Thursday, April 23, 2009

Transit needs the middle class

Yesterday, in response to my previous post on social class, MHJ wrote:

That is one of the reasons I became a transportation planner in the first place - for once in my life, my race, ethnicity, gender and income didn't matter - everyone paid the same $2 fare.

I like it too, MHJ. But I'm going to disappoint you now: that "classless" system isn't entirely classless, and we may need to decrease our use of it.

I raise the issue of class and transportation because I have ambitious goals. We need to not just decrease emissions, but decrease them enough to head off global warming. We need to not just improve efficiency, but improve it enough to head off peak oil. To accomplish these goals we need to shift a substantial portion of people from cars to transit.

I know there are many people who agree with me. Over and over again I hear them asking, "what will it take to get people out of their cars?" Here's what it will take: classy transit.

In the US and other industrial nations, generally speaking the divide used to be between the rich with their private vehicles, and everybody else walking and taking some form of transit. This heavy middle-class patronage allowed for some cross-subsidy to benefit the poor. Middle-class taxpayers also got government to subsidize some transportation infrastructure that was also available for poor people. When private car ownership came within reach of the middle class, they abandoned transit and took their money and their political power with them.

We can't accomplish our pollution, efficiency and safety goals without getting the middle class to shift from cars to transit. If you disagree, I'd love to see your plan. Otherwise, the next question is how to accomplish that.


nathan_h said...

This issue was at the edges of the discussion on profitability of transit systems, if simply having a fare is "regressive". Our country treats transit as form of welfare so it's no surprise that most Americans resent spending on transit just as they resent welfare (with the same racial undercurrents).

The way out of this bog is to do our redistribution out in the open with steeper progressive income taxing, and allow transit markets to work more like the rest of the economy. That doesn't mean they have to be profitable, but they should have some options that are pleasing to the middle class as well as some that are accessible to the poor. Dumping all our stagnant, Reagan-era tax and social problems on transit is not fair to transit users or to the country's energy future.

Anonymous said...

Just think, all we really need is about 10% of an increase in transit ridership from the middle class and BOOM, we'd have MASSIVE support in the political realm. for the comment above about steeper progressive income taxing, that is stupid. We had MORE transit when we didn't have progressive taxes or income taxes for 90% of the population. So toss that absurdity.

I can tell you right now, you want middle class support, a progressive income tax is NOT going to get it for ya. That's gonne get Republican after Republican after Republican voted into office faster than you can blink.