Sunday, October 25, 2015

Private or public what?

Recently with Uber, Lyft and even Leap, here has been a lot of discussion of public versus private transit. The stark opposition that some people draw between public and private obscures several important points. If we look at the history of transportation, nothing has ever been completely private or completely public. There are in fact three different ways that the public can be connected to a transportation project: money, control and accountability. These operate in many different areas, to different degrees.

Funding for capital construction, maintenance, procurement, or operations can come from general taxes, taxes on specific activities, fees and tolls on other kinds of transportation, or from fares. Fees, tolls and fares can be levied on transportation services and spent on things not directly related to transportation, including kickbacks, bribes, padding and profits. Money can be borrowed from private individuals, private companies, private nonprofits or government agencies.

Land, water and airspace can be owned by the government or private entities, as can the buildings, tracks, paths, roads, bridges and tunnels on, over, under and through them. The owners can grant access equally to all parties or reserve it for specific parties or classes of parties. Owners can charge money for access, and limit length and times of access.

Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate scheduling and routing of the transportation services, and the policing of passengers. They can grant licenses to transport passengers and goods, and impose rules. They can regulate access to transportation facilities and services. The rules and regulations can be reasonable or arbitrary, or somewhere in between.

Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate the way that a transportation provider interacts with its workers. The workers can form unions, and the transportation providers can form syndicates. These unions and syndicates can in turn form agreements with the governments and private transportation providers, with some degree of control over scheduling, routing and access, and over the hours that the employees work and the wages they are paid.

No transportation provider can provide everything, so transit providers need to purchase goods and services from other entities. Some of these services must be purchased from government entities. Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate any aspects of this.

Funding, resources, operations, labor, procurement - all these things are some mix of public and private. The government itself can be more or less democratic, and more or less corrupt. Some entities look private but are wholly controlled by the government, and vice versa. This is all I can think of right now, but I'm sure I'm missing some things, and that's why I get frustrated when people present "public vs. private transit" as some clear binary opposition.

Don't get me wrong, I know why "privatization" has such a bad name. Often, from British Rail down to New York's "Group Ride Vehicle Program," what passes for privatization is some weird sandbox thing where the "private" operators are subject to so many conditions, regulations and oversight that you have to wonder why they're private. It's almost always an excuse for either reducing a useful government service, or looting publicly held resources, or both. The other reason the private operators are brought in is to do something that elected officials are worried will alienate voters, like raising fares.

As I wrote almost six years ago, we need to move beyond simplistic fears of privatization - or of government control - and recognize that every transportation service is a mixture of private and public funding, private and public control, private and public accountability. We need to lay out specifically how it fits our goals, and how it falls short. Some of you are doing that. More of you need to.


Christopher Parker said...

There is a phrase used in discussing public transit: "Legacy costs". As I understand it, this refers to the large costs in serving entrenched interests, most principally (but far from only) labor.

Getting out of fossilized ways of doing things is one (good) reason for privatization.

Kevin said...

I also feel like there is a lot of hand waiving around 'public' and 'mass' transit. For some reason most people don't seem to think of roads as public transportation infrastructure (even though it is). For most 'public transportation' is interchangeable with 'mass transportation'.