Lisa Schweitzer on transit’s financial sustainability | Urban ethics and theory

Lisa Schweitzer has comments on my recent CityLab post:  How to Make Public Transit Sustainable Once and For All. You, fellow transportationists (much better than fellow travelers), should read.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

So in my defense, they allotted me 1000 words, I sneakily used about 1600, and Lisa’s part 1 is about 1400 words. This appears to be a multi-part review which will no doubt be longer than my original post, which was constrained by the principles of popular journalism.


“So where are the problems? Well, first, utilities have been most robust for services that are relevant to just about every household. It would be nice if that were true for transit, but it is not.”

Lisa identifies a “voter-customer dichotomy”, and clearly there is one. Whether investors will come along is a market clearing problem, which without actually testing, we cannot know for sure. I imagine like most reforms, it would be phased in, tested, refined, and revised in the various laboratories of democracy. Some city has to go first, some other city has to go second, and hopefully learn from the first, before every last city does. The degree to which people vote against providing the service locally will vary. But remember, most places already pay for the operating costs of the transit they get, only the capital costs have the federal subsidy. So it is a question of making this subsidy explicit, and determined at a local rather than metropolitan level, that will (I think) improve efficiency.

While most people don’t use transit every day, many people use transit sometimes, or did when they were younger, or have family members or employees, or friends, who do more frequently. (It would be nice to have statistics on this). So the antipathy towards transit is probably not as strong among the general public as we might fear.

“The second problem concerns jurisdictions who want to opt out and their effect on other jurisdictions. “

Lisa uses the example of Beverly Hills.  I don’t know much about Beverly Hills, though I have seen every episode of the Beverly Hillbillies and the first few seasons of Beverly Hills 90210, so I can imagine. If Beverly Hills opted out of service (i.e. buses could run through BH (since the roads are still public), without stopping to pick up or let out passengers), I imagine employers would complain. But that aside, assume the BH city council still didn’t want service. Then BH employers would need to pay higher wages to attract workers (even for “minimum wage” jobs) since the extra  transportation costs would now be borne by workers, who now don’t have subsidized transit service. These workers may choose to use the higher wages to buy a car, take a taxi or taxi-like service, pay for carpooling, ride an illegal Dollar Van, or whatever. This may be dysfunctional, (or not), but my guess it will also be uncommon. While  there will likely be some service cutbacks (otherwise what is the point of reallocating resources), I don’t think there will generally be whole jurisdictions in metropolitan areas that currently have significant transit services choosing no transit at all.

In part this is a problem of too many jurisdictions (should this be a city-level or county-level decision, e.g.), so maybe LA County would be the relevant jurisdiction for transit service rather than Beverly Hills. How these decisions are allocated to municipalities vs. counties is a state decision, since they are both creatures of state government.

(I grew up in Maryland, which is a county-oriented place, with few independent-ish cities, so I am always puzzled by the desire for so many layers of government much of the rest of the country has. I am sure it is historical (town vs. rural), but we should be over that now. I am fairly convinced that county and state are sufficient in most places, and local governments could be dissolved  … some counties may be too large and could stand to be broken up, but as a rule of thumb most municipalities are too small to achieve efficiencies.)

Finally, service question differences in transit are a big deal, but they are not in other types of services once you reach a particular threshold.

Undoubtedly, wealthy jurisdictions would get better service, as they do now. Whether this makes it worse (or less equitable) I am not sure. It might increase the amount of Tiebout sorting, so people who want to live in transit-oriented jurisdictions (TOJs) will move there, while other move to transit-free jurisdictions, and there is a whole range in between. This already occurs of course to some degree.