Now it is time to consider publicly-owned, publicly-provided mass transit as one more strand in our safety net scheme. Mass transit has many things to offer those who want to save money, reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, or reduce their environmental footprint. Katy Alvord's book Divorce Your Car! lists the many environmental, energy, safety and community benefits of mass transit, as well as the benefit to local economies. (See Chapter 13, “Let Someone Else Take You For A Ride.”) To cite just one aspect discussed in that chapter, a single-occupant car uses over 5,000 British Thermal Units (BTU's) of energy per passenger mile, whereas a train car carrying 19 people uses 2,300 BTU's per passenger mile, and a bus carrying that same number uses only 1,000. Also going by bus cuts nitrous oxide pollution by 25 percent, carbon monoxide by 80 percent, and hydrocarbons by 90 percent per passenger mile. And one full 40-foot bus eliminates the need for 58 cars on the road. A six-car rail train can eliminate the need for up to 900 cars on the road.
But there are those reading this who say, “Fine, but I'm only concerned about my own budget. Show me the money.” For those people I give the following comparisons:
Car Ownership Costs:
Owning a car costs $480.25 a month to drive, minus fuel (“The Real Costs of Car Ownership Calculator,” www.bikesatwork.com/carfree/cost-of-car-ownership.html)
Buying a new Chevy Malibu costs between $7,200 and $8200 per year, including fuel, assuming that the owner drives 15,000 miles/year (“True Cost to Own,” http://www.edmunds.com/apps/cto/CTOintroController)
According to the same Edmunds.com calculator, a Land Rover LR2's total cost of ownership over five years is $58,841.00. Even a Toyota Corolla's total cost of ownership over 5 years comes out to $32,078.00.
Cost of transit ridership:
OCTA 30-day all-zone bus pass: $45.00 (Adult, all local routes) (www.octa.net/pass_fare_prices.aspx)
Metrolink Monthly Pass from Fullerton to L.A. Union Station: $168.00
Los Angeles MTA Metro Monthly Pass (all zones): $62.00
Portland Metro (Oregon) TriMet Monthly Pass, Adult, All Zones: $86.00 (This includes all bus lines and unlimited stops on the MAX light rail trains.)
It is clear that great savings can be reaped by those who park their cars and rely entirely on other forms of transit. The savings are even greater when such people get rid of their cars entirely. (In fact, just now as I write this, I am seriously thinking of doing just that.) And there is a further benefit. A company named WageWorks contracts with many large and mid-sized employers throughout the United States to provide benefits to employees which are funded by pre-tax dollars from employee earnings. This provides further savings to employees to purchase transit passes through WageWorks. For instance, if a monthly train pass costs $115 in after-tax dollars, with WageWorks the cost is reduced to $69.00. (See https://www.wageworks.com/employee/commuter/)
Yet the fact is that public transit in this country exists in an environment which is hostile to any system that interferes with the concentration of wealth into private hands by private businesses. That environment is therefore hostile to public transit. The book Divorce Your Car! describes the actions of General Motors and other automakers in the earlier parts of the 20th century to reduce all Americans to dependence on automotive transportation by buying up municipal rail and streetcar lines, then dismantling them. Corporation-friendly politicians have also done their best to tear apart existing mass transit systems or to prevent the building of new systems, as seen in the efforts of former U.S. Representative Tom DeLay to prevent the passage of the 2003 METRORail Light Rail Initiative in Houston, Texas, as well as the ongoing efforts of President George W. Bush to destroy AMTRAK.
Thus at this time in our history, when the system of automotive transport is failing due to the inability of increasing numbers of people to afford using it, the available alternative systems are not as strong or robust as they could be. Ridership is shooting up for many municipal transit networks, yet the operators of some transit systems do not have the resources to accommodate the new riders.
Public transit faces three challenges at present: a funding challenge, a security challenge, and a perception challenge.
It is natural to think that public transit pays for itself entirely through the collection of fares from passengers, but this is not the case. Fares actually cover only a small portion of a transit agency's operating costs. If one considers the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), fares cover only five percent of the total operating budget. Federal, State and local government revenue streams, bond revenues and reserve funds cover the rest. The Los Angeles County MTA system covered only 18 percent of its operating expenses through fares, according to its 2007 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. And the Portland TriMet system budget for 2009 includes an estimate that passenger revenue will comprise only 17 percent of total operating revenues. In the cases of these other transit systems, Federal, State and local government revenue streams and other sources make up for the rest.
The viability and health of a public transit system therefore depends on the availability of non-fare government-supplied funds. However, the Federal government has historically been stingy with transit funding. According to a recent Grist Magazine article, annual Federal spending on new transit projects is $1.6 billion, while spending on highways is nearly $37 billion. The same imbalance is seen on the local level, in many cases. For instance, Orange County, California approved Measure M, a transportation improvement initiative, in 1990. Of the total funds collected under Measure M, only 25 percent go to public transit; the rest go to freeway and road projects. Anyone who has been stuck on the 5 or the 405 at the El Toro Y, or stuck in the “Orange Crush” (the 57/22 Freeway merge) in the last few years can attest that widening freeways is only a temporary fix of a breaking system, and that Orange County's alternative systems are inadequate. There is a further problem with many transit systems, namely, that funding which depends on selling bonds is going to be much harder as time passes, due to the ongoing credit crisis. Transit systems such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority which have large amounts of debt may very soon be in a lot of trouble.
