As regular readers will know, I’m having a (righteous) tantrum because USC has eliminated its transit subsidy program for its faculty and staff. This is bad policy move for both obvious and nonobvious reasons.
Most people in the sustainability and public policy world think it’s an embarrassingly bad corporate move, but I do have a couple students in the business school who think I’m crazy for caring, but for reasons that took my breath away. One, in particular, is a bare-knuckles, salty sort of business guy.
When I told him the story, he just said, and I quote: ” So what? USC is just commuter school anyway.”
Me: What do you mean by that?
Him: It’s a commuter school for kids from Orange County. That’s always what it’s been. So everybody drives to campus anyway.”
WHAT? No it hasn’t! HAVE YOU NOT BEEN PAYING ATTENTION? We are moving up the rankings, investing in buildings and faculty and running a $6bn campaign (which, btw, looks even more unseemly when you set it beside the fact that we are eliminating benefits for transit dependent employees. Ish).
I laid the argument that every other major urban university encourages transit use.
He shakes his head at me. “USC has more in common with UC Riverside than it does with MIT or NYU. It’s just that the students at USC are richer than the ones at Riverside.”
(That’s not true, is it?)
So here’s what I don’t understand about all of Terry Branstead’s cronies and their crappy little power play that put a business consultant in the presidency of the University of Iowa:
Universities have people in them that are both worshippers of Mammon and who have higher education experience. They are called business professors.
They have, at least done a job in higher education, though the life of a business professor is hardly that of the average adjunct. But at least B-school deans have done the job for a bit and have a passing interest in education.
I get that this business consultant is a buddy of the guy who pours money into Terry Branstead’s coffers. But surely, there was some other big business apologist within a med school (big pharma) or a b-school who had been a dean or provost somewhere that they could have elevated to the purple.
I’m a little rushed this morning, so forgive any typos.
So why, exactly, should USC support employee and student transit? As I grumpily posted the other day, the cost my monthly transit pass went from $36 to $100 over the last few years, and this last jump came because USC Transportation Services cancelled entirely its transit subsidy, and that’s what set me off. No subsidy is a bad idea.
This is bad corporate policy. It’s entirely understandable from a dollars and cents standpoint: USC does unit-based budgeting (meh), and as a result, Transportation Services gets rather stuck with these kinds of programs. If you have great big parking structures sitting half empty most of the day, you’d much, much rather direct people to use those, since you are stuck with them anyway, than be using the revenues from parking to subsidize transit use. This is why USC as a whole should step up and help Transportation Services run the program.
Why? There are both justice and self-interested reasons for doing so. One of my brilliant students on Twitter noted that the increase alone from $36 to $100 a month is about 5% of total monthly wages for somebody making minimum wage. It’s a big pay cut for a low-wage person who depends on transit.
Ok, yes, those workers do not necessarily need to buy a monthly pass, so they go back to paying the base fare. But paying per ride is more expensive per ride than having a pass, and the pass enables mobility for a whole bunch of other purposes besides work. Metro is pretty affordable when it comes to fares, but they are getting less so, and low-wage workers in Los Angeles–and USC has many of them— exist in a hard whipsaw between housing costs, car ownership costs, transit mobility costs, and stagnant wages.
As a university interested in community and sustainability, USC should be trying to make that easier, not harder.
People like me can well afford $100, and I would actually be willing to pay full freight (and a bit more) if it meant that USC offered discounted passes to employees making less than the regional median income.
The self-interested part: those great big, useless parking structures are a huge opportunity cost. They are parking structures on a campus where space is the coin of the realm and we could fill any dorm space or married student housing space, like, tomorrow, with high-value uses that generate real, actual rents.
Yes, we can charge for parking, but…what do you suppose has a higher return: housing on campus or parking on campus?
Blam! Unit-based budgeting again. Transportation services doesn’t get to develop housing. So…parking has no opportunity costs for them. But for USC, the opportunity costs are huge.
This is why most urban/downtown universities subsidize their transit commuters. If we keep you out of your car, we can scale back on the amount of precious campus space given over to less economically productive uses, like parking.
It is out of step with the practices of major urban universities throughout the US. NYU, for example, offers roughly 50 to 60 percent subsidy, depending on the system pass. Harvard’s subsidy in Boston is 50 percent . MIT has the same deal. Yale offers its faculty and employees $130 a month in transit pass. UCLA offers a FlashPass through Santa Monica BBB for $33 (a significant discount as that is per quarter rather than monthly!). Stanford offers Eco-Pricing at 50 percent subsidy. Berkeley, ditto.
