Commuter Rail New York Social Justice

A Chance for Faster Commute Times in the Bronx

» New stations in the Bronx could significantly speed up travel times for people who spend too long getting to work every day. But there must be reasonable service frequencies offered at a reasonable price.

The Metro-North commuter railroad offers convenient service from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut and Upstate New York. Though all of its trains run through the Bronx, the population there rarely uses its services, because they are simply not designed for transit-reliant city dwellers. They stick to the bus and the subway, despite those modes being slower.

The opening of the East Side Access project at the end of this decade will direct certain Long Island Railroad trains to a new station under Grand Central, opening up capacity at Penn Station for Metro-North trains. This service change offers many opportunities for dramatically improving the commutes of thousands of people in the Bronx — if it is planned right. A potential new service along an existing Amtrak line is up for discussion this month.*

New York, of course, is hardly alone in needing to dramatically improve the use of its commuter rail lines. Cities from Boston to Chicago provide service on rail lines with few inner city stations, miserably low frequencies, and much too expensive fares. But because of Gotham’s huge size and the continued concentration of jobs in central Manhattan, opportunities for improvement there are greatest.

In the case of the Penn Station Access Study (PSAS), the benefits could be enormous.** The proposal is considering whether to invest in four new stations in the Bronx — at Co-op City (a 55,000-person community completed in 1971 and isolated from rail transit stations), Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point. Certain Metro-North New Haven Line trains, which currently run along the Metro-North Harlem Line into Grand Central, would be redirected onto what is now the Hell Gate Amtrak-only route from New Rochelle to Penn Station, along which the new stops would be built. This relatively cheap project would require little investment in the tracks, which are in reasonable condition and far under capacity.

Penn Station Access proposal for Metro-North, from MTA.

There is strong evidence for the value of improving connections between the Bronx and Manhattan. As the chart below shows, more than 10% of workers in the areas surrounding the stations planned for new service work in West Midtown, directly adjacent to Penn Station. Another 20% or so work in Downtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side, all of which would be easier to access through direct service to Penn Station.

Work destinations for residents of four proposed station areas
 Within 1/2 mile radius of proposed stationsWithin 1 mile radius of proposed stations
Total resident workers (within 50 top zip codes)36,226113,930
West Midtown3,81211,489
East Midtown2,5377,835
Downtown Manhattan3,52310,079
Downtown Brooklyn2,6127,939
Upper West Side1,1593,625
Long Island City4561,477
Elsewhere22,127 (61.1%)71,486 (62.7%)
Data: U.S. Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics 2010

Moreover, those residents currently have very long travel times to get to their jobs in the city. New Yorkers already suffer from the longest commutes in the country, but residents of the Bronx and particularly Co-op City, which is far from any subway line, are particularly cut off. As the below chart shows, more than 36% of workers who live in Co-op City have commutes of more than an hour, and less than 30% have travel times to work of less than 30 minutes. Despite this fact, people continue to rely on transit for their daily travel, because commuting by car is too expensive and, in New York, just as slow.

Commuting by mode and travel times in the Northeast Bronx
 Co-op CityNearby AreasThe Bronx
Working Population14,9375,952
Transit Mode Share to Work51.8%37.3%58.3%
< 30 min commute28.8%43.0%31.9%
30-39 min commute15.7%16.4%16.7%
40-59 min commute19.1%16.7%19.9%
60-89 min commute22.2%18.7%23.5%
> 90 min commute14.2%5.2%8.0%
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

The clearest explanation for the slow travel times is that the two modes of transit available for Co-op City residents are not particularly quick. The express BxM7 bus runs from Co-op City to East Midtown in 52 minutes, but it is more expensive than subway service and does not provide direct access to the West Side of the island. The Bx26 bus connects Co-op City to the 2 train, which does run to West Midtown, but that trip takes 74 minutes at best, no picnic in the park. The proposed new Metro-North station would connect the neighborhood with Penn Station in just 27 minutes and be linked to a neighborhood bus circulator to ensure that everyone in the area has easy access to the stop.

Residents near the proposed Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point stations would see similar benefits, though those stations are closer to existing subway stops and the residents suffer less from long travel times to work.

