The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark
yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com
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Broadening the city through a universal fare card

» The Paris region plans a single monthly fare for transit access, eliminating zones for pass holders, with the dual goals of encouraging more transit use and social integration.

What if it were possible to travel as much as you’d like by train or bus within Connecticut, from Stamford to New Haven, Hartford, New London, Waterbury, Danbury, Putnam, and hundreds of other towns, and then to travel within them, all on one transit fare card at the monthly price of just $76?

That’s what, in essence, will occur beginning in September in Île-de-France, the region that surrounds and includes Paris and which is practically the physical size of Connecticut—albeit far more populous and benefiting from a far more extensive transit system.

The plan is to eliminate the current five-zone transit fare system for people holding weekly or monthly passes and replace them with a universal, unlimited fare. The universal card will apply to virtually all transit services within Île-de-France, which is the most populous region in France, with 12 million inhabitants spread over 4,638 square miles (for comparison, the city of Paris proper has 2.3 million residents in 41 square miles, and New York City, which has a universal fare card for Subways and buses, is 305 square miles). The map below compares the shape and scale of Île-de-France with the New York region. Imagine a single monthly fare card for all transit service in that area.

The new monthly fare option will cost €70 ($76) for regular users,* up slightly from €67.10 for unlimited rides today in Paris and small areas just adjacent to the city and way down from €113.20 today for unlimited rides across the full region. The policy was adopted last December by the regional government and fulfilled a 2010 electoral promise by the governing socialist (PS)/green (EELV) coalition.

Everyone in the region with this fare card will now benefit from unlimited travel on the region’s metro, bus, regional rail (RER), and commuter trains. The fare policy change was a political decision. It responds to the sense that the Paris region, as frequently reported, has become increasing geographically unequal, as manifested by poverty in the suburbs and wealth in the inner city. By universalizing access to transit everywhere, people who live in the suburbs and commute to the city no longer have to pay more than their counterparts living within the city. It promotes the idea that access to transportation throughout the region is more of a right than something that you only use when you can afford it or really need it. Moreover, it reflects the fact that as population and jobs have decentralized, commutes are no longer primarily suburb-to-center city; a zonal system radiating from the center is a relic of that antiquated economic geography.

Equally important, it is an aggressively pro-transit policy that further reduces the cost of riding the train or bus compared to commuting by car; this effort corresponds directly to the national and regional government’s massive investment in suburban tramway and BRT lines, plus a vast new network of automated metro lines. Perhaps its greatest benefit is that it encourages people to take the fastest services available on any trip, while current fare policies give people discounts for taking slower local services. For example, while rides on local buses or the metro are currently priced at a single fare per trip, no matter the distance, rides on much faster regional rail or commuter rail services (even when they’re in the same alignment and cover the same stops as the bus or metro lines) are charged by zone, which can significantly increase the cost and likely dissuades many riders from traveling as quickly as they could.

The regional, single-cost fare card is a policy designed to spread freedom of movement.

Over the course of the year, the new fares will save regular commuters in the furthest suburbs more than €500 a year. The policy will add €400 to 550 million in annual costs to the region and is to be paid for by an increase in an employer-paid income tax (the increase was supported by the chamber of commerce).**

The policy comes after two years of weekend, vacation, and August de-zonings for pass holders, which were estimated to have increased travel on the transit network during those periods by 6.5 percent thanks to people choosing to travel outside of the zones they had paid for using their monthly cards.

It seems likely that the universalization of the no-zone policy, and its applicability to every day of the week, will increase use of the system even more significantly and encourage many long-distance auto commuters, who are now put off by higher long-distance zonal fees, to switch to transit.

Unlimited fares have their negative consequences

Of course, this fare policy has its tradeoffs. By eliminating the current zonal policy, the region is reducing the financial disincentive that currently inhibits people from using the system more. While that may mean fewer cars on the road—a benefit—it may also mean more discretionary trips on an already-crowded network, and it may mean eliminating the financial reason many have not to take longer trips, which violates the user pays principle. With several of Paris’ main transit arteries already at or above capacity, will more riders be a good thing for the region? Will the region be able to handle the congestion?

Some might argue that the introduction of this fare policy would make more sense only when the suburban transit improvements and the new regional rail tunnel through the center city are completed, so as to ensure that at least all the new crowds will be riding on a bigger system. Yet those new lines won’t come into service until 2020 and later; should the region do nothing to address transport fare inequities until that time?

Most importantly, the decision to spend hundreds of millions of euros on reduced fares could mean hundreds of millions of euros not being spent on better transit service every year—and some would argue that the best way to improve transportation is to expand service, not to lower fares. Indeed, given a constrained budget, choosing to devote new revenues to reduced fares probably means something else is losing out. (Or, looking at the economy as a whole, raising taxes to spend this money on fare policy means less money for companies to either spend on salaries or profits.)

