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In the United States, but occasionally in Canada too, voters are sometimes asked to decide whether to raise taxes to fund transit improvements. I’m often asked whether I support these things. I don’t like telling people how to vote, but I can point out some predictable patterns in the arguments, and some universal facts about transit that you need to keep in mind.
1. In growing urban areas, transit needs grow faster than tax revenues.
This problem is mathematically inevitable.
As cities grow, and especially as they grow denser, the need for transit generally rises faster than population, at least in the range of densities that is common in North America. This is completely obvious if you think about it, and I stepped through it in more detail in Chapter 10 of Human Transit. In brief: Suppose a particular square mile of the city doubles in population. Transit demand would double because there are twice as many people for whom transit is competing. But independently of that, if density is higher, each person is likely to find transit more useful, because (a) density creates more disincentives to driving and car ownership while (b) density makes it easier for transit agencies to provide abundant and useful service. Those two separate impacts of density on transit, multiplied together, mean that transit demand is rising faster than population. Again, go to my book for a more extended and thorough argument.
However, existing revenue sources are usually growing, on average, no faster than population. The various tax streams that support transit have a range of differences, but they are not going to grow massively faster than the population is growing.
So if the city is growing denser, transit needs are growing faster than transit revenues. This is nobody’s fault. It’s a mathematical fact about the geometry of transit and density.
If transit and roads were thought about together, you would not see this exponential growth in total transportation spending, because as populations grow denser, they need fewer highway lanes per capita — precisely because they’re using transit, walking, and cycling so much more. But we usually don’t think about those things together, unfortunately.
2. As transit demand grows, you sometimes need a major project.
As transit demand grows in a growing city, it hits crisis points where the current infrastructure is no longer adequate to serve the number of people who want to travel. Several major subway projects now in development are the result of transit’s overwhelming success using buses. I’m thinking, for example, of Second Avenue in New York, Eglinton in Toronto, Wilshire in Los Angeles, Broadway in Vancouver, and Stockton-Columbus in San Francisco.
Broadway, for example, has local buses running alongside express buses, coming as often as every 3 minutes peak hours, and they are all packed. In that situation, you’ve done just about everything you can with buses, so the case for a rail project is pretty airtight. In all of the cases I mention, the rail project usually has to be a subway, because once an area is that dense, it is difficult to commandeer enough surface street space, and we tend to have strong aesthetic objections to elevated lines in these contexts.
These big projects require huge lumps of money. So as transit demand grows, its revenue needs don’t just grow faster, they grow in a lumpier way, with big chunks of money needed at once.
3. Not all rail projects are about improving transit.
Note, however, that not all rail projects are intended to solve capacity problems and increase the mobility of large numbers of people. Some are designed to stimulate development. (Many do a mixture of both, but the degree of mixture matters because the reasons to support them are so different.) For example, a proposed transit line may connect major destinations, or it may head off into an area where few people live now, solely to trigger development that will put more people there in the future.
Stimulating urban development can be a very good thing, but when you see those arguments you may want to ask these things:
- Do we really need this project, or would development happen anyway? The claim that rail is needed for development is impossible to test and extremely debatable. What’s more, because it’s a claim about current attitudes in the real estate market, the right answer yesterday may not be the right answer tomorrow.
- If developers and landowners are making big money off of this rail line that doesn’t seem to be serving the existing city very well, are they also contributing to the cost? Sometimes they are, though various kinds of local assessment districts.
- Does the proposed development have enough affordable housing that it will help build a diverse and complete city, or will it only attract the wealthy? If low-income people will be priced out, and forced to live in suburban areas where transit is much more difficult to provide, then the project could even have a net negative impact on the overall usefulness of transit in the city. You may also be forcing low-income people to buy more cars, which is bad for the city and also helps keep them poor.
Again, these questions apply only to a big project whose evident purpose is predominantly to stimulate development, rather than to serve the city as it is.
4. Who is for and against? (But don’t overreact!)
Everyone looks at this, and it’s a big source of hysteria.
All tax measures will have opposition from the political right. In most US contexts, for example, you can write off anywhere from 25% to 40% of the vote if you are proposing taxes for anything at all.
