Five questions about public transit, rail vs. bus, and gentrification

A producer for Real Money with Ali Velshi sent along five questions that Velshi might have asked during the interview about the Green Line. My talking points are below. Clearly this is too complicated for a three and a half minute interview.

1. So we often talk about investment in public transit as way to stimulate private development, make certain regions more attractive for businesses and residents. But is there a growing awareness that these projects don’t always improve life for all income classes? That they spur on gentrification can actually push out lower-income, working class residents?

Certainly gentrification is possible, however the case of the Green Line won’t see too much gentrification at first because there is so much vacant land in the corridor: parking lots and abandoned car dealerships, that can be redeveloped. Once the vacant land is consumed, this becomes a much more significant issue. The City and Metropolitan Council have a number of programs that have subsidized “affordable” housing in the corridor – most projects along the corridor in St. Paul have some public financial support.

It is important to remember that in Minnesota people don’t have a property right in low rents, and rent control is a bad idea that discourages investment.


2. As we just saw in the piece, the Twin Cities implemented a multi-faceted plan to help low-income residents and businesses along the Green Line. But there’s already been a hike in property taxes and 25% increase in median rental rates along the Green Line corridor. Did the city do enough?

Any accessibility increase will result in appreciations in property values. However, average prices have risen in the corridor in large part to the new housing (that is, new housing is more expensive (and nicer) on average than existing housing, pulling up average rents), along with improvements in the  economy in general.

New housing in the city will keep prices lower than they otherwise would have been in the absence of new housing, as it pushes out the supply curve. And if there were more housing supply added here, near rail stations, there is less elsewhere in the region than there would have been in the absence of the Green Line.

3. You worked before in transportation planning – if you had a billion dollars and were really setting out to help low-income residents, how would you have spent the money?

I would improve the bus system. Buses are more adaptable and flexible than rail. This matters because land use patterns change over time, and this kind of flexibility allows the transportation services to follow their customers.  Buses also have the advantage that they can “free ride” on existing roads, and so have much lower infrastructure costs. In just about all US cities buses serve more riders than rail system do, yet rail attracts the bulk of funding.

There are a number of improvements that can be made to buses, arterial Bus Rapid Transit systems provide higher quality, higher frequency, more reliable, and faster service, and that network should be built out and extended.

To be clear, the Green Line is the best rail project in the Twin Cities region, connecting two existing downtowns and the University along a relatively high-density urban corridor. The remaining extensions are more problematic, serving primarily suburban commuters.

Certainly for transit users, some investment is better than no investment, but that doesn’t mean we should support any investment that comes down the pike, instead we should try to design systems that best serve existing good transit markets – usually areas built before 1930, where the existing land uses are conducive to transit, rather than hoping to transform suburban green fields subject to the vagaries of speculative development.

4. If expanding bus systems would provide the most benefit for less money, why are so many cities focusing on building light rail systems? We’ve seen in cities like Portland, which has spent some $4 billion on light rail, street car, or commuter rail lines, spending on bus systems has actually dropped some 10 percent…

The people making and lobbying for rail investment decisions are generally not transit riders. They live in the suburbs and work downtown in offices and their mental model is everyone else does as well.  Most trips are not work trips. Most people don’t work. Most people who work, don’t work downtown. Most people who work don’t work in conventional office buildings. The decision-makers can’t imagine themselves riding on local buses (for a variety of reasons) and so design services for people like themselves rather than people who already use transit.

5. Did the Twin Cities really need to build a light rail? And can it really have the dramatic economic effects across all income levels that city officials hope for?

“Need” is a strong word. Given the federal government pays for half of transit capital investments, it was locally rational to build the Green Line. It serves users on the corridor better than previous  buses because it has a higher frequency, but that is a property of the frequency, not a property of it being a train.  It is important to note that much of the local funding for the lines comes from local sales taxes (which are regressive, that is the poor pay a greater share of their income for this than the wealthy), as well as a motor vehicle sales tax.