The cost tradeoff is certainly not one to scoff at. Last week, New York’s independent Citizens Budget Commission recommended capping the number of rides that can be taken with the (far more geographically constrained) unlimited fare card on New York City’s MTA Subway and bus system, in effect putting a limit on unlimited. Though the cap would affect relatively few people, it would be designed to raise revenues in a fiscally tight environment for an agency that is struggling with quickly growing ridership.

On the other hand, were New York to change its fare policies to allow current monthly pass holders to ride the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad to far-off destinations deep in Upstate New York, Connecticut, or Long Island—in other words, do what Paris is going to allow this fall—the MTA would be left with fewer revenues.

But customers would benefit. They’d get faster service on commuter rail lines that many now avoid because of the higher price of travel (a trip from Jamaica in Queens to Penn Station in Manhattan, for example, costs $10 on the Long Island Rail Road for a 19-minute trip versus just $2.75 on the Subway for a 35-minute trip). People in neighborhoods currently only served by commuter rail, both in the city and in the suburbs, would suddenly have a reasonable-cost travel option equivalent to their peers with Subway access. People living in the city would suddenly have a much cheaper way to visit Long Island beaches on weekends, and people living on those beaches would suddenly have a much easier way of working downtown. These are not imaginary benefits.

Moreover, the cost tradeoff is not so simple as a conflict between lower universal fares and better service. Rather, the funding used to pay for the universal fare comes from a revenue source that may not have been politically feasible to raise unless it addressed the issue of equalizing transport access among different areas of the city. In other words, the hundreds of millions of euros being spent on this change may have only generated political support for the improvement of the transit system in the context of standardizing fares.

A regionwide single fare has as much to do with equity as boosting transit ridership

In some ways, Paris’ incentives to support cheaper long-distance commutes reflect the undeniable fact that poverty in the French capital region is concentrated in the suburbs (though there are many middle-class and wealthy Paris suburbs as well). Compared with most North American regions, where the very poor live predominantly in inner-city neighborhoods, the impoverishment of many Parisian suburbs (and the wealth of the inner city) may speak to the need for the unique fare policies described above.

The traditional model of urban economics—based on a central core with jobs and radiating rings of residential areas—suggests that as people move out from downtown, they choose to trade off higher transportation costs (in terms of more time and money spent commuting) in favor of lower housing costs (in terms of less cost per square foot, since housing on the periphery of the city is often much larger per person than housing in the center). The theory is that poor people would live in the city in smaller apartments with lower transportation costs. Yet the spread of poverty to the suburbs (in many cases a result of government action), as exemplified by the Paris region, has resulted in many poor people living in the suburbs who cannot afford the cost of the transportation that’s available to them, or at least who are negatively affected by the high costs of transportation use.

Many readers will note that the geographic and demographic environment in North American regions is changing too; indeed, for years the spread of poverty to the suburbs has become an increasingly relevant issue for public transit agencies (as well as governments in general—see Ferguson, Missouri). If there are now more Americans living in poverty in the suburbs than in cities, shouldn’t fare policies reflect that fact? Shouldn’t we reduce the cost of using transit for those who are most in need?

On the other hand—and this is an important caveat—American suburbs remain very different than many French ones in that they are overwhelmingly sprawling and automobile-dependent. Moreover, no U.S. region is investing in suburban transit at even close to the scale of Paris—meaning that even with reduced transit fares, most people would probably still need to use their cars to get to their jobs. Would reducing transit fares at the regional level do much more than support wealthy suburbanites using commuter trains to get to work in the city?

Clearly, the issues faced by U.S. regions (as well as French ones!) extend far beyond the matter of fare policy; addressing poverty requires more than just cheaper transportation options—in many communities even basic transit isn’t available, and finding the funding for decent bus and rail service probably must come before funding reducing fares on that service. But effective, affordable transit is an important element of a just society. Paris is challenging us to think radically about what affordable transit means.

* For people who are unemployed or of moderate means, the universal card will cost €17 a month. The most impoverished families in the region already benefit from free transit use.

** In this article, I’ve skirted around the more esoteric question of who pays for the subsidy provided to encourage people to rely on transit (and I’m not going to address why subsidies are needed—read this on that subject). After all, the reduction in monthly fares for such a large percentage of the population will almost certainly result in reduced revenues per ride taken—meaning more subsidies are needed. The issue of who pays for these incentives is one that raises heckles among people of all stripes and deserves a discussion of its own. In this case, though, it suffices to say that in Paris, transit operations are provided mostly by the historic but independent national rail company SNCF and Paris transport company RATP, but these companies are not “paying” for the subsidy; the regional transportation governance body (STIF) is through taxes it raises. STIF will continue to pay SNCF and RATP the cost of operational supports for the services they provide, irrespective of the fare policy.

