Free mobility, social mobility…transmobility (part III)

This last installment of our series (I, II) on networked mobility is more of a coda than anything else, and it goes directly to the question of systemic cost, and who bears it. (In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to mention that I’ve been having some lovely conversations with Snapper, the company that provides farecard-based payment services to the transit riders of Wellington, and now Auckland as well, and that I have a stake in the success of their endeavor.)

Any time you’re shifting atoms on the scale presented by even a small town’s transit infrastructure, there’s obviously going to be expense involved, and that has to be recovered somehow. Maintaining such a network once you’ve brought it into being? Another recurring expense, on a permanent basis. Rolling stock, of course, doesn’t grow on trees. Training and paying the front- and back-of-house staff — the people who oversee operations, design the signs, drive the trams, clean the stations, even the folks who get to snap on blue latex and haul the belligerent piss-drunks off the buses — another enormous ongoing outlay. Pensions, unplanned overtime, insurance coverage: these things don’t pay for themselves. All stipulated.

So why do I still believe that transit ought to be free to the user?

Because access to good, low- or no-cost public institutions clearly, consistently catalyzes upward social mobility. This was true in my own family — the free CUNY system was my father’s springboard out of the working class — and it continues to be quantifiably true in the context of urban transportation. The returns to society are the things most all of us, across the center of the political spectrum broadly defined, at least claim to want: greater innovation, a healthier and more empowered citizenry, and an enhanced tax base, for starters.

I’m going to make a multi-stage argument, here, first about the optimal economic design of public transit systems, and later about how the emergent networked technologies I’m most familiar with personally might best support the measures and policies I believe to be most sound. Most of what you’re about to read is bog-standard public-policy stuff; only toward the end does it veer toward the kind of Everyware-ish material regular readers of this blog will be comfortable with, and everyone else may find a little odd. Politically, its assumptions ought to be palatable to a reasonably wide swath of people, from social democrats on the center-left to pro-business Republicans on the right; with suitable modifications, anarchosyndicalists shouldn’t find too much that would give them heartburn.

- Let’s start with the unchallenged basics. Access to reliable transportation allows people to physically get to jobs, education and vital services (e.g. childcare) they might not otherwise.

- Jobs obviously have a direct effect on household wealth; post-secondary education tends to open up higher-paying employment opportunities, and generates other beneficial second-order effects; and services like reliable childcare allow people to accept (formal and informal) employment with time obligations they would not otherwise be able to accommodate.

- A regional transportation grid sufficiently supple to connect the majority of available jobs with workers rapidly and efficiently is never going to be cheap.

- The return on such an investment is, however, considerable — when savings due to reduced road and highway depreciation, etc., are considered as well as direct benefits, on the order of 2.5:1. This isn’t even remotely in the same galaxy as the kind of multiples that get VCs hot & bothered, but it’s not at all bad for a public-sector expenditure. (Note, too, that the proportion of systemic costs generally retired due to user fees is comparatively small.)

- Being able to spread the fixed costs of a transit system over a significantly expanded ridership would increase the economic efficiency of that system, and thus represent a different kind of savings. Given two types of riders — dependent, people for whom public transit is their only real option, and discretionary, folks who choose public transit over other modes only if it’s markedly cleaner, safer, more convenient, cheaper, etc. — how to maximize both?

- Increasing dependent ridership is relatively easy. I’m going to propose that a greater expansion in the number of transit riders would be achieved by reducing the cost of ridership from relatively-low to zero than by a comparable reduction from relatively-high to relatively- or even absolutely low. Another way of putting it is to say that a significant number of potential riders are dissuaded by the presence of any fare at all. (Strictly speaking, a reduction of fees to zero would be a Pareto-optimal outcome, though this is true only if we agree to consider genuine concerns like increased crowding and greater systemic wear-and-tear from higher loads as externalities. Which, of course, they are not.)

- Maxing out the number of discretionary riders is a little tougher. What both dependent and discretionary riders have in common, though, is the requirement that network apertures be located in as close proximity as is practically achievable to origins and foreseeable destinations. And here’s where the argument arcs back toward the things we we’ve been talking about over the last week, because the transmobility system described accommodates just this desire, by forging discrete modal components into coherent journeys. Trip segments dependent on more finely-grained modes like walking, shared bikes or shared cars, primary at origins and destinations, are designed to dovetail smoothly with the systems responsible for trunk segments, like buses, BRT, light rail, subways, metros and ferries.

That transit system is of most social and economic value to a region which fuses the greatest number of separate transportation modes and styles into a coherent network; which minimizes friction at interline and intermodal junctures; and which does this all while presenting a cost to the rider no greater than zero.

Fully subsidizing any such system would be expensive…inarguably so, immoderately so. But if my conjecture is right — and oh, how I would love to see data addressing the question, one way or the other — a total subsidy produces disproportionate benefits even as compared to a generous subsidy. Success on this count would be the ultimate refutation of the zero-sum governance philosophy that took hold in the outsourcin’, rightsizin’ States during the 1990s, and has more recently and unaccountably migrated elsewhere. (I say “unaccountably” because you’d think people would have learned from America’s experience with what happens when you leave things in the hands of a “CEO President.” And also because, well, there hasn’t turned out to be much in the way of accountability for all of that, has there?) Municipalities ought to be conceiving of transit fees not as a potential revenue stream, but as a brake on a much bigger and more productive system.

