We consistently ask the wrong questions about transit investment

Posted on February 12, 2018 by Ross Matters - Also by this author

Indianapolis Transit Center. Photo: Axis Architecture and Interiors
Indianapolis Transit Center. Photo: Axis Architecture and Interiors

This article was originally published on Mobility Lab.

“Public transit wastes my money.” “If public transit is so great, shouldn’t ticket sales cover the cost?” “Why should I pay for a bus I’ll never take?”

Read the comments section on just about any news story dealing with public transportation and you’ll likely see these thoughts appear in some form. So let’s take a look at these questions. More importantly, let’s examine these questions for all forms of transportation, and consider if these are even the right questions to ask at all.

Public transit wastes my money.
This is a fairly common argument to encounter when discussing public transportation. It’s easy to say this when looking at delays, faulty service, or drab trains and buses. For example, many have used WMATA’s recent service reduction in Washington D.C. as proof of the wastefulness of public transit.

Certainly these issues don’t point to a perfectly efficient transit system. But do they point to waste? For example, according to independent analysis, WMATA has been underfunded for decades. In fact, public transportation systems across the nation struggle with adequate funding. Therefore, it seems the current issues facing transit systems may have more to do with inadequate investment rather than wasting money.

But what if we posed the same question to our roads, highways, and bridges? Surely everyone reading this has experienced potholes and other signs of poor maintenance while driving. When we encounter a pothole or see single-lane traffic due to road repair, how do we respond? Do we consider road maintenance wasteful?

Of course not. We see road maintenance as a painful but necessary burden. When potholes appear, we get angry at the pothole, but seldom rail against the idea of roads in general. When it comes to wasteful spending in transportation, we have different definitions for roads compared to everything else.

If public transit is so great, shouldn’t ticket sales cover the cost?
This question gets to the heart of how people conceptualize cost in their lives. As a society, we tend to believe any new or “other” technology should pay for itself. We view changes to the status quo with harsh skepticism rarely applied to our current situation. Within America, driving is the most common form of transportation and public transit is often viewed as a disruption to the status quo. With this in mind, some argue that if buses and trains are truly a good idea, they should pay for themselves through ticket sales and advertising revenue.

Within America, driving is the most common form of transportation and public transit is often viewed as a disruption to the status quo.

Of course, public transportation systems could never pay for themselves this way. But does this really mean that public transit is a bad idea? Or does it prove that we have a hard time conceptualizing public investment?

Consider roads. Our nation spends billions of dollars every year to build new roads and maintain existing ones. This money comes from a mixture of federal, state, and local sources. Yet, when we drive past a new road construction project, do we stop to ask about the cost? When people see a highway lane being added, do they complain about wasteful spending? Most likely not, although due to induced demand, they could be witnessing just that.

The energy sector faces a similar situation. Ask someone about building a nuclear power plant and they will likely site the possible danger to workers and neighbors of the plant. No such thought is given to the many who die each year due to the externalities of coal, although the number is much greater. This is part of a common phenomenon wherein we think deeply about the possible costs and downsides of a new action, but fail to question the status quo. Since the car is king, we do not question the cost of the road on which it travels. However, any competitor is sure to face scrutiny.

Why should I pay for a bus I’ll never take?
Good question. There are 4.12 million miles of road in the U.S. Have you driven them all? Probably not. Does that make roads a waste of money? Certainly not.

Imagine a city where people who could not afford vehicles protested the construction of a highway they won’t use. Obviously, the citizens with cars would immediately state the benefits to the city as a whole from allowing goods and services to move more freely. These benefits exist for transportation of all types. A bike trail can help ease congestion by diverting would-be drivers off the road. Buses and trains can provide people without personal vehicles valuable access to jobs and opportunities. The list of positive externalities goes on. These are all real benefits experienced by society writ large, regardless of your preferred method of travel.

People should question how we invest our tax dollars. More importantly, we should question how we spend this money on everything, including expenses we’ve become accustomed to. If the same questions asked of transit were asked of roads and highways, we would never build a country road again. Obviously, this would be calamitous.

We need to reconsider how we view public investment in transportation. Rather than viewing these issues as a simple question of short-term accounting and personal utility, we must also consider the long-term impacts on the public good. Once we are able to conceptualize our individual interests along with society’s interests, we can begin investing in a transportation system capable of moving all of us into the coming decades.

Ross Matters is a planning specialist in Arlington, Va.

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