Alternatives for travel from the Bronx to Midtown Manhattan
RouteMinimum travel time to MidtownPeak Cost (with Monthly card and 40 trips)*Avg Weekday Frequencies (7-9 AM)Avg Weekday Frequencies (11 AM-3 PM)
BxM7 from Co-op City52 min (to 5 Av/51 St)$5.50 ($5.00)9/hour2/hour
Bx26 from Co-op City; (2) train74 min (to Penn Station)$2.25 ($2.60)7/hour5.25/hour
Metro-North from Fordham16-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)2/hour2/hour
Metro-North from Marble Hill19-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)3.5/hour1.25/hour
Proposed Metro-North from Co-op City27 min (to Penn Station)???
Data: MTA

Based on existing Metro-North service to the Bronx, however, there is reason to question how many people will take advantage of the Metro-North service to these new stations. As the chart above shows, Metro-North trips are considerably more expensive than subway or bus journeys, even over the same distance. In addition, commuter rail service is infrequent both at peak and off-peak times, meaning that customers have to rely on schedules, limiting the travel time benefits compared to slower bus or subway service.

It is therefore unsurprising that the mode share for commuter rail services is so low in three representative Bronx Census Tracts where subway and commuter rail service is offered, as shown in the chart below. With so few trains to actually take to work and such a high cost to do so, no one can justify taking Metro-North. If the new stations in the Bronx similarly run only twice an hour and cost twice as much as the subway, few will be able to take advantage of the time savings into Manhattan the trains will offer. This is a failure of the existing service, but one that we are capable of addressing.

We don’t yet know how much Metro-North is planning to charge for travel on its new service, but it will likely be similar to what is already being demanded of Bronx riders. And frequencies will also likely be limited to just two trains an hour or so. But those policies will seriously constrain the potential ridership at these stations; what’s the point of investing millions in new stops if they’re not used?

Travel Mode Share for Bronx Neighborhoods
Census TractMetro-NorthSubwayCar %Subway %Metro-North %Other % (mostly bus)
399.01FordhamFordham Rd (B/D)12.941.42.243.5
309Marble HillMarble Hill-225 St (1)
429.02Williams BridgeGun Hill Rd (2/5)20.842.80.036.4
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

One could make the argument that people who live further from the center of a city should pay more to travel, as they are benefitting from cheaper housing costs. But in New York City, apartments are expensive everywhere, and most jobs are in the center of the city. The transportation system thus must provide reasonable cost service for everyone to get to work in Midtown or Downtown in a reasonable amount of time. Charging people double the price to take a faster trip or giving them a very slow but cheap alternative, represents a social injustice that relegates people with lower incomes to wasting their lives in transit.

The improvements in Metro-North service that would provide for increased frequencies in service would require more train cars, but directing existing subway passengers to Metro-North would relieve congestion on the subway, which would have positive spill-over effects. Lowering the fare to subway levels for in-city commuters would also require a significant subsidy, but there is no reason to think that a well-managed commuter rail system would cost any more to operate than the subway system if they’re both attracting many passengers.

A note: In public meetings (presentations for Co-op City and Morris Park), the MTA has argued that the primary beneficiaries of the new service will be Bronx residents who work in the suburbs and use the trains for reverse-peak travel. A 2002 study indicated that 82% of ridership from a proposed Co-op City stop would be for people living there but working in the northern suburbs. This fits with Metro-North’s existing rider profile, in which of the 13,200 daily boardings in the Bronx, 2/3 are outbound.

Yet the analysis of existing work patterns show that the vast majority of people living in proposed station areas in the Bronx work in New York City. Only 47 of more than 36,000 employees work in Stamford, supposedly a big destination, and Westchester County cities have employment from the Bronx zones maxing out in the hundreds, a pittance compared to central Manhattan employment. The likely explanation for the choices of today’s Bronx riders is the lack of alternative (there is no subway service out of the city); in other words, the existing performance is not worthy of imitation. If anything, we should be looking for ways to expand capacity along commuter rail lines to allow many more people to benefit from faster travel into work in Manhattan.

* Also under discussion is the re-routing of some Metro-North Hudson Line trains along Manhattan’s Empire Corridor, a new service that would include the construction of two new Manhattan stations, one at 125th Street, and the other at 60th.

** The less likely improvement of Long Island Railroad service in southeast Queens could produce even more travel time savings for riders, but that is on no one’s agenda at the moment, unfortunately.

