A week or so ago, Mr. Migurski posted on his del.icio.us a link to this piece arguing, among other things, that urban transit should “tend to the free.” I found myself sort of viscerally disagreeing, and found it hard to pin down just why until I had spent a few days getting around Geneva by bus and tram, under conditions that certainly meet that description.
Here’s my argument: it strikes me that there are really two and only two fully defensible positions on this question, with maybe the ghost of a third struggling to find form between them. Either (a) you regard transit as an absolute social good and opportunity multiplier, and you subsidize its use fully and for all, or (b) you understand it as a material system which sustains real operating costs, and believe that it is only sensible to recover some of that cost from the system’s direct beneficiaries, the riders.
Between the two, you could probably convince me that a museum-style “suggested donation” policy, made explicit, could fulfill a gently Marxian from-each-according-etc. ethic, although it’s probably far less efficient than either of the maximal positions.
But what I dislike is what you have obtaining here. The LIFT organizers were considerate enough to provide all of the invited speakers with open transit passes, at no little expense, and I’ve happilly been hopping on and off various modes of getting around town since a few minutes after I was handed mine. It’s been a real boon – a great way of getting to know Geneva, and a thoughtful organizational touch for which I’ve been not a little grateful.
The only problem is that in all of these uses, I’ve never once been asked to display it. Like many European systems, that’s not how the TPG operates: although the system is not free, and its terms of ridership enunciate the usual penalties should I fail to come up with an appropriate ticket when asked to do so, the likelihood that I will sustain such an imposition is exceedingly low. There are no turnstiles, or ticket-takers, or card readers.
In other words, this system unfairly penalizes everyone who takes its proposition at face value, proportionally rewarding those unwilling to abide by an honor system. (The author of the linked piece asserts that “most people *do* pay,” but I’m sure the percentage who do so varies from place to place.) Maybe it’s my hyperactive sense of justice, but something in me simply rebels at that. It’s a system that literally benefits free riders, and which – it seems to me – subtly undermines any notion of a social contract.
It’s perfectly valid to assert that universally accessible and reliable transit is a profound public good, and that it ought to be free to the rider. (I tend to believe that myself.) But let’s then put aside this half-stepping idea of “tending to the free”: it should clearly and unambiguously announce itself as such, and its costs should be spread among those who derive the primary real benefit from it. It would be reasonable, for example, to assert that as businesses in many urban cores are reliant on the transit system for their labor force and/or customer base, they should shoulder much of the burden of subsidizing it.
But why should the LIFT folks devote some nontrivial percentage of their limited budget to providing this benefit for invitees, when other users of the system incur no such penalty? (A back-of-envelope calculation suggests that their outlay on transit passes for all of the speakers would have easily sufficed to cover one additional speaker’s airfare, at least from a European city.) That just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
It’s entirely possible that I’m making a big fuss over nothing. It wouldn’t be the first time.
But if, like me, you actually enjoy thinking about stuff like this, be assured that you’re not alone. In fact, I met some folks here yesterday who have a project called Toronto Transit Camp, an unconference and “solutions playground” dedicated to just such pursuits. How cool is that? And why is it that New York doesn’t have one?