'These "positive externalities" need to be highlighted to gain public support for free transit,'
October 1, 2010 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Should All Public Transit Be Free?

Following the examples of programs in several US cities, Erik Olin Wright, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, believes that switching a free form of public transportation would lead to a number of beneficial side effects. Including reduced air pollution, more efficient labor markets, and less congested highways.
posted by quin (138 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Define "free".
posted by chavenet at 8:51 AM on October 1, 2010


Free at the point of use, like the National Health Service.
posted by jedicus at 8:53 AM on October 1, 2010 [8 favorites]


Free as in freeway?
posted by moonmilk at 8:53 AM on October 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


I don't ever recall seeing Erik Wright on the bus in Madison, but I never took the bus anyway because it was so damn easy to bike everywhere there. Wait a sec...
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:55 AM on October 1, 2010


In many places it's more important that public transit "exist" and "not suck."
posted by theodolite at 8:55 AM on October 1, 2010 [60 favorites]


Yes. What else is there to say? This is a no-brainer in so many ways.
posted by ssg at 8:57 AM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


While it would be wonderful, someone has to pay for it. He calls for taxation, which, in my opinion, should be only the first level of discussion. Because if it were just taxes, given the extensive nature of our system here in NYC, I'd hate to see the taxes that would be required.

Also, his plan is to let a few lines be free, then more and more until the whole system is. How do you apply that fairly in this city, for instance? Do you start with bus lines in the South Bronx, which is the nation's poorest county, or do you begin in Midtown to show off for the tourists and the rich folks?

I think the idea is admirable, but a better solution is to work to shift budgets from roads and from other subsidies to investments in public transportation that costs little. There's nothing wrong with paying for your ride, but there is a point at which it becomes painful. $4.50 round trip is pretty damn painful, and it's about to get worse. I don't think $1 a ride is so bad though.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:00 AM on October 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


Should All Public Transit Be Free Completely Subsidized By Taxpayers?

ftfy

Also, the answer is still "yes", if you're wondering.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 9:00 AM on October 1, 2010 [19 favorites]


Sorry, that should be district, not county.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:01 AM on October 1, 2010


Yes! Also, when I ride the bus, I'd like a backrub! Get on it, stat!
posted by klangklangston at 9:03 AM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


...it should not be paid for through the purchase of tickets by individual riders—it should be paid for by society as a whole through the one mechanism we have available for this, taxation."

This assumes the infrastructure can handle the large influx coming from fares suddenly becoming "free." I doubt this would work in, say, NYC. Here is New York City Transit budget (pdf). I don't have the time at work to hack it, but can someone tell me the percentages of money coming from taxes and those coming from fares? I've always been told (but never checked) that the tax money NYCT uses is much, much greater than the money that comes in from fares.

If that's truly case, removing the fares entirely would lead to greater usage, a bigger strain on the infrastructure, and much more money in taxes necessary to continue operation at its current quality with the new riders. And its current quality is not great.

Yes, not having to pay to ride the train would be great. Unfortunately, unless there's a giant chunk of money coming for a revitalization of the entire infrastructure before fares become free, it will be a catastrophe.
posted by griphus at 9:04 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Or: Yes, as one of those goddamn socialists that the tea baggers keep saying is ruining the country, I think this is an excellent idea that is as unlikely to be implemented as scabies-free physical contact on public transit.)
posted by klangklangston at 9:04 AM on October 1, 2010


If we subsidized public transit to the extent that we subsidize cars, people would probably get paid to ride it in most places.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:04 AM on October 1, 2010 [40 favorites]


yes
posted by Ahab at 9:04 AM on October 1, 2010


"And its current quality is not great."

Actually, while I know that NY's transit isn't perfect, it's still pretty damn good, especially for American public transit. Come on out to LA if you want to see inconvenient transit poorly implemented.
posted by klangklangston at 9:06 AM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


Come on out to LA if you want to see inconvenient transit poorly implemented.

I lived in LA and relied on the buses for a year, yes the quality is abysmal. But that doesn't make the quality in NYC any better for what it is necessary for.
posted by griphus at 9:07 AM on October 1, 2010


to the extent that we subsidize cars

I'd like to know about this please.
posted by chavenet at 9:12 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've often wondered how "profitable" collecting fares is, once one consideres the costs of collecting, handling, and accounting for the collection of the fares. In Portland, for example, the machines that vend and validate Trimet tickets must be quite expensive, there are a shit ton of them, and they are insanely likely to be out of order at any given time.
posted by peep at 9:12 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oops, I have an extra e there and I didn't finish my thought. The cost of simply maintaining the ticket machines must eat up a huge chunk of fares collected.
posted by peep at 9:13 AM on October 1, 2010


to the extent that we subsidize cars

I'd like to know about this please.


Really? You don't see how we subsidize cars? You think the per gallon gas tax pays for everything?
posted by JPD at 9:15 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Along those lines is the concept of checking tickets irregularly, and having big fines for not having a ticket. Seems more popular in Europe for some reason.
posted by smackfu at 9:16 AM on October 1, 2010


Sounds like a great idea but good luck pushing the financing through any state legislature. Our local transit authority is in constant financial crisis but all you ever hear is people complaining that those damn bus drivers get paid too much and we should just privatize the whole system.
posted by octothorpe at 9:17 AM on October 1, 2010


I'd like to know about this please.

Well, it starts with this thing called roads...
posted by Artw at 9:17 AM on October 1, 2010 [14 favorites]


Is the cost really the reason people don't take public transportation?
posted by smackfu at 9:17 AM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Austin, TX instituted a "free fare" system in 1989.
After adjustment for normal growth and UT student passengers, the initial jump in ridership amounted to about 10%. This is consistent with the occasional ridership increases when Cap Metro forgives bus fares on 'Ozone Action Days' in Austin. That daily increase is about 10%.
Hardly a "large influx" of passengers. Despite the other claims in that article (that "problem passengers" were ruining the transportation "experience"), few Austin residents reported any problems (pdf) of the type described by Cap Metro Board members.
posted by muddgirl at 9:18 AM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yes, all transit should be free. I just recently got a mandatory three month bus pass with my school tuition (price added to my student activity fees; so yes, exactly like taxation). And the thing is, now I don't even think about it. I see a bus going where I'm going, I get on it, ride it for three blocks, ride it for thirty, ride it for three hundred -- it just works. Transit options become an immediate, almost unconscious part of how the city functions, and how you move through it -- kind of like how escalators and elevators work in large buildings, all just part of the flow.
posted by philip-random at 9:20 AM on October 1, 2010 [14 favorites]


Well, it starts with this thing called roads...

Those roads which are only used by cars? Which ones are those?

I'm serious: what is the car subsidy?

I'm not saying there isn't one, I honestly don't know.

But as far as I can see, a car is unsubsidized all the way down: tax on the purchase, tax & licensing to drive, tolls on (some) roads, tax on fuel, obligatory insurance, parking etc.
posted by chavenet at 9:21 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd like to know about this please.

Well, it starts with this thing called roads...

Ooo! Don't forget about subsidies for auto manufacturers for the last 50+ years, or the Great American Streetcar Scandal, or the US Highway System, or the Chicago-NY Toll Road system, or the Interstate Highway System, or every County/Parish/City/State Highway Department...
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:21 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


smackfu: "Is the cost really the reason people don't take public transportation?"

Where I live a monthly bus pass costs $80 while a downtown parking lease costs at least $300 a month so I'd say no. I know lots of people who would never ever take the bus for any reason.
posted by octothorpe at 9:21 AM on October 1, 2010


I think the idea model would be this: one-way trips would be advertising-supported, and there should be a token up-front cost (let's say $5) for a return trip which would allow permanent unfettered use of the system.

By way of example, in the DC area we have the WMATA Metro system with different-colored routes (red line, yellow line, etc). These would be merged into a single "Blue" line for general commuting.

But what about tourists, who may not know the region? Well there would be a separate "Green" line where they could ask for local hotspots and destinations... sort of an "AskMetro" feature.

Of course, this will lead to a lot of questions about timetables and general metro usage, so a "Grey" line would be established with a direct route to the WMATA complaints and suggestions department, rebranded "MetroTalk".

A separate line will be created with a direct route to housing projects. It is not recommended that Tea Party rally attendees use this line without a chaperone.
posted by Riki tiki at 9:21 AM on October 1, 2010 [5 favorites]


No, that's one of the big problems with public transit--cost isn't what keeps people from taking it. It's perceived convenience. I know we tend to stay home or pick a different outing if our outing of choice involves more than one transfer. I also know lots of people who would rather spend 20 minutes trawling for parking than 10 waiting for a bus.

I remember when I lived on the VA side of the Washington Metropolitan sprawl. If I rode to work with my dad, even in the hideous traffic, it took half the time it took on the bus because the route was that inefficient for my commute.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:22 AM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


Not to mention enforcement of fare-evasion. If you live or work in most of Manhattan (and aren't Super Rich) mass transit is essentially mandatory. At a certain point collecting fees becomes more like a regressive mobility tax than anything else.
posted by Skorgu at 9:22 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I lived in LA and relied on the buses for a year, yes the quality is abysmal.

