Friday, October 7, 2011

should transit agencies "retrench" to become "profitable"?

The University of Minnesota's David Levinson wrote a bracing article last week arguing for a new approach to how we decide what transit lines should exist.  In its emphasis on "not losing money," it may remind you of some of the broadsides of the anti-transit right, but Levinson is not one of that crowd, as far as I know. 
So I thought I'd quote the juiciest parts here, and provide some counterpoint.  Levinson and I use very different frames, but if you look beyond those, there's some agreement here.
Mass transit systems in the United States are collectively losing money hand over fist. Yet many individual routes (including bus routes) earn enough to pay their own operating (and even capital costs). But like bad mortgages contaminating the good, money-losing transit routes are bogging down the system.
This "profitability" or "breaking even" frame may alienate many on the left from the merit of Levinson's idea.  Currently, transit agencies are not trying to break even, so they are not failing if they don't.  If we propose a free-market view in which transit should be breaking even, well, I'd like to see this as well in a perfect world.  But that would be a world in which government isn't heavily subsidizing transit's competitor, the private car -- not just through road expenditures but through such interventions as minimum parking requirements and petroleum-based foreign policy.  I would further suggest that current environmental crises argue for government to be biased away from the private car and toward modes that do less environmental harm, and that subsidies toward transit (i.e. accepting that transit "loses money") are one valid way of doing that. 
We can divide individual systems into three sets of routes:
Always be suspicious when a transit network is analyzed as though it were a pile of routes, because a good network is more than the sum of its parts.

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