Image at top: Proposed Co-op City Station, from MTA

Finance Pittsburgh Social Justice

The Economic Crisis Rolls on in Cities like Pittsburgh

» The U.S. economy may be improving in some ways, but transit services across the country continue to reel, thanks to lower-than-expected tax revenues.

The board of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, serving the Pittsburgh metropolitan region, announced last week that it would have to cut services by 35% by September 2 — the largest cut ever for the agency — if it is not provided an increase in state aid. The agency expects that it will have to increase fares and lay off 500 workers. This comes a year month after the agency reduced services by 15%.

The service cuts planned would be, suffice it to say, devastating. As the maps below illustrate, the Port Authority’s austerity plans would eliminate almost half of the region’s routes. This is in a city where, according to the U.S. Census, more than 25% of households have no vehicle available and almost 20% of workers use transit to get to work — figures that are far higher than the national average or even that of the vast majority of American center cities.

Before cuts After cuts

Pittsburgh, of course, is far from alone. From Boston — where a 23% fare increase and service cuts were approved a month ago — to Athens, Georgia — where night bus service is expected to be fully eliminated — American cities continue to cut their transit offerings. Friday’s U.S. national jobs report, which showed about 20,000 fewer people working in transit operations in April compared to a year ago (a 5% decline), only reinforced the fact that when it comes to transit service, cuts are the rule of the game.

What a paradox: These cutbacks are enforced even as fuel prices continue to rise and the demand for public transportation seems likely only to increase. Local revenues simply cannot keep up with demand.

At least part of the problem is the reliance on local and state revenues to subsidize operations costs for bus and rail services in cities across the country. Whereas the federal government was willing to cover more than half of the costs of a $523 million light rail expansion to Pittsburgh’s North Shore — opened in March — it can do nothing to cover the agency’s $64 million operating deficit expected for next year because of Congressionally imposed rules about what Washington can and cannot pay for.

The counterintuitive result is that cities that are doing well economically are able to pay for improved transit services whereas those with many economic problems — the ones where transit is often needed most — are left to cut operations dramatically. Thus regional inequities are reinforced.

One argument suggests that if the federal government continues to absolve itself of responsibility for providing for mobility of people across the country, public services like transportation will continue to be cut even if there is an important demand for them — and even if investing in them improves the economy in the long-run. Europe’s current economic crisis, which stems in part from a shared economic zone with differentiated tax rates, divergent social service provisions, and a demand that national governments enforce close-to-balanced budgets, has produced an environment in which downscaling of government investment is the norm, no matter the cost.

Is the situation in the U.S. so different? 49 of 50 states, unlike the federal government, have some form of balanced budget rule; cities are almost never able to operate in the red. Meanwhile, competition between states and cities encourages them to lower their tax rates, making the provision of public services all the more difficult. Only Washington is able to borrow during recessions, and thus it must play the role of providing the back-up for public services like transit agencies that are left behind by declining local revenues. Yet current law makes that impossible. The result is reduction in provision despite an increase in need.

An important report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last year, however, suggests that states do have more of an ability to invest in public service provision than they are typically assumed to have. Evidence shows that states that have increased taxes have not seen excessive outmigration but rather increased government revenues.

What can we take from this? Cities and states like Pittsburgh that are facing massive cuts in public services should absolutely call on Washington to increase its provision of aid to local governments, especially through operations support. But absent that — and in this day and age we cannot count on the Congress for much — raising local and state taxes is a serious option. It takes guts for public officials to promote tax increases, but we need to keep the trains and buses running.

Image at top: Pittsburgh busway and light rail, from Flickr user Erik Weber (cc); maps below from Port Authority of Allegheny County

Finance Social Justice

Local Funding for Public Transportation Operations: Producing Inequitable Results?

» Less wealthy regions may be more likely to spend less on transit, leaving the poor there with higher transportation expenses.

One of the unique features of the American transit funding system is that the federal government chips in significant sums each year for capital expenses, such as for the purchase of new buses or the construction of new rail lines, but the law forbids significant involvement in subsidizing operating expenses. This means that local and state governments must find the means to pay for service day-in and day-out.

This could offer the benefit of a considerable range of local political decision-making: Some cities may choose to prioritize transit, while others don’t — people can choose to move between cities based on whether or not they want to take advantage of such transportation offerings. Yet the provision of transit for impoverished people is a redistributive service, and there is considerable theoretical support for the argument that redistributive public functions should not be funded by local governments. Cities that choose to aid their poor, scholars like Paul Peterson have argued, will simply attract more of the needy into their city limits; other municipalities without such aid will be able to escape with lower taxes and no aid to the poor.

