Public Transportation, Poverty and Common Sense

Last Thursday, I was late to a client meeting because – having allowed an extra 15 minutes for unexpected Metro problems – I ran into a 30 minute delay. As annoying as it is to watch a beautiful transit system deteriorate and decay instead of flourish and expand, I am grateful for the existence of Metro and saddened by what passes for rational debate about public transportation.

Each week my local paper is full of stupid short-term thinking on this topic. Let’s build the Dulles Airport Metro Station OUTSIDE of the airport because that costs less! OK for the short-term, but will that decision affect usage? Without conducting a formal survey, I’m fairly certain that many business travelers will opt out (especially those of us on the Red Line who already face transfer time and delay). What about tourists? Sure, budget tourists will use the outside Metro station because the options are so few and so expensive. Many tourists, however, accustomed to the seamless air to ground transits of European airports will decide not to use Metro – and not to fly into Dulles either. Not only is BWI an alternative, but Newark and JFK (where airfares from Europe are often lower) plus Amtrak are favored by many people I know. Would the inverse decision – Metro station underground with seamless access to the airport have a positive economic effect? Again, no scientific survey, but I’d think yes – this option would leave BWI in the dust and encourage tourists to fly into Dulles. So, in the short-term, we’re saving some money, but potentially facing permanently lower revenue flows.

One group is better off for even a poorly placed Dulles Metro – the service workers who need to reach the airport. This brings me to the poverty issue. Too many of our politicos and higher income citizens think public transportation is a luxury good designed to improve their automobile commute or enhance their access to entertainment and services around an urban center. Or maybe they’re just thinking “I don’t need it, who cares”. Access to public transportation, however, can make the difference between getting by and giving up.

At the lower end of the income spectrum, public transport is both a necessity and for many a perpetual torment. How would you feel about your 50 hour work week if you had to add 20 hours of multiple bus routes to get to work? Most of our bus stops have neither shelter from the elements nor seating, so please imagine yourself spending at least half an hour a day exposed to the elements, waiting for the bus alongside the two to four hours riding the bus. Unless you do this regularly, it is hard to imagine the kind of toll this type of commuting takes on energy and health, other family responsibilities and the ability to believe that the future might one day be brighter for yourself or your children.

The more extensive and humane our public transport systems, the more easily labor can flow to where capital and commerce require. Economics 101 suggests that equilibrium requires the free flow of capital and labor, so step away from bank regulations for a moment to think about helping the labor side of the equation. Talk of job creation is great, but people have to be able to get to those jobs!!

When we fail to consider the immediate AND the long-term impact of public transport decisions on the poor, elderly, low-income and disadvantaged of our society, we are perpetuating cycles of injustice and inequality. Make a decision today based only on your personal interests and we are assured of facing a more difficult tomorrow that requires even more expensive solutions.

There is also a “money in the middle” problem here! The US has a lot of bankers, but apparently very few financiers. Why isn’t someone like Goldman Sachs designing a 50 year fixed rate Transport Bond for Metro? Betcha we could reduce the element of public subsidy by adding just enough enhancement to attract pension funds, which need longer term instruments to match their long-term obligations. Appropriate financing would also mean that fare increases could be phased in over a long-time period while both maintenance and investment for growth chug merrily along.

Public transport isn’t a luxury good and it need not be a wasteful expense. It should be considered part of the basic infrastructure that all Americans have access to, regardless of income. Aside from that, permanently reducing poverty will be impossible unless the poor have affordable ways of reaching schools and employment. Tune out the idiots focused only on short-term cost and think about what a sustainable and equitable future might look like. Then make up your mind and go rock the vote!

Lauren Burnhill – @LaurenOPV

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8 responses to “Public Transportation, Poverty and Common Sense

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