Transit Isn't Supposed to Break Even, But It Is Not Free, Either29-Aug-2013 Source: Houston Chronicle
Monday, August 12, 2013
Two concepts seem to bog down any debate about buses and trains.
- Transit doesn’t pay for itself.
- The fare system is terrible, so we should just make it free and then more people will ride it.
As a story in Monday’s paper pointed out, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is planning to make all buses and trains free for Labor Day weekend. The agency hopes to lure some riders to try the bus, and it hopes some of them will stay. Many transit agencies do the same thing. So does Netflix. It’s a marketing tool, and the reason I used AOL CDs as drink coasters in college.
It also opens up discussion of the two points noted above, which seem stuck in already-drawn conclusions.
Both premises miss the point of what transit is about and compare it to things it really isn’t. Public transit agencies are not businesses, they are governmental entities. Even in the best of cases, like New York and San Francisco, the systems do not pay for themselves.
Neither do roads, libraries, parks or other amenities that some people think make a community more livable.
Based on 2011 federal data, fares pay for 19 percent of Metro’s operating budget. That’s higher than any other major public transit system in Texas, but far lower than more robust transit systems on the coasts. We score about as well as Phoenix, which like Houston isn’t exactly a transit town yet.
On the other hand, Metro can’t just give it away, though some people argue that fare evasion on light rail is so rampant that the rides might as well be free. Federal officials want to see local officials make some effort to help pay for the system.
Like a lot of things, putting a price on transit service gives it value, and without it the system becomes a dump because people don’t value things they get for free. Like AOL discs. The thinking being that if the service costs me nothing, it’s value to me is nothing. As a result, I am less likely to appreciate it or treat it nicely.
Lately, some people have questioned that logic, wondering if a free trial might show different results.
That’s not to say a healthy discussion about the balance between funding and free can’t be had. Mayor Annise Parker has talked in the past about eliminating fares, though no changes were made in 2010, other than an overhaul of Metro’s management.
Any discussion needs to take place in the context of what it’s reasonable to expect Metro to do, how much a city like Houston should invest and how little you can charge people without risking that they will make the system less attractive to others.
Original Article: http://blog.chron.com/thehighwayman/2013/08/transit-isnt-supposed-to-break-even-but-it-is-not-free-either/?cmpid=staffblogshcat