Thank you Metro for having a system that made me start riding a bike in LA.
posted by wcfields at 9:23 AM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


(applies to US, S Florida in particular)
If the goal here is to increase usage, I'm not sure that I've ever heard anyone complain about the fare prices for public transportation.

Now the overall cost, in terms of time, convenience, reliability and safety (whether perceived or actual), that's another matter. I'd actually argue we might want to look in the other direction - if higher fares can actually help improve service and reach. In terms of overall utilization, the biggest barrier I see is making it less of a joke and more of a viable alternative for more people.
posted by SoFlo1 at 9:24 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, but those taxes are incredibly small compared to the cost of, say, wars in the middle east. And stuff like sales tax, licensing, and insurance aren't really about funding roads.
posted by ryanrs at 9:24 AM on October 1, 2010


fast moving thread!
posted by ryanrs at 9:25 AM on October 1, 2010



good idea! let him set an example and teach a few courses FREE in addition to his regular load...that would be good for the school, which could lower tuition and thereby
cut student loans, would allow the school to hire fewer faculty also saving money; and if a state school, such moves would save tax support for the institution.
posted by Postroad at 9:27 AM on October 1, 2010


chavenet: "I'd like to know about this please."

This article estimates that the subsidy in free parking alone amounted to $300 million a year ($5000 for a family of four) in 1995 (surely higher now). Even paid parking rates fail to keep up with inflation. Recent estimates of the effect of a sales tax exemption for gasoline total $700 million / year. The Federal Highway Administration will spend $42 billion on roads this year, which is puny compared with state and local spending, and is itself far under what they would spend it roads were well-repaired. This doesn't get us to negative externalities like polution, injury and death from auto accidents, and the potential taxable value from land taken up by roads and parking lots.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:27 AM on October 1, 2010 [27 favorites]


I think there should be a co-pay of ten cents.
posted by condour75 at 9:27 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


If we subsidized public transit to the extent that we subsidize cars, people would probably get paid to ride it in most places.

This is a good point. Driving a car is, in the majority of cases, free at the point of use in terms of the roads, signage, lighting, etc. Technically excise taxes on fuel go toward road maintenance, but those aren't paid at the point of use, and there are lots of road users that don't pay excise taxes (e.g., bicycles and electric vehicles).

to the extent that we subsidize cars

I'd like to know about this please.


As mentioned, federal excise taxes on fuel go toward the Highway Trust Fund, which is supposed to be used to pay for interstate highway maintenance, but the HTF ran out of money in 2008 and had to be supplemented with $8 billion from general revenues. So that's a giant amount of regular taxpayer subsidy that happened because Congress couldn't agree to raise the fuel tax.

Another example: the ARRA permitted a deduction of state and local sales and excise taxes on the purchase of new cars, light trucks (e.g. SUVs), motor homes, and motorcycles from Feb 17 2009 through Dec 31 2009. That's a substantial subsidy.

Another example: the entire Cash for Clunkers program. Another giant example: the GM bailout.

More examples: The enormous tax breaks and incentives that state and local governments offer vehicle manufacturing companies to build factories in their area. Some examples from this page: $99 million for GM, $158 million for Honda, $256 million for GM, $43.9 million for GM, $151 million for Ford, $20 million for Tesla.
posted by jedicus at 9:28 AM on October 1, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'm serious: what is the car subsidy?


The car subsidy is that those direct fees you talk about (really only gas taxes and registration) come nothing even remotely close to the cost of building and maintaining the road network (and yes trucks are subsidized as well)

Here is a very easy transparent way to see this - look at what tolls on private toll roads cost, and then recognize that on a per mile basis the cost of driving on urban roads should be as high or higher. I mean I don't know about where you live, but my car registration is under $100/year. Also I get free on street parking.

BTW - it isn't so much that roads are subsidized that I object to, it is people who benefit from the road subsidy getting all up in arms about subsidizing public transportation "because it looses money." Last I checked the NYS DoT was not a net contributor of funds to state either.

(although NYC should have a congestion charge and should eliminate free on street parking in all non-res neighborhoods and all of Manhattan below 96th st)
posted by JPD at 9:32 AM on October 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


But as far as I can see, a car is unsubsidized all the way down: tax on the purchase, tax & licensing to drive, tolls on (some) roads, tax on fuel, obligatory insurance, parking etc.

Yeah, except for states that don't tax the purchase. And the recent federal deduction of state and local sales tax. The cost of a driver's license is a pittance in most states. Toll roads are pretty rare, and a growing number are owned by private companies that pocket a chunk of the tolls as profit. The taxes on fuel don't cover the cost of the roads. Parking is free in much of the country.

Some other examples I forgot: the deduction for the cost of operating a vehicle as a business expense. This can include depreciation, gas and oil, insurance, lease payments, repairs and maintenance, registrations, and tires.

Another example (though one I personally agree with): the tax deductions and credits for hybrid and electric vehicles.
posted by jedicus at 9:34 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


to the extent that we subsidize cars

I'd like to know about this please.


Well, we build roads for them.
posted by The World Famous at 9:35 AM on October 1, 2010


"Is the cost really the reason people don't take public transportation?"

Here in Utah, yes. At least for me. UTA is ridiculously inefficient and seems to make a game out of making it as difficult as possible to use public transportation.

My wife gets a no-cost subsidized pass as an employee of the federal government. She likes the train ride, but she can only ride it halfway to her office because there's only one train that goes to that station and it doesn't run until two hours after she has to be at work. So she rides an earlier train to a closer station, then carpools from there to work and back, gets on the train again and rides it to our home town station.

There's no bus route from the station near her office to her office either, so even if she could ride the train all the way to that stop she would have to walk two miles on a four-lane highway with no sidewalks. So she makes do with her halfway-commute.

Now, I could use public transportation - it's close enough to my office to make it workable. However, even at four dollars a gallon I can commute in my pickup for far less than it would cost me for a monthly UTA pass, plus I get an extra half-hour of sleep in the morning and get home earlier.

In addition, UTA adds a fuel surcharge to tickets when the price of diesel goes up, so higher gas prices don't influence me to ride the train either, because the train pass goes up too!
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 9:37 AM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


to the extent that we subsidize cars

I'd like to know about this please.


Federal Highway Budget: 42 billion per year
Federal Transit: 11 billion per year (mass transit subsidies)
Federal Rail: 3 billion per year

Gallon of gas in USA: $3
Gallon of gas in EU: $6
Yearly difference: 450 billion (150 billion gallons per year usage in the US)

Yes, I'd say the numbers skew slightly towards automobile usage. Raising the taxes on gasoline by just $1 would not only incentivize us to reduce our dependence on foreign terrorist sponsoring oil, but enable us to cover our cities with effective mass transit or subsidize electric commuter vehicles to reduce pollution and congestion. (A DoE study stated that we already have enough off-peak power generation to charge every commuting vehicle in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest.)

I just wish paying taxes to fight terrorism was still considered patriotic.
posted by notion at 9:38 AM on October 1, 2010 [9 favorites]


As mentioned, federal excise taxes on fuel go toward the Highway Trust Fund, which is supposed to be used to pay for interstate highway maintenance, but the HTF ran out of money in 2008 and had to be supplemented with $8 billion from general revenues.

Don't forget that there is way more money spent at the local level as well - so that $8 bil is a drop in the bucket. NYS alone spends $2 Bil a year on road construction.
posted by JPD at 9:38 AM on October 1, 2010


Gallon of gas in USA: $3
Gallon of gas in EU: $6
Yearly difference: 450 billion (150 billion gallons per year usage in the US)


Look, I was with you until you got to this part. The absence of a tax is not the same thing as a subsidy.
posted by The World Famous at 9:42 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


This: "Sounds like a great idea but good luck pushing the financing through any state legislature."

People in the suburbs and rurals areas of a state get pretty pissed when their taxes are used to pay for things that benefit only city residents. Here in Massachusetts there was a furor when it was suggests tolls on I-90 (a toll road and the biggest east-west route in the state) be raised to help the MBTA (Boston-centered subway/bus system) stay in slightly less debt.
posted by maryr at 9:44 AM on October 1, 2010


No, that's one of the big problems with public transit--cost isn't what keeps people from taking it.

It often is for me, and there's plenty worse off or with less dough. If I want to go somewhere on the CTA, it's a $4.50 round trip, minimum. My current SSDI works out to about $50 a day. I've found myself saving trips for when I really need 'em, or waiting for my housemates to get home so I can cadge rides :\
good idea! let him set an example and teach a few courses FREE in addition to his regular load...that would be good for the school, which could lower tuition and thereby
cut student loans, would allow the school to hire fewer faculty also saving money; and if a state school, such moves would save tax support for the institution.
posted by Postroad at 11:27 AM on October 1 [+] [!]
A much more accurate version of this comparison would be if tuition - the cost of using the service - was free. Your analogy would only work if what we were talking about was a plan for subway conductors and bus drivers to work on a volunteer basis.
posted by jtron at 9:47 AM on October 1, 2010


There are other possible models. My place of work is allowed limited parking spaces per unit area of office space, and as a condition of planning has to subsidise local bus services so that the local area is not overwhelmed with traffic. This also has the effect of significantly reducing the number of shorter car journeys and of improving transport links for staff, students and all local travellers.
posted by biffa at 9:47 AM on October 1, 2010


Look, I was with you until you got to this part. The absence of a tax is not the same thing as a subsidy.

