Tag Archives: poor people

The Red Herring of Transit and the Poor


By Dom Nozzi

September 1, 2005

A common red herring argument, when transit supporters seek to improve transit operations to serve areas based on ridership, is that doing so will “hurt the poor.”

But this is nonsense. And counterproductive.

The problem with serving low-ridership areas in order to serve low-income areas in a community is that to do so is to SUB-OPTIMIZE the poor.

The result of that sort of tunnel vision is to run empty buses in low-income neighborhood routes for the sole purpose of “helping” poor people. By running low-ridership routes,
the transit system suffers, which results in worsening transit service quality SYSTEM-WIDE.

Incrementally, even if you only put transit money into serving low-income neighborhoods, bus service in low-income neighborhoods declines — bad news for poor people in low-income neighborhoods.

Is it just that it is somehow unethical to enrich the trancity-bus-1sit system (thereby improving service throughout the urban area) by serving more wealthy routes that generate large volumes of riders?

Many cities have a long, sorry history of running transit service almost exclusively to serve poor people.

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

The lesson is that ridership growth depends, in part, on quality service. Successful ridership growth, as an aside, also depends on properly managing car parking by restricting the quantity of such parking and properly pricing it, and ensuring that compact development occurs in areas to be served by transit.

By contrast, a system that prioritizes helping the poor (instead of creating system quality) is doomed to be forever a system with low-quality service that only those without travel choice will use (in other words, almost no one).



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The Frustration Syndrome

By Dom Nozzi

Cars consume a huge amount of space. Since nearly all of us for the past century have driven such large metal boxes for nearly all of our trips, we lose sight of the fact that our form of transportation takes up so much space.

A person in a car, on average, takes up as much space as 17 people in chairs. When a car is moving, it takes up 100 times as much space.

Because our cars take up so much real estate and are driven so often, it is inevitable that multiple times each day, we get extremely frustrated by being stopped or slowed down in traffic. In a huge metal box that needs more space than a city can provide without destroying itself, we quickly conclude the following: “THAT MORON IS DRIVING TOO SLOW!!” “GROWTH IS OUT OF CONTROL!!” “DENSITY IS CAUSING TOO MUCH CROWDING!!” “BUILDINGS ARE TOO TALL!!”

Our blood pressure rises and our stress and rage go through the roof.

Therefore, for 100 years, there has been enormous political pressure to widen roads and intersections. And to vastly expand the sea of asphalt parking lots we have. Anything to reduce the enraging frustration!Road-Rage_1689375c

We also have developed a bi-partisan political consensus that we must stop population growth in our town. If we cannot do that, we must slow it as much as possible. Or minimize densities and building heights. Our quest, again, is to keep our roads and parking lots from being crowded by even MORE cars.

We understandably (yet ruinously) end up confusing happy car travel (“free flowing traffic”) and easy parking with quality of life. Ruinous because the quest for happy cars gives us an asphalt mess. Ugly highways. Danger for children and seniors. Unaffordability. Suburban sprawl. Noise pollution. Loss of ecosystems. Road rage.

Since it is embarrassing for the political left to point out that we want to stop growth to make it easier to drive a car, we here in Boulder instead point to more admirable reasons: “We are saving the environment” (it is an article of faith amongst environmentalists that overpopulation is our biggest global threat). “We are protecting views of the flatirons.” “We are making it more possible and affordable for low-income people who cannot afford to live in Boulder to commute to Boulder jobs.”

The right wing also benefits. Not only do they seek to protect Lexus car travel. They also are able to keep out “undesirable” people by successfully pushing for such tactics as “snob zoning.” Such zoning requires very large residential lot sizes, large home sizes, very low densities, very low occupancy limits for unrelated adults, and low building heights. Indeed, in my view, no-growth efforts in Boulder are fundamentally and ironically a right-wing effort.

The above helps explain why Boulder has had bi-partisan support for a no-growth agenda since the 1960s.

The political left and right are enraged by the frustration of constantly being slowed down in their huge metal boxes (even environmental lefties are almost all motorists).