You will also hear lots of dark tales about the supporters. Your proposed measure is probably supported by engineering firms, urban real estate interests, transit labor unions, and anyone else who’s going to be personally enriched if the measure passes. This is normal and boring and should not affect your vote. Never vote no on a measure just because people are supporting it for partly selfish reasons. Those motives are in play in any campaign for anything.
Likewise, you should never vote one way or another because of how you feel about the campaign. Campaigns are thrown together quickly, work under immense time pressure, and usually make mistakes. The campaign will be over soon, but the effects of your vote will last much longer.
But here is one thing to watch for. You should be alarmed if there is a significant argument against the measure coming from people who usually support transit taxes. Opposition by environmentalist or progressive transportation policy groups should be a yellow flag. Unlike the political right, these people really want measures they can vote yes on, so if they’re voting no there is probably something wrong.
I don’t mean, of course, to give every self-proclaimed transit advocate a veto. As in any business, some of them are crackpots. But this opposition should be concerning. Notice it if it exists, or if it doesn’t.
5. But the transit agency looks so wasteful …
This is a tough one, because I can’t promise it isn’t true.
But be suspicious of what the anti-tax folks point out. Many things that look like waste make sense in another light. Your transit agency may also have tried something that didn’t work out well — they make mistakes, like anyone. They’ve probably spent money on things that are easy to ridicule from certain quarters, like public art or maybe driver restrooms that someone thinks are too grand, though often these are the result of complex agreements that help get a transit project built.
6. But the managers have such big salaries!
You’d better hope they do. These are complex jobs with appalling responsibilities. Many of the people in them could go to the private sector and make ten times as much. The best of them are in this business because they believe in it.
People expect transit executives to do impossible things every day — like run buses on time in wildly variable congestion, or cut labor costs without setting off rebellion in the workforce, or run service wherever anyone feels entitled to it no matter what the cost. The political pressures on them are off the charts. Not every transit executive deserves that compensation, but in those cases the problem is usually the executive, not the compensation.
In any case, executive compensation is trivial in the context of transit agency budgets. It’s the compensation and management of the whole labor force, especially bus and train drivers and mechanics, that determines how efficient the agency is, and how much service you’ll have. I am not defending every executive perk or unnecessary management position; I’ve seen plenty of waste in my career. But cutting executive wages will not unlock much money for better service.
My own view is that transit executives — indeed, all transit staffs — should be paid very well and should face very high expectations, especially for clarity about what the real issues are. You have a right to clear and transparent communication from your transit agency that helps everyone understand the choices are facing your community, how they’re being addressed, and what to do if you disagree.
Maybe your transit agency isn’t like that. Maybe you’re really mad at them.
Well, if you don’t like the management of your water department, does that mean you don’t need water?
Voting no on urgently needed things is a poor way to protest waste and inefficiency in government. Instead, get involved in fighting those issues. Send your elected officials a letter saying “Don’t you dare read my vote for this as support for that!” Find other ways to keep up pressure if you think it’s warranted. These communications always have more impact than most voters realize.
7. Will transit reduce congestion?
Advocates of car-dependence often object that transit doesn’t reduce car congestion, and that car congestion is higher in transit-rich cities. To respond, see here. To understand the exclusionary attitudes behind the transit-doesn’t-fix-congestion argument, see here.
8. If you’re still confused, vote yes.
Why? Because most people do the opposite. They vote no if they don’t understand, which is why it’s hard to get anything done. If you vote yes, you’re no more likely to be wrong than the no-voter is, and in a world where government often can’t seem to do anything, you’re voting for doing something. That sends an important signal in itself.
As a transit advocate, I’ve voted no on a couple of transit measures in my time, always with great regret as well as frustration. But usually, even if the plan contained something I object to, I’ve voted yes. Even a project that achieves its outcomes inefficiently usually achieves something. Even a project that’s solely designed to trigger condos for the very rich will at least get more rich people into the inner city, where they will then start caring about transit and supporting the kinds of transit a rich and vibrant city really needs. And while the failure of a ballot measure may be because of public objections to how the money was to be spent, lazy journalists and elected officials often treats it as a no to transit itself, so it often takes years to get another measure going.
So if you’re still confused, it comes down to this:
All the other confused people are voting no. So vote yes.