Alexis Grant holds an M. Sc in Speech and Language Processing from the University of Edinburgh and is an active transportation advocate in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys shaping and interpreting complex systems for the benefit of their users and riding her bike around Portland. You can find her on Twitter @lyspeth.
Should the goal of US Federal transit spending be
the redistribution of wealth?
The Transport Politic’s Yonah Freemark recently examined data from the 65 largest American metropolitan areas to
provide a deeper look at his assertion that local funding for transit
operations tends to depend on local income rather than on ‘need’, magnifying
“seriously inequitable outcomes”:
data demonstrate that increasing local and state transit operations spending is
closely correlated with metro area median household income.
This is not the case for federal aid, as minimal as it is. In addition, though
cities and states with more progressive electoral tendencies appear to be able
to increase local funding for transit operations, that contribution may be
significantly limited by the incomes of local inhabitants.
argues that this is problematic: “Since public transportation is a vital social
service, this has the perverse impact of providing the least support to the
regions that likely need it most."
first read this line, I paused over “vital social service”, wondering whether
he meant “vital public service”, but the article as well as his prior coverage of
the topic makes
clear that he meant just what he said: here, transit is being depicted as a
social service provided to people who can’t afford other ways of getting
public transportation is an essential social service — almost as important to
our society as Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security (that is what we think,
right?) — then how is it fair for the people who live in the poorest
metropolitan areas to suffer from inadequate transportation services?
seems to be advocating here for addressing a perceived inequity that relates to
only one of the two common goals of transit: what Jarrett Walker calls the
Coverage Goal (Human Transit, Chapter 10).
Coverage Goal reflects the “social service objective” that Freemark is
appealing to, “meeting the needs of people who are especially reliant on
transit”, in this case primarily due to lack of wealth, or poverty. When aiming
for high coverage, agencies provide service broadly, including to those who may
be difficult to serve because of poor connectivity or low density but also need the service more.
major goal, the Ridership Goal, reflects the desire to provide efficient and
effective service by serving the most people at the least cost. Services
oriented to the Ridership Goal focus on important
destinations and corridors and may separate services or stops by larger distances to speed travel
and avoid overspending on overlapping service.
Walker discusses the Ridership-Coverage tradeoff mostly in the context of local
decision-making, the same idea can be applied to state or federal funding. Federal funding can pursue an ideal of maximum
ridership; that would mean lots of money for big cities, where ridership
potential is high, and none for Wyoming.
Or, it can focus on spreading out the resource, pursuing a Coverage
goal, based either on a political ideal of equity or, as Freemark proposes, an
explicitly redistributive view that spends more in poorer communities.
positions his work in contrast to academics and commentators profiled by Eric Jaffe
at The Atlantic,
who argue “too many projects…are poorly designed or executed, in part because
of federal sway”. He pictures the redistributive power of the federal
government as a positive force necessary to overcome the inability of some
local governments to raise the amount of funds their areas ‘need’ to meet their
presumed Coverage goals. Yet his vision of how this would make for “better
projects” only asserts that it would be more fair.
left to their own devices, will restrict funding on transit operations based on
the income of their inhabitants, not based on need. It is not rational that the
state and local funding for transit in San Jose is more than six times higher
than that in Fresno, just 150 miles apart, much because of the latter’s
significantly lower household incomes and more Republican voting tendencies.
Fresno, after all, has more than double the poverty rate of San Jose and thus
has a significant transit-dependent population that is not being appropriately
dismiss the federal government’s role is to ignore its important redistributive
powers — its ability to transfer tax revenues from wealthier regions to poorer
ones to help contribute to a more just society.
and equity goals tend to be in tension
with ridership and mode-share goals, and by focusing solely on the coverage side of the
equation, Freemark provides an incomplete picture of what the role of federal
funding could or should be. Do all communities have the same goals for their
transit systems, and do they want to serve the same populations? Should they?
An equally good argument can be made that limited federal dollars should be
spent on providing service that reaches the most people for the least amount of
money. That, too, could be called fair.
transit planning outreach, Walker “emphasize[s] how the geography of transit
generates choices among competing values, which is why citizens and their
elected officials ultimately need to make the decision.” What kind of transit
to fund, and how much money to devote to it, is not merely a question of the
availability of money, but also a value judgment, one that the local area has
to make for itself. A more conservative community’s funding choices may be in
part a reflection of their values, just as their voting behavior is.
funding for transit operations could provide a valuable resource for local
governments that would like to do more, but can’t afford to. But Federal funding also relies on evidence
of local financial support or “match.” Local
government must decide whether it would like to fund additional transit, and if
so, what the goal of that transit should be. In discussing the role of federal
funding, no one is well served by assuming all cities would make that decision
with the same goals in mind.