And the political left is able to claim they are saving Bambi or helping poor people or saving views of the flatirons, rather than their real agenda of easy driving and easy parking.

The Frustration Syndrome allows us to understand why even in progressive, pro-bike, pro-environment Boulder, there was FURIOUS opposition to narrowing Folsom Street. “You are going to deliberately slow down my car travel?? Are you kidding me??” Never mind that narrowing Folsom is a powerful and affordable way to dramatically reduce car crashes, improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety, reduce noise pollution, improve affordability, reduce regional car trips, and reduce car emissions.

This also helps explain two referendums Boulder voted on in 2015: Growth Shall Pay Its Own Way, and Neighborhood Right to Vote. Both allege to “protect our quality of life.” It turns out that neither did anything to protect our quality of life.


Instead, they are no growth efforts. A way to reduce the frustration of car travel by minimizing the number of cars in Boulder.

Which, too many of us wrongly believe, is a way to improve our quality of life.

Boulder does not have too many people. Boulder has too many people in cars.

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A Conversation with Michael Ronkin about Parking

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2013

MR: There’s the idea that charging for parking is a regressive tax, one that will impact the poor more than the rich (… market pricing to free up spaces favors wealthier drivers). This can be said of any tax on a resource that is limited and that you want to see used less. The cigarette tax is a good example: poor uneducated people smoke more that rich educated people, but nobody advocates for giving poor smokers a tax break. Same with a fuel tax, carbon tax etc., it’s something we have to accept, and work on solutions that actually help those with less money, for example create an environment what you don’t “need” a car for daily errands.

DN: Excellent point. One comment I saw recently to respond to this common concern about hurting poor people with market pricing (to efficiently allocate a scarce resource) is that much (all?) of the parking revenue should be allocated to programs that help the poor more than the wealthy, such as putting the money into creating more, better and more frequent transit.

MR: Free on-street parking for short periods has been tried, but 2 hours is much too long.

DN: As I understand it, my girlfriend is NOT suggesting free, time-limited parking. She is suggesting a hybrid: PRICED, time-limited parking. Time-limited so that even a rich person must vacate the parking space fairly quickly, and would not be allowed to keep feeding the meter (because the programming of the meter would not allow it).

MR: Most errands can be accomplished in 2 hours; you can even have lunch n 2 hours. And this also leads to another undesirable phenomenon: people who want to stay longer, even all day, will move their car every 2 hours, adding to traffic and hogging the more desirable parking spaces.

DN: Good point. This would defeat Ann’s suggestion, I believe, since even if the meter would not allow a wealthy person to keep feeding the meter, the wealthy person would only need to move to another parking space. And as Shoup points out, a huge amount of traffic on streets consists of motorists searching for parking. In this scenario, both rich and poor motorists would be searching if the meter was time-limited.

MR: So how’s to make it work, combining your idea with Shoup’s: offer say 30-minutes free.

DN: But wouldn’t that result in folks just moving their car every 30 minutes?

MR: You also make the more desirable spots, the ones closer to the downtown core, more expensive.

DN: Yes, this must be done. One of the downsides of being less wealthy is that you are less able to afford to park in spots that are more desirable (closer). You are also less able to buy as much electricity for your home. Or purchase a steak dinner each time you go to a restaurant. Such a state of affairs is NOT “unfair” to lower income people. It is an unavoidable consequence of having less money. And is it really an intolerable thing that a lower income person would have to walk an extra block or two? Or use less electricity? Or eat steak only once every two weeks?

MR: So if you want to save money, you park a bit further out and walk a few blocks.

DN: Agreed.

MR: Which can lead to another problem, people parking in residential areas close in. Which you solve by issuing permits to residents, and limiting others to an hour or two, or heaven forbid, making them pay.

DN: Yes. The only thing that prevents this is a lack of leadership.

MR: Sounds crazy? It’s been done with other resources. Your electric bill for example. Okay, you don’t get free electricity, but you do pay more per KWH after a certain monthly amount. This was introduced about 25 years ago and nobody thought it would work. Prior to that, you paid less per KWH after a certain amount, just like the big box of cornflakes costs less per ounce than the small box. The paradigm shift occurred because people didn’t want more coal-fired or nuclear power plants.

