What is the real purpose of a transit system?

Some might answer the above question like an evolutionary biologist; the purpose of a transit system is to maintain its strength and grow.  This at least seems to be the sort of perspective that is creeping into the debate about how to close a budget gap for the DC metro.  Although it is very refreshing to see fare increases be the main strategy, many of the proposals from transit advocates in the area are centered around methods that take advantage of captive customers who are very unlikely to leave the system even with substantial fare increases.

The two main proposals that exhibit this property affect commuters to the city center (up to $0.50 surcharge during peak commuting time) and tourists, along with those who must pay with cash, (with surcharges for paper fare cards – frequent riders typically have a permanent credit card type fare card that would not be affected).  The thinking behind these disproportional increases is quite simple; these sorts of  people are very unlikely to change behaviors after fare increases and therefore metro can charge them more without losing ridership.

Is it wrong to charge disproportionate fees?  Not exactly.  The problem here is not the disproportionate fares themselves; this is done all the time in an effort to change people’s behaviors to more pro-social options.  For instance, you might increase parking fees in an area with the hopes that people will take public transit instead (this might make sense if cars often clog the city center); however, the intent in such a case is totally different from the current case.  It is hoped in the current case with metro that people won’t change their behaviors.  Otherwise these extra fees would not raise the needed funds.

I’m not against most of the proposals that include fee increases but it is important to maintain a just (an ethically justifiable) distribution of burden.  Something radical needs to be done but many transit advocates seem to have lost sight of the actual purpose of any mass transit system, building a just city.  We can take advantage of the circumstances of some so that they carry a disproportionate burden but this sort of strategy is certainly wrong.  After all, models of consumer elasticity can’t tell us what sort of values we should have.

Social Justice and Transit Oriented Developments

As the automobile became the preferred method of travel in the United States during the 20th century, car oriented development became the dominant pattern of city design. Today it is extremely difficult or simply impossible to go about ones daily life without some reliance upon an automobile. Furthermore, in most areas of the country, the lack of one makes a person a second class citizen. For a variety of reasons, there has been a resurgence in the interest for mass-transit oriented developments (TODs). Proponents of this alternative method of city organization argue for its superiority over car oriented developments in efficiency, aesthetics, and livability (to name a few).1 Although there is something to be said for all of these reasons, here I will concentrate on an argument for TODs from the perspective of social justice. Typically arguments from social justice have been among the more controversial because they often involved some sort of redistribution of resources; in American politics it is often unclear how much the rich should be forced to give up in order to help the poor. I hope to bypass this issue by looking at a current public policy that seems to have wide-spread public approval, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and derive from it an argument for government sanctioned support of TODs. In section 1, I describe a number of public policies, including zoning, highway, and accessibility standards for the disabled and from these derive the moral basis for the government support of TODs. In section 2, I explain my argument in detail and address a number of initial concerns. Finally, in section 3, I address the most plausible objection to widespread TOD development – that gentrification could cause the poor to lose their homes. Continue reading Social Justice and Transit Oriented Developments

Why should we construct transit systems?

One common complaint raised about car-oriented transit is that it is fixated on ‘flow’.  Conventional road projects are generally designed to move vehicles, with less concern for the local social dynamics affected by that flow.  This means that a large (wide) road is deemed successful if it is able to keep traffic flowing at desirable speeds; when flow is king, the people outside the cars simply do not matter.  There are many obvious reasons why this is bad for the community around such a road, but if flow is not the desired outcome of a transportation project then what is?

The question of what we want out of our transit systems gets far too little attention from those concerned about the politics of transit.  Many people already ascribe to a view; they may think that flow is desirable (they don’t like to wait in traffic) or instead they might shake their fists at all the passing cars and think how all this flow is ruining their surroundings.  But this typically degenerates into a battle between car owners and pedestrians, and these sort of battles rarely end in satisfactorily.  It seems that when two large portions of our society are at odds about how to proceed, the only fair path is to rethink the premises that got us to such an impasse.   The question I think we should be asking is why we want to build the transit system in the first place?

The simple answer to the above question just goes back to the idea of traffic flow; we want to build a transit system because we want to move people and things.  But this doesn’t even seem like a step beyond the question for traffic flow; the fact that movement is important is assumed in the very idea of a transit system.  The deeper question we want to ask is why we want to facilitate the movement of people and things; this challenges us to think about the sorts of things we value in life.  Such a question also forces everyone to do a new calculation about the cost and benefits of various transit systems.  At some point of efficiency, the transit system will destroy the very mode of living that we value; because it is not simply the movement that we value but something which that movement facilitates, it is possible for an increase in movement to lead to a decrease in quality of life.  So, even though adding another lane to a road may increase flow (and thus be called an “improvement” in the eyes of the traffic engineers) it could actually harm everyone involved.  At some point, being able to move across town a little faster is no longer worth it, especially if you have to destroy the town in the process.

The above is all very abstract, but it needs to be this way because I don’t  know how much flow is worth in relation to quality of life.  I suspect it isn’t worth much, but this should be an empirical question; we need to start thinking about how movement is necessary for a happy and fulfilling life.