Thursday, September 3, 2009

Us and them

In recent posts I've introduced the Magic Formula for Transit Profitability. Here it is again, for those of you just tuning in:

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
4. Profit!

Since it seems to work well for fare-free transit systems, I should maybe have called it the Magic Fomula for Transit Ridership. For a company that charges market rates, the connection between ridership and profits is fairly straightforward: the more riders you have, the fuller your vehicles are, and you take in more in fares for every dollar you pay the driver.

Until today, I had a hunch about the relationship between ridership and the ability of public transit agencies to win subsidies from governments, but I hadn't quite figured it out. Then I came across this seemingly unrelated Streetsblog post about Portland, Oregon's first cycle track. Bike Portland's Jonathan Maus was quoted as saying,
On other local media websites, the comments are flying in. The majority of them that I’ve read are negative. There are all the usual concerns that bikes are getting a free ride, that cars are being relegated to the margins, that the city is going insane, and so on.

In the comments, a reader named Jon (presumably a different Jon) wrote this:
There are the "usual concerns that bikes are getting a free ride" - don't car drivers get a free ride? The highway/road system was originally developed for cars without any support from the car companies - car drivers have ALWAYS gotten a "free ride" - why shouldn't bicyclists?

That put me in mind of Bertrand Russell's famous example of an "irregular verb": "I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool." Clearly, for some, street space allocation is an irregular verb, and probably any government action. Something like "I am receiving essential government services; you are dependent on subsidies; he is getting a free ride."

As with the cycle track, it looks like the difference between a well-funded public transit system and a badly-funded one is whether the people funding it think that it's for "us" or for "them." Dave Olsen touches on this in his report on the fare-free transit system in Hasselt, Belgium: "Now, people in Hasselt often speak of 'their' bus system, and with good reason."

What about Whidbey Island? On August 18, voters approved an increase in the transit sales tax from 0.06% to 0.09%, 12,963 to 10,768. Comments opposed to the increase included arguments like, "Those buses/vans are never full, or half full. Usually just a few passengers Dont believe me? Look at them when they go by your SUV." Letters in favor included arguments like, "It is for the people in our community, it is something we control, and we see the results right here," and "Why let the members of our community suffer when the inevitable is right around the corner?" It may indicate something about the prevailing sentiment that even while recommending against the increase, the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce was very diplomatic and didn't use "them" language.

Tellingly, several of the comments in opposition to the Island Transit tax increase were from regular riders who said they supported the transit company and were willing to pay a fare, but were opposed to the tax on principle. The number of island residents who consider Island Transit to be for "us" is probably higher than 54%.

So that's how ridership helps to fund even fare-free transit: by turning voters and opinion leaders into "us." And the Magic Formula helps to increase ridership and turn the perception of transit from "welfare" to "essential service."

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