should transit agencies “retrench” to become “profitable”?

The University of Minnesota's David Levinson wrote a bracing article last week arguing for a new approach to how we decide what transit lines should exist.  In its emphasis on "not losing money," it may remind you of some of the broadsides of the anti-transit right, but Levinson is not one of that crowd, as far as I know. 

So I thought I'd quote the juiciest parts here, and provide some counterpoint.  Levinson and I use very different frames, but if you look beyond those, there's some agreement here.

Mass transit systems in the United States are collectively losing money hand over fist. Yet many individual routes (including bus routes) earn enough to pay their own operating (and even capital costs). But like bad mortgages contaminating the good, money-losing transit routes are bogging down the system.

This "profitability" or "breaking even" frame may alienate many on the left from the merit of Levinson's idea.  Currently, transit agencies are not trying to break even, so they are not failing if they don't.  If we propose a free-market view in which transit should be breaking even, well, I'd like to see this as well in a perfect world.  But that would be a world in which government isn't heavily subsidizing transit's competitor, the private car — not just through road expenditures but through such interventions as minimum parking requirements and petroleum-based foreign policy.  I would further suggest that current environmental crises argue for government to be biased away from the private car and toward modes that do less environmental harm, and that subsidies toward transit (i.e. accepting that transit "loses money") are one valid way of doing that. 

We can divide individual systems into three sets of routes:

Always be suspicious when a transit network is analyzed as though it were a pile of routes, because a good network is more than the sum of its parts.

1. Those routes break-even or profit financially (at a given fare). This is the "core".

These tend to be of two types:  commuter express routes that run only when they're very busy, and all-day high-frequency lines in dense urban cores with all-day demand.  In my work, I describe these services as having a "Ridership Goal" or "Productivity Goal." 

2. Those lines which are necessary for the core routes to break-even, and collectively help the set of routes break-even. These are the "feeders".

Levinson is acknowledging here that it's not actually possible to classify all lines cleanly, because in a well-designed transit network designed for anywhere-to-anywhere travel it is the network that yields ridership, not just individual services.  It appears Levinson wants to distinguish a set of lines as individually unprofitable but necessary for the overall profitability of a network — as opposed to the third category below.  OK, but this is the same as saying that there is no meaningful line-by-line measurement of "profitability" in an interdependent network; only the entire network (except for the weakest services discussed below) can be judged as profitable.  That's true in my experience. 

3. Those lines which lose money, and whose absence would not eliminate profitability on other routes. These money-losers are a welfare program. We might politely call them "equity" routes.

Many people don't want to talk about this category, but these routes exist in any network.  They tend to be circulator services in low-density areas — including rural areas — that provide lifeline access but have little or no potential to compete with the car.  You can identify them because they don't contribute substantially to the performance of the main network (though this is of course a matter of degree with no hard edge).  

If an hourly circulator carrying 5 boardings per hour connects with a major trunkline carrying 100 boardings per hour, and half the circulator's ridership makes a connection with the trunk, then at worst deleting the circulator (and losing all its ridership) would cost the trunk 2.5% of its 100 hourly boardings, which will barely be noticed.  If the service spent on the circulator were spent instead on even more frequency on the trunk, you might well make up the difference. 

On the other hand, if the trunk weren't there, the circulator would lose 50% of its boardings, probably a fatal blow.  So while connecting lines are always interdependent, some are so weak that the relationship might as well be viewed as a one-way dependence.

Levinson's right about all that, but since I don't share his "profitability" frame I can't share his derision about "welfare" or "equity."  In working with transit agencies, I try to educate about these "Coverage" routes, the equivalent of Levinson's third group.  I define these as "predictably low-ridership services motivated by goals other than ridership — goals generally including social service objectives, expectations of "equity" between different subareas of the region, and a generalized desire to cover the whole service area with some kind of service."  In my work, I encourage public transit authorities to make a conscious choice about how much of this service they want to operate, understanding that every dollar they spend on Coverage service is a dollar they can't spend on Ridership goals or related outcomes of mode share and fare revenue.

So given Levinson's "profitability" frame, here's his solution:

Mass (or public) transit agencies are transportation organizations first, not welfare organizations.  They should be considered public utilities rather than departments of government, which provide a useful service for a price to their users.

The conflct between Ridership and Coverage goals needs to be resolved by government.  This doesn't require removing transit authorities from government, as there are many needs (especially land use integration) that argue the opposite.  Even if transit operations were considered a "utility," policy and planning functions of transit very much need to be part of government, in my experience.   Many Australian states, for example, gave away too much policy and planning control to operating companies, and are now undergoing reforms to take this authority back.

My thesis is that the local transit systems should identify and propose to retrench to the financially sustainable system, and present local politicians with a choice.

If local politicians want additional "equity" services, they should be presented with a cost of subsidy per line, and then can collectively choose which lines to finance out of general revenue, as this is primarily a welfare rather than an transportation function. In other words, public transit organizations would present the public with a bill for these money-losing services (the subsidy required in order to at least break even on operating them (i.e. the difference between their revenue and their cost), and not be expected to pay for them out of operating revenue.

If the cost of those lines is deemed too expensive (i.e. the politicians are unwilling to pay for them with general revenue tax dollars), they should be canceled. Transit agencies would no longer be losing money, they would now be break-even or slightly profitable. They might even pay a dividend to their owners (the general public).

