Home MTA Politics For transit funding, does age matter?

For transit funding, does age matter?

by Benjamin Kabak

At an RPA panel this morning in New Jersey, MTA head Joe Lhota spoke about securing dedicated transit funding, and his words made me ponder a generational divide. Via Dana Rubinstein:

Speaking today on a Regional Plan Association panel at the Princeton Club that also included New Jersey’s transportation commissioner, Lhota said, “I’m not sure about the state house in the legislative end in Trenton, but I can tell you when I go to Albany, I mean, just trying to talk about increased investment in rail, including in the folks in the M.T.A. region, it’s not that easy.”

“I hope it’s a generational thing,” he continued. “Pretty much the phasing [in] of the people who are the younger folks who are much used to not driving, who are used to taking more rapid transit, and that’s what we’re actually seeing at the M.T.A. The increase in growth, if you look at the demographics of it, it’s basically people who are 35 and below, who are using the system, significantly more than people older than that.”

On the one hand, Lhota’s characterization makes perfect sense to me. Many of the representatives in Albany controlling transit’s purse strings grew up in an age when a car was synonymous with personal mobility and the decaying and dangerous subway system was to be avoided. For most of their formative years, political or otherwise, the MTA couldn’t be trusted with running a train without a breakdown let alone spending money, and the subways weren’t a priority.

Yet, on the other hand, many of today’s under-35 set also came of age at a time of MTA corruption or ineptitude. They hear vaguely of charges of improper bookkeeping and understand transit funding only through the lens of Albany divestment in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But they do not, as Lhota noted, have the same level of car ownership as their parents and are much more ardent subway users. That’s why many of the younger representatives in Albany are some of the more vocal transit advocates.

It’s probably foolish or at least naive to think a new generation of lawmakers will suddenly realize the value of transit, but as constituents who are more accepting of the subway system grow up, they can make noises about investment. Waiting out demographics shifts is no way to accomplish anything in a timely fashion, but it certainly can be a piece of the puzzle. I think Lhota is on to something here.

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Hank June 13, 2012 - 1:32 pm

It’s also the younger generation that appreciates how much more your quality of life (particularly during something as mundane as commuting) IMPROVES without a car, as opposed to the older generations who viewed cars as a QOL enhancer.

John June 13, 2012 - 2:23 pm

I completely agree. Especially since our generation is pretty much universally bogged down by undergraduate loan payments every month, which average (at least as far as me and my friends are concerned) around $300-400. That’s equivalent to a car payment. One of the no-brainers for me moving to this city is that I wouldn’t have the added burden of car and insurance payments, not to mention gas. Getting home by bus is an easy $40 and three hours of my time without having to think about navigating the hellish city streets in order to get out of here. All I need is my $104 MetroCard and a bike. It’s that simple.

A lot of my friends who have graduated in the past few years, at least those who have been able to move somewhere on their own and not back home, have relocated to dense metropolitan areas (San Francisco, Philly, Chicago) and don’t own cars. In fact, having a car in your 20s is now something completely stigmatizing in comparison to past generations. It evokes thoughts of laziness, selfishness, environmental inconsideration, and the like, and I think this trend will only continue, not diminish.

Eric F June 13, 2012 - 5:13 pm

I’m a big believer in generalizing wildly from personal experience, but that group of friends may not be the universal benchmark that you think it is.

Duke June 13, 2012 - 6:26 pm

Indeed. I own a car and none of my friends think less of me for it.

The key is, I don’t use my car to get around the city – that’s what the subway is for! I only use it when I leave the city, which between work and pleasure is maybe about five times a month. I am not dependent on my car day to day but I am glad I have it when I use it.

Nathanael June 14, 2012 - 6:58 am

A car is viewed, out here in the car-dependent areas, as *useful* but also *outrageously expensive*.

The fact that almost nobody in this generation has any net wealth to speak of is the big issue.

Nathanael June 14, 2012 - 7:05 am

To get back to the original topic, though, cars aren’t aspirational. They’re annoying tools. They’re treated in an entirely practical way, and so if someone can get rid of the overpriced tool and still get everywhere they need to, they do.

