Social Equity, Myth & US Public Transport

I’m just back from Board meetings in Zurich and – thanks to a $3000 difference in the “stay over a Saturday night” airfare – saving the company money while enjoying a couple of days of tourism as well. The stunning ease of using trams and trains, despite the fact that I don’t speak much in the way of German, made me long to see a tram system in the DC Metro area.

On many of the tram cars, when the door opens, a metal plate extends over the curb, making the use of strollers & wheelchairs a snap. No waiting for the driver to lower a special platform, no trying to position yourself in front of a single wheelchair accessible door – just wheel right onto the tram. Although some doors and trams required stepping up one or two steps, the steps are low enough that even my annoyingly arthritic knees didn’t protest as I hopped on and off trams, determined to maximize the brief and unusual opportunity to play tourist.

Saturday morning, undeterred by the gray skies, I hopped on the Lake Zurich boat ride that offers elements of both water taxi and tourism (at a public transport price). I met a nice Australian brother & sister, he living in Brisbane and she in London, and we compared notes on public transportation, infrastructure, politics that interfere and the lack appropriate financial structures. It seems the world is far too similar in too many ways.

In talking to non-Americans, I realized something important. We in the US have this myth going around that the independent, go-getter American spirit doesn’t want to mess around with public transportation. As a result, we tend to think of public transport as a service the better-off subsidize on behalf of their poorer neighbors. We don’t even try to create systems and services that would incentivize movement away from private transportion.

The demographics of public transportation use, especially busses, probably do have as much to do with economic means as they do with access. But there’s a caveat. If you can afford private transportation, and public transportation options suck, you’re going to stick with private transportation. If, on the other hand, it were cheaper and easier to hop on a tram, train, bus or trolley, why wouldn’t you? If you’re a rational thinker, you would, in fact, opt for public transportation in these circumstances.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my car. I got my driver’s license at 16 and my first wheels shortly thereafter. Few things are sweeter than care-free road trips with friends! And few things are more annoying than spending time gridlocked in traffic day after day after day.

When Sunday morning in Zurich rolled around, it seemed easiest to grab a tram down the street from the hotel to the central train station and then hop on a train to the airport. Within a one hour window, I had at least 5 different options for each tram and train, meaning that no matter where I might run into a glitch, I was still going to reach the airport in plenty of time for my flight.

True, the economics favored the public transportation solution – CHD 8.60 (roughly US$10) versus CHD 22.40 to take a taxi to the train and somewhere north of CHD 80 to just hop in a cab and head straight to the airport. Nevertheless, it was the combination of ease and affordability that won the decision, especially since the company whose Board I had just attended would be reimbursing my travel expenses. Taking the tram actually reduced risk and uncertainty – no worrying that the taxi would be late reaching me, or that the driver would treat the road like a racecourse.

The tram stop was less than 2 blocks from the hotel and even before 7am on Sunday, trams were frequent. An alternate tram stop was maybe 3 or 4 blocks away. Trains leave for the airport (or stop there en route to other destinations) every 10 minutes or so, even early on a Sunday. Neither tram, nor train station, nor yet airport required me to drag my suitcase up stairs or overly long distances.

I found myself thinking about the planned external Metro station at Dulles Airport, which I have no desire to use. I’d have to take the Red Line to Metro Center, transfer to a different color train to get out to Dulles and then hop on a shuttle from Metro to the Airport terminal, where after clearing security I would be hopping on a train or a shuttle to reach the correct departure terminal. Barring small miracles, I would have much more suitcase hauling and schlepping catching a plane at Dulles than I did  in Zurich.

Sure, even if the Metro station conveniently dumped me at the Main Terminal, using public transportation to get to Dulles would still be annoying. But if I knew that once I got onto Metro I wouldn’t have to step outdoors again until my plane had arrived at its destination, that would be worth something. Especially in winter when rain, sleet and the threat of snow make the outdoors less than pleasant…

We need to amp up the creativity when we think about public transportation, and try to keep in mind that we are going to be living with our decisions for the next 50 years or so. Why can’t we design for ease of use as well as efficiency? Furthermore, as Felix Rohatyn and Rodney Slater point out in their proposal for creating a US infrastructure bank (FT Article), we need to structure financing that reflects this 50 year time horizon. 50-year bonds would be nice for pension funds that need longer tenors in their portfolios – and lower annual payments would make it easier to keep base fares low for Joe and Jane commuter. Everybody’s a winner!

I was going to end with “so what are we waiting for?”, but in pulling the FT article above, I noticed that Felix Rohatyn has been appointed to the Board of a new $25 billion Infrastructure Bank for NY State. Apparently Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a host of other NY movers & shakers aren’t going to wait. Hurrah!

Gentlemen, when the Board’s in place and you’re ready to add some creative financiers to the staff, let me know where to send my c.v.!!



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