Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Social Contract for Public Transit

I have a piece in the Atlantic's City Lab arguing that public transit is not meeting its social contract. As I conclude:
So does public transit serve its social obligations? Increasingly the answer is no. The way transit is financed in the United States distorts investment and operating priorities away from those who rely on transit service the most. Transit agencies are also asked to provide a social safety net — offeringreduced transit fares for school kids, senior discounts, or lifeline services to underserved areas that few politicians are willing to pay for. A more relevant question is why public transit agencies are solely responsible for managing disparate social goals. It need not be this way.

Eric Goldwyn's Thoughts on Transport

Columbia Urban Planning PhD candidate (and one of my students) Eric Goldwyn has been busy saying smart things about transport in the New Yorker.

His piece on the Uber challenge to professional driving is here:

And on the politics of Vision Zero is here:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Celebrating Transit for Others

This post is cross-posted at

Light rail is in the news this week because of the opening of the Twin Cities' Green Line. I noticed this ribbon cutting picture in the Star Tribune's coverage:

I noticed that the people taking credit for the new line (which is what a ribbon cutting photo-op is for) are excited white people. They are not representative of transit ridership by any stretch. So I looked for other recent light rail line openings. Here is the Houston Red Line from a few months ago:

From Phoenix, Arizona a while back:

Salt Lake City's Trax extension last year:

Bayone, New Jersey:

They celebrated Dallas's DART with cake:

And then (because they were full of cake?) the guys celebrating DART made the train drive through the ribbon:

These are not systematically chosen photos. They are just the first few I could find through Google that were confirmed recent light rail openings. 

Perhaps it doesn't matter than those taking credit for new transit systems are very different from the riders who rely on the systems daily. It certainly isn't a very diverse group taking credit. I suspect it does matter, however. Here is a chart from Tom Sanchez's work on equity analysis of transportation funding (also see Moving to Equity, on which he was lead author):

The takeaway is not that all transit or transport decisions should be made by key users. Rather, the decision making and credit taking people are much more likely to be white (and wealthier) than the typical user. In terms of transit, few of those cutting ribbons are even regular transit users. Perhaps if the entire planning process reflected the communities being planned than the current public process could be reconsidered. It would at least be nice to have the communities who are supposedly benefiting from these new investments share the stage and enthusiasm with the ribbon cutters. Transport planning, especially transit planning, is not something that should be done unto others. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Transportation in Transition, Again and Always

In 1982 Milton Pikarsky and Christine Johnson published a paper titled "American Transportation in Transition."

Here are the opening paragraphs:
Today, the United States is in a transportation crisis which is of a chronic nature. It may not be sudden like the gas lines of 1974, but it is consistent and the pressures of this crisis are deepening. And because its gradual nature allows people and institutions to adjust, the crisis changes the transportation system more fundamentally than transitory gas lines or transit stop pages.

The current picture of public transportation is bleak. Indeed, each new wrinkle in the financial problems faced by the transit industry brings warnings that a breakdown of public transportation service could initiate a domino effect resulting in an urban economic collapse.
And the conclusion:
Private citizens will have to adjust to the fact that traditional transportation is likely to cost more. To reduce some of those costs, they may have to become vanpool riders or drivers, participate in neighbourhood auto mobile cooperatives, or occasionally rent automobiles or use taxis as alternatives to purchasing second cars. A variety of private transportation providers may once again become party to the transportation social contract. There is evidence that developers, too, may become party to the contract. In an attempt to make their suburban residential and commercial space more attractive, many developers are underwriting bus or shuttle services or arranging van- and carpools.  
Given the position and needs of the various principal actors, it is likely that private employers and providers will become much more involved with the direct provision of surface transportation in the future. In the best and worst of extremes, an individual could face a variety of options and a maze of prices depending on the mode, time of travel, destination, and the number of people travelling. The solution to these new transportation problems may define the future role of the public sector. Rather than owning and operating systems, the public sector may become more of a travel information broker, a facilitator, a technical adviser, and a manager of a set of service contracts.  
There is little question that the process of renegotiating the transportation social contract has begun. Each party is slowly exploring and carving out a new niche. The process will be long and progress slow. We feel certain that at the outcome, when we speak of public transportation, our concept will have grown to include a range of services and providers; rapid rail, bus, vanpools, commuter clubs, subscription services, taxis, jitneys, apartment shuttle, the private automobile, and the rental auto mobile, each serving the trip length, type, and density that is most cost-efficient. 
This piece is over 30 years old. I agree with just about all of it, and I argue many of the same things today. With all of the excitement about ridesharing and transportation network companies it is worthwhile keeping in mind such services are neither revolutionary or new ideas. Perhaps they are finally here to stay, or perhaps not. (I suspect they are, likely with different companies than exist now, but I'll save my reasoning for another time.)

Public transit's demise has been predicted for a long time, as well, and transit operates in a world of permanent financial crisis. Transit finance may not be ideal, but our transit systems have survived and many have improved. Overall, though, transportation is still in transition, and we are still expecting the next big thing to show up.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Two Views on Taxi Regulations

Taxi regulations are big news these days. In many ways it seems that one of the challenges facing taxi regulators and the public is that it is not clear what taxi regulations are supposed to accomplish. Here are two op-ed pieces, one from taxi industry insiders in the Twin Cities, and one from a graduate student in public policy in Vancouver.

The Twin Cities piece is about entry into the market for Uber and Lyft, while the Vancouver piece is about liberalizing entry into the market. Effectively these op-eds are about the rules that regulate entry and who should be allowed to operate. They are also about maintaining license holder value. Both sides argue they are in the right, but they both cannot be. It is also possible that both sides are wrong. Resolving these regulatory issues is much harder than most people seem to believe.