A review of evidence from American cities on transit operations funding suggests that neither of these arguments is substantiated. Rather, the current funding system results in highly inequitable results that result in worse transit service in places with higher poverty rates and lower median household incomes. Differences in metropolitan wealth are highly positively correlated with levels of funding for transit service. In other words, the places where residents need transit service most are those that are providing the least of it. Median household incomes, at least based on the regions reviewed here, are prime determinants for the level of public services offered.

To conduct this quick study, I considered data from 15 American cities. I selected all central cities with populations of between 600,000 and 1,000,000 in the 2010 U.S. Census, producing a broad sample of cities throughout the country with varying demographic profiles.* I assembled data at the metropolitan (MSA) level (from 800,000 to 5.6 million in population) from local transit systems (for operating funding data), the Brookings Institution (for 0-vehicle households, metropolitan area poverty rates and median household income), the American Public Transportation Association (for ridership in July 2011), and the U.S. Census (for central city population, poverty rates, and median incomes).

Comparing statistics across this group of cities indicates that by requiring operating funding to be assembled at the local level, people living in poorer metropolitan areas are likely to be denied the quantity of transit services that their peers in wealthier regions are offered. This will only increase the transportation costs faced by people living there. This indicates that there is a strong equity argument to shift operating funding of transit services away from the local level and towards the federal government, which would be more likely to spread resources equally across metropolitan areas, regardless of local incomes.

Click on images above to expand.

The most devastating data, as shown in the charts above, demonstrate that metropolitan areas with higher poverty rates and lower median incomes are likely to spend less on operating their public transportation networks than peer cities with lower poverty rates and higher median incomes (R-squared correlations of positive 0.72 and negative 0.49, respectively). A 50% increase in the poverty rate is associated with a 49% decline in per-person transit operations funding. The differences in transit funding are even more significant when compared with differences in income. The regression shows that a 50% increase in regional median income is associated with a 220% increase in per-person transit funding.

This suggests not only that less-wealthy metropolitan areas do not have the funding capacity to ensure good transit for their populations, but that they are providing disproportionally less public transit than their wealthier peers.** Local funding results in considerably varied service provision, based almost directly on the wealth of each respective region.

Click on images above to expand.

This is not to suggest that people in poor areas are not able to get around at all. The evidence in the chart above shows that there is no correlation between the poverty of metropolitan areas and the rate of zero-household vehicles (R-squared correlation of 0.07). People who live in areas with poor transit offerings will simply find the means to drive. This comes with a grave consequence: Driving costs the average person more than using transit, so impoverished people in transit-poor areas are in effect forced to spend more for transportation than their peers in transit-rich areas.

On the other hand, there is a strong relationship between the number of zero-vehicle households in a region and the ridership on transit there (R-squared correlation of 0.66). The regression implies that a 50% increase in the rate of zero-vehicle households in a metropolitan area is associated with a more than five-fold increase in transit ridership. This suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people are more likely to abandon their private vehicles when good transit is offered. Giving up on using personal cars lessens personal transportation costs, but ironically the evidence shows that this is more feasible in regions with lower poverty and higher median incomes. Regions that are already well-off are making themselves better off, while those that are poorer are reinforcing their economic problems.

Click on images above to expand.

Nonetheless, the relatively strong correlation between transit operating dollars spent per person in the metropolitan area and voting share in the relevant county for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race (see above; R-squared correlation of 0.66) suggests that through political action, people have the ability to alter the level of service offered by transit services in their area. More strongly Democratic-voting populations appear to benefit from better transit offerings.

There is a direct correlation between investing in improved transit and the rate of ridership in the regions evaluated (R-squared correlation of 0.85), suggesting that higher funding for public transportation services is associated with more users. This is hardly a surprising result (one would hope that transit funding is roughly proportional to the number of riders!), but it reinforces the contention that transit ridership levels are not simply a result of socio-economic conditions and land uses, but also a consequence of direct political decision-making about how much to spend on transit.

Click on images above to expand.

