Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Equitable Transit

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is is trouble with the U.S. Government (again) for non-compliance with FTA civil rights requirements. Here is an LA Times story about this. Here is some background on the lawsuit brought by the Bus Riders Union against LACMTA in 1996 that led to the consent decree. The MTA was accused of reducing bus services and foregoing transit improvements in low income, transit dependent areas while investing in and expanding rail services to attract wealthy ridership. Such actions violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by "establishing a discriminatory, separate, and unequal transportation system while using federal funds."

Cutting bus services is common by U.S. transit systems as operations have annual budget deficits. (This isn't just an LA story. Here are Portland's upcoming bus service reductions and fare increases. Free rail fares downtown will be eliminatedHere is a story about how Portland relies on federal funding for their light rail expansion. Here is a story about the concrete being poured as part of the $700 million new light rail line.) However, in systems that have added rail services over the past few decades the rail deficits have made the operating budgets worse. To compensate for the costs of operating new lines, bus lines are reduced or eliminated. Since buses tend to have lower income riders than new rail lines (this is by design as new rail lines are usually built to attract high income "choice" riders rather than serve transit dependent riders. See this paper by Mark Garrett and Brian Taylor for details.) cutting bus services while maintaining rail services causes disproportionate harm to lower income riders. Bus riders are also more likely to be minority or immigrant populations.

Transit capital investment choices over the past four decades have been primarily focused on getting drivers out their cars rather than improving service for those who rely on the transit systems. This strategy has not been very effective. There are some new riders, but the dollars spent per rider gained is enormous. Clifford Winston argues that all new rail transit systems in the U.S. actually reduce social welfare. Martin Wachs details how subsidies have changed the incentives of transit providers without improving service. Daniel Hess and Peter Lombardi explain how metropolitan regions have adapted to various funding schemes for transit in a 2005 paper. These papers, and many others, point to the myriad problems of paying for transit service.

Robert Bullard, the leading environmental justice scholar, explains transportation justice like this:

“Follow the transportation dollars and one can tell who is important and who is not. While many barriers to equitable transportation for low-income and people of color have been removed, much more needs to be done. Transportation spending programs do not benefit all populations equally. The lion's share of transportation dollars is spent on roads, while urban transit systems are often left in disrepair. Nationally, 80 percent of all surface transportation funds is earmarked for highways. Generally, states spend less than 20 percent of federal transportation funding on transit.... In the real world, all transit is not created equal. In general, most transit systems tend to take their low-income ‘captive riders’ for granted and concentrate their fare and service policies on attracting middle class and affluent riders. Hence, transit subsidies disproportionately favor suburban transit and expensive new commuter bus and rail lines that serve wealthier ‘discretionary riders.’“
All of this research and analysis suggests a few things. First, we should be far more open to new ideas of transit service and finance. The current public monopoly model can be improved (there are many ways to do this, not all of which will be successful in all situations.). Second, we should focus more on providing high quality service where there is existing demand  rather than new construction that is speculative in terms of ridership. Third, keep in mind that operations for nearly all transit lines in the US are subsidized, and all new rail lines are. If the transit network is expanded, that means that the amount of subsidy needed for operations must be increased. Transit network expansion makes the operating budgets of transit agencies worse, not better, to which it follows that future service reductions or other new revenues are part of the agreement for new investment now.

The service reductions that accompany rail expansion too often come at the expense of those who rely on bus services and have no alternatives. This is what keeps getting the LACMTA in trouble, and I expect that similar lawsuits will pop up elsewhere. The capital investments we make (and how we finance them) have strong bearing on equitable transit services. How to address equity and what is perceived as fair are difficult issues that are not easily solved, but we currently don't spend enough effort in transit planning and policy working through these concerns.

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