Bloomberg: Transit Should Be Free, and Drivers Should Pay More

Mayor Bloomberg talks transit in his ##http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/04/23/how-green-is-our-mayor/##2007 PlaNYC speech##. Photo: Sarah Goodyear

Yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg rode the Staten Island Ferry, which has the distinction of being one of the few forms of public transportation in New York that is free to its users. At the press conference to announce the world’s largest ferris wheel (plus additional parking!) near the ferry terminal in St. George, the mayor was asked for his thoughts on transportation. He replied:

If you were gonna design, keep in mind, the perfect public transportation system, you would have it be free and you would charge people to use cars, because you want the incentive to get them to do that.

This short quote provides a window into the philosophy that has guided the Bloomberg administration’s transportation policy. It’s about more than congestion pricing. Free transit is not just the dream of progressive activists, it’s also a policy goal of the billionaire mayor.

Will any among the current crop of candidates to succeed him best Bloomberg on this front? How many of them think that, in an ideal world, transit should be free? How many of them would actually work to make that happen? If the next administration doesn’t step up for transit, other cities will continue to leave us in the dust.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Is free transit the dream of progressive activists?  As a progressive activist myself, I think that:

    — Free transit would promote sprawl. Many studies have shown that, when you buy a house in the most remote suburbs, the extra cost of transportation outweighs the savings in housing cost. Free transit would eliminate much of that transportation cost.  If the longest commutes and the shortest commutes all cost nothing, people would be more likely to move where they have the longest commutes.

    — Free transit would work against bicycling and walking.  Now it costs more out of pocket to take transit than to bicycle or walk. If transit were free, it would encourage people to take transit on trips where they now bicycle or walk.

    The basic point is that subsidizing expensive forms transportation promotes waste. It generates more transportation, as people take advantage of the subsidy to  travel further, and it encourages people to use more expensive rather than cheaper forms of transportation.  In the long run, of course, we all pay for the subsidy.

    Currently, we have massive subsidies to the most expensive form of transportation, the automobile.  We all know these subsidies have caused sprawl and cause people to drive on short trips where they could just as easily bike or walk.

    The solution is not to have equally massive subsidies to the second most expensive form of transportation. 

    On the contrary, the solution is to design our cities so we need less transportation.

  • JK

    Charles, there’s a definition problem here. Bloomberg was talking about NYC Transit subways and busses in the context of “why is the SI ferry free.” He wasn’t talking about commuter rail. If urban transit was free (it never will be) it would discourage — not encourage — sprawl by making it cheaper to live in center cities than sprawlsville. The mayor was making a shorthand point that the benefits of urban transit (positive externalities) make it worthwhile to directly subsidize transit. Lastly, very hard to see free subways and buses subtracting from walking and biking. It costs nothing for monthly transit pass holders to take an extra bus or subway trip.  NYC neighborhoods with highest transit use  also have the highest walk and bike activity. That’s because non-auto travel is complimentary.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Free transit is less important than affordable, good transit.

    If people didn’t drive, they’re be no one left to subsidize transit, so transit that covers only a small fraction of its cost is only possible in places where almost everyone drives.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Free transit is less important than affordable, good transit.

    If people didn’t drive, they’re be no one left to subsidize transit, so transit that covers only a small fraction of its cost is only possible in places where almost everyone drives.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Free transit is less important than affordable, good transit.

    If people didn’t drive, they’re be no one left to subsidize transit, so transit that covers only a small fraction of its cost is only possible in places where almost everyone drives.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Free transit is less important than affordable, good transit.

    If people didn’t drive, they’re be no one left to subsidize transit, so transit that covers only a small fraction of its cost is only possible in places where almost everyone drives.

  • Aidry

    Institute market rate pricing for all parking, on and off street, and one will see an appropriate shift in commuter habits. Right now automobiles are heavily subsidized in the storage aspect of their use, probably more-so than any subsidies given to public transit. Charge market rate for parking, look at the effects on transit ridership and then move on from there.

  • Anonymous

    Bloomberg could end the requirements for parking in newly constructed buildings. 