It is when there are externalities involved. By not charging the true cost of gasoline to the user, the cost of cleaning up oil spills, the effects of pollution, the cost of road maintenance, the cost of the NHTSA, etc are all spread out onto the general tax base.
posted by jedicus at 9:50 AM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


leetpolicywonk, jedicus: thanks for that stuff. I'm not sure what is described as "subsidies" in these articles maps directly on to the subsidies for public transport, at least not 100%, (for example, a private company giving an employee free parking is not paid for by taxpayers), but let me read a bit more carefully first. Found this clicking through one of the articles linked. Nearly all of those are "negative externalities" which are devilishly hard to assign to a single category of transport user (noise & pollution are produced by all vehicles; "petroleum supply line security" is a "subsidy" for all users of petroleum products, etc.
posted by chavenet at 9:52 AM on October 1, 2010


In many places it's more important that public transit "exist" and "not suck."

There is a surprising amount of transit, but it often "sucks" because of the time-tables. In my little town, the highest usage is with the college students. The schedules for buses going through the campus are tailored to the school schedule, arriving near the top of the hour, and ending up in the downtown core 15 minutes after the hour. Student IDs work as free passes (subsidized by campus parking tickets, from what I understand), and some students will pick up the bus at their dorms and ride it for 2 minutes to the next stop, instead of walking 5 minutes.

The problem is that the timing becomes less ideal for people working downtown. Employees of downtown businesses get free passes, too, but there are few who use the bus, where the campus routes are usually packed at the top of the hour, and they've even purchased double-decker buses for the campus routes to serve the growing population who don't use cars (the parking passes have become much more expensive in the last 5 years, increasing greatly per year).

I'd like to think this gets more people thinking about the bus as a viable option, but the reality is, their schedules will never sync as cleanly with transit routes as they do here, unless they live in major metropolises, where buses or other systems have the ridership to come by every 15 minutes. That is the major part of the suck for most people. The other part being that the transit doesn't match their beginning and end points as closely as cars usually do, even if there is the problem of finding parking.

A while back, I read about someone traveling to a Latin American country, where public transit existed, but was quite unreliable. The writer of the article was traveling and had rented a vehicle. They pulled over to ask someone in the bus queue for directions. The person opened the back door and told them where to go, then got into the vehicle. Somehow it was made clear that the person had assumed that the writer was going to give them a lift for some distance, which they did. The writer then summarized that this area needed more tourists with cars, to support the lack of reliable transit. It's something I think about now that I drive to work, noticing some of the same vehicles going the same way I go around the same time every day. What if hitch-hiking was less of a concern, carpool parking lots could be a place anyone could get a ride some distance down the line? Unlikely, but something I've thought about, surrounded by single-occupant vehicles.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:53 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


I imagine if bus operators didn't have to collect cash fare, boarding would be a lot quicker and you would be able to shave some time off, maybe even use a few less busses.

Good luck getting anybody to let that happen though. Supposedly we're pretty transit-friendly here in Portland, but there would be a violent riot of newspaper-website commenters if such a thing occurred.
posted by floam at 9:53 AM on October 1, 2010


Oh also, I used to work in a free and low income legal clinic in Chicago, just north of the river. Most of our clients lived just about 10 miles south, say, around 75th. We had a lot of law students working with us and one of the most fascinating things every semester was watching their faces, the first time they finally understood just what effort was involved in getting from the south side of Chicago to the central business district, much less getting there on time. To get to the criminal courthouse (at 26th street! not even as far north as the river, although west quite a bit) from most of the south side can be a 90 minute trek with a minimum of two transfers and usually three or four transfers. Miss one transfer and you've missed your court date.

Inadequate public transportation cripples the urban poor; it contributes as much to the instability of their households as anything else. I can only imagine how much harder it is on the suburban and rural poor.

I don't know where I'm going with this, but the American private car culture just really makes me angry.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:55 AM on October 1, 2010 [34 favorites]


Most North American transit is awful as-is. Removing the incentive to service popular routes could make it even worse.

I by far prefer the Japanese model: barely subsidize public transit providers, allow private operators to compete, and relax zoning limits on density so that rail companies tend to develop property around their stations.
posted by ripley_ at 10:00 AM on October 1, 2010


Public transit should be free in metropolitan areas with a fairly even coverage. Places where minorities/etc.. are underserved should probably still charge.

We also need to make fare pricing responsive to demand instead of committee mandated (budget shortfall, raise fares until no one rides scenario).

The elephant in the room is the insufficient fuel taxes and the airline subsidies.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:03 AM on October 1, 2010


I don't think this would make hardly any difference in Milwaukee. You have to factor in time as a cost. My husband could take the bus to work, but it'd be a 30 minute trip (including walking and waiting) vs. a 5 minute drive. He'll take the extra 50 minutes per day over the negligible cost of gas.

The primary population who would be served by this is university students, who already get reduced fares. I just don't see the positive externalities ever outweighing the cost here. Other cities, maybe. Parking in Chicago is insanely expensive, so the rational person has already made the choice to take transit; making it free is just an additional benefit that the person will almost certainly make up in taxes.

tl;dr - this is a stupid idea.
posted by desjardins at 10:09 AM on October 1, 2010


I don't own a car. Every workday, I ride the bus four times. On days when I go to the gym, I ride it six times. If I have errands to run, or people to visit, the number jumps even higher. This is in Los Angeles, where (as mentioned above) service is hit-or-miss. If the cost of public transportation was shifted to the tax payers, it would save me a fair chunk of change. Having said that, I would rather keep spending money out of my own pocket than see this happen.

Here's a short list of some of the things that I've witnessed on local public transportation:
- At least one "screamer" every couple of weeks
- Numerous fist fights
- One knife fight
- Child beaters
- Child-groping pedophiles
- Woman-groping not-pedophiles-but-just-as-creepy men
- Unconscious homeless dudes spread over three seats
- Two separate occasions of people bleeding heavily from the head
- Several masturbators (more women than men, which surprised me)
- Countless guys sitting in the back of the bus and getting drunk beyond belief
- Vomit on the floor
- Vomit on the seats
- Vomit on the window
- Vomit on the guy passed out on the floor and the seat
- A dude who asked me to keep an eye on his urine-soaked tee shirt when he left

While the bus is useful for getting people from point A to point B, it serves a more important secondary function: Holding all the people who would, in a more sane society, be in either treatment or prison. With that in mind, I'll say that I'd rather keep paying to ride the bus, rather than lower the bar to entry any further. I'm fine with raising taxes, but I'd rather see them go towards getting people who present a danger to themselves or others out the help that they need, rather than making it easier for them to present an ongoing threat and annoyance to the public.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:11 AM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


The systems should not be free because the systems would become abused. Charge a modicum fee to reduce vandalism and people just migrating around the city consuming resources. A simple $1 to get on a bus or train, $10 for a month pass. If you're using the transit for a legitimate reason this cheap fee is totally worth it. If you're just riding the train because you're bored or want a place to sit (or sleep) then the $1 might be harder to hand over.
posted by LoudMusic at 10:11 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


As long as we're spitballing, I'd really like to see mandatory parking go away in zoning/building codes. In many cities it isn't even legal to put up a nice little transit-and-human-accessible development without providing personal car storage fields.
posted by floam at 10:12 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hrm. Baltimore is currently experimenting with a free transit 'Circulator' system of buses (DC has something similar.) The thing is, it's limited to the middle of the city. So, if you want to get lunch across downtown, it's great. If you want to commute into downtown, not so much.

And as with all bus systems, schedules don't mean shit. So you'll often wait half an hour and have three buses arrive all at once.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:13 AM on October 1, 2010


Hmm, Parasite Unseen said it better than me :(
posted by LoudMusic at 10:14 AM on October 1, 2010


The largest cost for public transportation, particularly bus transportation, is operating expenses, not capital (equipment) expenses. Outside of maintenance costs, the latter are one time costs, the former are ongoing and the biggest drain on any system. And like it or not, bus transportation is usually much more pragmatic than rail transit. It is cheaper to acquire, it can feed into fixed rail, and it is flexible.

The problem is that in the US, up to 80 percent of capital costs are eligible for federal assistance, but for urbanized areas with a population over 200,000, all operating costs must be locally acquired. These are generally derived from local taxes and farebox revenue. Transit operators know that to stay viable and expand route access they have to attract non-captive riders, i.e., riders who could take a car if they wanted to but would rather take the bus. And to do this they have to make the service attractive and accessibile.

This is very difficult to do when finding enough money to keep your current service running is a struggle, and moreso in many suburban areas, not only because suburban densities are remarkably unfit for transit, but also where local councils are loathe to vote for raising taxes and millages because of their constituents' fear that all the "urban" people will come into Shady Oaks or wherever, steal a bunch of tvs, and take the bus back home. And to their credit, this is a real problem, because it happens all the time.

No, I'm just kidding. It never happens. It's hard enough to find a comfortable seat on a bus without a 48 inch flatscreen in your lap. But so it goes. And perhaps it doesn't matter, because young people are moving back to the city, and young people don't seem to mind riding transit as much as their parents do. This seems true, and I think the 2010 census will bear it out.