I also considered another possibility: That transit funding in regions is to some degree dependent on differences between central city and suburban populations within each metropolitan region. This question seems particularly relevant considering the recent situation in Detroit, in which suburban reluctance may have led at least in part to the canceling of a light rail line down Woodward Avenue. But a comparison between the central city share of zero-vehicle households (when weighed in terms of the city’s share of the metropolitan area population) and transit funding — where a larger share of zero-vehicle households in the city should theoretically indicate less funding — shows a weak positive correlation (R-squared of 0.34), which is unexpected. An increasing divergence between central city and suburban poverty rates and transit funding shows the expected negative correlation (R-squared of 0.33), indicating that a significant difference in poverty rates within the metropolitan area is associated with somewhat of a decline in transit funding, though it cannot account for most of the differences between regions.

This evidence is purely correlative, not causative. This means that I cannot conclusively show from these data that the lower level of transit funding in poorer metropolitan regions results from those regions’ economic difficulties.

Even so, these data suggest strongly that people living in cities with high poverty rates and low median household incomes are likely to suffer from inadequately funded public transportation systems compared to their peers in low poverty rate and high median household income metropolitan areas. This produces an inequitable funding distribution that further disadvantages lower-income households in lower-income regions by forcing them to resort to the use of expensive private automobiles rather than cheaper transit. This certainly should put in question the assumption that it is in the best interests of residents for funding decisions about public services to be made at the local level.

We should reevaluate whether it is reasonable for metropolitan areas to take responsibility for funding transit, or whether such funding concerns would be better placed in the hands of national government decision-makers, who might be more likely to prioritize equal spending on transit across regions.

* This list includes Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Columbus, Denver, Detroit, El Paso, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Memphis, Nashville, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington. I did not include Baltimore because I could not find funding data for Baltimore’s transit services apart from those of Maryland in general, since the state has a unified transit system. I did not include Fort Worth because it shares its MSA with larger Dallas.

** One could also argue that the lack of transit provision is strongly correlated with a reduced median income in the regions studied.

Finance Social Justice

A Note on Transportation Subsidies

» Why do we subsidize transit? Is skewing the market acceptable?

People are armed with powerful tools that often determine quite directly the future of our society: Their wallets. With the flick of a credit card or the passing over of a wad of cash, an individual aids the society as a whole in determining which products are most desired and which services are most needed. This is an incredible tool of the market economy which — though seriously skewed by the influence of powerful economic interests whose primary goal is increasing personal wealth accumulation — allows for the modern world to be pretty efficient in offering people the things they need to survive.

The market’s power to determine what sorts of things to produce and what sorts of things to discard is an important element of a transportation practitioner’s toolkit, as the value individuals confer on mobility as compared to other aspects of their lives should play a role in deciding how much services to provide and where to do so. It would be nonsensical to promote the construction of busways no one wanted to use or buy trains no one needed to ride in, thus we estimate demand and then alter provision of transport based on use.

If the market can and should be used to determine what transportation offerings to provide, why not charge the full cost to provide those offerings to the person demanding mobility and adjust services to adapt to need, instead of subsidizing trains and buses as we have come to do in almost every city around the world? This, in essence, is the argument transportation economists frequently make and it is one that David Levinson of the University of Minnesota repeated this week. “Maybe you want transit,” Levinson writes. “But maybe you would rather have the cash I am spending to provide you subsidized transit service so you can do something else with it. The only way to know what the best allocation of resources is, is to charge for things what they cost.”

In theory, this seems like a valid line of thought. Here’s an example. You have two choices: Take a ride to your city’s most beautiful park for a fare of $2 on your local bus (with the aid of a $2 subsidy chipped in by your local government), or walk to the nearest, less exciting park and buy an ice cream on the way for $3.00. Thinking about the relative merits of the two possibilities, you might determine that the trip to the better park is actually the best deal (since it is cheaper for you), but for the society at large, it’s more expensive. If you were charged the full $4 cost of providing the bus ride to the park, you might think twice and pick the ice cream option instead — which is cheaper for the society as a whole. But the mobility subsidy is providing an inappropriate incentive to do just the opposite and is causing people, as Levinson writes, “To behave inefficiently.”

But we provide subsidies nonetheless, generally because we believe it is important to provide affordable mobility. This is a political and welfare goal shared by most modern societies. Is this a mistaken policy? Would it make more sense to encourage transit providers to be fiscally independent, so that they do not have to rely on limited allocations of public funds?

