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."

  • Larry Littlefield

    This argument might sway Generation Greed.

    Road and parking space is limited, and the cost of expanding it is prohibitive. It isn’t the cost of building and maintaining roads and parking facilities that is the killer, it is the cost of the land they sit on in any developed area. So how to make more room on the road for YOU?

    If the other guy and younger generations are crammed into steerage-like mass transit or forced to ride bicycles, decent hardworking middle class Americans and our dear seniors will run into less traffic when they drive. The remaining drivers would thus be the real winners.

  • otisbirdsong
  • It is easy to make the economic argument for mass transit. Trains, subways, and buses bring people together in very high density. When you bring many people together, you generate economic activity (you also generate social and cultural activity). There is a practical upper limit to how many people you can bring together in cars. The density of a subway-served city can be so much higher.

    It would not be possible to have an economic engine like New York without mass transit.

  • Ian Turner
  • “we must work to reduce fares for people who cannot always afford the mobility options transit offers”

    The government is already pretty good at redistributing tax dollars to the poor–especially here in NYC. I fail to see the need for a special “poor fare”.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Ian, my half-serious suggestion goes back further, to a book I was given on Great Planning Disasters. One of the disasters (identified by the author not me) was BART, which up until that time had attracted far fewer riders than studies before construction had predicted. It turned out that the system was sold as a way to reduce traffic, but everyone expected the other guy to get off the roads.

  • “The government is already pretty good at redistributing tax dollars to the poor–especially here in NYC.”

    I think we do it rather poorly! How much money goes where it isn’t needed, and doesn’t go where it is?

    “I fail to see the need for a special ‘poor fare’.”

    The thing is, we’re all paying the ‘poor fare’ right now. Having discounts for the poor would relieve downward pressure on the base fare, and pressure against fare zones. The transit authority would have a little more flexibility to change a fair price for their services. Or at the very least, we would find out who is advocating low base fares in the name of the poor but is really only after a cheap ride for their middle-class selves.

    One problem, though, is countries that have these discounts already have administrations in place to apply them as fairly as they can, for a range of government and even private goods and services. If we try the same thing, will it be immediately corrupted by NYC government insiders—like everything else—and will it exclude our actual poor, people that pay (some) taxes but don’t get anything from their government other than the threat of deportation?

  • How about the equity argument? If commuters who drive pay nothing to use the road, why do commuters who ride transit have to pay a fare?

  • Deacon

    I still maintain that there should be a congestion charge for vehicles travelling where there is public transport available as an alternative. Zone the charges outward from the city centers. If you commute into the city you pay congestion charges if you’re in a vehicle other than public transport. Still pay a minimal fare on public transit and by the looks of it your revenue stream will be a bit stronger. In the process you reduce smog and traffic. People that have to travel into the city will take the cheaper option and those that have to drive in will be forced to think about how they can do so efficiently so as to save money. That way everybody wins.

  • The problem with viewing transit as social welfare is that by doing so we’ll never get better transit unless you force everyone to use it (or enough people “of means” to use it who will then demand better, which is roughly what you see in Europe). As for the “poor fare”, people who do well already pay more than their fair share via taxes (and even more so when the upcoming payroll tax kicks in). This slicing and dicing of the population by class is already done at tax time. There is no need to do it again at the turnstile.

  • There’s a point to be made – for systems that are not at capacity – that discounting access for those who need it and may be more inclined to use it with a little push (students, low-income folks, the elderly) can improve the social acceptability of taking transit. If people know what taking the bus is like from their college years, they may be more likely to see how it can fit into their lives from then on.

  • bb

    Arguing with someone in denial is pointless. If they can’t realize moving people around = economy, and doing so by automobile is killing us in more ways than one.

    What is there to argue about?

  • I agree with you Rhywun that redistribution belongs out in the open, in the tax code. But the US has been in this stalemate for decades, with insufficient transit revenue regardless of its source. Decrepit infrastructure is what we have to show for it. I’m willing to try anything, especially things correlated to superior transit infrastructure, to try to break up the stalemate. If discounts get the ‘everything is regressive’ contingent off the backs of the base fare structure, it will be worth it.

  • lauren


    Taxes are NOT progressive in this country — they are close to flat.

    The wealthiest only pay a small percentage more in federal tax than school teachers. When you factore in state & local, the wealthiest are paying the same percentage of their income in tax as median earners are.

  • lauren

    And just to add to the above — that is not taking into account WEALTH, only income.

  • Along with the challenges of providing a more equitable fare scheme for mass transit in the US, how about two bigger ideas which will greatly affect the revenue/fare equation:

    1. Advocate budget reallocation for infrastructure. Infrastructure spending is around 1-2% of the Federal budget, while defense spending is around 10%. The inverse is true for Europe and Japan. Rather than raise taxes, why not direct 1-2% of funding away from defense and into pure infrastructure? Or come up with ways to “co-brand” infrastructure projects, similar to how Dwight D. Eisenhower marshalled support for the Interstate Highway System.

    This might seem impossible in today’s climate. But the next one is a real doozy – something that neither London nor Paris have to deal with, and one that would require enormous political will.

    2. Rationalize the patchwork of government agencies providing transport. You’ve got the US DOT, the NYS DOT, the MTA, NYC DOT, NJ DOT, and PANYNJ all serving the same set of consumers. Funding mechanisms and income streams differ for each. Coordinated discounts are difficult if not impossible. Linked/intermodal projects take forever, are subject to bickering and turf wars. Constituency fragmentation means that urban centers and urban concerns can’t be directed to one agency and are thus diffused across many, lessening advocacy effectiveness. There needs to be City-Region based agencies (funded based on 10-year fixed terms from Federal and State government) that have the political empowerment to drive transport initiatives for their region and adjust funding mechanisms & fare schemes accordingly.

  • James

    Jordan, re #2, the Regional Plan Association has been advocating for such measures for decades, but the very strong home-rule tradition in the Tri State region has kept this dream from reaching fruition. NYMTC fills this function to a very limited degree, but again, home rule is tremendously strong here. I mean, here’s a great example: at this very moment we have counties that are members of the MTA region that wish to pull out of the system as part of the fallout from the proposed payroll tax. I do agree with you but in some ways it feels like throwing stones at a giant.

  • Larry Littlefield

    EUREKA! I came across a Transportation Alternatives poster that puts the argument perfectly. One of the best one glance arguments for anything I have seen.

    It shows 50 people moving on a street in three photos — by private motor vehicle and taxi, on bicycles, and on a bus. The 50 people in private motor vehicles are gridlocked, the 50 on bicycles occupy fraction of the street, the 50 on a bus even less. It is striking.

    My only criticism is that one has to read the fine print in the text to find out that it is the same number of people traveling in each photo. It would be better if “50 people moving” was in big block letters next to each photo, so no one would miss it.

    To turn that poster into one that makes the point I suggested at the beginning of this discussion, there would have to be one Ford Expedition with tinted windows in each photo, and 49 bus riders, cyclists, or people in other vehicles.

    Some people would see themselves on the bus or the bike and thus benefitting. But others would see themselves in Ford Expedition, benefitting from other people being on the bus or bikes.



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