    Congestion pricing, raising bridge tolls, tolling the ‘free’ bridges, all these measures involve other levels of government. The City of New York could stop requiring more subsidized parking all on its own, but Bloomberg doesn’t do that. I really don’t get it.

  • Anonymous

    “Will any among the current crop of candidates to succeed him best Bloomberg on this front?”

    Will any of them retain JSK as DoT commissioner?  That’s become my litmus test for the next mayor.

  • fj

    It’s good Bloomberg is focusing on getting cars to pay; though nearly impossible to undo the damage cars have done & continue to do; as impossible as stopping climate change

    And, ultimately properly designed transit will be free or nearly so when it does not require moving many tons of extra material per person moved.

  • Anonymous

    @JoshNY:disqus No. JSK is done for. We’ll have a worthless patronage slimeball in there, like our old friend Iris Weinshall.

    I’ve long predicted that dancing on JSK’s [metaphorical] grave will be a high priority for the new administration.

  • Street parking is the only thing cheaper than cynical predictions in New York. On the whole you won’t be disappointed, dporpentine. But it’s a different city than the one where Weinshall toyed with transportation, and a different world. (Things will really get interesting when the public finally turns against her bankster-owned husband.)

    Here’s my easy cynical prediction: The next mayor will be a general failure. But trying to reverse any pedestrian and cycling improvements would be an unnecessary political risk. Even the numbers-averse dolts in city politics can see that satisfying a few dozen car-parkers while pissing off thousands of pedestrians and cyclists, to demolish any particular street improvement, is just not a winner.

    The pace of improvements will slow, but look (or should I say, LOOK!): that’s already happened. The bike lane expansion targets were all but discarded a year ago. And still, we have more and more cyclists every day. I can hardly believe the numbers I’m seeing right now. And more and more politically awakening pedestrians, who quite enjoy being able to occupy the street in a way they haven’t been able to for generations.

    Who wants to fight these people, for no practical gain? I think you want please this group, and since we don’t require billion-dollar BQE cantilever rebuilding projects we are pretty damn cheap to please. I expect future mayors to continue to attempt to improve the streets, with more blunders (and less intelligence) than Bloomberg but with much more popular support. Just look at Elite Favorite Quinn, trying to pander to DUMBO tech startups with a ferry. When that doesn’t work, because it is stupid, she’ll eventually tire of running (or driving) away from the street improvements so obviously woven into the neighborhood’s success.

    I also expect bridge tolls and/or congestion pricing to be instituted, not for the ethical reasons, but to allow the city and state government continue to operate. Survival tends to be a big motivator, enough even to make our darling patronage slimeballs turn a deaf ear to the maxed-out wailing of the effete motoring class.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The City of New York could stop requiring more subsidized parking all on its own, but Bloomberg doesn’t do that.”
    They’ve taken baby steps that way.  But the issue is whether development with an absence of parking means more people rich enough to afford new development fighting for limited on-street spaces, or less car ownership and less driving.  And that is unsettled.

    The state seems to be blocking the obvious solution — a permit system for overnight parking.  IN parking shortage areas, incumbent parkers would get them but others would have to wait until one was surrendered.  Thus new development would not affect them.

    But lets follow that Barclay’s Center.  Even I was surprised by the empty parking at Yankee Stadium and retail developments on the East River and in the South Bronx.  That example got the parking cut at the Barclay’s Center.  If people don’t drive there, the evidence will increase, although real evidence is not admissible as part of the EIS process.

  • Anonymous

    The problem with any such schemes is that, if it was successful enough, e.g., reducing a lot car use in the boroughs, it would also mean there would be much less resources to finance free transit.

    It is a similar dilemma faced by some industrial environmental programs at the federal levels: because the fees and economic disincentives for release in the air and water of certain toxic industrial byproducts were so successful, they quickly accelerated the phase out/revamping of industrial processes that released them, drying up funds that were used to restore previously damaged sites “Superfund locations” 

    Meanwhile, free  transit creates entitlements that could be very difficult, from a political standpoint, to reverse later when charging car drivers is not an option anymore  

  • Joe R.

