Instead, these cities, and all other cities facing similar budget woes, should look at transportation not as a luxury but as a priority. Here are the problems with attacking public transportation when fiscal times are tough:
- Poor people will be disproportionately affected. Public transportation is usually an inelastic good for the poor, and increasing fares will only create greater economic burdens for them. Many cities have good subsidization programs for the poorest riders, but many people who cannot easily afford increased fares will have no choice but to absorb the increased costs.
- Ridership will decrease. People who are on the fence between using public transport because it's cheap and good for the planet but aren't enthralled with its crowdedness, slowness, and sometimes inconvenience will likely err on the side of personal vehicles to avoid increased prices and worse service. This will only further decrease revenue for the transit authorities, exacerbating budgetary problems. Similarly, those who may have been on the fence about switching to public transportation will now have less incentive to do so.
- Traffic congestion will increase. As more people eschew public transportation, more cars will be used, increasing traffic problems in cities.
- Pollution will increase. As personal vehicle ridership increases, so will greenhouse gases, criteria pollutants, and other emissions. In an era where cities and states have begun to understand the desperate need to address environmental problems, this would be a huge setback to good environmental policy. And this is to say nothing of the increased dependence on foreign oil.
I've already made the case for a gas tax. Assuming these transit cuts in service and hikes in price are temporary, why not instead increase the gasoline tax, also ostensibly temporarily? This would put more of the burden on wealthy people who can afford to drive to work, increase public transportation usage, increase transit authority revenue, decrease congestion, and decrease pollution. This seems like a win-win-win-win to me. The only disadvantage is pissing people off who drive cars. But when they are contributing to so many social, economic, and environmental problems by doing so, isn't it a sacrifice worth making? Raise gas prices the same amount you would raise transit rides.
Alternatively, increase tolls. This will have many of the same benefits as a gas tax, though in cities other than DC it will more specifically affect those entering the cities in question, as opposed to everyone in the state (gas taxes are implemented on a state level; however, DC has the authority to instate its own gas taxes).
I realize none of these measures is politically popular, and no one wants to make anyone pay more for something so vital as transportation. But when push comes to shove, it shouldn't be public transit users who suffer increased burdens. People should be incentivized to use more public transportation so that transit systems can grow stronger, gain people's trust, and become the widespread, efficient, fast, clean, dominant means of human movement that they should be.
Images: DC Metro (American Architecture)