To me, this isn’t a fantasy, but rather a matter of attending to the demands of basic social justice. For all too many, bad transport provisioning means getting fired because they couldn’t get to work on time, despite leaving the house at zero-dark-thirty. Or not getting hired in the first place, because they showed up late to the interview. Or not being able to take a job once offered, because the added expense of an extra bus trip to put the baby in daycare would burn every last cent one might otherwise eke out of a minimum-wage gig. Anyone who’s ever been trapped by circumstances like these intimately understands cascading failure in the for-want-of-a-nail mode. (Not buying it? See if you can’t dig up a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich’s seminal Nickel and Dimed.)

I’ve recently and persuasively seen privilege defined — and thanks, Mike, for digging up the link — as when one’s “social and economic networks tend to facilitate goals, rather than block them.” As I sit here right now, my mobility options are as infinitely finely grained as present-day practices and technologies can get them: which is to say that my transportation network, too, facilitates the accomplishment of whatever goal I devise for it, whether that means getting to the emergency room, my job, the SUNN O))) gig, the park or the airport. What I’ve here called “transmobility” is an opportunity to use our best available tools and insights to extend that privilege until it becomes nothing of the sort.

Finally: How do I expect my friends at Snapper to make any money, if everything I imagine above comes to pass? Even stipulating that cost to user is zero, there are multiple foreseeable transmobility models where a farecard is necessary to secure access and to string experiences together, before even considering the wide variety of non-fare-based business use cases. And anyway, my job is to help people anticipate and prepare for emerging opportunity spaces, not to artificially preserve the problem to which they are currently the best solution.

OK, I’ve gone all SUPERTRAIN on you for umpty-two-hundred words now; I need a break, and I’m sure you do too. I fully expect, though, that two or maybe even three of you will have plowed all the way to the bottom of this, and are even now preparing to launch the salvos of your corrective discipline, in an attempt to redress faulty assumptions, inflated claims & other such lacunae in my argumentation as you may stumble over. Trust me when I say that all such salvos will be welcome.

6 responses to “Free mobility, social mobility…transmobility (part III)”

  1. August says :

    Well, it sounds perfectly reasonable to me, but then despite fitting most the major criteria for privilege in my society (university educated white male living downtown in a major city), I find myself amongst the working poor, for whom public transit is an expense beyond my means. Can’t do internships, can’t do a second job. Can’t shop/eat/work/play or really live outside my neighbourhood, especially come winter.

    Any model that allows me to board the TTC (I’m in Toronto) for no charge would be a godsend for my economic and social opportunities. But given our city council’s attitude, I don’t see any such thing happening in my life time.

  2. August says :

    Good question. And I’m not sure I have an answer, to be honest. I’d like to say “very” or something like that, but it’s probably not true.

    I’d certainly be willing to approach my city councilors and members of parliament, but at the same time, I wasn’t kidding about being working poor.

    Despite coming from a poor family, I was in a lot of ways sheltered by my parents from the practical implications of that. It sounds like whinging (I know it does), but I find there are so many things that take on a special urgency at my level of income. I found today, for example, that I have four dollars with which to feed myself for the next week and a half. I can do it–I’ve gone longer on less, and I’ve gotten good about stock-piling non-perishables–but it takes more energy than you might think living this close to the edge. Long term plans, long term goals, hardly seem plausible.

    I could tell you any number of stories and anecdotes, but they’d probably sound as shrill and complaining to your ears as they do to mine. I think the end result is that, until I’m in a position where I have at least a small safety net, I’m probably going to have to answer “not very hard at all”. I think it may be an attitude that a lot of people in my situation have. Why waste your energy thinking big when you know you’ll have to spend an hour tomorrow walking from stall to stall in Chinatown and Kensington Market trying to figure out the largest bunch of carrots you can get for a toonie?

    • AG says :

      That doesn’t sound like “whinging” at all, actually; I’m not sure where you get the idea that there’s any self-pity on what you wrote, unless you’ve deliberately set out to design this life for yourself.

      Although it’s frankly been a long, long time since I’ve consistently had to think like that, we’ve been DFB as recently as the winter of 2004-2005. So I do understand what it’s like when you’re forced to choose between eating for the rest of the week and paying the phone bill (bearing in mind that the phone and the opportunities it brings your way are the only thing standing between you and an even worse state of affairs).

      I’ve seen in my own life just what a terrifyingly slippery slope it can be from one impetuous decision to total nullity — living in my car, washing myself in public restrooms, trying at all costs to look like someone who wasn’t living his car and washing up in public restrooms. It’s exhausting…and the energy to even conceive of something better is the first thing to go.

      So, no, I’m not at all surprised that people who face a daily choice between “suboptimal” and “a whole lot worse” aren’t exactly going to be writing white papers on transit policy or lobbying their representatives. But then, these are things I can use my privilege surplus to do, right?

  3. Liz Buckley says :

    After I went through my negative responses I came up with a positive one; people buy into communities because of the ‘free’ schools, parks, garbage collection, policing so why not transportation? If the fuel prices increase and or fuel becomes scarce city leadership might see providing transit as necessary part of the basket of ‘free’ public goods for residents.

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