So anyway, while it might not make transit free, it would go a long way if transportation legislation would permit federal matches on operating costs for large urbanized areas. I really feel with this administration that this could happen in the newest transportation bill. They seem much more focused on preserving existing infrastructure and building up inner city capacity. That is, it could happen, if congress could quit the dick-waving contests and go ahead and pass a bill. The last one expired nearly two years ago.

(I work in transit. I'm spend my time 3/4 of my time trying to keep our operators afloat, and the other 1/4 beating my head on my desk.)
posted by gordie at 10:16 AM on October 1, 2010 [11 favorites]


This study suggests it's more economically efficient if buses are free (though not subways in this model).

Basically getting some people to switch from cars to buses means there's less traffic for the remaining drivers, who all get where they're going faster, enough that the value of the time they're saving is more than the cost of subsidizing free buses.

Everybody wins: bus passengers and car drivers alike.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:16 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, that's one of the big problems with public transit--cost isn't what keeps people from taking it. It's perceived convenience. I know we tend to stay home or pick a different outing if our outing of choice involves more than one transfer. I also know lots of people who would rather spend 20 minutes trawling for parking than 10 waiting for a bus.

But you have forgetten the magic lure of the word "free". Knowing that that bus they're waiting for is free* will make people much more willing to wait. Even here in the land of transit-hating truck lovers, ridership on transit jumped when gas prices went up, despite much of it not being all that convenient.

And what is *less* convenient than being stuck on the interstate at 5:30 pm during a traffic jam? At least on the bus you can read a book.

I would be fascinated by a study that looked at how much you could save without ticket machines/enforcement costs, and how that would contribute to paying for "free" transit.

*I know, it's paid for by taxes, but people perceive anything that isn't pulling immediate cash out of their pockets as free.
posted by emjaybee at 10:16 AM on October 1, 2010


Only in the sense that everything should be free, which is to say no, it shouldn't be free.
Nice in theory, but in reality free would mean the system would be massively underfunded, municipalities would be under-served, it would be more inconvenient, less maintained, and overall less useful than it is now.
That being said, it should be better funded by all levels of government, cheaper (or free) for low-income users, and expanded to serve more areas.
But that won't happen if it's free.
posted by rocket88 at 10:16 AM on October 1, 2010


the Japanese model: barely subsidize public transit providers, allow private operators to compete, and relax zoning limits on density so that rail companies tend to develop property around their stations.


I was not aware that was the japanese model - indeed I was under them impression that there was nothing the government loved doing more then spending incredibly lavishly on infrastructure. If all you are expecting the operators to do is pay for the direct cost of operating a train, well then yeah that works - especially when you also have the government creating a system that keeps interest rates down so the operating companies can borrow at very low rates to buy or lease their rolling stock.

Actually this sounded fishy to me so I just went and spent some time reading the JR-East Annual report - and it seems like the track is owned by JRTT - which is a government ministry. Is that correct? because if it is it seems like the Japanese model is pretty close to the UK model where railtrack owns the rail and appoints monopoly operators who lease the rolling stock and earn a small profit. A better model then the US, but not as good as you made it sound.
posted by JPD at 10:17 AM on October 1, 2010


I by far prefer the Japanese model:

Make cars extremely expensive, make gas very expensive, make roads tiny and congested and remove any type of urban planning so that arterial roads can't exist?

Making transit more popular has nothing to do with how much you pay to get on the bus.
posted by GuyZero at 10:17 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's a short list of some of the things that I've witnessed on local public transportation:
- At least one "screamer" every couple of weeks
- Numerous fist fights
- One knife fight
- Child beaters
- Child-groping pedophiles
- Woman-groping not-pedophiles-but-just-as-creepy men
- Unconscious homeless dudes spread over three seats
- Two separate occasions of people bleeding heavily from the head
- Several masturbators (more women than men, which surprised me)
- Countless guys sitting in the back of the bus and getting drunk beyond belief
- A dude who asked me to keep an eye on his urine-soaked tee shirt when he left


Ergo, to improve public transit in Los Angeles you should improve funding to social service agencies and mental health facilities.
posted by GuyZero at 10:19 AM on October 1, 2010 [13 favorites]


more compelling arguments why public transport should be free -

The big reason why you price a service is so it is equitably distributed - so no one hogs the resource and deprives others of its use. There is little danger of that happening with public transport: if you need to go to work, you will take the subway once, you won't ride it to and fro 5 times for no reason.

The cost of collection is large - tally up all the staff involved, the ticketing systems, the space and time involved in the process. This is why the government charges road tax on cars rather than toll every stretch of road - why bother trying to measure use and charge it to specific users, it is much more efficient to just tax the users.

It's a tradeoff - the more closely you track usage and charge users, the more optimal the distribution of the service, but the less total service you can afford to provide since your overheads are higher. The core argument here is that the optimal point for public transport is one where you don't track usage and just charge a global fee -

The public transport tax should be varied on a per-district basis: some districts will have more developed public transport than others. This is so some poor guy out in the middle of nowhere with one bus every 30 minutes contributes less to the system than the person living in a major transport hub. This is to allow choice: people who dislike public transport can move to areas with less infrastructure and hence pay less.
posted by xdvesper at 10:20 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Is the cost really the reason people don't take public transportation?"

I think it's a big one. I try to be good and take BART to SF every time I travel there from Oakland, but on a late Friday night, BART costs $7.00 roundtrip and MUNI costs another $2.

Driving costs $4 in toll (plus $.50 in gas and maybe $.25 in maintenance costs). Driving can be as fast as 20-30 minutes. BART + MUNI is at least an hour, possibly two depending on the destination and bus (I'm looking at you, #21). For one person, public transit is twice as expensive (not counting the initial car investment) and takes twice as long. Not much incentive there.

The main perk would be that I can get completely blotto and get home safely (before midnight, when service stops. If I miss it, I can take a one-way bus for $4, plus another $.75 for the AC Transit transfer.)

Now imagine when I go into SF with my wife and child. It would cost us $25 (3 BART tickets, 2 MUNI tickets) vs. driving for $5 (plus gas/maintenance at $.75)

For families who would like to not drive and who prefer public transportation, cost is definitely an issue.

Willie Brown once proposed the idea of free MUNI service in San Francisco. Apparently it was too progressive an idea for this burg.

Golden State Off the Rails As Mass Transit Ridership Plummets
posted by mrgrimm at 10:20 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


This idea will never work for two reasons:

First, because (white) people in the suburbs don't want (black or other minority) people from the inner city coming to their neighborhoods with their inner city problems. This implicit racism is part of the reason most Midwest cities (mine included) don't have extensive public transport.

The other is the deeply ingrained car culture. As desjardins notes above, it is much easier to drive a car for 15 minutes than to take a bus to get to the same place in 45 minutes. Plus, there is ample parking in most mid metro cities, so the hassle in finding parking is negligible. Contrast this with San Francisco, where the number of cars in the city far outnumbers the number of spots.
posted by reenum at 10:22 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


As an ex-Londoner, I have to say I'm becoming increasingly aware of just how great our public transport is. The only thing we don't have is all-night tube (Metro, Subway, what-have-you).

The underground covers a massive geographical area, and there's a strong density of coverage. It's rare that there's not a tube stop within easy walking distance. We also have really good, frequent, tube hubs. Here in Paris, it seems that proportionately many more stations are one line only (although that could just be the routes I have to travel).

We have Oyster cards. Cashless, tap in tap out, available for use on the underground, buses, and some overground rail services. I'm sure once they've tied your credit card to it you'll be able to use them on the bikes as well. Furthermore, you get a reduction in price if you have an Oyster.

London's bus system is also fantastic, and again with the great hubs within the city. I only felt that I was a Londoner when I had mastered them. Also, night buses. Incredible.

The objects as well as the system are well designed. Take something as simple as tube directions. In Paris, you have to know the end of the line to know which way to go. In London, simply know your direction (north, south, east, west). The majority of lines have carriages designed to fit lots of people in - lots of room down the aisle with hand rails. In Paris, most carriages are like the Metropolitan line - blocks of four seats. Except they don't have anything to hold onto, so people have to crowd by the doors.

In short, it wasn't until I visited places with lesser public transport (we're talking Paris, Lyon, New York here) that I realised how good I had it. So yes, the answer isn't fares, it's infrastructure. Coverage should saturate the cities.
posted by djgh at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thing is, it's limited to the middle of the city. So, if you want to get lunch across downtown, it's great. If you want to commute into downtown, not so much.

This is the basic problem with mass transit in the U.S. As is obvious, the efficiency of investment in buses, trains, and trollies is proportional to the density of destinations they are servicing. But, Americans seem to think that living as spread out as possible is a right, rather than a luxury with a specific infrastructure cost (both in transportation and other utilities.) Thus, investment in public transportation in inner (dense) cities becomes investment in transportation for those different colored people who live in the inner city. Conversely, if public transportation is associated with different colored people, then white people are less likely to use it.

This is one of the reasons why largely white cities like Portland, OR have managed to maintain investments in public transportation.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2010


if it were just taxes, given the extensive nature of our system here in NYC, I'd hate to see the taxes that would be required.


