Have you ever heard people say: “They got that transit improvement in their neighborhood! We deserve to have one in our neighborhood!”
If this claim comes from a disadvantaged community, it will probably be framed as an equity or justice issue. But even if no disadvantage is involved, it still sounds reasonable. They got one. Why shouldn’t we get one?
But does this demand always makes sense?
Imagine a city on a lake or ocean, where neighborhoods near the water tend to be wealthier than those inland. Suppose the city has a plan to build several fishing piers, but all the proposed piers are in the wealthy neighborhoods on the waterfront. Isn’t that unfair?
No, I think you’d say, because fishing piers only work if they’re on the water. If you were concerned with equity, maybe you’d propose a program that helps inland people get to the waterfront fishing piers quickly. But you wouldn’t support an inland city councilor’s battle to get a fishing pier on dry land in their neighborhood, because it wouldn’t be useful for fishing.
In short, the point isn’t to equitably distribute fishing piers. It’s to equitably distribute the ability to fish.
In the transit business, when a cool new thing is created somewhere, you always hear the rest of the city say: when do we get that cool thing? You’ll hear this about everything, from subway lines to light rail to little vans that come to your door. Enormous amounts of money get spent trying to act on this principle.
The typical pattern goes like this:
- Cool new transit thing x is introduced, and deployed in one or two places in the city where it makes sense. (Let’s build a fishing pier on the waterfront!)
- Other neighborhoods demand the same thing, often claiming it’s unjust or inequitable that they don’t have it. (Why don’t our inland neighborhoods have fishing piers?)
- Often the cool new thing is actually built in those other neighborhoods that demand it, but it doesn’t work well there, because the geography is wrong for it. (A fishing pier is actually built inland, extending across a patch of grass, but nobody uses it.)
The marketing of cool new transit things can make this problem worse. The more you put out the message that light rail or BRT or microtransit or “Metro Rapid” is cool and different and better than “ordinary” buses, the more mad people will be if their neighborhood just gets ordinary buses. That leads to political pressure to bring the cool new thing to a place where it just doesn’t work very well, which in turn leads to the cool new thing failing, just as an inland fishing pier will fail.
You’ll get the best transit mobility if we use the tool that works with your geography, even if it’s different from what works in other places.
So perhaps it makes no sense to equitably distribute any cool transit thing. It makes sense to equitably distribute the ability to go lots of places quickly on transit.
How would our transit debates be different if we did this?