Sunday, August 26, 2018

No, the subway is not in a death spiral

Recently I've appreciated Aaron Gordon's transit reporting in the Village Voice and elsewhere. I like his drive and his passion for justice, and I agree with him about almost everything. But there's one big thing he said recently that I just don't agree with. In fact, I'm concerned about it because I think it could demoralize other transit advocates and direct their energy away from where it's most needed.


Gordon thinks our transit system - specifically the New York City Subway - has entered the dreaded Transit Death Spiral. This is a familiar story from the mid to late twentieth century, if you've read any transit history. He describes it this way:

people, for whatever reason—but usually austerity measures, poor service, and/or service cuts—start opting for non-public modes of transit, lower transit ridership leads to less revenue and service cuts, service cuts lead to lower transit ridership and less revenue, etc. etc.

Gordon neglects another factor that has traditionally been blamed for lower ridership: fare increases. Otherwise it's a decent summary of the story as it's usually told. But is that the whole story? Actually, no, there's a lot missing. If we add that missing information we get a much more encouraging picture. There are still problems - lots - but it's easier to know what to do about them.

The first missing piece is our goals. We do not exist to support a healthy subway system. Transit is a tool: it moves us around so we can function in our economy. The subway is one of the safest, cleanest, most efficient ways to accomplish that, and it helps us to live close enough together to support healthy social relationships.

The second piece is that a transit system is always in competition with some other way to get around. People still need to get to work, to shopping, to visit friends, etc. Some of these, like the subway, are better for our goals; others, like private cars, are much worse. This is why we care which one people use.

If we go back and look at the historical examples that led people to coin the term "transit death spiral," they all involved overwhelming competition from alternatives with more funding, more capacity, more staying power and the ability to deliver a premium product. The only competition Gordon mentions is from for-hire vehicles like Uber, Lyft and taxis. These may have more funding and premium products, but their capacity and staying power are severely limited.

Uber, Lyft, Via, Chariot - they're all backed by truckloads of venture capital money. That's what allowed them to finance so many car and SUV purchases over the past decade. But the Penn Central and the Erie-Lackawanna were competing with thousands of lane-miles of roads and thousands of acres of parking just here in the New York area, plus billions of barrels of artificially cheap gas. The scales are not comparable in any way.

A large amount of this competition was funded directly by the federal and state governments, and indirectly by them through eminent domain takings. These subsidies brought the cost to the driver of a private car trip well below the actual cost, and to a point not much higher than the cost of a transit trip, especially after the cost of the car, garage driveway etc. were paid for. The subsidies provided tons of capacity, so that the highway and parking system could absorb large numbers of new drivers.

New York and other transit-rich cities have given way too much to drivers (like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the FDR Drive), but we did have our "freeway revolts" - preventing the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the Golden Gate Freeway, he Mount Hood Freeway and others from being built through our neighborhoods. Other cities spent hundreds of millions of dollars to destroy their downtowns and scatter their jobs across the land. That too contributed to "transit death spirals" as Northern urbanites bought cars and fled to the glamour of California and the New South.

This subsidized capacity was also maintained by the government until a majority of travellers had invested in cars, car-dependent housing and car-dependent jobs, to the point where when they approached the capacity of the new system they didn't abandon it, they just demanded more subsidies. That in itself required a huge amount of money and political will.

The electronic hailing system has never had anything approaching the capacity dumped into the region's highways and parking lots in the mid-to-late twentieth century. It sits on top of that system, of course. But that system was almost at capacity when the first Uber started accepting rides, and there is not much new capacity. The widened Kosciuszko, Tappan Zee and Goethals bridges are not near the regional core, and they are destructive primarily because they will maintain existing capacity at enormous taxpayer cost. Southern and Western suburbs are collapsing under the cost of maintaining their humongous highway systems. Uber and Lyft can't dump any more cars onto the streets of Manhattan, because they won't fit.

Subsidized capacity can work both ways, another point that Gordon ignores. A big factor in the death spiral of the privately owned subway companies was the gargantuan city-operated Independent System built under Mayor Red Mike Hylan, a former BMT operator, with the explicit intention of driving the private companies to bankruptcy. More recently, when US auto manufacturing companies and sprawl financiers were in a death spiral, the federal government stepped in with billions of dollars.

