Sub-Optimizing the Poor

By Dom Nozzi

To “help” poor people, a counterproductive tactic that is commonly deployed is to run empty buses on routes that are so sparsely populated that it is inefficient (uneconomic) to run buses on such routes. Such routes are often maintained because they serve lower-income locations in a community and therefore are thought to “help poor people.”

By running low-ridership routes, the transit system suffers, which results in worsening transit service quality system-wide.

Is it somehow unethical to enrich the transit system — thereby improving service throughout the urban area — by serving more wealthy routes that generate large volumes of riders? Maybe if the bus system had the bloated budget of most city or county law enforcement agencies, they could afford to run what amounts to a social service agency that only ran routes in low-income neighborhoods with sparse ridership.

But bus system budgets are suffering, not bloated.

Many cities have a long, sorry history of running buses to serve poor people. A history that, as a result, sees a decline in the quality of service city-wide, which leads to a decline in ridership.Ottawa, Canada

Majorities of elected officials and administrators tend to champion the poor every time they mention transit. The result is a system that is pathetic in ridership and service quality for a long time (including for the poor).

The lesson, as a transit director friend says, is that ridership growth depends, in part, on quality service (it also depends, as an aside, on parking management, as well as residential and commercial and job density). A system that prioritizes helping the poor (instead of creating system quality) is doomed to be forever a system with low-quality service that serves only those without travel choices (in other words, a mediocre system that serves almost no one).

Let us also acknowledge that we need to have iron-clad evidence from quality studies and peer cities, prepared by qualified economists, showing a big jump in ridership before we move toward a costly transit system change.

A common change considered is to reduce or eliminate bus fares to increase ridership. However, I am unconvinced that there is good evidence showing substantial ridership growth with fare reductions.

Without being coupled with scarce and priced car parking, frequent service, and relatively high residential densities, low fares will be almost entirely ineffective in attracting motorists to transit — given the enormous financial as well as unquantifiable benefits of car travel.

Even today’s “high” gas prices are nowhere near enough to compensate for the significant, rational reasons to drive a car everywhere for all but a tiny minority.

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Filed under Politics, Transportation

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