As times get harder and resource constraints such as Peak Oil become more apparent, many municipalities will therefore find that they will have to choose between continuing to cater to the automobile versus funding a system that everyone can use. They won't be able to have both. If governments choose the automobile, transit riders may have to choose between a three- to 20-fold increase in fares, or the breakdown of their transit system.
It's obvious that a transit system that is convenient and safe will be well-used. Yet there are aspects of riding public transit which make one wonder whether the heads of transit agencies are not secret employees or friends of automakers and other car-dependent big businesses and “free-market” disciples. This is seen in the not-so-benign neglect of security on many bus, rail and subway lines, and the existence of long-standing volunteer “security” organizations such as the Guardian Angels, who fill the security gap. In my post, “Uncle Sam's Vital Signs,” I pointed out the lack of security cameras on OCTA buses. The Fullerton Observer also ran an article in 2008 about the stabbing death of a gifted teenager by a gang member shortly after both had gotten off an OCTA bus.
There are things I have seen while riding the TriMet system. When I first started riding the MAX as part of my commute to and from work, I almost never saw any fare inspectors. Shortly after I began riding, however, there was a widely publicized incident in which a gang youth attacked an elderly man with a baseball bat on a MAX train. This led to the sudden publicizing of TriMet's long-standing “benign neglect” of security in the Portland Metro area, and the frustration expressed by police departments of adjacent cities served by the MAX. TriMet's answer was to hire private, unarmed Wackenhut security guards to ride the MAX trains within the Portland area. Several of the guards I saw were elderly and a bit overweight – not very much of a deterrent. Also, their appearance on trains was very infrequent. In the absence of any security personnel, I have seen a man threaten to pull his pants down and expose his private parts; a teen girl who spat on the floor; a couple of people who rolled cigarettes and prepared to light them; a number of drunk and deranged people; and a few too many loud, threatening and obnoxious teenagers, some of whom played loud music on personal MP3 players for the rest of us to “enjoy.”
It is true that in the last two months, TriMet has been stationing fare inspectors on train platforms. Their timing is ironically funny, however. The fare inspectors are on platforms in the early morning (around 0-dark-thirty) when almost every MAX rider is a fare-paying citizen going to work. I have only rarely seen a fare inspector or police officer checking fares in the afternoon, when most troublemakers and wanna-be troublemakers are awake and about. I suppose it's easier to work a crowd of wage slaves stumbling off to work to feed their bill collectors. And some of these wage slaves have been bitten by ticket vending machines that don't work, as noted at the site http://trimetdown.swiftreport.net/, run by a frustrated TriMet rider.
Deeds like these point out the lack of attention paid by municipalities to a resource such as public transit. Municipal governments need to have a change of focus and a change of attitude – they need to begin to see their public transit systems as a vital, valuable strategic resource, and they need to begin to guard and defend them as such, so that the productive members of their communities can safely and confidently use them. They need to see especially the added value brought to a community by a safe, convenient and reliable mass transit system.
The masters of the dominant auto-centric culture wage war against any system that might threaten their profits, and mass transit is no exception, as I have already noted. “Benign neglect” of a municipal mass transit system makes it easier for the promoters of automotive transport to make their case that mass transit doesn't work and that it should be eliminated. This is seen in the recent “Creeps and Weirdos” ad campaign by General Motors, about which I commented in my previous post. The fact that this perception has become widespread in our culture was brought home to me in conversations I recently had with co-workers about public transit. To hear them talk, riding the bus or MAX was as dangerous as walking through Fallujah nowadays or Da Nang during the Vietnam War.
Those who have such attitudes can't be expected to be very supportive of mass transit. Yet by refusing to be advocates, they may find themselves without alternatives when the system of automotive transit fails. The failure need not be global to hit home – it may quite personal, coming at different times for different individuals, when a mechanical breakdown occurs and the estimate to fix it runs into the thousands of dollars, and there's no money in the bank account and one's credit cards are maxed out, and there are no home equity lines of credit available and the dealer refuses to sell you a new car.
“The Missing Links: Public Transit Ridership Is Up, But No One's Talking About A Better System,” Grist Magazine, 6 June 2008, http://www.grist.org/feature/2008/06/06/avent/?source=daily
TriMet Transit Investment Plan, FY 2009, www.trimet.org/tip
“Public Transit Use Up Over Last Year,” USA TODAY, 7 December 2008, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-12-07-transit_N.htm
“Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Comprehensive Annual Financial Report For The Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 2007,” http://www.metro.net/about_us/finance/images/cafr_2007.pdf
“Transit System Bond Sale,” New York Times, 26 November 2003, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B00E7DA163AF935A15752C1A9659C8B63