MTA operating budget is 8.6 billion. Divide by NYC residents only (ca 20 million) and you get 430 dollars a head.

Mind you, that leaves out the bridge and tunnel crowd and the presumed savings for all the ticket taking nonsense. (Also, as above, not sure what percentage of the budget is covered by tickets and what from other areas.)

On the other hand, factor in increased traffic - oh, it's a tangled web indeed.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2010


While the bus is useful for getting people from point A to point B, it serves a more important secondary function: Holding all the people who would, in a more sane society, be in either treatment or prison. With that in mind, I'll say that I'd rather keep paying to ride the bus, rather than lower the bar to entry any further. I'm fine with raising taxes, but I'd rather see them go towards getting people who present a danger to themselves or others out the help that they need, rather than making it easier for them to present an ongoing threat and annoyance to the public.

So you're saying free health care is the answer?
posted by djgh at 10:24 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


One problem with making public transport free is that it would turn it into a particularly expensive homeless shelter, which would have the effect of driving out those who have a choice to go elsewhere (like into their SUVs). Minimum prices and enforcement mechanisms are a far more efficient way of keeping the system reasonably pleasant to use than paying a lot of people to patrol it, make judgment calls and temporarily expel anybody who is too much of a nuisance.
posted by acb at 10:26 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gallon of gas in USA: $3
Gallon of gas in EU: $6
Yearly difference: 450 billion (150 billion gallons per year usage in the US)

Look, I was with you until you got to this part. The absence of a tax is not the same thing as a subsidy.
According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report published in October 2007, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost taxpayers a total of $2.4 trillion dollars by 2017 when counting the huge interest costs because combat is being financed with borrowed money. The CBO estimated that of the $2.4 trillion long-term price tag for the war, about $1.9 trillion of that would be spent on Iraq, or $6,300 per U.S. citizen. -WikiPedia
1.9 trillion / 14 years = 135 billion per year.
posted by notion at 10:29 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rail in downtown Portland is free (this time last year so were busses, but they turned "Fareless Square" into the "Free Rail Zone"). I live downtown and take transit every day and I really don't notice hordes of homeless people filling up MAX or the streetcar. And there's a pretty high concentration of transient people living downtown.
posted by floam at 10:30 AM on October 1, 2010


Just to continue, at the root of all of this is the fact that public policy in the U.S. for the last 70 years has been manifestly anti-urban. I can't think of any other society other than Khmer Rouge Cambodia that has made policy explicitly against cities. It's practically a political plank of the Republican party.

Just another example of how the U.S. is deeply insane.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:31 AM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, the question isn't really whether public transit should be free (nothing is free); the question is whether we should be charging for it at point of use.

My understanding is that, at least in San Francisco, less than 10% of the funds required to run the MUNI come from charging fares, so it's not like massive tax subsidization isn't already normal.

The answer becomes an economic problem: If you eliminate fares, you get this nonlinear drop in cost in which suddenly there's no fares to enforce. However, labor costs might be constant due to union rules, and as has been pointed out, as system ridership increases the actual cost of running the service may increase as well.

There's also the problem that profitable lines stop being obviously profitable -- in other words, lines may stop being optimized for ridership.

It's actually a complex problem.
posted by effugas at 10:31 AM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


As crush-onastick noted, Chicago's public transit system is terrible at the edges -- or really, nearly everywhere that isn't downtown or the near-to-middle North Side. Making it free without making it more comprehensive won't improve anything.
posted by me3dia at 10:31 AM on October 1, 2010


Actually this sounded fishy to me so I just went and spent some time reading the JR-East Annual report - and it seems like the track is owned by JRTT - which is a government ministry. Is that correct? because if it is it seems like the Japanese model is pretty close to the UK model where railtrack owns the rail and appoints monopoly operators who lease the rolling stock and earn a small profit. A better model then the US, but not as good as you made it sound.

I could be slightly off on this. However, it's worth noting that there are a LOT of other rail companies just in the Tokyo area with their own tracks, both private and public, and that JR-East charges significantly more than most North American transit operators.

The big reason why you price a service is so it is equitably distributed

Another nice side effect of a price system: transit operators actually have an incentive to provide service on efficient, popular routes. Most North American transit is already very cheap. I'd rather have better service than cheaper fares.
posted by ripley_ at 10:32 AM on October 1, 2010


Ergo, to improve public transit in Los Angeles you should improve funding to social service agencies and mental health facilities.

That is what I'm saying, yes. If taxes are going to go up (something that I support), I'd rather that the funds derived from them go towards drug treatment programs and mental health care (and, yes, prison in cases for certain dangerous individuals) than towards giving those people a free venue with a captive audience whose lives they can make unpleasant. I'd rather ride public transportation that was safe than public transportation that was cheap, and I think that most people (including the people who ride the bus with me and are in some cases very poor) would agree with me.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:36 AM on October 1, 2010


Ergo, to improve public transit in Los Angeles you should improve funding to social service agencies and mental health facilities.

This was essentially my first thought (Paris). It's gotten colder and rainier here recently; the metro has gotten rapidly more interesting than it already was.
posted by whatzit at 10:36 AM on October 1, 2010


This would make a big difference in my city. Up until this summer, students could ride free with ID; now with budget cutbacks they have to pay the regular fare. So it costs my 14-year-old $4 to get downtown and back for his piano lesson after school. So I'll juggle my work schedule and drive him instead.
posted by headnsouth at 10:37 AM on October 1, 2010


I'd like to think this gets more people thinking about the bus as a viable option, but the reality is, their schedules will never sync as cleanly with transit routes as they do here, unless they live in major metropolises, where buses or other systems have the ridership to come by every 15 minutes. That is the major part of the suck for most people. The other part being that the transit doesn't match their beginning and end points as closely as cars usually do, even if there is the problem of finding parking.

I think this is very much a chicken and egg scenario. If more people take the bus then we can justify more frequent buses, which will lead to more people taking the bus and even more frequent and dense bus routes, and so on. There is a positive feedback loop that we can take advantage of, but we need to give people more of a push in that direction. If you count the cars passing by a certain point on the road and count the buses passing by the same point, you'll quickly see that we could easily increase the number of buses by a factor of two, three, or more just by convincing 10 or 20% of drivers to take the bus instead.

We need to make transit more attractive and driving less attractive. So, we can make transit free, we can make more bus only lanes to make buses faster, we can push to make other transportation alternatives that can help get people out of their cars more viable (like walking, biking, and carsharing), we can plan for density in our land use decisions, we can make buses cleaner and more comfortable, we can demand our elected officials set an example by riding the bus, and so on. On the flip side, we can tax fuel at much higher rates, we can increase registration costs, we can eliminate free and subsidized parking, we can stop prioritizing vehicle traffic over pedestrians, we can stop building 4 lane roads in our cities, we can institute congestion pricing, and so on. We need to push people towards more sustainable transportation choices. Free transit isn't going to solve the problem, but it will push us a little closer.
posted by ssg at 10:37 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Agree that the big limiter to public transit is routes that go where I want to go, when I want to go there. I would gladly pay an incremental fare increase in exchange for not waiting 45 minutes in the Phoenix heat for a connecting bus. I love the Phoenix Light Rail, but then, my apartment and my workplace are both walking-distance from it, and it runs every 10-20 minutes. Going anywhere not on the lightrail is an exercise in frustration and "oh, I want to go ___? We better start planning this a day in advance." Most of the time I just end up driving, even though I'm trying to save gas money.
posted by Alterscape at 10:39 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


I could be slightly off on this. However, it's worth noting that there are a LOT of other rail companies just in the Tokyo area with their own tracks, both private and public, and that JR-East charges significantly more than most North American transit operators

Yeah but the JRTT implies they own all of the rail track including that used by the private operators.

http://www.jrtt.go.jp/news/news_english.htm

for some reason I can't directly link to the PDF - but they talk about their role in developing rail.

I'm not saying its a bad thing, but that represents a massive subsidy to rail operators. I was trying to see if I could parse that data out from the NYC MTA budget, but well it's like 300 pages.
posted by JPD at 10:41 AM on October 1, 2010


I'm always boggled by the fact that transporting people en masse from one spot to another costs more than transporting them individually in automobiles. It's hard to fathom, but it must be true.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:44 AM on October 1, 2010


Also, this:

philip-random: "Transit options become an immediate, almost unconscious part of how the city functions, and how you move through it -- kind of like how escalators and elevators work in large buildings, all just part of the flow"

Yes, yes, yes. It is essential that transit become part of the flow of moving through cities. A number of cities have no-fare zones in the downtown area and it always works well, in my experience. If we can make transit part of the fabric of the city for a significant portion of the population, then I think we can learn to leave the personal automobile behind.
posted by ssg at 10:45 AM on October 1, 2010


Skipped a bunch of comments...

I'd like to know about this please.

Well, it starts with this thing called roads...


Ooo! Don't forget about subsidies for auto manufacturers for the last 50+ years, or the Great American Streetcar Scandal, or the US Highway System, or the Chicago-NY Toll Road system, or the Interstate Highway System, or every County/Parish/City/State Highway Department...