This distribution of responsibility in terms of who is paying for the subsidy is only possible because STIF is independent of SNCF and RATP. In the case of the MTA in New York City, for example, this distribution of power has not played out because the governmental body that controls the MTA—the State of New York—has not taken full responsibility for public transportation in the New York region. If MTA decided to equalize fares across the Subway, bus, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad system, it would have to “pay” for the costs of doing so out of its own operations budget. If New York were more like Paris, the Governor of New York could decide that he wanted to achieve that outcome and would use state resources to pay the MTA to substitute for the lost revenue incurred by making such a policy change. But political actors at the state level in New York have avoided taking true responsibility for the transportation agency.

Of course, the New York region would also need a fare card that can be used across systems to make this possible; currently you can’t use the same fare card for any combination of the Subway, Metro-North Railroad, Long-Island Rail Road, or New Jersey Transit.

Photo at top: Houilles train station, from Flickr user harrobaz (cc). Île-de-France/New York region comparison map made by me using MAPfrappe.

Does Seattle offer the path forward for the national streetcar movement?

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» The city will begin studying dedicated lanes for its streetcar. Will it be the first among many to do so?

During its first four years of operation, Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar—the nation’s second modern streetcar (after Portland’s)—recorded rapidly growing ridership. Annual passenger counts on the 1.3-mile line increased from 413,000 in 2008 to 750,000 in 2012 (about 3,000 riders on a peak summer day). The figures reflected the blossoming of the South Lake Union neighborhood into an extension of the downtown business district, as well as the region’s growth as a whole (Seattle is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities) and the strong performance of transit there. The share of people taking public transportation to work in Seattle increased from 17.6 percent in 2000 to 19.3 percent in 2013—a remarkable growth spurt brought on in part by the opening of the streetcar and the Central Link light rail

Continue reading Does Seattle offer the path forward for the national streetcar movement? »

For LaGuardia, an AirTrain that will save almost no one any time

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» New York City’s LaGuardia Airport is its rail-inaccessible stepchild. A proposal to spend half a billion dollars on a new transit link there, however, may do little for most of the region.

LaGuardia Airport is the New York City airport closest to the nation’s largest business district in Midtown Manhattan. Getting there, however, is inconvenient and slow for people who rely on transit and expensive — and often also slow — for those who receive rides in cabs or shuttles. In other words, the experience of reaching the airport leaves something to be desired.

The New York region’s two other major airports — Newark and J.F.K. — each have dedicated AirTrain services that connect to adjacent commuter rail (and Subway services, in the case of J.F.K.). These lines were built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the 1990s and 2000s to improve transit access to these airports, leaving

Continue reading For LaGuardia, an AirTrain that will save almost no one any time »

Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2015

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» The future of transportation funding may be in question in the halls of federal, state, and local governments, but investment in improved transit continues at a remarkable pace in 2015. Explore The Transport Politic’s interactive database of projects across the continent.

The failure of the U.S. federal government to increase the gas tax since 1993 — in spite of inflation, an increasing population, and degraded infrastructure — has dominated the discussion on transportation policy since the late 2000s.* All that discussion, though, has failed to result in the development of long-term national revenue sources that accommodate the needs of municipalities interested in expanding their local transportation systems, and funding has stagnated. As a reaction to that state of relative austerity, policymakers from Arizona to Maine have argued for “fix-it-first” policies that emphasize enhancements of the existing system over any new construction.

The lack of expansion in federal revenues,

Continue reading Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2015 »

Calgary’s soaring transit use suggests high ridership is possible even in sprawling cities

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» Calgary’s popular transit system proves public transportation can work even in a sprawling boom town. But a downtown where auto use is discouraged is a must.

Calgary is a boomtown — the center of Canada’s resource economy, whose explosion in recent years has led to big gains in Calgary’s population and commercial activity. It’s the sort of place that might seem completely hostile to public transit; 87 percent of locals live in suburban environments where single-family homes and strip malls predominate; surrounding land is mostly flat and easily developable farmland; the city is almost 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, meaning it was mostly built in a post-automobile age; and big highways with massive interchanges are found throughout the region. Even the transit system it has serves many places that are hostile to pedestrians and hardly aesthetically pleasing.

It’s an environment that looks a lot more like Dallas or Phoenix than Copenhagen.

And yet Calgary

Continue reading Calgary’s soaring transit use suggests high ridership is possible even in sprawling cities »