Marc Shepherd June 13, 2012 - 2:17 pm

I hope he’s right. If he is, transit funding ought to be increasing over time.

I think he’s wrong. The real problem is twofold. First, people don’t trust government to solve Big Problems. And second, Republicans are virulently anti-tax, no matter the purpose. Put those two things together, and it’s hard to get funding.

Those trends could change over time (the aversion to taxes and big government), but I don’t see any evidence that they are particularly age-related.

Bolwerk June 13, 2012 - 3:24 pm

Bleh, I wouldn’t buy into that rhetoric. The people who claim to hate “Big Government” tend to be the change-fearing authoritarian thugs who want to make the government as powerful as it can as an agent for the big business and Christian supremacist lobbies. When they say they hate Big Government, they just mean they don’t want the government to do anything to even convenience the poor. Not coincidentally, they’re far from spendthrift, which isn’t surprising given that their religious belief that lowering taxes = more tax revenue.

Anyway, taxes are going up no matter what anyone says or does, even if the GOP has to cause a default first.

Jerrold June 13, 2012 - 4:28 pm


Kid Twist June 13, 2012 - 5:07 pm

Good one! Oh, right. You actually believe this.

Eric F June 13, 2012 - 5:15 pm

The locally powerful Christian Supremacist lobby is what ultimately made the Dodgers leave Brooklyn.

Bolwerk June 13, 2012 - 5:19 pm

I guess I imagined the existence of James Dobson and the Bush deficit.

SEAN June 13, 2012 - 5:45 pm

I don’t know if I would express it that way, but point taken. Notice how today almost every issue in politics is in the ABSOLUTE frame of GOOD vs EAVIL. Anyone who disagrees with the ultra RW is labeled as hating america, including many republicans who don’t subscribe to that line of thinking.

Bolwerk June 13, 2012 - 6:38 pm

We’ll have to ask Kid Twist if I’m allowed to believe, based on the preponderance of evidence, that most sane people were driven out of the Republikan Party long ago.

Phantom June 13, 2012 - 8:34 pm

Transit funding should not increase until costs are brought into line, in NYS anyway

Bolwerk June 14, 2012 - 2:17 am

That’s tantamount to punishing riders because politicians dole out patronage.

Bolwerk June 13, 2012 - 3:32 pm

There won’t be a new generation of lawmakers any time soon, and even many of the odd younger people who get elected will be on their knees for their geriatric handlers. As baby boomers retire, they’re going to find they have more time on their hands. So while young people who can get jobs work to support boomers, and young who can’t get jobs wait in line at soup kitchens, the boomers will be busy crafting policy to continue the flow of public services in the direction of the boomers. The dumbest and least productive of the lot – and these are already in no short supply – will sit around watching Fox News, being fed endless propaganda insisting they’re victims of librul big government that wants to take away their social security and pensions.

Anyway, they’ll vote, while the under-35 crowd won’t. And both parties will be scrambling to service them.

Nathanael June 14, 2012 - 7:01 am

This isn’t going to last long. Keeping the “military-age” generation out of work and hungry does not make for a stable society; it makes for governmental overthrow in short order.

(And yes, they could stabilize it by 100% funding the soup kitchens, but they are instead cutting funding for such things.)

Nathanael June 14, 2012 - 7:03 am

And the leading edge of the “screwed generation” is 35 already; that’s a lot of people. Wait a couple of years and watch.

Larry Littlefield June 14, 2012 - 3:01 pm

Actually, the wrong end of the deal started sooner, but it has gotten progressively worse. Generation Greed, now 55 and over, was followed by Generation Apathy, which is in for a big negative surprise. So those 35 and under had better do something.

Bolwerk June 14, 2012 - 3:51 pm

In hindsight, it’s possible that Generation X (Apathy?) was the first sign of the squeeze we’re seeing. It was in the 1980s and early 1990s that middle class whites began resettling urban areas – certainly there was a headwind under Dinkins in NYC, when crime started falling. The ones who came no doubt fit a certain socioeconomic mold, but they could very well have been driven more by economic circumstances than a desire to live in still crime-ridden, bombed out cities. (As I recall, Williamsburg still had its fair share of gang violence well into the 1990s.)

