Streetsblog on Friday picked up an interesting tidbit from Mayor Bloomberg. While speaking at the unveiling of this crazy plan to build the world’s tallest Ferris wheel at the Ferry Terminal in St. George, the lame-duck mayor analogized a transit funding plan to the ferry. “If you were going to design the perfect public transportation system,” he said, “you would have it be free and you would charge people to use cars, because you want the incentive to get them to do that.”
This is essentially the Kheel Plan that Charles Komanoff has been working under the heading of the Balanced Transportation Analyzer, and it’s not the first time the mayor has espoused such a theory. Accomplishing such a policy goal would require a sea change in the way New Yorkers and Americans view public transportation and driving, and it would require a massive investment in expanding the reach and frequency of the city’s mass transit network. It’s not impossible, just improbable, and still a very noble goal.
If free transit is so great, how come none of the great transit cities of the world have adopted it? Is there any system of any reasonable size in Germany, Switzerland, or Japan that offers free fares?
I suppose some cities in Eastern and Southern Europe might come close to having free transit (in that they have proof-of-payment systems that are rarely enforced and thus widely ignored…Bucharest’s buses, for example), but they’re not usually held up as paragons of good transit.
People always say that Germany is terrible at enforcing, but apparently farebox recovery hovers near 80% on larger transit systems.* So if enforcement is scant, it might just be because it matches the need.
Also: I can see some reason to just cut losses in some places in New York, perhaps on a few busy crosstown buses. I don’t buy that a free transit system is a good idea either.
* Sadly, my source for that doesn’t appear to be online anymore.
Who is “people”? Maybe British and American tourists who find POP weird, or possibly the Cubic marketing department. Locally the POP system is not considered lax at all, and fare evasion rates are low.
Well, I think that’s exactly it. I travel a lot and hear these kinds of anecdotes all the time.
My take on local attitudes, at least going by Hamburg or Cologne, is they aren’t regarded as lax, but they aren’t regarded as over-stringent either. You could evade, but why?
he said “perfect system”… which does not exist
I don’t think free transit is a bright idea. It makes sense to ask people to contribute to the costs of what they’re using. There could be good reasons to subsidize transit,* but I don’t see good reasons to just throw open the gates.
We have a good thing going here, overall, and what we really need to do is find ways to invest in and grow the system – which is where we’re falling woefully short.
* And not many (any?) good reasons to subsidize highways, ranging from capacity to the environmental side-effects.
I think just lowering the Metrocard and raising the gas tax would be a good start.
I wouldn’t take Bloomberg so literally. Look at London. Fares on an Oyster card are capped by the day. Once you hit the cap, additional trips are free: the marginal trip is free. Cars coming into Central London incur a congestion charge: the marginal cost of a trip is high. Compare with Washington. No matter how many trips you take on Metrorail, the last one costs full fare; if it’s late at night, peak fare. The marginal cost of using transit is high. Cars coming into the District incur no charge, not even a toll on the bridges. The marginal cost of a trip is simply the cost of gas, which in the US is very low. We incentivize driving a car into Washington and disincentivize taking Metrorail. Bloomberg’s pointing out that that’s the wrong way round. We should incentivize taking transit and disincentivize driving. The extreme version of that is free transit and high tolls, but there’s lots one can do short of the extreme.
Washington borders Maryland and Virginia, where the the bureaucrats/politically connected live to avoid the riffraff. Besides getting massive wealth transfers from other states, primarily the northeast of course, the culture is every bit as entitled and narcissistic as the hangers-on who make up the worst of the New York bureaucracy. Since they don’t have an economy dependent on using their own time productively – they get paid anyway – they probably see tolls the way our bureaucrats do.
In many ways, it really might be the most asshole part of the country. Imagine Long Island, except the central city is even more emasculated by the whims of people who detest it and the people in it.
Right. The point isn’t literally ‘free’ — but which direction has priority, subsidized or users pay all costs? Of course it’s crazy to ask users to pay all costs, because there is no recapture of the savings from transit’s lower external costs — the fewer lanes of traffic, the reduced parking, lowered air pollution, less noise, less ugly.
On the other hand, we have unmetered ‘free’ water in a zillion NYC apartments and ‘free’ sewerage too, because the costs are bundled into the rent and tenants think of it as ‘free’. Well, better they should wash and flush as often as they want, even if they waste water. The alternative seems worse.
What would be the downside of ‘free’ or very cheap transit anyway? Crowding?
Or homeless people climbing aboard the buses and sitting their stinky selves down beside us?
As a society, we have failed to deal with the homeless problem for decades. Maybe if we all had to sit beside it there would be more needed reforms, like, allowing single-room occupancy construction, more drug treatment and legalization of some or all street drugs, more free (pharmaceutical) drugs for crazy persons now left to roam the streets, better education and care of diabetics, etc etc etc. But perhaps I digress.
decades? homelessness has been a problem for millenia
I feel like people value something that they’ve paid for greater than something that is free (or perceived as free, even if paid for by taxes or the like).
I failed to find an instance of this in the net (during my, admittedly short search), but I seem to recall a case study where free moquito nets were given out as a part of an anti-malaria campaign, and they were used for everything but their intended purpose (e.g. Fishing, clothing, rope-making, etc…); however, several years later, nets were sold (highly subsidized – pennies on the dollar), and they were found to be respected more and used for their intended purpose.
For similar reasons, I’d much rather see highly subsidized transit than free transit.
It’s from The White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly, in case anyone wonders about the mosquito net reference.
Appreciate the assist, Alon!
How appropriate that the announcement was on SI. Isn’t most transit there already effectively free between the fare evasion and no fare collection on nearly all of SIR?
Buses? And the non-trivial number of commuters who need to go to the ferry? Both these populations pay. I don’t know how high legal “evasion” is, but I doubt it’s that high. (And I know the farebox recovery is low on SIRT, but keep in mind that some of the swipes have to be partially attributed to other services used, including transfers to the subway.)
The last time Bloomberg suggested congestion pricing, he did suggest that there were going to be $6 fares in and out of Midtown, both ways. This is not going to be very popular, either.