DN: Exactly. Many, however, howl in agony when this sort of thing is proposed. “What about poor people????”

MR: Too long drivers have considered [parking] a right, something the public should make plentiful and cheap, even free. So one way another those parking spots have to be paid for, they are not free. Which is the point Shoup makes, we pay for them is so many other ways that also end up hurting the poor – mostly by creating an environment where people do need a car to survive.

DN: Precisely. Another way “free” parking hurts the poor: When “free” parking is provided, since it is not free, it must be paid for in hidden, indirect ways. Poor people therefore end up being forced to pay more for groceries when the grocery store parking%20lotprovides free parking – even if the low-income person arrives by walking, by bike, or by transit! That low-income person, in other words, is sometimes paying for parking he or she is not even using. And is partly subsidizing more wealthy motorists using parking spaces. If the parking at the grocery store was priced and paid for directly, the cost of fruits, vegetables and meats in the grocery store would be lower.




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The Carbon Tax and the Poor

By Dom Nozzi

A great many intelligent people have pointed out the obvious in recent years about our climate change – a change driven by carbon emissions – and our fiscal crisis: It is screamingly obvious that an extremely effective, fair way to reduce carbon emissions (and raise desperately needed govt revenue) is to enact a carbon tax. Increasing the price of Global-Climate-Change3carbon sends a much-needed price signal to people that products, actions and services that directly or indirectly use carbon have an embedded carbon cost. That cost is the climate change and environmental/societal woes hidden by a lack of a carbon tax.

Underpriced carbon is rapidly destroying our world and the future of our species.

An important reason why a carbon tax is equitable is that people using more carbon pay more tax. Such a tax would raise much-needed government revenue by charging people for societally unsustainable behavior.

One would therefore think that political liberals and environmentalists would be 100 percent in favor of a carbon tax. Such people, one would expect, would find such a tax a no-brainer.

But as I often point out, a very large number of desperately needed societal actions are squelched because of the red flag too often raised by liberals and environmentalists: “WE CAN’T DO THAT BECAUSE IT WILL HURT POOR PEOPLE!!!!”

We can’t raise the gas tax…because it will hurt poor people.

We can’t put this four-lane monster highway destroying our downtown on a road diet (taking it from four lanes to three, for example)…because poor people won’t be able to get to jobs.

We can’t ease our parking woes, make our town centers more compactly walkable, and substantially reduce the amount of off-street, gap-tooth dead zone parking lots…because charging people money for parking will hurt poor people.

We can’t raise the tax on cigarettes to reduce excessive smoking…because it will hurt poor people who smoke.

We can’t adjust electricity prices to promote energy conservation…because it will hurt poor people.

We can’t charge a tax on sugar…because poor people won’t be able to afford to buy a Pepsi.

We can’t charge a fee for a background check…because poor people won’t be able to afford to buy a gun.

We can’t charge an impact fee on sprawl residential development…because it will hurt poor people who buy sprawl homes.

[I’ve heard all of the above complaints more than once.]

At the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder Colorado yesterday, I attended a session on how we need to learn to live with global warming because we have passed the tipping point and there is no way we can avoid catastrophic warming in our lifetimes no matter what we do (session title: “Climate Change: Get Used To It”). A question came from someone in the audience: “If we establish a federal tax [like has been admirably done in Boulder and a few European nations] on carbon, won’t it be a very bad idea because the carbon tax would be unaffordable for poor people??”

As you can imagine, the question made my blood boil.

I wanted to leap to my feet and scream to her: “We are driving a car at a high rate of speed towards a fiscal and environmental cliff (given our huge government fiscal woes and our huge climate change woes). Do you mean to say that we should not step on the brakes?? That we instead go over the cliff because poor people cannot afford to brake?????”


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

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Is a Road Toll a Form of Social Darwinism?

