Thursday, March 4, 2010

Do voters take transit?

In my post on mode shift, I made a comment that transit "funding doesn't always go to the mode favored by the majority. Look at the congestion pricing debate if you don't believe me."

Alon Levy challenged the assumption underlying my statement:
I'm willing to believe that the majority of New York City voters own cars, and even drive them to work. The city has a car-free majority, but I'd venture a guess that this majority is disproportionately immigrant and poor, and hence not likely to vote.

It's a good question, and it got me thinking about how you could test this. I checked the American Community Survey, and they have citizenship and poverty data cross-referenced with means of transportation to work.

BoroughPercent of workers taking transit to workPercent of citizen workers taking transit to workPercent of workers above 150% of the poverty level taking transit to work
The Bronx56 %54 %54 %
Brooklyn60 %59 %60 %
Manhattan57 %57 %57 %
Queens51 %47 %50 %
Staten Island32 %30 %31 %
New York City55 %53 %54 %

If you look at non-citizens and the poor, they're both significantly more likely to take transit to work, but since they're relatively small minorities, they don't affect the overall totals more than a few percentage points - and the spread tends to get bigger the sprawlier the area.

So the only boroughs where transit riders are a minority of non-poor citizens take transit are Queens and Staten Island. In the other three boroughs, and overall, transit riders are a majority. Even in Queens and Staten Island, though, I didn't look into how many of the non-transit riders were actually driving as opposed to walking, biking, taking taxis or telecommuting.

It's possible that the ACS is not very accurate for these communities, and if anyone knows about that, please post it in the comments.

Of course, when you get beyond citizens to voters, and beyond voters to campaign contributors and people who are likely to bring others out to vote for a candidate, then things start to look different...


Alon Levy said...

Hmmm... I thought the spreads would be much larger.

Cullen said...

Perhaps some of the majority transit riders also own cars, so despite riding transit a lot they still want to protect their "right" to drive.

MQS said...

But on the other hand, some drivers also have family members who are dependent on transit, and don't mind paying a bit more to ensure a safe and effective transit system.

I think the lesson is that many elected officials have no concept of what is really in the interests of their constituents.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for putting the data together. Does it include children going to school?

I think the funding bias comes from that rural and suburban legislators push hard for better access to the city via their mode of choice, automobile; the converse, better access to the countryside and suburbs for city dwellers via transit, has less support because transit trips to rural and suburban areas are less of a priority for city dwellers.

Cap'n Transit said...

Jonathan, no, it includes people age 16 and up going to work.

There is a suburban/rural bias, but there's also a bias within the city for road funding; see the congestion pricing debates.

Yes, "Gmail Helps," I think that many car owners identify as drivers even if they wouldn't be affected by a particular toll, but that doesn't explain it all.

I think Todd is right as well: many elected officials are clueless. But it doesn't hurt them since they face primary challenges so rarely.

Cap'n Transit said...

... or contested elections in general.

Christopher Parker said...

I think it's simple:

It's politicians who are more likely to be drivers, not constituents.

saosebastiao said...

Christopher Parker might be on to something, but even that point has its limits. Politicians are self interested, but that goes for promoting policies favored by the individual politicians just as much as it does for getting reelected.

I think the democratic structure of the MTA and the city make a bigger difference than you all think. There are two major keys to responsible public services: Accountability and Feedback.

The MTA doesn't have direct accountability because its executive board is not directly accountable (elected) to the constituents they represent. The leaders are recommended by local leaders, nominated by the state governor, and confirmed by the state senate. If the MTA sucks, who do you vote out? The most democratic accountability that the MTA has is over funding, because the individual district's leaders apportion the funding. But even then, the representation is weak, as the local leaders are voted to represent far more public interests than just transit.

Furthermore, how do you get direct feedback. Sure, the MTA claims to listen to its users..."look we took some surveys!!". But do they actually act in their interest? Is the feedback reaching the top? Do the leaders fear for their jobs when they do poorly, and feel more secure when they do well?

The MTA needs more than just a separate corporate entity. They need direct accountability: A board that is directly elected by the constituents they serve. They should also have the independent ability to levy taxes, whether they are congestion pricing, tolls, or even sales taxes.

Helen Bushnell said...

I think that if you look at organizations organize voters and put pressure on politicians, very few of them support transit. Organizations like AAA have a long history of presenting the views of their members to politicians.

Cap'n Transit said...

Sao Sebastiao, I agree with you that the MTA needs to be more accountable, but elections do not guarantee accountability. What are you going to do if you're dissatisfied with the performance of your surrogate court judge? Run against him or her?

The best way to make the MTA accountable is to make it an executive department.

saosebastiao said...

Of course elections do not guarantee accountability. The example that Matt gave was quite enlightening: The Commissioner of the General Land Office.

But let me ask you something. If you asked the average New Yorker City resident what the Commissioner of the General Land Office did, you would probably get a blank stare. But what response would you get if you asked the average New York City resident what the President of the MTA did?

I would guess that the MTA, being the source of at least double digit percentages of the cost of living for most New York City residents, is far more important to residents than even the Mayor. It would be unreasonable to think that more democracy would result in less accountability, at least when it comes to this specific example.

Alon Levy said...

Transportation is 4% of the household budget in New York City. The subway just isn't that expensive compared to driving.

saosebastiao said...


saosebastiao said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Using Journey To Work data as a proxy for transit dependence is questionable. A work trip is both the most frequent and longest trip most people make, making it uniquely suitable for transit--time, timing, and destination are all known far in advance of the trip.

The major utility of the automobile is its ability to make helter-skelter, unplanned and linked trips between widely disparate locations, something VERY difficult to do without a high-density, high frequency transit system.

Alon Levy said...

15.4% in the metro area, not in the city proper. The MSA includes a lot of suburbs where people either drive 30 miles or ride ultra-expensive commuter rail.

saosebastiao said...

And the people living in the MSA are the people impacted by the decisions of the MTA, and would be considered constituents in any situation where the MTA was democratically elected... so it still falls right in line with my point.

Regardless, where do you get your 4% from?

Cap'n Transit said...

Matt, journey-to-work data isn't so much a measure of transit dependence as car dependence. If you can't even take the train or bus to work during rush hours, you're really up the creek.

In the congestion pricing debate, we had elected representatives who were willing to underfund a service used by the majority of voters in order to protect an expensive service used by 3-5% of voters.

Alon Levy said...

Regardless, where do you get your 4% from?

The NY Times had a graphic a few years ago about the average US household budget breakdown. It mentioned New York City's was different.

Alon Levy said...

And the people living in the MSA are the people impacted by the decisions of the MTA

The people who drive the cost up to 15.4% don't use the MTA's services.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Alon. This looks like your graphic.

Cap'n Transit said...

However, it looks like you misremembered it. Gasoline is less than 4% of the average New Yorker's budget, but it's not the only transportation cost.

saosebastiao said...

The MTA consists of LIRR, Metro North, Staten Island Railway, MTA Capital Construction, MTA Regional Bus, as well as NYC Transit and MTA Bridges and Tunnels.

Everybody uses the MTA's services.

Alon Levy said...

Actually, most people in the suburbs don't drive over the MTA-owned bridges and tunnels regularly. For example, a large majority of people who live in Long Island work in Long Island, and a large majority of the rest work in Manhattan (to which they mostly take the LIRR, or alternatively drive over free bridges) or in Brooklyn or Queens. There are 1.2 million people living in Long Island working in Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens, or Manhattan, and barely more than 20,000 working elsewhere in the region.