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Reimagining Transit

May 16, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

What if public transit operated more like a membership organization than an inexpensive shared taxi service? And what if the riders themselves helped govern it?

David Levinson, a skeptic at the University of Minnesota on all things transportation, asks these interesting, if slightly off-the-wall, questions in a new post on his lively and often counterintuitive blog The Transportationist.

"Membership ... changes the perspective from being a customer to being a member if not owner of the system," he writes. "As a member of a club, I want there to be more members, as it helps spread the costs and raises money for the services provided. I become an advocate for the organizations I join."

In addition, Levinson says, transit systems could adopt the model of institutions like museums and zoos and allow free "admission" with a local pass across the country. They could sweeten the allure with goodies like tote bags, mugs, newsletters and even a vote on governance. But, he adds, "I cannot find an example of a transit system that organizes and treats its riders as members."

These musings followed his suggestion that transit systems should use price incentives to promote the sale of unlimited ridership passes over one-time fares. Metro Transit, for example, offers monthly passes ranging from $59 to $113.50 -- or the $76 full-service Metropass for groups of at least 10 riders -- but barely one in eight trips is paid for like that.

To boost this kind of "membership," Levinson says, transit systems should consider cutting pass prices and raising individual fares: "At a relatively lower price, more people would get a Metropass. Possessing a Metropass would induce me to make more trips by transit (since the marginal cost of use would now be zero) ... People pay for the option of not having to think about price."

As you can probably tell from some of his buzzwords ("induce," "marginal cost"), Levinson relies heavily on economic analysis in much of his work. His blog, headlined "Club Transit," riffs off an earlier blog he co-wrote that examines pros and cons for public transit subsidies from an economics perspective.

I'll spare you most of the dismal-science details there (it's all in the link), but Levinson and coauthor David King come down largely on the anti-subsidy side. "Systems should over time pay for their own operation and maintenance from usage-derived revenue," they argued. "Like other public utilities, transit can and should be able to cover its operating costs from user revenue."

Any subsidies, they say, should be directed to disadvantaged riders from non-transportation revenues. "Perhaps the biggest problem with current subsidies is that they are place-based and not people-based," they wrote. "Why should the entire system be subsidized? Why should a professor pay the same fare as students?"

Further, Levinson and King say transit's initial and recurring capital costs should come in the form of ongoing value capture from properties the system serves -- places like downtowns and the Mall of America. This is a woefully underused policy that Minnesota 2020 supports. A UofM study  has suggested eight property-based mechanisms to implement it; Levinson and King offer a different one: a tax on wages at transit-heavy employment nodes. At Minnesota 2020, we'd rather tax capital than labor, but in reality there's little movement here toward any kind of value capture for either roads or transit.

Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland declined to comment on most of the Levinson-King proposals, but he did note that all Twin Cities transit providers charge the same fares and honor ride passes, which is not always the case in other metropoltian areas. "It's a service to our riders," he said.

As for dreams of a nationwide "transit club," Siqveland added, "numerous political, financial and logistical challenges" stand in the way of linking hundreds, if not thousands, of independent transit agencies in a common fare and pass structure.

For that matter, totally unsubsidized transit is at least as far a reach, especially as long as driving remains supported with many more non-user taxes. "One bad subsidy does not deserve another," Levinson and King wrote. "Just because cars are subsidized is not a reason to subsidize transit. It is an argument to remove the subsidies that exist. Technically (if not politically) it would be relatively easy to charge cars for their full cost via higher fuel taxes (or mileage fees)."

Politically, we know how relatively un-easy that is, with new proof just the other day. But we could have a more productive conversation about how best to finance a multimodal transportation system if the conservative transit-bashers would just acknowledge all the government largesse for motorways.

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6 Comments:

  • copper says:

    May 18, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    I subsidize the road in front of my house with my property taxes in order to move goods and services to my house.  So if subsidies are a bad and we take them away from both roads and transit, doesn’t that just leave us stuck in our homes?  Sometime I think that we would be better off without these “Economists”.

  • Mathews Hollinshead says:

    May 21, 2013 at 6:13 am

    As a monthly purchaser of the $85 Metro Transit pass, good for unlimited trips at all times of day except for Northstar Commuter Rail and (I think) some suburban express buses, I act like a member already. If not for my pass, I would be weighing every trip against the cash in my pocket, and frequently opting to drive instead, since I’ve already paid for the car up front.

    With my pass, the more I use it, the cheaper each trip becomes, just like my car. In effect, my pass is a membership card. I buy it every month, even in months when I know I won’t be using it much.

    Just one riders behavior profile.

  • tony says:

    May 21, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I like that comment on a tax on wages at transit heavy employment nodes.. as if the employees benefit more than the businesses that employ them in having transit to their door. Businesses know that having transit lowers the costs of getting to work for their employees & in the old days meant that the employees were able to stretch their dollars further, now it means they can pay them less. In a progressive tax system the wealthy subsidize the cost of tansportation for the poor & middle class, who cant afford to pay the whole cost. I would think that MN2020 would have noticed this political tack & exposed their double speak for what it is. It is fine to discuss alternative modes of funding a service but point out a sham argument when it is given…

  • Bill Graham says:

    May 21, 2013 at 9:52 am

    It’s the same arguement conservatives have been making against publically-supported transit service for the past 40 years.  “Keep subsidizing roads, but make the user pay the full cost of transit.”  That way, we’ll have a lot more roads and a lot less transit.  The University of Minnesota seems to attract people who pass themselves off as deep thinkers but who put forth some really dumb ideas.

  • Joanne says:

    May 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

    If ever there was an idea hatched in bar on a napkin after one too many, this is it. Mugs, shopping bags? Really? Why is this guy getting one whit of attention? He’s mocking a serious need and shouldn’t be acknowledged.

  • Katie says:

    May 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Wow.  This is the kind of article allowed on, and featured by, MN 2020 that makes me hang my head in shame when I hear it call itself progressive.

    Raising one-time fares and lowering the cost of pre-purchased fares?

    Can you THINK of any better way to make a change to public transportation that takes it away from poor people living paycheck to paycheck?

    What the heck, MN 2020?  Why would you publish this in a “progressive” outlet?

    Shameful.