    The biggest expense in the transit budget is labor costs. I submit that in a world with free transit you could reduce this substantially by using a system where residents of a city might be required to donate perhaps one week of labor per year working on the transit system, probably doing functions which require minimal training such as station cleaning, manning station booths, cleaning the tracks, painting, etc. Not sure how much this would free up in terms of budget, but it could be substantial. You would also at the same time need to gradually automate as much of the system as possible. Certainly the trains could eventually be automated (and manned with “donated” labor whose sole function would be to guide passengers to safety in the event of an emergency). In time maybe you could do likewise for buses. And robots may one day be able to do many of the maintenance functions. In theory a free system with minimal subsidies should be possible. Certainly it’s a good idea on many levels to make mass transit free. The idea of donating of week’s worth of labor in return for free transportation is to stress that you can’t get something for nothing. The same model could be used for other types of public services. Or maybe you don’t even need to. I honestly feel the way robotics and AI are heading that in 20 years we can largely have robots doing many of the government services human workers currently do. We may even need to do this just to keep municipalities from going bankrupt.

  • carma

    interesting thing about labor costs, is that the beautiful subway stations of moscow (which were former bomb shelters) had very low labor costs building a fantastic station.  why?  the labor was done all by the prisoners at no cost.  im guessing if they tried to flee, KGB will shoot you down.

  • J_12

    Free transit is bad.  People will overconsume anything that is free.  Many parts of the NYC transit system are operating at capacity already.  Also, as we have seen time and time again, “dedicated” transit funds from other revenue sources are often not as dedicated as they should be.  When these new car taxes are inevitably diverted to other uses, what will happen to transit funding?

    I agree in principle that NYC transit should be subsidized relative to driving, as there are positive and negative externalities that are well addressed by increasing the marginal incentive to use transit.

    However, it might be better to increase the fare to a point where it covers operating expenses and thereby de-politicize the process of funding for transit.  (Hopefully between the city, state, and feds they could at least cough up enough for the capital budget.)

  • LAofAnaheim

    Free transit is not good. SF did that experiment years ago and the trains became dirty and unsanitary. Ridership actually decreased during the period of free transit. We, as transit riders, should pay a fee to ride a subsidized system; just like car drivers pay for gasoline, gas tax and state gas tax to drive their car. Both systems are subsidized, but none should be free.

  • Joe R.

    The big problem with a fee to use transit is that some people just can’t afford it. I know people who aren’t eating properly because the current fare to use the subway takes a huge bite out of their take-home pay. I know elderly people who aren’t seeing doctors because they just can’t afford the fare. $2.25 a ride may not sound like much, but if you work seven days a week that’s $1638 a year. Now imagine you’re making minimum wage (or less), and need to pay for rent, food, clothing, other necessities. End result is maybe these people forego breakfast or lunch to pay for the subway. I used to skip lunch for exactly that reason back when I had a regular job. I only made $7 a hour, took home well under $200 a week after taxes, unemployment/disability, and FICA deductions. Also, I was in a double fare zone, so it was costing me $25 a week to get to work.

    Maybe a compromise here is to give free and/or reduced fare transit cards to those who need it. Send income verification to the MTA. Maybe if you make less than $20K you ride free, between $20K and $40K you pay a sliding scale reduced fare depending upon your income (i.e. $20K might be nearly free while $40K will be nearly full fare). Above $40K you pay full fare. In the final analysis because travel is usually necessary to earn money, we need to think of fares the way we think of other taxes. Anyone will tell you regressive taxes are bad. That’s exactly what requiring poor people to pay the fare is-a regressive tax.

  • Ian Turner

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus : There are lots of necessities of life that cost money, including food, housing, and medical care. It’s not clear to me why we should expect the public transportation system to take care of income inequality or poverty; we certainly don’t expect that of highway systems or our food distribution system. Instead, the right thing to do is to provide cash payments or vouchers to those who need them.

  • Joe R.

    @7c177865bd107a919938355fe93de93a:disqus We already have programs in place to help low-income people with food, housing, and to some extent medical care (although I could argue that modern medical care isn’t a basic necessity like food or housing because humanity survived for most of its existence without it). Transportation is a basic necessity for most people in order to earn an income. In fact, the lack of viable, affordable transportation to jobs is the reason why some people remain on welfare indefinitely. I suppose direct cash payments to those who need it could accomplish the same end, but unfortunately there’s a stigma associated with  doing so because a minority receiving such assistance will use the money for drugs or cigarettes or liquor.