The answer comes down to two questions — whether or not the subsidy provided to transit is appropriate considering other transportation offerings; and whether a situation in which there were no subsidies would produce the appropriate social environment from the perspective of social equity.

Jarrett Walker tackled the first issue yesterday, noting that there are significant subsidies provided to highways and local roadways and their users, so eliminating aid to public transportation alone would be poor policy. In addition, he noted that there are significant positive externalities generated by transit — like more efficient land-use patterns, lessened pollution, freer-flowing roads, and decreased traffic fatality rates — that deserve to be compensated by subsidies.

While a surface-level analysis might suggest that the fares for transit should simply equal the cost to provide a ride, a more serious discussion would recognize that moving people away from transit and into automobiles would have negative side effects. This suggests that we either tax the alternatives to transit — the automobile, primarily — at their full cost to society, or we do not have an economic rationale to eliminate subsidies to public transportation. There are few if, ands, or buts around that.

The second question — whether a situation without subsidies would be acceptable — is an ideological one. Levinson describes transit providers as “Transportation organizations first, not welfare organizations. They should be considered public utilities rather than departments of government, which provide a useful service for a price to their users.” Instead of forcing bus and rail operators to run services that are less-than-efficient from a profit-maximizing perspective, politicians should be forced to directly vote and choose to subsidize those services that they consider most important. “This would entirely change public and political perception of transit services,” Levinson writes. “It might also result in fewer bad routes being funded, since it would be crystal clear where the subsidies lay.”

In my mind, this is an appealing solution in some ways, since it would take advantage of the democratic processes we already have to make what are important societal decisions about mobility. If people want better, subsidized transit services, they can vote in politicians who support such offerings in addition to the routes that are profitable.

On the other hand, isn’t that what we have done already? There is a constant battle over funding for transit, and it is because of political differences over whether and how much bus and rail routes should be subsidized. Our current situation — as topsy-turvy as it may be — is reflective of democratic conflict over transportation funding. What is the alternative? Removing transportation from the democratic sphere and simply providing those services that are directly profitable?

This would be disastrous, both for the reasons cited above by Jarrett Walker but also, and even more importantly, because the fundamental logic that underpins Levinson’s argument is flawed. While it might be nice to imagine a world in which every individual has the ability to act as a rational actor in a fair marketplace full of decisions that reflect efficiency and true costs, we do not inhabit it. Whether we like it or not, social inequality in American society has increased significantly over the past forty years, and poverty is a real problem.

Why bring up these issues? Because Levinson describes a situation in which everyone has the option to pay the true cost of transportation services, but in fact many do not. A more efficient approach to ensure that people make the most cost-effective decisions might be one in which everyone got a reasonable amount of money to begin with, but we do not live in a particularly redistribution-inclined society.

So we are left with alternatives along the sidelines. We can crusade for the elimination of transportation services that cannot pay for themselves and in the process eliminate essential mobility for people who need to get around now, all the while hoping that the poor will at some point be handed adequate funds to make economically sound decisions. Or we can recognize reality and admit that transit services are at their core not just transportation organizations but also welfare providers.

This may be a disappointing conclusion, since it provides no insight as to how the state of funding for transit could be improved, but it does suggest that there is no way of getting around the fact that subsidies will continue to be needed in the running of public transportation unless some future technological advance reduces operations costs dramatically. There are plenty of ways to improve the performance and cost effectiveness of transit systems, but we cannot ignore the fact that transit plays an important redistributionist role.

Update, 21 September: David Levinson responds, writing that “I expect that the places that would see service dropped once you went to an appropriate funding model are not the poor inner-city areas, which are (or ought to be with appropriate management/regulation/etc.) profitable given the relatively high densities, but instead the suburban routes.” The problem, in my mind, is that those suburban places are increasingly impoverished themselves. We can no longer associate density with poverty as we have in the past.

Chicago Detroit Social Justice Urbanism

Local Neoliberalism’s Role in Defining Transit’s Purpose

» Must transit capital projects be construed either as for capitalist development or social welfare? Can the two goals be reconciled?

Detroit has staked its development hopes on the creation of a light rail line down Woodward Avenue in the heart of the city. For the past few years, public and private groups there have banded together to suggest that this project, more than any other, would provide the kind of spark necessary to spur economic growth in this city that is losing population so quickly. Thanks to government grants and private donations, the project is mostly financed and may enter construction this year.