A massive influx of federal dollars could help the MTA too. Nicole Gelinas recently reported that Standard and Poor's cut the authority's credit rating. This means that the share of the operating budget devoted to interest payments on the bonds they've issued will increase, leaving less available to run the subways. But what if the Fed bought the MTA debt? That would free up a ton of money to fix the signals and the tracks. Hell, if Andrew Cuomo kicked in as much in bank settlement cash for the MTA as he did for the Thruway Authority, we wouldn't be talking about any of this now.

Because the available capacity and funding for ride-hailing services were relatively limited, we're already reaching those limits. The cost of all ride-hailing services has gone up since UberX was introduced, in many cases by two or three times, and customers respond. When fares were artificially low (remember flat $5 Uber and Via trips in Manhattan?) and there were lots of promotions, I took them a lot more than I do now.

One thing I like about app hailing, in fact, is that it requires so little investment. If you already have a smartphone and a credit or debit card, you don't need to buy anything or move anywhere to use Lyft. You just open the app, find a car and pay. An app ride can pretty much be dropped in to replace a transit, bike or walking trip - and vice versa.

The lack of investment means that as soon as a transit provider gets its act together (for example, let's say New York City Transit removes all the unnecessary signal timers from the subways), people will come back. If it's fast, reliable and not too crowded you can't beat a ride across town for $2.75.

Actually, you can't beat a ride like this even if it costs five dollars, maybe seven. This is part of the classic story of the Transit Death Spiral. Gordon only talked about "austerity," but the fare is a factor. The typical cautionary tale is of the transit operator that raises fares too high, driving passengers away. But if raising prices were all it took to bankrupt a seller, we'd have no businesses left.

Often the problem has been that the fares are too low. A major factor in the demise of New York's two private subway operators was that for over 45 years they were prevented by law from raising their fares to cover rising costs, and the city government refused to raise the fare past a nickel until after both companies had gone bankrupt. This is not a concern for the MTA as long as the government is willing to make up the amount needed to cover costs. It was only after the IRT and BMT had been running massive operating deficits for years that they entered the spiral.

The MTA should raise fares, and this is one of the best times to do it. Anyone who uses a ride-hailing app can see how much cheaper the subway is, and we know how much faster it is than any other option - as long as it's not disrupted or the middle of the night. Again, it's a bargain at five dollars.

The big objection to raising the fares was that it placed an undue burden on poor people. That argument was addressed when the City Council passed the Fair Fares plan, which will offer Metrocards at half the current rates to New Yorkers with incomes below the poverty line. The MTA can now raise everyone else's fares while keeping Fair Fares at this level, and thus not hurt poor people!

Over and over again while writing this post, I've found myself tapping out words like "overwhelming, gargantuan, massive, huge, enormous, humongous, truckloads, tons, billions." I'm using these words to describe the government investment in private cars (and the Independent Subway) that threw competing transit providers into a death spiral. Even today's car infrastructure subsidies, like the Kosciuszko Bridge replacement, are not on the same scale. The venture capital investment in Uber, Lyft, Via and Chariot is definitely not on that scale.

That's not to say that the government and venture capitalists couldn't do some damage to transit ridership. As I wrote years ago, the new Kosciuszko span will make it quicker to travel by car (and Uber) between Brooklyn and Queens. It could poach riders from the G train, and even the Queens Boulevard trains to Manhattan.

Ben Kabak has also expressed that to him, "With the transit crisis, the congestion and the high cost of housing, along with opposition to development, the city feels on the verge of a breaking point." I understand why he feels that way. I'm also frustrated with the slow pace of transit expansion and the constant, know-nothing opposition to building transit or housing.

But we need to keep some perspective. This is frustrating and destructive, but it's really nothing compared to the massive, huge, enormous system of driving and parking constructed in the twentieth century to compete with transit. The government can do more damage, and probably will. But its ability to build something that overwhelming, gargantuan, humongous - twice in a hundred years - is limited.

I won't say for sure that it'll never happen. But I have hope. Oil and natural gas are still getting harder and harder to extract from the ground. Young people have realized that suburbs and small towns are stifling, even when they're run by hippies and punks. I think we'll get out of this.

I still like Aaron Gordon's writing. I'm going to take his historical insights with a grain of salt from now on. Bit I'm going to keep reading it and following him on Twitter, and I encourage you all to do the same.

No comments: