In my last post I focused on the difference between playing a long game in transit advocacy, which requires thinking strategically about what government priorities will encourage people to choose car-free lifestyles, and a short game, where the focus is on getting more people to take transit and making it easier for them. But even the short game changes over time. It has changed dramatically, just over the past year, and as Josh Barro's column shows, many advocates have not caught up.
For decades, the main challenge for transit providers was that their trains and buses were running without enough riders. For for-profit providers that means that there weren't enough riders to cover costs. For subsidized providers it means that there weren't enough riders to justify the subsidies. Governments were pouring so much money into roads, bridges and parking that if the transit providers raised prices, they risked falling into a death spiral.
This was even true here in New York City, which has consistently led the country in transit ridership. In the seventies and eighties, crime and unreliable service drove people away from the subway, away from the city, and away from the region, while heavy subsidies lured them into cars and out to the suburbs and exurbs. Transit advocates, with Simpson curtains over their eyes, ignored the sprawl subsidies, fought for scraps from the government, and focused on "marketing" to build ridership. Transit was so obviously the moral choice; if people weren't using it, they must not be getting the message!
As the country cuts back on sprawl subsidies, and Baby Boomers and Millenials move back to big, walkable cities like New York, ridership is no longer the main challenge, no marketing required. In 2015 at rush hours, every subway (with the possible exception of the G train) is overloaded, and so are many bus routes. The old short game was getting riders, so what's the new short game? Let's go back to our goals.
In order to achieve most of these goals (reducing carnage and pollution, and increasing efficiency and social cohesion), we need to get people out of their cars. That's happening, but our progress is limited because the alternatives are getting less reliable and less comfortable. Why would you sell your car just to get stuck on a packed train? These problems with crowding and reliability are also limiting our ability to provide adequate access to jobs, shopping and services for all. This means that in these cities our new priority should be improving capacity.
In future posts I'm going to talk about a range of possibilities to increase capacity while minimizing pollution and carnage and maximizing efficiency and social benefits. I will discuss the pros and cons of each one, and recommend strategies that have the most potential.