Friday, February 6, 2009

More on profits and subsidies

My last post generated some really thoughtful posts and comments. There were two comments here on the blog, then the Transport Politic picked it up and expanded on it, and that post in turn was featured on - on the New York mothersite and on the Los Angeles and San Francisco editions.

The Transport Politic observed, "But I think he [meaning me] doesn’t delve deep enough into the meaning of profitability, nor does he describe what an alternative rhetoric on transit funding might entail." There's a simple explanation for this: I don't do this stuff for a living, I have a day job, and I needed to go to bed. I'm happy to have this be a collaborative effort, and for others to pick up on this discussion while I sleep or work.

TP continues "The overriding point, though, is that the meaning of the word 'profitable' itself is subjective." I would argue that it's not so much subjective as fungible - that it means different things to different people, and that those differences have been used to sow confusion and reap discord.

There are a lot of good points made. A number of commenters - Larry Littlefield on Streetsblog NY, the Free Public Transit Editors on Streetsblog LA, Mike Sonn on Streetsblog SF and Bibi on the Transport Politic - all touched on the issue of hidden subsidies, and on what it means to subsidize transportation. Bibi in particular linked to a great article (PDF) by Paul Weyrich and William Lind on this issue. I'd like to expand on that.

In debates on transit subsidies, when anti-transit people say that they don't want public money used to pay for transit, transit advocates often respond that no public transit system pays for itself.

They're absolutely right about that, but it's a bad tactic. What the antis actually mean is that they're afraid of their money used to pay for someone else's transportation. Telling them that all transit is subsidized doesn't address that concern.

What does address this concern is the fact that if you add up the total cost of getting a person or a package from door to door, there is no form of transportation that is entirely paid for by the user, and there never has been. From the ancient Inca llama trails to the shores of Tripoli, from Clinton's Ditch to the Pacific Railroad Act, from the National Road to today's oil wars, governments have paid for the planning, land acquisition, operation and protection of transportation systems.

Once we get that settled, the question is simply which systems to subsidize, and how much. The answer to that depends to a large extent on what our goals are. Since it's bedtime now, I refer you to my post on goals from a year ago, and to the posts about cycles that followed it. Looking forward to your thoughts.


fpteditors said...

You are right. The heart of the anti-transit argument is "I am not paying for lazy you-know-whats to have free anything." The response should be purely economic. Re-frame the issue. The economics are on our side. Autosprawl is subsidized . Public transit is an investment that benefits all.

Dave said...

You know I've had this conversation with anti-transit folks a 100 times and they either don't believe that the auto is subsidized or something because the point is impossible to get across. Even when pointing to studies and such. The belief run deeper that the car == freedom. And so that is the discussion that needs to be changed.

BruceMcF said...

One of the big reasons why the car has been so successful at soaking up public subsidies is because so many car subsidies are "problem driven" ... people get cars, that generates problems, and businesses and communities have to solve the problems.

By contrast, much more of public transport subsidies are "pay in advance" subsidies ... until someone comes up with the money, the line is not built, the buses are not purchased, the drivers are not hired ... there is little opportunity for an individual to start "buying tickets", pushing public transport vehicles out into circulation and then forcing everyone else to cope with the consequences.

So subsidies for public transport tend to be widely publicized since someone level of government has to "approve" "$XXX in subsidies", while subsidies for car transport is squirreled away in business operating costs, public budgets, police force manpower distribution, hospital emergency rooms, and sundry other places.

fpteditors said...

Exactly, Bruce. For example, Philadelphia spends 180M/yr on parking enforcement financed by tickets. This is essentially an anti-urban-business tax. Parking tickets are treated as a business expense by messenger and delivery companies. What a waste.