Ooo and the lack of any expense that should be added to the cost of individual TRUCKS and cars to mend or mitigate the effects on the environment (reference major oil spills, mining issues, global warming contributions, etc...).
posted by Increase at 10:46 AM on October 1, 2010


i have to point out that these subsidies and expenditures the government gives for our automobile culture are paid for by the taxpayers - most of whom drive automobiles and just about all of whom purchase things that are delivered via our road system

is it really a subsidy when it ultimately comes out of your pocket for your use?

people want cars, people want roads to drive on and people are in fact paying for them
posted by pyramid termite at 10:52 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


people want cars, people want roads to drive on and people are in fact paying for them

But when the costs are so far removed, it's not easy for humans to notice the cause and effect and make informed economic choices about how we want to live. And all you can get back by going carless is gas and insurance money, none of these removed costs, making the Good choice tougher and more expensive.
posted by floam at 10:59 AM on October 1, 2010


is it really a subsidy when it ultimately comes out of your pocket for your use?

That is pretty much the definition of a subsidy: using taxpayer dollars to drive down the cost of something that people (in theory) need.
posted by ekroh at 11:03 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


The public transit system in DC assumes everyone's going to city center, but lots of us commute around the perimeter from one suburb to another. I'd really like to see Metro expanded to include a line that runs along the beltway, like the proposed purple line, but instead we get the ICC and HOT lanes.

I'd also like to see businesses encouraged to help with traffic problems by allowing employees to telecommute or work flexible schedules so everyone's not hitting the road at the same time, if at all. Washington state looked into reducing commutes by allowing employees to work at a site closer to their home using a proximate commute method. The study by WSDOT had good results, but I'm not sure if it's still being used.
posted by hoppytoad at 11:06 AM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


What if hitch-hiking was less of a concern, carpool parking lots could be a place anyone could get a ride some distance down the line? Unlikely, but something I've thought about, surrounded by single-occupant vehicles.
Washington DC has a phenomena called slugging where drivers pick up hitchhikers in order to be allowed to use the HOV lanes. There's a sort of subculture around it.
posted by Karmakaze at 11:13 AM on October 1, 2010


"I'd also like to see businesses encouraged to help with traffic problems by allowing employees to telecommute or work flexible schedules "

This is the part that frustrates me the most. I am the network administrator at my office. Everything I need to do I can do from anywhere in the world that has an internet connection. There's absolutely no reason for my physical body to be in the office 40 hours a week. None whatsoever.

And yet, here I am, with my butt in a chair, in my office, with my pickup truck sitting out there in the parking lot, because "If we let you work from home, everybody will want to do it".

I make up for it by commenting on Metafilter at work, though, so I guess it all evens out.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 11:15 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is the cost really the reason people don't take public transportation?

Yes, it's a barrier. When the fares for handicapped riders on AATA busses went from free to $.25, they saw a huge drop in ridership.

Inadequate public transportation cripples the urban poor; it contributes as much to the instability of their households as anything else. I can only imagine how much harder it is on the suburban and rural poor.

And it's hard to make it better Transit needs riders to be cost effective. The urban poor use the bus out of necessity, but there aren't enough poor people to support the system. There's not much incentive for a transit agency to improve access for the poor because the poor are locked into using it already. The key to "successful" transit is luring rich people onto the bus. Sadly, in segregated cities, the sort of transit that appeals to rich people is the sort of transit that gets them into and out of urban areas quickly, without a whole lot of stopping to pick up poor people, rather than transit that facilitates movement within urban neighborhoods.

I sit through transportation planning meetings pretty regularly and part that makes me bang my head on the table is how you'll be in a room with 30 people committed to improving transit and 28 of them got to the meeting in a car...

Transit is hard because it can't be cost effective without land use patterns to back it up. It's almost impossible to successfully retrofit light rail into a city designed in the age of the automobile. The glory days of public transit were when the electric companies owned the street cars AND did all the housing development. All new development was planned around the streetcar lines. Crazily enough, the free market used to handle this problem relatively well. Yes, there were issues with monopolies, but overall we might be better off today if we'd kept that system.

Ultimately, what gets people onto the bus or train is making transit more appealing than driving. Improving the transit service itself is a very small, very expensive component of shifting that cost/benefit analysis away from the car. I don't care how great your streetcar system is, it won't even begin to make financial sense until you address other factors. Housing density needs to go up and centered around transit lines. Congestion needs to get worse. Parking needs to be scarce and priced at, or even better, above market rates. Roads need to be *fully* funded by gas or use taxes. Those gas taxes should fully reflect the externalities associated with driving (air/water pollution, military expenditures, subsidies to the petroleum industry, etc).

Problem is, you gotta have voters on board with your plan to make their commutes a living hell. GTWT!
posted by pjaust at 11:22 AM on October 1, 2010 [9 favorites]


effugas: "However, labor costs might be constant due to union rules, and as has been pointed out, as system ridership increases the actual cost of running the service may increase as well.

There's also the problem that profitable lines stop being obviously profitable -- in other words, lines may stop being optimized for ridership.

It's actually a complex problem
"

I'm not sure it is as complex as you suggest. There may be some union issues, but contracts don't last forever and we shouldn't focus on short term costs.

If ridership increases, costs will increase. However, I would assume the cost per rider would go down (at worst it would stay roughly the same). I'm not sure why this is a negative outcome.

Finally, transit operators don't need to collect money in order to count riders. Counting how many people get on a bus is not a particularly difficult or complex problem (surely it is easier than counting cars on our roads, which is something we do all the time).
posted by ssg at 11:26 AM on October 1, 2010


That is pretty much the definition of a subsidy: using taxpayer dollars to drive down the cost of something that people (in theory) need.

but it doesn't drive down the cost - it hides it through convoluted bookkeeping

it probably would be good for us to know what cars are really costing us - but as long as we call it a subsidy, we can go on believing that some mythical other guy or the government is paying for it when in fact it's us
posted by pyramid termite at 11:30 AM on October 1, 2010


"I think this is very much a chicken and egg scenario. If more people take the bus then we can justify more frequent buses, which will lead to more people taking the bus and even more frequent and dense bus routes, and so on."

This is basically what we've been doing with wider and wider roads. People thought widening the roads would reduce traffic, right? But it really just drives more traffic. So we need to expand transit capacity and leave roads to stagnate or atrophy (as you said).
posted by Eideteker at 11:45 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


but it doesn't drive down the cost - it hides it through convoluted bookkeeping

It drives down the cost for the individual heavy user and brings it up for the light user. Consider two people who pay the same amount of federal and state income tax. One rides a bike, grows vegetables in his or her own yard, etc. The other drives heavily, has a lot of things delivered to his or her home, etc. Their income tax share of the external costs of car use (e.g. pollution cleanup, road maintenance, tax incentives for car makers, etc) are the same, yet the heavy user benefits disproportionately. For the heavy user, there is, in fact, some 'other guy' paying for it.

Obviously I've picked a fairly extreme hypothetical, but it should give you a sense of the unfairness of it. More than that, it leads to overuse of the subsidized resource (cars) because the costs are shifted onto non-users or light users.
posted by jedicus at 11:46 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


but as long as we call it a subsidy, we can go on believing that some mythical other guy or the government is paying for it when in fact it's us

But that is partly true. Some other guy (i.e. anyone who doesn't own a car or owns a car and drives less than the average), is paying for other people's road use through their taxes. Everyone subsidizes the roads (and parking) and everyone has to deal with the environmental consequences, but some people benefit more than others. That's why it is a good idea to raise gas taxes, registration costs, parking rates, etc.: 1) to make it easier for everyone to understand the cost of driving and 2) to make sure those who drive a lot are paying for the privilege. By subsidizing driving, we encourage people to do more of it (because it doesn't cost you any more directly to drive more) when there are many reasons why we should encourage people to drive less.

In fact, when you look at which vehicles actually wear down and damage the road surface, pretty much everyone is subsidizing transport trucks though road maintenance costs. The wear and tear from personal vehicles is a rounding error compared to the wear and tear from large trucks.
posted by ssg at 11:46 AM on October 1, 2010


Yeah but the JRTT implies they own all of the rail track including that used by the private operators.

Interesting, I did not know that that was the case. Thanks for the correction. I'll have to look into that - I wonder if that arrangement is only in Tokyo, or if it applies to other cities as well?
posted by ripley_ at 11:53 AM on October 1, 2010


Make it all free in your city. Tell the govt to pay for it because it is for National Security.
posted by Postroad at 11:56 AM on October 1, 2010


Some other guy (i.e. anyone who doesn't own a car or owns a car and drives less than the average), is paying for other people's road use through their taxes.

except that both people are still shopping at stores where just about everything is delivered by the road system

In fact, when you look at which vehicles actually wear down and damage the road surface, pretty much everyone is subsidizing transport trucks though road maintenance costs.

no, they're paying for a lifestyle where they can have the convenience of having things that are delivered by transport trucks

as people have often mentioned here with things like schools and healthcare, this is what we are paying for civilization, even when we think we're not benefiting as much as "the other guy" - would you say that because you don't have kids in school that you don't benefit from the educational system?

we would probably be better off with less dependence on private automobiles and more mass transit - but we're not going to convince people of that with this kind of reasoning
posted by pyramid termite at 12:00 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not free, but it affordable to the poorest person.

