One of the things that makes me wonder about people’s hysteria over congestion charging: why don’t these same people ever argue that it is wrong to charge for public transit?
Now, to be fair: transit enjoys a large out-of-pocket price advantage over owning a car, but in most places in the US, the car provides better service quality and higher mobility. And it’s no use arguing quality because much of that argument comes down to taste preferences. I prefer not driving because I once had a bad car accident and I never want that responsibility again. I’m incompetent. But that means as a transit rider and walker I’m intimately aware of the service quality problems even with good transit systems. And I’ve ridden systems around the world. No, you don’t have to drive with transit, but if it’s no fun sitting in traffic, chances are you’re still sitting, in air conditioning with some privacy if you are in your car. No such luck with congested transit, where you can be sweltering and hanging on a pole next to somebody you’d rather not share a sidewalk with less alone the same 16 cubic feet of air.
However, I digress. Service qualities aren’t the issue. The issue is why people think it’s unfair to expect people to pay for freeway service when they seldom think it’s unfair to expect people to pay for public transit.
Putting some numbers on the example further illustrates the point. A patron of Orange County’s SR91 HOT lanes pays on average $1600 a year in user fees if they use the facility 8 times a weekduring the very highest morning and afternoon peak charges; if they only use the lane for 6 trips a week and move to an hour off peak in either direction, they can reduce that amount to only about $800 a year . Peak-period, peak-direction freeway commuters are more likely than commuters in general to come from middle- and upper-income households; as such, the lowest income users who regularly commute in the SR91 Express Lanes come from households with average annual incomes of about$40,000.
By contrast, someone who buys a regular monthly pass for Los Angeles County-wide transit service pays $744 a year; a region-widepass costs $881 a year—about the same as the HOT lane charges. And that’s for one adult: two adults put the figure at $1488 because in transit there are no economies for multiple adults (whereas you can stick two adults in a car and drive on the SR91). A monthly pass for the New York MTA costs over $1,000 a year. Local bus and subway services for Boston MTBA patrons are about $720 a year, and commuter rail passes range in price from $720 to $3000 a year. These costs can get higher if a patron is unable to pay out in lump sums for monthly passes; what costs monthly pass riders $744 a year in Los Angeles costs weekly pass purchasers $884. These are not small charges when the poverty line sits at $18,000 for a family of three in the US; the cost of a NY MTA pass runs at 0.06 percent of total income there—much higher than some gas tax and toll schemes
My point here is not that it is cheaper to go by car: you’ve still got payments, maintenance, and insurance, etc. My point is that we worry about low-income motorists having to face charges but nobody seems to think anything of what we charge for transit. Yes, when transit fares go up, there is usually some discussion of what that means for impoverished riders, but charging for transit is routine while charging for freeways is seen as deviant. I find this weird. Of the major metropolitan areas, San Francisco is the only one I know of that has lifeline pricing for passes.
Here’s one of the very few recent studies on the cost incidence of transit fares.
Nuworsoo C, Golub A, Deakin E. Analyzing equity impacts of transit fare changes: Case study ofAlameda-Contra Costa Transit, California [Internet]. Evaluation and Program Planning. In Press, Corrected Proof, Available: here