Saturday, May 22, 2010
Diverting the Cycle
In the past, I've argued that we would expect an S-shaped shift from private cars to transit if the following conditions hold:
Efficiency: for every dollar of subsidies, transit gives people more access to places where they want to go than cars do.
Demand: people patronize systems depending on the access that they offer.
Representation: subsidies are distributed based on demand.
This is actually a good thing because it means that nobody needs to force anyone to stop driving. As long as the efficiency condition holds - and I think it does - all we need to do is make sure that the demand and representation conditions hold - or compensate for them - and let the market do the rest.
I'll discuss the demand condition in later posts, but for now I'll just say that there's a lot more than access that goes into mode choices. What I want to focus on here is the matter of representation.
The simplest thing for government to do would be to simply give people what they want. If 20% of people want transit, 5% want walking and cycling and 75% driving, then spend 20% of the budget on transit, and so forth. There are several reasons why government would not want to do this.
First, they might legitimately believe that it is not in the best interest of the people to allocate money based on use. This is often quite reasonable; in fact, they might feel that it is important to spend a larger share of transportation money on transit because they believe it will help provide access for all, reduce carnage and pollution, increase efficiency or improve society. On the other hand, they might feel that they are doing more for their constituents by helping them to afford the (supposed) convenience and independence of cars.
In a similar vein, people in government might feel that people who spend more should be entitled to more, and if drivers pay more taxes than transit riders, they should get more money. This argument is often used by anti-transit pundits like Randal O'Toole and Ronald Utt. All else being equal, sure, people should get back in services what they pay in taxes, but some of us believe in redistributing tax value to compensate for existing injustices.
Third, they might feel that what's important is not the amount spent per citizen, but the amount of service provided. If transit is more efficient, they can simply spend less on it, and there is no relative change in people's access. This would be fine if everyone already had sufficient access, and if the use of cars didn't cause all these other problems.
Fourth, they might not actually represent their constituents, but instead a subgroup with different transportation habits. I believe that this is a significant factor here in New York City, although by no means the only factor.
Finally, they might be corrupt and simply want money for themselves and their cronies.
The solution, of course, is to get people in government who are honest representatives of their constituents, share our goals above, and understand the value of transit in achieving those goals. Easy as pie!
Again, I'll talk more about the demand issue in the future.