Give a 0.1% per day reduction in income tax for each day you ride the bus, and a 0.05% increase for the days you don't.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:02 PM on October 1, 2010


Not free, but it affordable to the poorest person.

Give a 0.1% per day reduction in income tax for each day you ride the bus, and a 0.05% increase for the days you don't.


The poorest people aren't paying any income tax. So now we are just penalizing people who can't afford to live on a bus line.
posted by muddgirl at 12:08 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


except that both people are still shopping at stores where just about everything is delivered by the road system

You're assuming an awful lot about "the other guy."
posted by mrgrimm at 12:11 PM on October 1, 2010


but it doesn't drive down the cost - it hides it through convoluted bookkeeping

Isn't this just another good description of how subsidies work? Subsidies never alter the underlying cost of the thing they subsidize - they reduce the price by paying some portion of it out of the general fund.
posted by heathkit at 12:11 PM on October 1, 2010


except that both people are still shopping at stores where just about everything is delivered by the road system

But using this example, they are both paying the same in taxes to pay for the roads and they both get the benefit of the goods delivered but only one of them owns a car and drives it on the road. Therefore the car owner gets more benefit for the same cost, which means the guy who does not have a car is subsidizing the other guy's car ownership.

we would probably be better off with less dependence on private automobiles and more mass transit - but we're not going to convince people of that with this kind of reasoning

I don't think anybody is arguing one way or the other with you. Just defining what a subsidy is.
posted by ekroh at 12:12 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


except that both people are still shopping at stores where just about everything is delivered by the road system

But I don't think we should subsidize buying more goods. I think we need to buy less stuff and I try to reduce my consumption. So I am subsidizing everyone who buys more stuff than me too. The argument is that this is a bad subsidy, because it encourages people to do things that are working against the common good (buying a lot of crap, driving a lot). We should subsidize the things we want people to do (ride the bus), rather than the things we don't want them to do (drive a lot). This is just basic economics.
posted by ssg at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is the cost really the reason people don't take public transportation?

In my case, we don't take PT because our city has two buses that take fours to do a 10 minute trip and aren't even reliable.

To those of you who have a decent public transportation system available: milk it!
posted by Tarumba at 12:17 PM on October 1, 2010


except that both people are still shopping at stores where just about everything is delivered by the road system

That's only true as far as it goes. Consider two people. One lives in the middle of nowhere, far from the coast, rail lines, or navigable waterways. Everything that comes into town comes via a long road trip. The other person lives right near a major port city, or along a major freight rail line, or on the Mississippi river or other major navigable waterway. The first person is going to benefit much, much more from road and vehicle subsidies than the second. The disparity is even greater if the first person also lives in an area where not much is grown or produced.

Finally, there are a lot of externalities that nobody is really paying for right now, like the effects of climate change and pollution that won't really be felt for a few decades. In that case, there is very much some 'other guy' who will pay for it later: our descendants.
posted by jedicus at 12:21 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


But I don't think we should subsidize buying more goods. I think we need to buy less stuff and I try to reduce my consumption. So I am subsidizing everyone who buys more stuff than me too. The argument is that this is a bad subsidy, because it encourages people to do things that are working against the common good (buying a lot of crap, driving a lot). We should subsidize the things we want people to do (ride the bus), rather than the things we don't want them to do (drive a lot). This is just basic economics.

You communist pig!
posted by Tarumba at 12:23 PM on October 1, 2010


Free at the point of use, like the National Health Service.
posted by jedicus at 4:53 PM on October 1


This.

Up the taxes and make it so. We really do have to start getting serious about reducing emissions and energy expenditure, and we all have to start paying for it.
posted by Decani at 12:25 PM on October 1, 2010


The systems should not be free because the systems would become abused. Charge a modicum fee to reduce vandalism and people just migrating around the city consuming resources.

How the heck do you abuse the bus system...you know those buses go whether there's someone riding or not, yes?

Modicum fees do not reduce vandalism.
posted by emjaybee at 12:34 PM on October 1, 2010


emjaybee: I think the concern is it'll fill up with drunk homeless people wanting to be rocked to sleep by a moving vehicle, not that people would just ride too much.

I don't think it's too big of a deal, however. Even though transit would be free, you still have transit police, and they can exclude people who cause trouble. Our light rail vehicles don't actually even have a system for requiring and verifying fare, it's completely on the honor system apart from TriMet's very infrequent fare inspectors. The trains are full of people who aren't paying any money, and it's not a cesspool.
posted by floam at 12:42 PM on October 1, 2010


If ridership increases, costs will increase. However, I would assume the cost per rider would go down (at worst it would stay roughly the same). I'm not sure why this is a negative outcome.

Lets assume you could recover all costs of enforcement -- not impossible. How expensive is enforcement?

Lets assume ridership increases, thus increasing costs. By how much do costs increase? What would the increase in ridership (and thus, reduction of traffic / increase of commerce) represent?

If cost per rider goes down, by how much?

I mean, these are the sorts of numbers that matter.

Finally, transit operators don't need to collect money in order to count riders. Counting how many people get on a bus is not a particularly difficult or complex problem (surely it is easier than counting cars on our roads, which is something we do all the time).

A line of business that visibly pays for itself is a profit center. A line of business that is popular, but does not directly increase revenue, is a cost center, no matter how much it pretends not to be.
posted by effugas at 1:22 PM on October 1, 2010


for rail the margin on incremental passenger growth is tremendous, or put another way costs barely increase as you get more people on the train.

Bus is less advantageous in this manner, but has advantages in terms of lower capital costs and greater route flexibility.
posted by JPD at 1:27 PM on October 1, 2010


Finally, transit operators don't need to collect money in order to count riders. Counting how many people get on a bus is not a particularly difficult or complex problem (surely it is easier than counting cars on our roads, which is something we do all the time).



There is already a precendent for this in the road world with shadow tolling where the road operator bills the government on a per car basis
posted by JPD at 1:28 PM on October 1, 2010


Free transport (both car and public) is a subsidy for commuters and tourists, who don't have to pay the taxes that fund the benefits upon which they ride freely.

If the argument is that public transportation deserves at least as much subsidy as cars get, I'd agree. (Don't forget the zoning subsidy, which forces developers to build more parking spaces than optimal without actually funding those spaces.)

But if you make public transportation free, it just makes it cheaper to live far away. Densely packed urban spaces are good! We need to incentivize them, not discourage them.

Walking is better than bikes are better than buses are better than subways are better than light rail is better than cars: we need to get the costs to line up with this.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:17 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, his plan is to let a few lines be free, then more and more until the whole system is. How do you apply that fairly in this city, for instance? Do you start with bus lines in the South Bronx, which is the nation's poorest county, or do you begin in Midtown to show off for the tourists and the rich folks?

You start with lines that are the essence of why you have mass transit. You start by making free the lines that would most help reduce traffic and move lots of people to and from the same place. No politics behind it, just make the most important routes free.
posted by toekneebullard at 2:33 PM on October 1, 2010


people want cars, people want roads to drive on and people are in fact paying for them

I am not much for the FTFY meme, but you are missing the word "some" one or more times in this sentence fragment.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:35 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


God, I would be totally content if my city's public transport was the least bit functional.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:43 PM on October 1, 2010


I just moved from a city with respectable, but not great transit (Seattle) to Silicon Valley, where the transit system is, although worse than Seattle's, better than people give it credit for. Unfortunately, the value of the network as a network is sabotaged by the fare structure. Buses in Santa Clara county are run by VTA. Buses in San Mateo county are run by SamTrans. There are no free transfers between VTA and SamTrans vehicles... which I can understand, even though it's unfortunate, since working out the behind-the-scene details of inter-agency transfer arrangements is tremendously difficult. What I don't understand, though, is that neither VTA nor SamTrans offers transfers between their own buses. Every time you get on to a bus operated by either of the two agencies, you pay two dollars. No matter what.

VTA has a really great bus line, the 22 (and an express version, the 522) that runs down El Camino Real, a main corridor in the region, and which runs every ten minutes most of the morning, day, and evening, and which even runs in the dead of night (though only once an hour or so once you get past midnight). That is a fantastic level of service. The 22/522, if operated by a different agency with a different fare structure, could be the backbone of a great network. Unfortunately, since transferring between buses costs an extra two dollars each way, you'd have to be an idiot to use it that way. Thanks to the fare structure, it's not the spine of a network. It's just a single bus, going to a single set of destinations along a line. Relatively useless unless everywhere you want to go is on that line.

There are two problems here: first, the cost of transit is high, but second, the cost of transit is unpredictable. If a monthly pass for the VTA cost 30 dollars (say) instead of 70, I'd likely buy one, even though my primary mode of transportation is bike and I doubt I spent anywhere near 30 dollars a month on the VTA. The convenience of being able to get on a bus if I see it, without paying anything extra for the privilege, would be worth the cost. Likewise, if it didn't cost extra to transfer, I'd gladly hop on a bus that crosses El Camino and transfer to the 22 (which I absolutely will not do if the cost to me will be four dollars both ways). However, it's not worth the 70 dollars they're currently asking for a monthly pass.

