A dispute in Portland is bringing to light the age old question of whether fare cuts or service increases are the best way to "improve" transit. Both options improve ridership.
The high-level answer is pretty simple.
- If you want transit to be mainly for low-income people who have a low value of time, cut fares, as this is an improvement targeted to benefit only the cost-sensitive. By not improving service, this choice may also lead to an increased "stigma" around transit as it is perceived, with increasing accuracy, as a low-quality experience that is of no relevance to people who have choices.
- If you want transit to be useful to a broad spectrum of the population, increase service.
Cutting fares is good for lower-income people, while increasing service is good for almost everyone, including many low-income people.
But it's not as good for some low-income people, and that's the interesting nuance in this particular story.
OPAL, an environmental justice organization that claims to focus on the needs of low-income people, is demanding that Portland's transit agency, Tri-Met, institute a fare cut. The cut is specifically in the form of extending the period for which a cash fare is valid from two to three hours, an interesting issue that the Oregonian's Joseph Rose explores in a good article today. (The headline is offensive, but reporters don't write headlines.)
At the same time, Portland has a throughly inadequate level of midday service, by almost any standard. In the context of cities of Portland's size and age, Tri-Met practically invented the high-frequency grid that enables easy anywhere to anywhere travel in the city, but in 2009 it destroyed that convenience by cutting service to 17-20 minute frequencies. At those frequencies, the connections on which the grid relies are simply too time-wasting. Those cuts correlated with substantial ridership losses at the time.
OPAL's demand for a fare cut costing $2.6 million (about 2% of the agency's revenue) is, mathematically, also a demand that Tri-Met should not restore frequent service. This money (about 80 vehicle-hours of service per day) is more than enough to restore frequent all-day service on several major lines.
The rich irony of this proposal is that OPAL uses those service cuts to justify its proposed fare reduction. In Portland, the basic cash fare purchases a two-hour pass that enables the passenger to transfer one or two times. Because of the frequency cuts, transfers are now taking longer, and a few are taking too long for the two-hour pass. OPAL therefore wants the pass to be good for longer.
So OPAL's position is that because service has been cut, Tri-Met must mitigate the impact on low-income people instead of just fixing the problem.
In particular, OPAL wants a solution that benefits only people who are money-poor but time-rich, a category that tends to include the low-income retired, disabled, and underemployed. You must be both money-poor and time-rich to benefit from a system that reduces fares but wastes more and more of your time due to low frequencies and bad connections.
If, on the other hand, you are money-poor and time-poor — working two jobs and taking a class and rushing to daycare — you will benefit from a good network that saves you time as much as from one that saves you money. But that means you don't have time to go to meetings or be heard. We transit professionals see these busy low-income people on our systems and care about their needs, but we also know that we're not going to hear their voice as much from advocacy organizations, because they just don't have time to get involved.
The same is true, by the way, of the vast working middle class. In the transit business, we get lots of comments the money-poor-but-time-rich, who have time to get involved, and from the wealthy, who can hire others to represent them. We don't hear as much from the middle class or from the money-poor-and-time-poor, even though those groups dominate ridership. But hey, we understand! They're just too busy.