Opinion: ‘Equity’ means less, not more transit subsidies

Puget Sound Transit is spending tens of billions of dollars building high-cost, low-capacity transit lines that make even less sense after COVID than they did before, yet there is no indication that Sound Transit is changing is plans in response to the pandemic. Photo by brewbooks.
Puget Sound Transit is spending tens of billions of dollars building high-cost, low-capacity transit lines that make even less sense after COVID than they did before, yet there is no indication that Sound Transit is changing is plans in response to the pandemic. Photo by brewbooks.

‘Telling low-income people to rely on transit while high-income people drive cars is also inequitable because cars are so much more efficient’

The Antiplanner

Danny Westneat, a columnist for the Seattle Times, openly wonders why Seattle is building so much light rail when we seem to be entering “an era of ‘untransit.’” He quotes a Stanford law review article saying that Zoom is “the modern equivalent of the streetcar — a technological advance that will profoundly alter land use.”

Instead of altering their plans, however, transit agencies and transit advocates are busy trying to figure out how to justify increased subsidies for decreased ridership. Many of them are hoping that “equity” can be the issue that tips the balance in favor of more subsidies.

A group called Elevated Chicago thinks that equity demands more transit subsidies and more subsidies to high-density development near transit stations. I wonder what that group thinks about the fact that more than 70 Chicago Transit Authority workers made more than $200,000 last year, and one made more than $300,000. How equitable is that?

Meanwhile, Streetlight has published a report on how to ensure equity in transportation. At first glance, the report is about all kinds of transportation, but the only examples given are public transit.

Get this straight: transit is the most inequitable form of transportation we have because most of the taxes used to subsidize it are regressive and less than 5 percent of low-income workers rely on transit to get to work. That means 95 percent of low-income workers are disproportionately paying for transit rides they aren’t taking.

Telling low-income people to rely on transit while high-income people drive cars is also inequitable because cars are so much more efficient, costing less and getting people to destinations much faster. The real issue transportation equity is that about 7 million low-income households lack access to an automobile. Those who sincerely care about equity should devote less effort to transit and more towards getting more low-income people into cars.

If the $64 billion spent subsidizing transit in 2020 were spent on helping low-income people buy cars, it would have been enough to give every carless low-income family more than $9,000 towards a car. I don’t advocate that, but for a lot less money we could give people low-interest loans to buy a car, thus giving them access to the same economic opportunities that everyone else has.

The Antiplanner is an economist with 45 years of experience critiquing public land, urban, transportation, and other government plans.


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John Ley
John Ley
6 months ago

This is superb!

Here in Clark County, C-TRAN ridership peaked in 1999 at about 7.75 million annual “boardings”. It had declined to not quite 6 million by the end of 2019. The pandemic lockdowns ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee slashed ridership, causing significant reductions and service cuts.

Over in Portland, TriMet MAX light rail and bus ridership peaked around 2012 and has been in decline, in spite of the addition of new light rail service.

The MAX light rail system can only handle about four 2-car trains an hour. Because of the limitation of the Steel Bridge, they can’t increase frequency without cutting somewhere else.

Every new MAX light rail line has “promised” increased ridership. Yet as the Cascade Policy Institute has detailed in multiple reports, they NEVER even come close to hitting their promised levels of either ridership or service.

We do not need any “high capacity” transit service here in the Portland metro area. What we do need is more vehicle capacity for our freight haulers and average citizens. We need two new transportation corridors and bridges across the Columbia River.

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