What circumstances? Even then, suburbanization was effectively a mature phenomenon in regions like NYC and LA. Places like Texas, Northern Virginia, and Atlanta certainly had cheap land to spare, but Westchester, Nassau, Bergen, etc., were as densely populated as land use rules allowed.

Bolwerk June 14, 2012 - 9:08 am

It might last very long, depending how the “screwed generation” behaves when it is finally politically ascendent. In any case, even if cooler heads do ultimately prevail (and cooler heads aren’t even really thinking about this), much of the damage is done. Pensions, bonds, and government debt will all need to be paid, and that too will be on the backs of the screwed.

Jerrold June 13, 2012 - 4:24 pm

Errata: Bookkeeper? BOOKKEEPING! Formidable years? FORMATIVE years!

Jerrold June 13, 2012 - 9:28 pm

I see that it’s all been fixed now.

Frank McArdle June 13, 2012 - 5:20 pm

One might consider also that the presence of children in the family also makes a substantial difference in both attitude and usage. The confrontation of school choices is what pushes many to consider the move to suburbs or the less-transit-equipped neighborhoods of the City Improve the school options and perhaps more people will stay in the City and opt for transit.

The more critical issue to confront is that most of the inherent support for the MTA comes from the City members of the Assembly and the Senate. They have long represented constituents that do not believe that the system should be fully paid for by user fees. Those who move out to the suburbs and areas like Staten Island, where an automobile is a necessity in their minds as children get older ( groceries,team sports),may have different attitudes on the subject of fare box subsidies. The question is whether these attitudes will persist as the City becomes more gentrified,as seems the case now.

SEAN June 13, 2012 - 5:57 pm

http://www.citydata.com is an interesting site that could bolster the demand arguement for increased transit funding nationwide. Data sets include such things as income, housing costs & population shifts. Also check out http://www.walkscore.com in conjunction with city data, to get a fuller picture on what societal trends may emerge.

Larry Littlefield June 13, 2012 - 9:53 pm

Younger generations are more interested in living without a car. And politics reflects older generations.

But the more important aspects of older generations in Albany is that they are Generation Greed. Sure they invested. But they borrowed even more. And they increased their generation’s pensions. And they cut the pensions of future hires.

Two generations ago, another Generation Greed pillaged NYC and left it in ruins. Then another generation rebuilt the city. Then Pataki, Bruno, Silver and their crowd took over. Another pillaging — statewide, nationwide!

People who cared about the future of their own community, even their own children, have been the outvoted minority. And those fossils up there continue to run things in their own interest. Their goal — leave behind an entire state that is like NYC in the 1970s.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines June 14, 2012 - 8:59 am

[…] Lhota: Young New Yorkers More Invested in Transit Than Their Albany Representatives (Capital, Kabak) […]

UESider June 14, 2012 - 4:30 pm

I’m sorry, but was the word ‘rapid’ used in the same sentence as transit when referencing mta services? Moving 4mi in 45 minutes doesnt count as rapid even for the tortoise

there’s mass and transit but no rapid, especially if you have a bus leg in your trip – in which case, walking is your fastest route

al June 15, 2012 - 11:52 am

Hah. Find me a tortoise that can sustain 5+ mph over 4 miles. Many people can’t sustain that pace.

The buses are slow in Manhattan, but outside Manhattan, there are buses that move at a steady clip. The buses would be faster if offboard payment and signal priority spread system wide.

The subways aren’t bad. If you don’t get a delay or GO, it averages 20mph. That’s close to the average vehicle speed on uncongested surface streets. During rush hr, the trains are often faster than cars.

Jim D. June 15, 2012 - 10:43 am

It would be interesting to see statistics supporting Lhota’s contention that public transit growth is coming from younger generations. I wouldn’t doubt that is the trend inside the five boroughs but I question how much it extends beyond the city. The suburbs and the rest of the state still appear to be very much auto-centric, regardless of age.

Bolwerk June 15, 2012 - 4:44 pm

I don’t think Lhota would dispute that. Or anyone. But when the modal share is small, huge growth can still mean a tiny change in the overall picture.

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