Hong Kong’s MTR is unusual in also actually making money from its fares as well. How it can do this relates in part the uniqueness of running trains on an intense few strips of land filled with development. But for our purposes it’s worth looking at its actions as a developer, and that as a model for transportation agencies and departments in this country.Here Marshall acknowledges that the MTR makes an operating profit, but dismisses that as a consequence of "the uniqueness of running trains on an intense few strips of land filled with development," and thus not relevant "for our purposes."
Here I want to disagree with Marshall. I think the urban layout of Hong Kong is not unique for our purposes, and very relevant to the issue. In fact, people thinking only of the United States would say that "running trains on an intense few strips of land filled with development" is a great description of what the New York MTA and Port Authority do.
The development density, though, is only part of the story. It is one source of the MTR's operating profit, but only because it is Step 2 of the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:
1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
The Mass Transit Railway has its own right-of-way. Hong Kong is one of the fifteen most expensive places to buy gas. And it is hard to drive there. But the density is only part of the reason it's hard to drive. The highways in Hong Kong are relatively few, and relatively narrow. If you're coming from the mainland there are at most fifteen lanes of traffic leading into the city.
New York may not make it quite as hard to use cars, but driving here is notoriously unpleasant and difficult. It is pretty expensive, except for the free bridges and highways, and the free or cheap parking.
What Marshall is neglecting, what too many transit advocates neglect, is the fact that transit is in competition with private cars driving on government-subsidized roads. If the roads are expanded or driving is made cheaper, transit ridership falls; I think we'll see a small drop in the Hong Kong MTR's profitability when the Central-Wan Chai Bypass is opened. If the roads are repurposed or driving is made more expensive, transit ridership rises and transit agencies become profitable.
This is why Marshall's interview and post are so frustrating. If we want the New York MTA to become profitable, we don't need it to buy a bunch of land and build high-rises on it. (In most of the city, the zoning would require them to build parking anyway.) Here are four steps that should do it:
1. Give buses at least one dedicated lane on every major bridge and tunnel.
2. Don't spend billions replacing the Goethals and Kosciuszko Bridges or the Pulaski Skyway. Tear down the Sheridan Expressway and any other highway that is "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."
3. Institute market pricing to cross the East and Harlem River Bridges, and for parking.
I know that Marshall is in favor of congestion pricing. He's probably in favor of market-rate parking pricing as well. He might even be in favor of some highway teardowns. Why didn't he say any of that to Andrea Bernstein?