By Dom Nozzi

I believe I am strongly, sincerely concerned about improving the conditions of the poor. And that is PRECISELY why I am strongly supportive of such tools as road pricing (tolling). I don’t buy the common argument that such a position is social Darwinist (as many on the political left often claim, not to mention many on the right, who prefer to keep this form of socialism for driving a car).NA-AY730_TOLLus_G_20090702145736

Such an argument is within the same family of thought that one of the most effective ways to help the poor is to buy them all a car so they can get to a job in the drivable suburbs.


Any pricing/gift mechanism that promotes car use (such as a free car or free highways) is particularly onerous to the poor — even in the short term. In fact, in the article I read recently about road pricing experiences in California and Minnesota, advocates for the poor were initially opposed to road pricing, but now that they see it working so well (and low and behold, the priced lane being frequently used by the poor), they changed their tune and are now supporters. Their support is due in part to the fact that in both states, a good chunk of the road pricing revenue is being used to enhance transit, which is mostly used by the poor.

Imagine that.

This may be hard to believe, but even the poor value their time, which means that even the poor are more than willing to pay a few bucks to drive a congestion-free travel lane if the consequences of being late for something will be quite costly if they are running late.

Is it not patronizing to assume that the poor do not value their time?

Anything that promotes auto dependence, such as free highways, is extremely harmful to the poor — even in the short term. One hundred years ago, most transportation was socialized in the sense that it was primarily paid for by the entire community when public transit was provided. When it was publicly provided, the poor benefited from the fact that they did not have to own their own car. Today, we’ve foisted the lion’s share of transportation costs on private households, instead of the community, by largely privatizing transportation.

That’s fine if you are wealthy. But if a poor household must now buy and maintain expensive cars, the proportion of household income going to transportation shoots upward exponentially. Instead of 2 percent of household income 100 years ago, transportation now consumes over 20 percent of the income of a low-income household (income that COULD have been directed to better transit and better housing, food, education, etc., but instead is being directed to GM and OPEC).

Would it not be better if the poor lived in a world where there was high-quality transit (paid for at least in part by road pricing) and the OPTION of being able to pay to use a congestion-free travel lane when they are running late for something? No one is FORCING the poor to use priced lanes. They always have the option of using unpriced lanes.

It should also be noted that policies artificially promoting car use (via such things as free parking or toll-free roads) promote community dispersal, which leads to a loss of retail health and jobs in low-income areas as that retail and that job base moves to sprawl.

“Policy-driven, lopsided” distribution of wealth (as many opponents of tolls proclaim)? You bet. EXACTLY why such tools as road pricing are needed. There is nothing more economically inequitable, policy-driven, lopsided, and physically segregating than having all of us forced to travel by car.

Toll roads are perhaps the most effective, equitable way to have motorists pay their own way instead of being subsidized by free roads. Nationally, who has opposed congestion pricing (toll roads)? In places like California and Minnesota, when congestion pricing has been proposed, it has been wealth-cheerleading conservatives such as Milton Friedman and the Reason Foundation who have pushed it, not the political left.

The left has been the major political obstacle, with their bleeding heart concern that road pricing would be affordable only to the rich, would hurt the poor, and would thereby create “Lexus Lanes.” In the US, environmentalists are FINALLY getting on board with road pricing.

Why is the left finally getting on board?


The congestion has gotten so bad, so unaffordable to correct in conventional ways, and so seemingly intractable that even the bleeding hearts are being forced to acknowledge that road pricing is one of the very few effective tools we have.

One last thing: Ken Livingston, the mayor in London who is now world-famous for instituting the very successful road pricing in London, is known as “Red Ken” because of his socialist views. Curious that so many on the political left in America, then, are opposed to road pricing.

This from Michael Moore:

“…Liberals have acted and voted conservatively so often that they have redefined the term ‘wimp.’ This is why Americans usually hate to vote for liberals. A ‘liberal leader’ is often an oxymoron — liberals don’t lead, they follow. Conservatives are the real leaders. They have the courage of their convictions. They don’t bend, they don’t break, and they never give in. They are relentless in pursuit of their ideals. They are fearless and they take shit from no one. In other words, they actually BELIEVE in something. When’s the last time you ran into a liberal or a Democrat who stuck to a principle just because it was right?”

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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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