Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Transit funding crisis: Maybe we should treat city services the same way

Transit services across the country are facing painful questions regarding service cuts vs. fare hikes, as shown by this interactive feature at Transportation for America. Which is worse?

Fare hikes often hit the poor and transit-dependent* very hard. A fare hike from $1.50 to $2.00 might as well be a change in gas prices from $3.00 to $4.00, plus a hike in registration, insurance, and parking. Each represents a 33% hike in transportation costs.

But service cuts also hit these groups as well. They may need to ride the bus at odd hours or access locations that are not on core routes+. Transit dependent people may not be able to get to work, the doctor, shopping, or to visit family and friends unless there is service when and where they need to go. If the bus isn't running, they often have no alternative.

So when faced with limited funds, do you put them into service that benefits the greatest number of riders? That would likely be the core routes during commuter hours: Buses that run into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the evening. Or do you continue to provide what is known in the industry as "lifeline service?" That would be buses that run to areas of the city with no other transit service, but also may have low-income populations, jobs, and services that people need. If you cut that off, those areas are then off limits to anyone without a car, or a sturdy set of legs to bike or walk.

An article today outlined that debate going on in Boston, but the article could have been written about almost any city in the country.

So I started thinking about how we decide who gets transit service. In Madison, there are plenty of areas of the city that do not have transit service, usually on the edge of town where there aren't many people (yet.) Metro doesn't have the money to extend transit service to these areas, so everyone that lives, works, or shops there generally has to travel in and out of the neighborhood by car.

I believe that transit is a core city service, and maybe we shouldn't be building in areas where we can't provide transit service. We pick up trash and leaves, even though there are very few people there. I can assure you that people would scream bloody murder if their streets weren't plowed. It's expensive to provide services in areas where there isn't much density. you have to drive all those city vehicles up and down the street for only a handful of people, instead of serving hundreds of people that live along the same length of street in my neighborhood.

And then I head people complaining that they see buses with almost no one on them. Yeah? Well, I see lots of streets with almost no one on them as well. Those streets get plowed, fixed, serviced by the city.

Maybe we can save some money by just not providing services to those areas of the city with a population density of less than X units per acre. Pick a number. Or a traffic volume. "We don't really need to plow that street, there aren't that many people living there anyway, and money is tight." Or maybe, "I'm sorry folks, you will have to carry your trash, recycling, brush and leaves to a main street, because it's just not efficient to have the truck come down your street for so few people." After all, they all have cars anyway, they can put all that stuff in the back of the car for a few blocks to save all the taxpayers of the city some money.

Transit dependent is a term for those without any other way to get around - the elderly, children, people with disabilities, and those who simply can't afford a car. The opposite group would be "choice riders," who can chose to use transit or some other option, such as driving.

+ Core routes are those that serve the downtown, major destinations, major corridors, etc. They often run evenings, weekends, holidays, and have frequent service.

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