Basically, what I'm saying is that the perceived utility of a transit network depends less directly on cost and more directly on the predictability of those costs. A model where people pay a noticeable and unpredictable amount of money at the farebox every time they ride fails for the same reason that "micropayment" schemes for internet content generally fail.

Here's a list of payment schemes for transit, ranked in order, with the schemes most likely to suppress ridership and reduce perceived or real network usefulness at the top and the schemes most likely to get people out of their cars, improving travel conditions for everyone, at the bottom:
  1. Have riders pay at the farebox every time. This is a brilliant way to reduce ridership.
  2. Have riders pay at the farebox, possibly slightly more than they'd pay under scheme #1, but issue them a transfer that's good for a couple of hours. Now you have a transit network, instead of isolated bus or train lines..
  3. Sell your riders inexpensive monthly passes. Now they're using it casually, for more than just their commutes — people see a bus or train, people hop on that bus or train.
  4. Pay for it through taxes and fees imposed on everyone. All the advantages of scheme #3, plus you get more casual use and more people giving the system a try, because hey, it doesn't cost anything extra. Some of those users just might stick around and become lifelong transit users.
I like payment scheme #4. I love payment scheme #4. I love payment scheme #4 so much that in exchange for having it I'd gladly put up with any amount of whining from libertarian idiots up in arms about the gummit taking their munny. People who think that they shouldn't pay for transit because they don't ride it are objectively dumb as hell. Every time you get in your single-user car and drive in traffic that's just a little bit less bad because people are riding buses and trains, you are using transit.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:46 PM on October 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yes and no. It should be free because if everyone participated it would be more efficient than the status quo. But it should only be free to a practical limit, to prevent people from living on the bus. It's a pertinent question because the same is true for preventive medical services and education, which can't be wasted or abused in theory, while the same is not true for welfare and most tax exemptions.
posted by Brian B. at 3:00 PM on October 1, 2010


It strikes me that there are ways to enforce rules against people living on the bus that don't necessarily entail charging a fare.

Um, though, it also strikes me that the late-night trips on the VTA 22 line still have a reputation as being "rolling homeless shelters," even though there's a fare. Given that homelessness exists and that homeless people exist, I don't think that that's a particularly bad thing... if we as a society can't supply homeless shelters that are stationary, I suppose ones that roll are a good half-measure.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:13 PM on October 1, 2010


Subsidies never alter the underlying cost of the thing they subsidize - they reduce the price by paying some portion of it out of the general fund.

But changing behaviour might well have impacts on the average unit cost?
posted by biffa at 4:17 PM on October 1, 2010


Expect unexpected consequences. New York State made all public transportation free one year on New Year's Eve, to discourage drunk driving. The result was an overnight redistribution of the state's homeless population. Some communities were caught off guard by the sudden influx.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:47 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually this sounded fishy to me so I just went and spent some time reading the JR-East Annual report - and it seems like the track is owned by JRTT - which is a government ministry. Is that correct? because if it is it seems like the Japanese model is pretty close to the UK model where railtrack owns the rail and appoints monopoly operators who lease the rolling stock and earn a small profit. A better model then the US, but not as good as you made it sound.

The vast majority of track in Japan, both those used by private railways and those used by the JR companies (also private, but discussed separately for historical reasons), is owned by the various operating companies. The rest is owned by JRTT or local governments and leased back to the operators, either to pay off the construction cost or to assist in running a loss-making service (mainly for unprofitable lines in rural areas). The reason for this is for non-urban or Shinkansen lines the cost of construction is generally prohibitive, so the government steps in to provide funding -- but the expectation is that it be repaid, and the fully paid-off line would be transferred to the operator. For example, the Tokaido Shinkansen was transferred to JR Central in 1991 after capital costs were repaid to JRTT.

Operators are generally responsible for track/equipment maintenance and related upkeep costs, while JRTT pays for strategically important capital expenditures in part or in full. However, some lines are built entirely by operators without assistance; for example, the Fukutoshin Line was financed and built entirely by Tokyo Metro (formerly Eidan), and the planned Chuo Shinkansen is expected to be financed and built by JR Central -- unusual for a Shinkansen.

Many private railways have real estate or retail as a large proportion of their revenue -- Tokyu and Seibu are prime examples, being more a retailer (Tokyu) or a hotel/leisure company (Seibu) than a railway company.
posted by armage at 5:53 PM on October 1, 2010


effugas: "A line of business that visibly pays for itself is a profit center. A line of business that is popular, but does not directly increase revenue, is a cost center, no matter how much it pretends not to be"

I'm not even sure what you think this has to do with transit. Pretty much all public transit in North America is operated at a loss. So, yeah, it costs money and that money comes from taxes. If your complaint is that free transit would cost money in taxes, then I'm not sure why you are making that point. I was responding to your point about optimizing routes for ridership, which clearly does not require payment of fares.
posted by ssg at 6:01 PM on October 1, 2010


LoudMusic writes "If you're just riding the train because you're bored or want a place to sit (or sleep) then the $1 might be harder to hand over."

I can't speak for most places in the states but monthly transit passes are about $1-$1.50 a day around here and anyone on government assistance usually qualifies for a free pass. Yet we don't seem to have hordes of bored and tired homeless people riding around aimlessly.

effugas writes "The answer becomes an economic problem: If you eliminate fares, you get this nonlinear drop in cost in which suddenly there's no fares to enforce. However, labor costs might be constant due to union rules, and as has been pointed out, as system ridership increases the actual cost of running the service may increase as well."

Which would mean the cost per passenger mile went down which is the only sane way of assessing costs.
posted by Mitheral at 6:14 PM on October 1, 2010


octothorpe: "smackfu: "Is the cost really the reason people don't take public transportation?"

Where I live a monthly bus pass costs $80 while a downtown parking lease costs at least $300 a month so I'd say no. I know lots of people who would never ever take the bus for any reason
"

Since I'm living hand to mouth right now, and this bus pass is the only way I can get to school, I would love it if bus fare was at least cheaper.
posted by ShawnStruck at 7:41 AM on October 2, 2010


The problem with bus services in the U.S. can be easily summarized in two sentences:

1. The service will never cover the terrain necessary to have stops close enough to pick up the average american who spends hours in their car circling for a stop right next to the restaurant because if they walked a half mile their heart would explode.

2. Americans believe in equality, but they sure as hell aren't going to sit next to poor people if they can help it.

(regular rider of the GPMetrobus here in Maine)
posted by selfnoise at 8:38 AM on October 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


To people here thinking about ways to prevent abuse of public transit: in Beijing, be it buses or subways, they have guards who come through and empty the vehicle once it reaches its terminus. Token fares are incredibly low (base bus fare is 1RMB/$0.14US; reduced 60% with a transit card), and you have to get off and pay again. It's hard to justify sleeping/camping on the bus when you get rudely awakened and stranded somewhere every hour or two. Just sayin'.

The BJ government is eating upwards of $1 billion a year in losses on the public transit system, but they're expanding it and doing some awesome things with it, and it's transforming the city. I could write for paragraphs on the changes I've seen, but suffice it to say that 5 years ago the city was an unregulated, balkanized hellhole where real estate prices, rent, and quality of life varied wildly by block. Now, 3 new subway lines, lots of BRT lines, bus fare reductions, and some pretty heavy-handed private car restrictions later, it's just a lot more even, and the city feels a lot more accessible and livable. It used to be a nightmare just trying to get into the city from the outskirts, let alone around it! Most of the smarter people I knew used motorcycles to get around, myself included.

I let my motorcycling habits go just prior to the 2008 Olympics. So yesterday I got on a motorcycle for the first time in two years and rode it across the city to a concert on the other side of town, the West Side, what would have seemed like another country in 2005. MISTAKE. With the new subways in place, I could have made the trip in an hour, walking included. And with my current mixed-use of folding bike/bus/taxi (I just hop out and unfold the bike on long trips when traffic gets bad), I could have handled it in the same amount of time without the crowds. Instead, it took me 2 hours of stoplights, dirt, cold, and insane drivers.

The traffic in Beijing is already the worst in China (and among the worst in the world), and gridlock on rainy days/weekends is common. I'm seeing more and more people in this status-obsessed society actually forgo the car purchase in favor of other options. But I think the most fundamental transformation I've noticed is that the drivers in this city are actually more reluctant to go long distances in traffic than the public transit/subway users! It used to be I'd have friends I wouldn't see for ages because they lived on the other side of the city and didn't have a car. Now the friends who live in other districts who I see most often are those who don't have a car. The long-term expats I know have almost completely given up scooters and commutes (I still know a few who do tech support and need to get to hop between job sites and computer markets several times a day, which I completely understand).

Whether public transit should be free or not seems like a red herring to me. What it should be is heavily, heavily subsidized. In Beijing, it's already next to free. They haven't stemmed the tide of car-buyers from adding something like 1,000+ cars a day to the roads, but there's a growing sense that it's stupid to buy a car in this city, not owning a car is immensely more tolerable than it was a few years ago, and the cool kids are either parking their cars and biking, or just not buying one period. Beijing, a sprawling Muscovite center-and-spoke nightmare of a city, is proof that public transit can be rationalized. But you need to have the political will to spend the money to do it. Granted that's easier in an authoritarian country...but it's doable.
posted by saysthis at 8:55 PM on October 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


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