    Getting back to the concept of free transit for everyone, not just low-income people, has anyone figured out how much the MTA would save by not needing infrastructure for fare collection or enforcement to prevent fare evasion? I once heard someone say it costs nearly as much for turnstiles, police, the MetroCard system as the MTA receives in fares. Whether this is true or not I don’t know but if it is then having a fare makes little sense.

  • Anonymous

    Each society chooses what services to make free to use, what to subsidize, what to tax, and what to charge “real” usage charges for. We’ve chosen a certain way, but it is by no means the only way, as you can see if you look at what other places have done.

    For example, some countries choose to offer free health care and free higher education, but we don’t. We have cheap gas and roads, while other countries choose to make them expensive.

    I don’t know of any major system with free transit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is one somewhere in the world. I do know systems that are very heavily subsidized. For example, the subway fare in Mexico City is about $0.20 USD, which covers only a small fraction of the operating expenses. Yet the Mexico City subway is cleaner, faster, and runs more frequently than the New York City subway. It has its disadvantages, too, of course: it doesn’t run 24/7, it’s more crowded, it doesn’t have express service, and it doesn’t have as many stations.

  • Anon

    “The biggest expense in the transit budget is labor costs. I submit that
    in a world with free transit you could reduce this substantially by
    using a system where residents of a city might be required to donate
    perhaps one week of labor per year working on the transit system,
    probably doing functions which require minimal training such as station
    cleaning, manning station booths, cleaning the tracks, painting, etc.
    Not sure how much this would free up in terms of budget, but it could be
    substantial.”

    Yikes. This is off-the-charts ignorance of economics.

    Hint: this would increase, not reduce, labor _costs_. Labor budget would go down, sure, but anyone who’s taken 10 minutes of Econ 101 knows this is not the same as costs.

  • no way do I support this idiotic idea of a billionaire. You would have many people just RIDE and RIDE and RIDE and take up space.  The cost is and should be a factor in your day to day.  could you imagine all the young people endlessly riding on the trains without a care.  Probably eat and shit on the same car too

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

First Impressions of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC Testimony…

|
Did you watch Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing testimony before the New York State legislature? If so, what did you think? Here is the initial impression of John Kaehny, former executive director of Transportation Alternatives:  Mayor Bloomberg’s advocacy for congestion pricing and public transit to a State assembly panel was the most amazing thing I have […]

The Winning Transpo Formula for a Third Term: Sustainability + Populism

|
Mr. Bloomberg, tear down this highway. A vision of West Farms Road with housing and shops instead of the Sheridan Expressway. Image: South Bronx River Watershed Alliance. Following Tuesday’s citywide elections, Streetsblog asked leading advocates and experts to lay out their ideas for the next four years of New York City transportation policy. What should […]

The Third Term

|
For the next four years, Mike Bloomberg will be joined in citywide office by Democrats Bill de Blasio and John Liu. Mike Bloomberg defeated Bill Thompson yesterday to claim a third term as New York City mayor, but no one except the mayor’s own staff is calling the five point margin a victory for the […]

Congestion Pricing Plan Advancing Rapidly

|
Sewell Chan at the New York Times’ Empire Zone has more on this morning’s meeting between Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Spitzer and US Dept. of Transportation secretary Mary Peters: Mr. Spitzer said at a news conference this morning, "There will always be some congestion and the good news is there is economic growth and there’s vitality […]

Slow-Moving Bus Rapid Transit

|
The Oil Drum has coverage of last night’s bus rapid transit forum on the Upper East Side: Despite the broad-based community support for faster, more efficient and higher quality bus services all that is being discussed by city/state/MTA officials is a STUDY that will examine 15 routes to pick JUST 5 in June 2007 and […]

State of the City’s Transportation: Livery Cabs and Ferries

|
Mayor Bloomberg delivered his tenth State of the City address this afternoon, laying out what he believed to be the city’s accomplishments, challenges, and priorities for the future. And if the speech is any indication, taxis and ferries are at the top of his transportation agenda. Bloomberg’s plan to create a new class of taxi […]