Friday, December 12, 2008

Mass Transit - Promises and Perils

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,”

  • 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,”

  • According to the same 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) (

  • 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

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, 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.



Al M said...

Nice article!

Kiashu said...

About public transport being able to pay for itself, a couple of points.

Cars certainly don't pay for themselves. Road tolls and fuel taxes and so on rarely cover the cost of building and maintaining roads. But we don't care, because though these things cost money, they enable us to earn money - we drive to work, we truck freight on roads, etc. So if public transport doesn't cover its own costs, it doesn't matter - it enables profit in other areas.

The other thing is that in some places public transport does pay for itself.

Think of it as like any other business: if you provide a frequent, reliable and pleasant service, then lots of people will use it and pay for it.

If you provide an infrequent, unreliable and unpleasant service, then people will avoid it and not want to pay for it.

In Australia and the US, most public transport is infrequent, unreliable and unpleasant. And like many other badly-run businesses (investment banks, US auto companies, US and EU farmers), it can only survive by public subsidy. The answer is not to remove the subsidy, but to make the badly-run business better run.

A frequent, reliable and pleasant public transport system would be better-frequented, and would not require public subsidy. Just like any other business.

TH in SoC said...

Thanks for both of your comments. Al, I appreciate the comment. Kiashu, I agree with you wholeheartedly. My point is not that public transit should not be subsidized; in fact I argue that a greater portion of money now spent on transportation in the U.S. should be switched to public transit. My point is to highlight the weakness of public transit in America due to lack of support and efforts by politicians and the auto industry to destroy public transit.

TH in SoC said...

Kiashu, one other thing - I am checking out your blog, Green With A Gun. Looks quite interesting so far. How are things in Australia?

Kiashu said...

You will probably enjoy reading about why I hate cars, or why driving is not a rational choice.

How are things in Australia in what way? Public transport? Well, that varies a lot.

Basically we're very good candidates for PT, because some huge number like 85% of Aussies live in our six state and two territory capitals. So we need less infrastructure to achieve (say) 50% of all trips by PT than would some more spread-out country like the US or Germany.

In a few cities, there's good infrastructure already. However it's often poorly-used. For example, my home city of Melbourne has some 450km of railway tracks - the same as it had in 1950. However, in 1950 with manual signalling and rotary dial phones for communications it achieved 270 million passengers annually, and nowadays with electronics galore it struggles with 170 million. The problem is atrociously poor management. We need to grab some people from Bern or Amsterdam and get them to sort us out.

It's rather like our wind and solar resources - we have a lot of potential, but mostly it's pissed away by people with no imagination or courage.

Funny about Money said...

This is such a good post! I love your general point of view, being a wild-eyed liberal myself.

In addition to security, public transport developers will need to overcome another serious problem: speed and efficiency.

The university where I work offered, for a time, free bus passes to all employees and students. Then parking was jacked up to almost $900. So I walked over to the bus stop near my house to try riding the bus to campus.

It took TWO HOURS going and TWO HOURS & TEN MINUTES coming to make the 20-minute drive. And I was let off more than a half-mile from my office. Even though the main bus stops are just across the street from where I work, the bus from my part of the Valley doesn't go there.

Sorry, but there's just no way I'm going to ride a bus--a perfectly miserable experience, BTW, for which "creeps and weirdos" is an apt term--for four hours and ten minutes to make a 40-minute round-trip commute.

Nor am I going to put myself at risk. A few days after my little adventure, a woman was abducted from the bus stop where I had waited, and she was raped.

Riding a bicycle is also out of the question, tho' it probably would consume less time than the bus ride did. People around here drive like lunatics. Anything that slows them down or gets in their way puts them into a homicidal frenzy. Even if you're in one of the very few bicycle lanes, your chance of being run down is high.

The City here is constructing a light-rail system, which alas is actually a trolley. It will take the same length of time to get from the central city to the university, and there's no reason to believe its denizens will be any less obnoxious than current bus riders. To accomplish this, they're trashing our neighborhood--demolishing an entire row of homes, which will push our already depreciated home values even lower--and they have already turned the prettiest, formerly tree-lined main street in the central city into an unsightly mess of concrete, traffic congestion, and overhead wires. How exactly this will be an improvement remains to be seen.

What the city needed was not a fraudulent trolley system that expensively clones existing bus lines but a high-speed rail line that could easily have been built along existing freeways, whose routes are designed to carry commuters efficiently and whose environs are already trashed by the unholy traffic noise and commercial development. These could have been built not just to putter around the city (as our alternative-fuel buses already do) but to carry workers in from the increasingly remote, Los-Angelized suburbs.

As for the question of whether cars pay for themselves, IMHO if driving my car forestalls my being attacked and raped, yes. Yes, that car pays for itself. Many times over. Any day I'd rather pony up $480.25 than be subjected to a psychotic rapist, thank you.

Mercifully, the city where my office is located provides free all-day parking at any metered spot for those of us with a disabled placard, which I happen to have. This parking is not much further from my workplace than the now-unaffordable handicapped parking on campus, and so at least I don't have to bankrupt myself to go to work.

Transportation in the U.S. is a serious problem. It's not as serious as the rapidly deteriorating health-care system, but it needs attention.

It needs intelligent attention. And, at least in my parts, we're not seeing that.