Is public transport a private business or a public service? Either way we have to pay for it

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Welcome to “The Mobile City”, our weekly roundup of remarkable transportation developments.

“There is no free lunch” – or nothing else free, for that matter, other than breathing the air.

In our collective wisdom, we see some things as the purview of private companies, which encourage customers to use their products or services in exchange for money that allows them to pay to provide them. For others, we consider public services that everyone should have access to, and while we may pay money to use them, we don’t expect them to make a profit.

Historically, mass transit in America was one of those services that fell into the first category, while roads were part of the second along with mail delivery. We still don’t expect roads to be profitable, but we still see transit as more of a commercial business than a public service, and we’ve come to think the same about mail. Transport consultant Jarrett Walker says we think of both the wrong way – what matters in each of these cases is less the number of people using it and the more its availability for everyone and what we expect from him. This, he says, means we also need to rethink how we pay for it and how we expect it to be handled.

If one of those expectations is to reduce the number of cars coming and going, one way to achieve that goal is to stop charging for transit at the point of use. This has led to a growing interest in free public transport. The biggest city so far to come up with this has been Kansas City, which announced it would aim for this goal last year. Now, the country’s second-largest mass transit system is considering the same.

For now, however, we still expect most transit companies to get a good chunk of the money they need from passengers, and thanks to COVID-19 they still haven’t come back. in buses and trains in the numbers obtained previously. the pandemic. And they probably won’t be for a while. However, public transport agencies offer service at or near pre-pandemic levels, so it will be available when users need it. And even with the relief from COVID, it produces oceans of red on the balance sheets of transit agencies. This has led several agencies to warn of a disaster to come if more relief funds fail to materialize or if states fail to provide more reliable funding. In a rare display of unity, the head of the largest of these agencies and the head of the union representing most of its workers have jointly appealed to Republicans in Congress to desist from providing more COVID relief for the workers. public transport.

Transit Planner says transit is like postal service

The famous public transport planner Jarrett Walker, write in Bloomberg CityLab, says the way we think about transit and paying for it needs to change. Noting that most transit bond issues and taxes are accepted even though people who vote for them are unlikely to use the facilities once they open, he argues that most Americans hold the same high opinion of transportation. in common that they have from the US Postal Service.

And transit and postal service both operate with a handicap: we expect them to cover their expenses as much as possible from the income they generate directly, but in order to provide the universal availability that we also expect from customers. two, they have to provide the service that they will lose money by providing.

This, he argues, means we have to think of the two in different ways than we currently think. For starters, we should stop thinking of them in terms of “efficiency” in the business sense of serving the most users at the least cost. Instead, we should be measuring “efficiency” in terms of availability: how well does it provide a service to all who could use it?

In the past, we subsidized both electrical and telephone services in remote areas (and charged paying customers a little more) in order to provide universal service. Walker isn’t asking for a specific method of payment for universal transit service, but he says we need to be clear on what we expect from this service. “In my job as a transit planning consultant,” he writes, “I ask decision-makers this question:“ I know you want both high ridership and service that goes everywhere, but your budget is fixed. , so how much do you want to spend on goodwill as opposed to universal availability? Then we can design a network that matches this balance of goals, and we can clearly show which services are designed for the user and which are for user independent availability. (Some services are a mix of the two, but we can also quantify that.) ”

Los Angeles is considering making transportation free …

One way to increase the use of public transit is to make it free to travel. Some cities already offer free transit on selected lines or in designated areas, and where such a service has proven popular – such as with the downtown Kansas City streetcar – civic leaders have decided to make all free transport.

Yet it is one thing to offer free transportation to about 480,000 potential passengers, and quite another to provide it to ten million of them.

However, we may soon find out how well it works. According to a report on LAist, Philip Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), yesterday launched a study to examine what he has dubbed the “Fareless System Initiative” (FSI). His goal, he told the LA Metro board of directors, is to make public transportation completely free in the country’s most populous county by early next year.

To explain why, Washigton used precisely the logic advocated by Walker. Here’s what he told the board:

“In many cases, people have to choose between paying rent, paying for utilities, or using public transportation. We believe that reaching [a] toll-free transit system – for young people, for the elderly, for working moms and dads, for essential workers, people with disabilities [and] students – will change the trajectory of millions of people and their families here in America’s largest county.

In his presentation, he also noted the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and low-income communities. And, of course, he also promoted toll-free transit both as a tool for economic development and as a way to more effectively alleviate the county’s notorious traffic jams.

Of course, the question of how to pay for it remains, but the article notes that passenger fares represent only four percent of the agency’s initially forecast revenue for fiscal 2020. Almost half was expected to come from four. Sales tax measures approved by Los Angeles County voters. (The tariffs cover 17 percent of the agency’s operating and maintenance expenses; a large portion of sales tax revenue goes to transit construction projects.)

Metro board chairman and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti was one of several board members to endorse the move. Saying “the time is right,” Garcetti called the initiative a “courageous move” towards tackling climate change and restoring goodwill.

… As New York sounds the alarm bells for more funding

Meanwhile, across the country, transit agencies say they are on the edge of a fiscal cliff. And if the funding fails to fill the gaping budget holes, they might not be able to provide much service at all.

In a New York Times editorial that was reposted in Railway Age, Patrick J. Foye, chairman of the New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority (New York MTA), and John Samuelson, chairman of Transport Workers Union International, jointly argue that without adequate funding for public transit, New York City will not fully recover, and if New York does not recover, neither will the nation.

The problem in short: Significant reductions in travel across the board have led to dramatic reductions in fare and toll revenues, and state subsidies have also declined. The COVID pandemic, they say, has resulted in a sudden reversal of fortunes for the nation’s largest transit system: from a projected operating surplus of $ 81 million in fiscal 2020 to $ 200 million. dollars in lost income every week. New York’s MTA projects a $ 16 billion deficit through fiscal 2024 and forecasts service cuts of 40% on subways and buses and 50% on regional railways.

Both leaders say it is up to Congress, and in particular its Senate Republican contingent, to break the deadlock that blocks additional pandemic aid that would help fill the void.

“As the general manager of North America’s largest transportation system and as president of the nation’s largest transit workers union, we’ve had our fair share of disputes,” they write. “But we agree on this point: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing a five-alarm fire – and the Republican majority in the US Senate seems to just sit and do nothing while it burns.”

The letter notes that New York is not alone in looking down that hole and that even with the help, the MTA will still have to make tough choices. But with the New York state portion of the New York metropolitan area alone accounting for 8% of national GDP, the pair say pulling the MTA from the brink deserves national attention.

(And it’s worth noting here that among the other cities facing tough choices is Los Angeles. Bloomberg CityLab’s report on the verge of eliminating fares in LA also notes that LA Metro faces a $ 1.8 billion deficit by mid-2021 and is offering service cuts of 17% for the following fiscal year.)

Do you know of a project that should appear in this column? Tweeted with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia cream magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Investigator and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities dates back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations dates back this far.

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