In the past couple of years I’ve noticed something that would be baffling in a lot of contexts, and is still kind of hard to believe when you see it. It’s called a pass-up, and it’s when a transit vehicle is so full that it can’t fit any more people, and leaves riders standing on the platform or the curb.
It’s bad enough when there really is another bus coming along in a minute. It’s bad enough when the city doesn’t have enough track capacity or enough train cars to move all the people who want to ride. But what I’m really talking about is when you can’t get on a bus and there isn’t another bus for ten minutes or more, or when one bus or train after another is uncomfortably packed.
It’s possible that the MTA, with its heavy debt service burden and its large employee benefit obligations, is incapable of bringing in a profit on any route at any time, no matter how many people ride it, so that it never helps the bottom line to add buses. But that would be a very different story than they told in 2010 when they cut service.
If you asked some of the people waiting for the M60 how they feel about the prospect of a fare increase, they would probably complain and tell you they couldn’t afford it. But if you asked them whether they’d pay fifty cents more to get a seat on the bus, or to just ensure there would be room for them on the next bus that came, they might say yes.
On the face of it, it makes no sense. These are paying customers; why wouldn’t the agency want their money?
We know it usually works in the other direction: transit providers don’t get enough riders, so they raise fares and cut back service, which drives away some of the remaining riders, in what is known as the Transit Death Spiral. We’ve put measures in place to protect transit systems from that. The problem is that those measures also remove most of the incentives for actually serving passengers.
The Transit Death Spiral is in fact a perfectly normal outcome for anyone who is selling something but is unable to compete. They sell less and less, and with less income they are unable to maintain the quality of their product. Customers give their money to the competitor, who can use it to improve the competing product.
Transit advocates knew there was a public interest in keeping transit around, so they got the government to subsidize it. But the reason transit was losing market share was that the government was subsidizing competing roads. There was a powerful popular consensus in favor of gas, roads and parking, and a popular distrust of railroad companies and “the traction interests.” There were also powerful undemocratic forces attacking transit, like Bob Moses, car companies and road lobbyists.
Transit advocates tried to promote an “all of the above” strategy, but rarely achieved “parity,” let alone more than 20%. They then largely fell back on charity arguments, which are inherently self-limiting because they implicitly accept the idea that nobody would take a bus or train unless they can’t afford to drive.
Then came transit advocates’ deal with the devil, the mistake that we’re still paying for today. After failing in both market competition and popular subsidies, transit advocates tried to beat road lobbyists at their undemocratic, competition-stifling game. They turned to public authorities.
Even today you see transit advocates arguing with a straight face that they can’t improve transit without a regional authority. Public authorities are the tools that Moses used to achieve power without a popular mandate. They allow elected officials to maintain a degree of control, but give the appearance of independence, protecting transit bureaucrats from all accountability to the voters or the market.
The result of this is that now, when there are plenty of passengers, the transit managers seem to have no interest in increasing frequency to serve the people who want to ride. What’s in it for them? They don’t get punished for leaving money on the table, and politicians don’t complain about crowded buses.
There are people who want to serve those people and take their money. But the city blocks them, and self-righteous bloggers spew bombast about “privatization” and “stratified transportation systems.” The state could serve them well, but the governor finds more political value in spending city money to build roads in the suburbs and the country. And on this the social justice advocates are silent.