I know, our parking gets full on football days, but look, nobody is going to stop going to Trojan football games just because they have to park one train stop away. Do you see what people pay for those tickets? There is puh-lenty of parking along the Expo Line. Tailgaters should be taking transit anyway.
It’s harder to say that USC should just brass up for undergraduate transit passes. But it would be so good for them and for us. It would be so super if we could negotiate a good rate with Metro and students were willing to assess themselves a fee for it. But students and parents are already so stretched, and that’s hard, but…if you get young people riding transit, it’s soooooooo good for them, and it’s very good for transit, and it can make them into lifelong supporters, if not lifelong patrons, of transit services.
Sustainability: If you are housing cars instead of housing people, you are doing it wrong.
My employer, USC, decided to eliminate their alternative commuter program, and as a result, the cost of my pass is jumping to $100 a month from roughly $30, and I can’t justify that cost every month when I look at how often I commute to campus.
To say that I am disappointed in USC would be an understatement. We are either the largest or the 2nd largest employer in Los Angeles County, and we have an obligation to help lead the region to better, more sustainable solutions for mobility. Our alternative commuting program was a success; many of us used it.
They responded to the deluge of emails they got in response to the decision by putting up this “bureaucratic blah blah blah” page which basically says:
“The elimination of the subsidy was carefully considered and compared with other available alternatives.”
Well, ok, what are those alternatives? I’m listening. Why are those alternatives not explained? Why were those alternative programs not in place before you stopped the transit program? What does the university get out of this deal? Oh, wait, Transportation Services gets to keep $$$$ from parking rather than spend them subsidizing transit use. The USC decentralized and draconian budget process bears part of this blame: I suspect that Transportation Services leadership saw the $$$ and saved itself staff rather than continue a program that is good for the university but not in the financial interests of Transportation Services.
I do understand, but it’s still incredibly bad policy. It makes USC look like jerks, and USC doesn’t need that kind of help.
The reason for the “blah blah” is that there are no alternatives: this is just a pay cut for anybody at USC who has a disability that prevents them from driving and the university’s lowest wage workers. The real alternative is: those who can drive will do so, and those who can’t will eat the pay cut.
There is nothing about this move that makes sense for any aspect of the University other than Transportation Services. It’s bad for the employees, and it’s embarrassment for USC as a whole whose leaders have talked endlessly–and I think they are sincere–about sustainability. But it’s typical, head-in-clouds, lofty sustainability without the pragmatic follow-up that programs like this provide, largely because few people actually understand how important transit is to economic justice and sustainability.
Being a transit and sustainability expert here is frustrating, to say the least.
You should hear the Bedrosian Center podcast about the Last Days of Ptolemy Grey where we discuss end of life planning, and how most people say they want to die at home–but that doesn’t happen. Our discussion can be found here.
The specific information you need in order to understand California’s End of Life bill can be found here.
One of my favorite jokes goes something along these lines. Once, during a terrible flood, a rescue boat came upon a true believer who refused the help. “God will save me!” She declared, refusing the spot in the rescue boat. The waters rose still more, and then the true believer was approached by yet another boat. “No, she said, I don’t need you. God will save me!” She said. Eventually, the flood waters rise so high that she has to get onto the roof of her house. A helicopter comes and throws her a rope. “No,” she says “God will save me!” Eventually, she is swept away in the flood, and she dies. When she reaches heaven, she looks at God and says “Why didn’t you save me? Wasn’t I a good servant? Did I not believe?” God threw up his hands and said “Lady, what do you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”
The point being that end of life decisions are in our hands, too. When life ends and death begins is as thorny a philosophical problem as when life begins.
I toss out vague assignments to my master’s student and give them some data. This way, I see what they come up with–it’s often much better than if I had told them exactly what I wanted.
This is what Rachel Junken came up with:
These data have always bugged me. We could quibble about how accessibility is being measured, but I don’t think we would alter the numbers very much. I think all of us have known for some time that job suburbanization has really changed the US employment landscape. After all, John Kain published his spatial mismatch material in the late 1960s. But I don’t know that we really really can see what that change has meant for US transit unless we really lay it out, region by region, the way Rachel does here. Even places with really quite good transit have real problems with employment accessibility.