Yet the city’s budget situation is so bad that the mayor has suggested that if the city council moves ahead with cuts it approved this week, he will have to shut off bus service at nights and on Sundays — and eliminate service on the People Mover, a semi-functional one-way automated rail loop. This is in a city where a third of people are impoverished.

Detroit’s example is only the most extreme of what is becoming a meme in the American transport discussion, that we continue to engage in the construction of expensive new projects even as we are incapable of paying for the appropriate service on and maintenance of the system we already have. Why is this? And how can we fight the pernicious effects of these policies?

Writing recently in Environment and Planning A, Sociologist Stephanie Farmer argues that the rise of neoliberal ideology in local and national politics has encouraged a “retreat from social redistribution and integrated social welfare policies in favor of bolstering business activity.”* This, she writes in reference to Chicago, has specifically affected public transportation, which “is increasingly deployed as a means to attract global capital as well as enhance affluent residents’ and tourists’ rights to the city.”

This trend, she states, stands in opposition to the mid-century “Fordist strategy of territorial redistribution mobilizing public transportation to enhance economically disadvantaged groups’ access to the city.”**

Farmer’s approach provides something of an explanation for Detroit’s experience: Rather than concentrate on the needs of its most impoverished denizens through the assurance of basic bus service, the city’s business and political elite has instead put its resources into the construction of a light rail line whose primary purpose is to stimulate economic development by creating “place-based advantages for capital.”

Similarly, Farmer is very critical of Chicago’s approach, arguing that that city’s investments have repeatedly favored “business elites over everyday users by excluding public transit investment in areas outside of Chicago’s global city downtown showcase zone.” Her evidence for this trend is primary in former Mayor Richard Daley’s obsession in constructing a premium-fare, limited-stop express rail link to the airport (including his willingness to construct a station for said service without providing the funds to actually operate the trains) and the transit authority’s Circle Line plan, which she argued would “effectively redraw [and expand] the downtown boundary,” with little benefit for the city’s most transit dependent.

The repeated delays in extending the Red Line south of 95th Street into some of Chicago’s least prosperous neighborhoods suggest that there is no political will to invest outside of the wealthiest areas.

Farmer’s argument is revealing of the one of the peculiarities of transit promotion: Those who engage in it simultaneously argue for the social welfare benefits of providing affordable mobility for as many people as possible while also suggesting that good public transportation can play an essential role in city-building — essentially for the elite. After all, one of the primary arguments made for investing in new transit capital projects is that their long-term benefits include raising the property values of the land parcels near stations.

This creates an uneasy pro-transit coalition in many places where development and real estate interests align their lobbying with that of representatives of the poor to argue for the construction of new transit lines (usually rail), under the assumption that projects will benefit each group.

This produces an identity crisis for transit. For whom is it developed? Can its social mobility goals be reconciled with the interests of capitalists in the urban space?

Identifying the value of a transportation project is an essential element of the planning process, so asking these questions is essential, since there are limited resources. When it comes to transit, this seems particularly relevant, since most funds invested in bus or rail projects are provided by the public sector.

Ultimately, this means that the promotion of almost every transit project is defined by political ideology. Do we invest our funds in a project to connect downtown with the airport, under the assumption that economic benefits will flow down from the top, as conservatives might suggest? Is spending government money on ensuring the efficient transportation of the elite effective because it grows the economy as a whole and eventually aids the poor? Or should public dollars be reserved for redistributive causes, focusing on the needs of those who are least able to provide for themselves?

Of course there are many examples in which these questions appear to have been resolved. Even in Chicago, it would be difficult to argue that the subway and elevated lines that run into to the Loop are unhelpful for the poor, since many of the city’s greatest resources even for the impoverished are located in Farmer’s “downtown showcase zone.” Nonetheless, ponder this question next time a transit project is proposed: For whom is it being built, and why?

* Farmer, Stephanie. “Uneven public transportation development in neoliberalizing Chicago.” Environment and Planning A. Volume 43. 2011. 1154-1172.

** I should note that in terms of transit, the Fordist conception of the use of public resources for the benefit of social redistribution itself replaced an entrepreneurial approach towards the provision of transportation. Many, though certainly not all, transit systems in the U.S. were funded and developed by private groups. Were these investments able to straddle the competing goals of expanded mobility and economic development?