General revenue (the treasury) would of course now be losing money, we didn't pull money from thin air, but since this is a social welfare/redistribution function, that is perfectly appropriate. This would entirely change public and political perception of transit services. It might also result in fewer bad routes being funded, since it would be crystal clear where the subsidies lay.

Levinson's tone here is needlessly divisive in my view.  I prefer to work from a position of respect toward the users and defenders of low-ridership services, understanding that other valid public purposes are being served.  I also respect the notion that a community that pays into a transit system should expect some service in return; this "equity" impulse has nothing to do with "welfare." 

But Levinson is right that a choice must be made.  There really are two competing goals for transit:  Ridership (which leads to high mode share, sustainability outcomes, and "profitability") and Coverage (which provides social inclusion and equity benefits in low-density areas that a Ridership-based system wouldn't serve.)  These two goals lead network design in opposite directions.  So transit agencies should have guidance — from those who fund them — on how much to spend on one goal or the other. 

I agree with Levinson, too, that transit policy would be much clearer if we had budgets definitely allocated to the purpose of maximum ridership — with other budgets that funded the Coverage services. 

For more, see this paper of mine on the same topic, and Chapter 10 of my forthcoming book.

UPDATE:  Professor Levinson responds here.

the death of the expert?

People often call me an "expert," and sometimes I have to welcome that.  But Maria Bustillos's Daily Beast article, "Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert," captures my uneasiness with the word.

So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person's views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case. For us to have this magic thinking about "individualism" then is pernicious politically, intellectually, in every way. That is not to say that we don't value those who can lead the conversation. We'll need them more and more, those "who are able to marshal the wisdom of the network," to use Bob Stein's words. But they might be more like DJs, assembling new ways of looking at things from a huge variety of elements, than like than judges whose processes are secret, and whose opinions are sacred.

I would love to live in a world of fellow-investigators rather than experts. 

To put it another way, I would love to live in a world where experts are responsible for how, but not for why.  There's nothing wrong with expertise that devotes itself to the question: "What are the best ways to deliver the outcomes that you (your country, your city, your neighborhood) want?"  Expertise becomes scary only when it starts telling people what they should want.  I try, not always successfully, to police that boundary in my own work. 

Experts do have a role in telling people what things cost, including costs that are now invisible to the individual such as the environmental and foreign policy costs of oil dependence.  That can sound like telling people what they should want, but it's not.  It's helping adults accept the consequences of their choices — which is pretty much what adulthood means.

political motivations, and the consultant’s task

We were having a nice conversation about expertise vs. activism in a beautiful, abstract space, and then Engineer Scotty brought us back to earth:

Unfortunately, in many cases the constraints [on the options being considered in a study] …  are not imposed by the decision-maker (especially in political systems where much of the authority is distributed), but imposed by outside actors, who may be engaging in self-aggrandizement or rent-seeking at the expense of transit outcomes, but whose participation is needed for the project to get done.

And in many cases, such folks don't want their fingerprints on the planning documents–you won't ever see an Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] explicitly stating that [bus options weren't] considered for project X because developer Y would withdraw his support for the project causing his ally councilman Z to vote no; or conversely that governor W is a teabagger who considers rail transit to be a Soviet plot and thus BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] was the only rapid transit option to advance out of the [Draft EIS] phase in order to avoid a veto. These sorts of political decisions are made in the backroom, off the record, and then often justified on an ex post facto basis when the stench gets too bad. …

Reputable consultants ought not take work that involves declaring that night is day, in an attempt to paper over a blatantly bad political decision. However, in situations like just described, there is plenty of work for reputable consultants to help transit agencies to make the best of a bad situation–if the political realities of a situation require that agency A implement a transit network using only mixed-traffic streetcar, and that other modes are off the table, a good consultant will help them design the best streetcar system that lies within their budget.

At the risk of misquoting Jarrett …, sometimes this is what "help[ing] you implement your values" really means. Often times the "values" in question aren't the values of the riders, the community, or the sponsoring agency, but those of the powerbrokers who ultimately control the fate of the project in question, and who may have little actual interest in improving mobility.

As a consultant, I really like working in situations where the key players really do want to explore the options and reflect the community's values.  Having said that, I don't think there's a experienced transit planning consultant on the planet who hasn't been in situations like the one Scotty describes. 

Especially in big, complex urban areas, you work for your client agency, and your client agency answers, sooner or later, to elected officials, and if those elected officials aren't happy, the consultant is likely to be blamed.  So yes, in an ideal world, the elected officials are conduits for the aspirations and values of the people.  But if the elected officials decide to reflect somebody else's values, well, they still get to decide, so yes, it's about their values.

Some purists decide that whenever someone talks about high ideals such as reflecting the values of the community, but then works in real situations where other objectives are taking precedence, that person's being hypocritical.  There's some validity to that.  At the same time, we all have to move between idealistic and practical modes of thought.  You may feel that what company X is doing is ethically wrong, but while you fight that you still have to live in a world where company X is doing that.  It's one of the harder things that humans are asked to do, actually, because we do want, in varying degrees, to feel pure and consistent, so we feel awkward about working inside a situation that we know, in larger terms, is somehow wrong.

I've thought about this a lot, because one common critique of me as a consultant, at least in my errant youth, was that I often talked about ideals at moments when everyone in the room needed a practical focus on the current political situation.  In middle age, I'm better at working in whatever situation I'm in, but I still feel the awkwardness, and in fact I value it.  So long as I feel uncomfortable about the real-world situation, I know that my adaptation to the situation isn't undermining my ability to hold, and act on, clear ideals.  Only if it felt easy would I start worrying.