such a system, with fast, comfortable trains and a reserved right-of-way, all things that increase the cost of running the system but improve the experience for riders in the form of shorter, more pleasant trips.

The first goal is basically charity in the name of overall economic good, although the benefits certainly go to the transit riders first. The second goal encourages people to do something that mainly benefits others. In other words, if I stop driving and take transit instead, my commute probably takes longer and is less convenient, while everyone enjoys the benefits of less pollution and congestion. (Economists call this an externality, which is a key concept in environmental economics: you bear the costs of your action while society – not you – reaps the benefits).

And so back to my initial problem: why does public transit cost 50% more than driving to work alone? It’s a combination of an attempt to provide higher quality transit than what perhaps is really necessary, and a failure of the government to properly subsidize transit as an incentive to ride. Some blame the unions for increasing transit costs, and while BART operators do make quite a decent salary, often blasted as being more than what teachers make, teachers are unionized too. Clearly their job is more desirable than driving a train all day. Unions blame shoddy management for Bay Area transit woes, and they may have a point – at a minimum, I should be getting free or cheap transfers on my route to work, and if I did then it would come in cheaper than driving, but the preponderance of transit agencies in the Bay Area makes this impossible.

To be clear, transit is public because neither of the stated goals are self-supporting; lifeline transit users can’t afford to pay what transit costs, and drivers aren’t willing to pay the costs of the quality transit they demand. This means that public transit must be a government-funded, money-losing proposition. It wasn’t always this way, of course – the subways in New York and the streetcar and cable car lines in San Francisco were all built by private companies – but that was at a time where the economics of car ownership were totally different, and what’s more, those systems were free to build transit only where it was profitable, instead of all over the city (or the country in the case of poor Amtrak).

The deepest problem is the way transportation policy is executed by the government, which spends billions on highways and very little on mass transit. It’s harder to compare highway vs. transit spending in terms of passengers, but it’s very easy to compare how our government manages the transportation of freight. A single railroad track can carry the same volume of cargo as a four-lane expressway, yet our government builds expressways and lets us – and trucks – drive on them free of charge while railroad companies are forced to build and maintain their own right-of-ways. The fact that they still make money (and quite a bit of it) shows just how much better the economics of rail really are.

Yes, our fuel taxes pay for highways, but taxes are best used to properly incent desired behavior. That’s why in Europe, you can take high-speed rail across a country for €50, while gas costs more than twice what it does in the U.S. Fuel taxes should go to support infrastructure and operations for mass transit. Unfortunately, we can’t change to that kind of system overnight. We’re 50 years behind Europe on passenger rail infrastructure, and we subsidize aviation and highways over rail. A sudden tax increase would be devastating to the many people who have no transportation options besides the private automobile, usually through little fault of their own.

My prescription is to immediately start reversing some of the damage done in the 50’s and 60’s when rail mass transit was converted to diesel buses through a conspiracy between Standard Oil Co. and General Motors (and, to be sure, a hearty dose of poor urban planning). A great local example is the 38-Geary bus in San Francisco, well known as the worst, most overcrowded and poor performing line. What’s less well known is that it replaces what used to be 3 streetcar lines. Transit is so badly underfunded that if we’re lucky we’ll get some sort of pathetic Bus Rapid Transit line along Geary when what it needs is heavy-rail subway. The road to a prosperous future is paved with high-speed, subsidized passenger rail.

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