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

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And California is stepping up to make building public transit cheaper and easier and more in this week’s The Mobile City.

Welcome to “The Mobile City”, our weekly roundup of notable transport developments.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” – or anything else free, for that matter, except breathing the air.

In our collective wisdom, we consider some things to be the province 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 although we can pay money to use them, we do not expect them to make a profit.

Historically, public transit in the United States was one of those services that belonged to the first category, while roads belonged to the second along with mail delivery. We still don’t expect roads to generate profits, but we still see public transit as more of a commercial service than a public one, and we’ve come to think the same way for the mail. Transportation consultant Jarrett Walker says we think of both the wrong way: what matters in each of these cases is less how many people use it than its availability to everyone and what we expect from him. This, he says, means we also have to rethink how we pay for it and how we expect it to be managed.

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 sparked growing interest in free public transport. The biggest city to offer this so far has been Kansas City, which announced it would be aiming for this goal last year. Now, the nation’s second-largest transit system is considering the same.

For now, however, we still expect most transit agencies to get a good chunk of the money they need from riders, and thanks to COVID-19, they still haven’t come back. to buses and trains in the figures obtained previously. the pandemic. And they probably won’t for a while. Yet transit agencies are providing service at or near pre-pandemic levels, so it will be available when riders need it. And even with COVID relief, it’s producing oceans of red on transit agencies’ balance sheets. That has led several agencies to warn of impending doom if more relief funds don’t materialize or states don’t provide more reliable funding. In a rare show of unity, the head of the largest of these agencies and the head of the union representing most of its workers have issued a joint appeal to Congressional Republicans to refrain from providing more aid COVID for transit.

Transit planner says public transit is like the postal service

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

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

This, he argues, means we need to think about both in a different way than we do now. For starters, we should stop looking at them in terms of “efficiency” in the business sense of serving the most users at the least cost. Instead, we should measure “effectiveness” in terms of availability: how well is it providing a service to everyone who might 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 clarify what we expect from this service. “In my work as a transit planning consultant,” he writes, “I ask decision makers this question: ‘I know you want the high number of purchases and services that go everywhere, but your budget is fixed, so how much do you want. spending on goodwill versus universal availability? Then we can design a network that matches that balance of goals, and we can clearly show which services are designed for traffic and which are for availability, regardless of traffic. (Some services are a mix of both, but we can quantify that as well.)”

Los Angeles plans to make public transit free…

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

Yet it is one thing to provide free public transit to approximately 480,000 potential riders, and quite another to provide it to ten million of them.

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), launched a study yesterday to examine what he dubbed the “Fareless System Initiative” (FSI). His goal, he told the LA Metro board, is to make public transit completely free in the nation’s most populous county by early next year.

In explaining why, Washington used precisely the logic advocated by Walker. Here is what he told the council:

“In many cases, people have to choose between paying rent, paying utilities or using public transit. We believe that achieving [a] free public transport system – for the young, for the elderly, for working mothers and fathers, for essential workers, the disabled [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 free public transit as a tool for economic development and a way to more effectively reduce the county’s notorious traffic congestion.

Of course, the question of how to pay for this remains, but the article notes that passenger fares represent only 4% of the agency’s originally projected revenue for fiscal 2020. Nearly half was expected to come from four measures of sales tax approved by Los Angeles County voters. (Fares cover 17% of agency operations and maintenance expenses; much of the sales tax revenue goes to transit construction projects.)

Metro Board Chairman and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was one of several board members who endorsed the move. Saying “the time has come,” Garcetti called the move a “brave path” toward tackling climate change and restoring ridership.

…As New York sounds the alarm for more funding

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, transit agencies say they are looking at the edge of a fiscal cliff. And if funding fails to fill gaping budget holes, they may not be able to provide many services.

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, president of the 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 a nutshell: Severe reductions in travel across the board have led to dramatic reductions in fare and toll revenues, and state subsidies have also shrunk. The COVID pandemic, they say, has caused a sharp 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 revenue every week. The New York MTA is now forecasting a $16 billion deficit through fiscal year 2024 and is planning service cuts of 40% on subways and buses and 50% on regional railroads.

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

“As CEO of North America’s largest transportation system and as president of the nation’s largest union of transit workers, we have had our fair share of strife,” they write. “But we agree on this: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority faces a five-alarm fire — and the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate seems content to sit back and do nothing while it burns.”

The letter notes that New York is not alone in looking down this 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 move to eliminate fares in Los Angeles also notes that LA Metro faces a $1.8 billion shortfall by mid-2021 and is proposing 17% service cuts for the following fiscal year.)

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

Next City contributor Sandy Smith is senior home and real estate editor at philadelphia cream magazine. Over the years his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia plaintiff 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 goes back as far.

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