Monday, July 2, 2012

Individual mandates for transportation

This morning I was listening to Chana Joffe-Walt and Alex Blumberg talk about the Supreme Court healthcare ruling, and they gave a good explanation of the rationale behind the individual mandate: increasing the pool of insured customers - especially by adding healthy young people - reduces the risk that an insurance agency will wind up with a high percentage of sick people on their rolls, and paying out more than they take in. This in turn makes it palatable for the insurers to give up the right to deny people on the basis of preexisting conditions. Between that and the expansion of Medicaid, we should see a lot more efficiency in healthcare because people are not relying on unpaid emergency room visits to keep themselves alive.

As I listened, I realized that the situation in transit is very similar. All transportation infrastructure and services require a critical mass of users. We sneer at empty lanes and empty trains, and rightly so. They mean that the concrete and steel that have gone into the infrastructure is sitting unused, and if we have to put more resources into maintaining them we are getting relatively little use from those resources. The time of the train operators, conductors and station crews are also being wasted, as is that of the highway patrol officers, toll collectors and maintenance staff.

How do you get that kind of security? Just like in healthcare, you can't rely on people making a choice for each event. There are in fact at least four kinds of transportation choices: the Single Trip, Habits, Investments and Subsidies. Because we're creatures of habit who buy things and have government infrastructure spending, Single Trip choices determine a small minority of our transportation use.

I'd love to know if there are studies that show how many trips flow from each kind of choice, but even without one I think we can all agree that it doesn't make sense for a transportation provider to orient their strategy around Single Trips. Imagine if a supermarket ignored the Habits people develop around bread and milk, or Investments like microwave oven sales, or Subsidies in the Farm Bill. A supermarket that didn't sell milk, or microwaveable dinners, or corn products, would lose customers to those that did.

But going back to the comparison with healthcare, what if there were an individual mandate to purchase transit? Would we see a more stable, better funded transit agency that can offer more frequent service? Well, if we look at the National Transit Database, we see that the bus companies and agencies that have more than a 50% farebox recovery ratio, there are two groups: (a) ones that use the Lincoln Tunnel XBL and (b) ones that serve college towns. In the (b) group, the colleges usually pay the transit agency an annual fee drawn from tuition, and the student IDs function as bus passes. In some places, like Amherst, MA, the routes serving the colleges are free when college is in session. This is an individual mandate on a local scale.

We could do this in other places too, and there's a whole "free public transit" movement that argues for just that. But a lot of people hate individual mandates, and I have to agree with them in part. I'm uncomfortable with the idea myself, and if healthcare wasn't such a bullshit choice I would probably care more. In practice, the only people who have any real choice when it comes to health insurance are the very rich and the suicidally insane.

The good news is that an individual mandate may not be necessary for transit. Before I go pushing some big new expensive thing for transit, I always like to see if there's some way we're fucking up the transportation system as a whole. And whadya know, we have an individual mandate for driving. Almost every new building in this country is mandated to provide space for people to park their vehicles. Cities set aside large amounts of curb space for free vehicle parking. If you don't have a vehicle, then you're paying a premium on your rent, mortgage, shopping, government services and taxes for free parking that you don't use.

Today Josh Barro wrote, "Transit advocates aren’t incorrect when they grumble about road subsidies. But if they really want American mass transit to work better, they’re missing the key target. A much smarter approach would be three-pronged: reduce subsidies, allow looser urban zoning, and get transit costs down." And he makes it clear that "looser urban zoning" includes getting rid of those minimum parking requirements. Don't let that one out of your sight.

1 comment:

Alon said...

What you're proposing is exactly the opposite of a mandate. The mandate is there to allow a private system to function without adverse selection, i.e. a spiral in which healthy people opt out, forcing the insurers to raise premiums to contend with their sicker pool, making more marginally healthy people opt out. In countries where there's a public insurance system paid by taxes, like Canada, there's no mandate, because you're automatically covered already.