Finding Effective Arguments for Funding Mass Transit

How much should passengers pay for mass transit? What with the financial woes of transit systems around the country, it’s been a hot topic. Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re looking at the question from a couple of different angles.

First, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic
looks at the role of mass transit in promoting social equity, comparing
policies in three US cities (Chicago, Washington and New York) and two
European cities (Paris and London):

2109778950_5ffd83ac29_m.jpgWaiting for the bus in Paris. Photo by julien via Flickr.

these three U.S. transit systems provide advantageous fares to
children, the elderly, and the disabled, they largely ignore the needs
of impoverished adults. On the other hand, London and Paris provide
generous discounts for university students, people in poverty, and the
unemployed. In addition, London provides free passes for veterans and
their dependents, while Paris offers relief for families with large
numbers of children. In both cities’ cases, significant subsidies are
provided to the transit operators by local and national governments to
make up for lost revenue as a result of these discounts.

It would be difficult to argue that transportation should be
reserved for only those who can afford it, and therefore fare schemes
that incorporate the needs of the poorest are necessary. Not only
should we be pushing vigorously for more transit, but we should be asking for cheaper transit, at least for those without good-paying jobs.…

this time of mass unemployment and reduced incomes all around, we must
work to reduce fares for people who cannot always afford the mobility
options transit offers.

Of course, social-equity arguments aren’t known for their political success in the United States.

Which is why, in an e-mail to the network, member Peter Smith — erstwhile keeper of the SF Bike Blog — has asked for help in making the case for funding transit to his new neighbors in Georgia:

want to figure out a solid economic argument for mass transit — a
solid economic argument against car sprawl — an argument that actually
has rhetorical impact, can be stated in less than 500 words, uses plain
speech, avoids any extraneous explanations about property taxes and
federal and state excise taxes, drops in sales taxes, etc. To me, the
‘economic development’ arguments are dubious, for a number of reasons,
but if that’s the only way we can justify our transit plans in numbers,
then I guess I’ll have to use them. My hunch, though, is that we can
stick to just simple capital and operating/maintenance costs in a
straight comparison — roads vs. transit.

Can anyone help him out? And no, he’s probably not thinking along the lines of "that’s what they do in France."

  • Brent

    An old saw in the money business says that people’s money motivations can be grouped into two emotions: greed and fear. If this is true, then the effective argument has to play on both. Here are a couple I can think of off hand:


    1) Mass transit generates revenue through ticket sales and concession rentals; roads do not. Mass transit can actually turn a profit for the city. Roads generate no additional revenue.

    2) Mass transit allows cities precise control over which areas to target for economic development. Careful placement of transit hubs and feeders can help revitalize downtrodden sectors.


    1) Gridlock kills business. Mass transit solves gridlock.

    2) Fuel prices will rise again. Car traffic will slow. You will lose your elected seat because you did not have the foresight to build out non-car transit alternatives.

  • I had the same kind of realization at the LA bike summit. Social justice is good, and a lot of the already-biking audience is receptive to it as an argument for better pedestrian, bicycle, and transit facilities, but the people who actually need to be convinced largely don’t care, or prioritize it highly. So I think it’s potentially much more productive to focus on the bare economic arguments, which (thankfully) are also strong. How much transportation value (people moved to where they need to be every day) would we get out of a billion dollar investment in bike infrastructure in SoCal? Is that greater, or lesser than the same billion dollars spent on, say, a fraction of the proposed 710 tunnel south of Pasadena? You can probably guess what I think.

  • Spokker

    Why do you characterize turning a profit as greed?

  • I have to ask, Brent, since I’ve done the research and come to the conclusion that public transportation has NEVER been profitable (even the famed Red Cars ran at an operating loss), how you have come to the conclusion that “transit can actually turn a profit for the city”.

    Perhaps you are unaware that “ticket sales and concession rentals” contribute little to the cost of operating public transportation. In fact, most transit agencies are lucky if fares recover one-third of the operating costs. There aren’t enough “concessions” available to cover two-thirds.

    However, if you have some hard facts to go along with what appear to be your opinions or conjecture, I’d be happy to hear them. What I read in your original post is a conclusion with no means of support.

  • Brent

    [Kymberleigh says I’m conjecturing.]

    Ah. My apologies. I seem to have entered a no conjecture zone. ;-)

    Actually, I’m just trying to throw out ideas for Peter to take to his neighbors.

    Profit does depend on how you look at it, of course:

    India subway “operationally profitable”:
    Singapore transit makes “record net profit”:
    Japanese subway “profitable”:

    I haven’t spent much time doing the research, but if you say U.S. transit doesn’t make a profit, I’ll go with it.

    But why can’t we be like the Indians, or the Singaporeans, or the Japanese? What’s wrong with us?

    Or, for that matter, why can’t we be like the French, who have managed to make their beloved TGV profitable? ( ) Or the Spanish, whose AVE is slated to go off state aid in 2010? ( )

  • LAofAnaheim

    Keep in mind Kymberleigh that even though mass transit never turns a profit…it allows cities to develop more densely and, in turn, gives greater tax revenue to the local governments. More tax revenue can be generated by a square mile in New York City than probably 20 in Phoenix, AZ. Remember, mass transit does give cities the abilities to charge ‘benefit assessments’ to recoup those losses on the actual operating costs. However, the benefits more than make up the lost costs.

    Imagine, if a company was losing so much cash per year……why would they continue to fund it? Just to be green? No…there are other benefits, and that’s why smart cities continue to fund a “losing cause”.

  • Brent

    It appears my response to Kymberleigh is forever “awaiting moderation,” perhaps because of the half-dozen links I posted.

    In sum: several public transportation agencies, both municipal and national, around the world have operated at a profit. I realize that U.S. public transportation hasn’t had that kind of record, but it is at least demonstrably possible to do so.

    Too, I am certain that Kymberleigh has studied these issues more than I, and I would be interested in the sort of arguments she would give Peter. In my own post, I had really hoped to help along the main discussion, and the comments so far haven’t addressed this call for help thoroughly.



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