Finding Effective Arguments for Funding Mass Transit

How much should passengers pay for mass transit? What with the financial woes of transit systems around the country, it’s been a hot topic. Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re looking at the question from a couple of different angles.

First, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic
looks at the role of mass transit in promoting social equity, comparing
policies in three US cities (Chicago, Washington and New York) and two
European cities (Paris and London):

2109778950_5ffd83ac29_m.jpgWaiting for the bus in Paris. Photo by julien via Flickr.

[W]hile
these three U.S. transit systems provide advantageous fares to
children, the elderly, and the disabled, they largely ignore the needs
of impoverished adults. On the other hand, London and Paris provide
generous discounts for university students, people in poverty, and the
unemployed. In addition, London provides free passes for veterans and
their dependents, while Paris offers relief for families with large
numbers of children. In both cities’ cases, significant subsidies are
provided to the transit operators by local and national governments to
make up for lost revenue as a result of these discounts.

It would be difficult to argue that transportation should be
reserved for only those who can afford it, and therefore fare schemes
that incorporate the needs of the poorest are necessary. Not only
should we be pushing vigorously for more transit, but we should be asking for cheaper transit, at least for those without good-paying jobs.…

In
this time of mass unemployment and reduced incomes all around, we must
work to reduce fares for people who cannot always afford the mobility
options transit offers.

Of course, social-equity arguments aren’t known for their political success in the United States.

Which is why, in an e-mail to the network, member Peter Smith — erstwhile keeper of the SF Bike Blog — has asked for help in making the case for funding transit to his new neighbors in Georgia:

[I]
want to figure out a solid economic argument for mass transit — a
solid economic argument against car sprawl — an argument that actually
has rhetorical impact, can be stated in less than 500 words, uses plain
speech, avoids any extraneous explanations about property taxes and
federal and state excise taxes, drops in sales taxes, etc. To me, the
‘economic development’ arguments are dubious, for a number of reasons,
but if that’s the only way we can justify our transit plans in numbers,
then I guess I’ll have to use them. My hunch, though, is that we can
stick to just simple capital and operating/maintenance costs in a
straight comparison — roads vs. transit.

Can anyone help him out? And no, he’s probably not thinking along the lines of "that’s what they do in France."

  • DaveO

    The economic development arguments are the strongest reason to support mass transit; easy accessibility to goods, services, etc for a wide swathe of the local population and ease of movement for visitors.

    Note that this is an argument not just for mass transit, but for the right kind of mass transit – grade separated train-based network that stop at a moderate number of easily identifiable stations over a wide (yet dense) geographic area. Easy wayfinding that doesn’t necessitate using multiple tickets.

    If the transit is not fairly simple to use, it will be useless to visitors. If it does not carry people efficiently and quickly over a larger geographic area, it will not be useful to promote local economic activity.

    If it does not meet minimum quality standards it is essentially an extension of the welfare system. You can argue for it on those merits.