Alexis Grant holds an M. Sc in Speech and Language Processing from the University of Edinburgh and is an active transportation advocate in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys shaping and interpreting complex systems for the benefit of their users and riding her bike around Portland. You can find her on Twitter @lyspeth.
Should the goal of US Federal transit spending be the redistribution of wealth?
The Transport Politic’s Yonah Freemark recently examined data from the 65 largest American metropolitan areas to provide a deeper look at his assertion that local funding for transit operations tends to depend on local income rather than on ‘need’, magnifying “seriously inequitable outcomes”:
The data demonstrate that increasing local and state transit operations spending is closely correlated with metro area median household income. This is not the case for federal aid, as minimal as it is. In addition, though cities and states with more progressive electoral tendencies appear to be able to increase local funding for transit operations, that contribution may be significantly limited by the incomes of local inhabitants.
Freemark argues that this is problematic: “Since public transportation is a vital social service, this has the perverse impact of providing the least support to the regions that likely need it most."
When I first read this line, I paused over “vital social service”, wondering whether he meant “vital public service”, but the article as well as his prior coverage of the topic makes clear that he meant just what he said: here, transit is being depicted as a social service provided to people who can’t afford other ways of getting mobility:
If public transportation is an essential social service — almost as important to our society as Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security (that is what we think, right?) — then how is it fair for the people who live in the poorest metropolitan areas to suffer from inadequate transportation services?
Freemark seems to be advocating here for addressing a perceived inequity that relates to only one of the two common goals of transit: what Jarrett Walker calls the Coverage Goal (Human Transit, Chapter 10).
The Coverage Goal reflects the “social service objective” that Freemark is appealing to, “meeting the needs of people who are especially reliant on transit”, in this case primarily due to lack of wealth, or poverty. When aiming for high coverage, agencies provide service broadly, including to those who may be difficult to serve because of poor connectivity or low density but also need the service more.
The other major goal, the Ridership Goal, reflects the desire to provide efficient and effective service by serving the most people at the least cost. Services oriented to the Ridership Goal focus on important destinations and corridors and may separate services or stops by larger distances to speed travel and avoid overspending on overlapping service.
While Walker discusses the Ridership-Coverage tradeoff mostly in the context of local decision-making, the same idea can be applied to state or federal funding. Federal funding can pursue an ideal of maximum ridership; that would mean lots of money for big cities, where ridership potential is high, and none for Wyoming. Or, it can focus on spreading out the resource, pursuing a Coverage goal, based either on a political ideal of equity or, as Freemark proposes, an explicitly redistributive view that spends more in poorer communities.
Freemark positions his work in contrast to academics and commentators profiled by Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic, who argue “too many projects...are poorly designed or executed, in part because of federal sway”. He pictures the redistributive power of the federal government as a positive force necessary to overcome the inability of some local governments to raise the amount of funds their areas ‘need’ to meet their presumed Coverage goals. Yet his vision of how this would make for “better projects” only asserts that it would be more fair.
Cities, left to their own devices, will restrict funding on transit operations based on the income of their inhabitants, not based on need. It is not rational that the state and local funding for transit in San Jose is more than six times higher than that in Fresno, just 150 miles apart, much because of the latter’s significantly lower household incomes and more Republican voting tendencies. Fresno, after all, has more than double the poverty rate of San Jose and thus has a significant transit-dependent population that is not being appropriately served....
To dismiss the federal government’s role is to ignore its important redistributive powers — its ability to transfer tax revenues from wealthier regions to poorer ones to help contribute to a more just society.
Coverage and equity goals tend to be in tension with ridership and mode-share goals, and by focusing solely on the coverage side of the equation, Freemark provides an incomplete picture of what the role of federal funding could or should be. Do all communities have the same goals for their transit systems, and do they want to serve the same populations? Should they? An equally good argument can be made that limited federal dollars should be spent on providing service that reaches the most people for the least amount of money. That, too, could be called fair.
In his transit planning outreach, Walker “emphasize[s] how the geography of transit generates choices among competing values, which is why citizens and their elected officials ultimately need to make the decision.” What kind of transit to fund, and how much money to devote to it, is not merely a question of the availability of money, but also a value judgment, one that the local area has to make for itself. A more conservative community’s funding choices may be in part a reflection of their values, just as their voting behavior is.
Federal funding for transit operations could provide a valuable resource for local governments that would like to do more, but can’t afford to. But Federal funding also relies on evidence of local financial support or “match.” Local government must decide whether it would like to fund additional transit, and if so, what the goal of that transit should be. In discussing the role of federal funding, no one is well served by assuming all cities would make that decision with the same goals in mind.