A bailout + reform strategy
"CBD workers" - At first read I thought maybe the Rogan visit had rubbed off on Matt. Then I realized it stands for Central Business District.
Speaking as a former transit industry person, I feel as though more than a few opportunities are being blown by transit agencies, even in areas that have little/nothing to do with Congress.
- Some agencies should take the lead in doing a State of Good Repair (SGR) audit. A *HUGE* part of capital and operating budget plans for big agencies are driven by formulaic SGR maintenance backlog estimates. I personally think SGR as a measure is problematic: it is overly conservative to an extent that the foretold breakdowns do not come to match reality and as such creates a 'Boy Who Cried Wolf' situation, especially in the minds of legislators. Using the slowdown to actually inspect rolling stock and facilities and match expert estimates of further useful life against prevailing SGR standards would be a great use of time and energy, especialyl if it could de-wed planning from a tired and counter-productive metric.
- Another use of the slowdown would/would have been route consolidation in the name of increasing service frequency and reliability on key routes. It's always a political thornbush to talk about decreasing service, consolidating stops, etc., even on little-used routes, and those capital assets and operating dollars that could enhance core routes end up constrained as a result. This pandemic would be the perfect time to re-balance levels of service between routes, in ways that would optimize city bus networks going forward.
- As Yglesias notes, it's a great time to borrow. I don't know how it is in other cities, but in Chicago the commuter rail system (Metra) literally has never tapped any of its borrowing authority, while it sits on tons of under-developed land near its suburban stations. Again, this would be the perfect time to move ahead on some development plans for those lots, in a cost-effective way that would lock in future ridership while also minimally disrupting operations or daily use.
None of these really involve any asks of Mitch McConnell, but I don't see many/any of them being moved ahead. It's not as though transit and planning agencies lack smart and energetic people; there is a severe dearth of folks willing to accept the risk of charging ahead with new things at the margins of their covered authority.
You seem to argue transit is safe based on the marketurbanism.com article.
But that article doesn't make that argument at all. It argues the reason the subway wasn't responsible for the spread of the virus was because people stopped using it because they perceived it as risky. Not that riding the subway was safe.
> There are two reasonable explanations for the likely fact that coronavirus spreads more along roads than rails. First, subway-dependent people may have cut their travel more than car-dependent people. Since travel brings us in contact with others at our destinations (stores, jobs, restaurants), the excess drop in travel may have made subway people safer precisely because the subway seems so dangerous.
> Second, and less obviously, subway-dependent people likely have more geographically-determined circles of contact. Car owners can move freely well beyond their immediate neighborhood. In the language of networks, non-car owners are more likely to approximate “neighbor flooding”; car owners to approximate “uniform gossip” (hat tip to Wesley Chow for this conceptual framework). That is, if a grocery store in a low-car-ownership neighborhood becomes an infectious spot, it is likely to infect a bunch of people who will all “reinfect” each other at the drug store and the park. In a car-oriented context, by contrast, infected grocery customers would drive off to different pharmacies and parks and infect other people.
I can't help but feel that the pandemic was more of a lost opportunity for busses and walkability in general. Cities like DC were able to take traffic lanes away from cars and hand them over to restaurants, eliminate cars from some streets with lots of businesses, and generally improve the walkability of the cities. Far more could have been done to create more bus- and bike-only lanes and close off commercial areas to cars. When fewer people were on the road, there would be less cost (congestion and political blowback).
I have no evidence, but my intuition is that crowding out cars would boost incentives for walking during the pandemic and then boost incentives for mass transit during non-pandemic times.
Hi Matt!! (Say hi back!! Attempt #7)
Grand compromise - the YGLESIAS ACT of 2021: more money for local police departments (refund the police!) and more money for mass transit.
MTA efficiencies have always been the no brainer that ny politicians would never dare touch. Bailout as entry point for this is certainly the best hope. *fingers crossed*
But what the heck do you do about MTA’s insane capex? Bloat on bloat.
While Matt is correct about the risk of a pandemic-induced death spiral, he is conflating American public transit’s issues with capital costs (which absolutely are a barrier to improving both the quantity and quality of service) and its issues with operating costs. No doubt there are specific cases like NY still requiring subway conductors where the potential reform is obvious. But the basic issue in transit operations is one of Baumol’s cost disease – we still require one trained operator per bus and per train. Maintaining vehicle reliability also requires trained mechanics. This is not to say that transit agencies have no bloat, but the core labor costs cannot be reformed away. Driverless trains are an obvious long-term solution (and perhaps driverless buses too, eventually), but those are not going to happen as part of a pandemic bailout package.
Also note that Matt positions ATO in Washington DC alongside the MTA conductor issue, but reinstituting ATO would do little for overall operating costs – a train operator is still required when ATO is on. ATO improves the smoothness of the ride and allows more precise station stopping. The fact that ATO is still not in operation a decade after the Red Line crash maybe be evidence of WMATA’s dysfunction, but it’s not causing their current red ink.
I feel like transit systems are an albatross around the neck of US cities after COVID. I moved to Austin after living in NYC, and we just approved some 9 figure transit system that no one will use. Americans love cars and are starting to love working from home!
A lot of the towns on the Schuylkill River were really hopeful about getting rail service to Philadelphia from Reading in the next few year, but I think Covid has killed that possibility. It's a bummer.
Great post! It’s obviously hard to predict what the post-covid CBD will look like and it will likely look different in different places, but I think for cities still looking to make additional investments in transit it may appear better to make those investments in less fixed modes, such as buses.
I think this proposal cedes too much too early. I don't think the examples of administrative bloat cited here are the main problem with transit costs. (I mean, maybe I'm wrong, and depending how much work I get done today I will hopefully have time to attend the webinar with Levy et al. tomorrow, in which case I guess I'll find out.) I suspect most of the problem is outside the hands of the transit agencies themselves – basically political issues. All kinds of other considerations get tossed in such as labor negotiations and serving specific regional constituencies; big flashy new stuff is prioritized over maintenance costs. There are some key reforms the transit agencies should themselves adopt, like building a ton of housing around train stations while providing zero (0) parking, or making a point of learning from countries where the trains actually work instead of insisting that anything that happens outside of the US is some other planet not relevant to us. The contract bidding process is probably a major component of the cost problem, and at least some of that is down to the transit agencies themselves, though I think there are at least a few bad legislative constraints in place? But if the argument here is that it's politically unfeasible to just hand the transit agencies a hundred billion dollars, then the limiting factor is Republicans, who hate both trains and cities and also the concept of learning from foreigners. (At no point in my almost 30 years of life have Republicans been a 'free market' party; quite the contrary, they've always seemed like they would like to ban us from doing business with foreigners. Why would we trust that any reforms overseen by them would tend towards efficiency rather than rent-seeking, or cultural grievance?) I think it would be better to just give the transit agencies a bunch of money and then also give a bunch of money to stuff Republicans want. Why wouldn't 'ice cream party' logic hold here too?
I wonder whether demand for mass transit will normalize. Now that so many employers have seen that teleworking can be done successfully, I would expect a reduction in the steady stream of commuters traveling to CBDs even after wide spread vaccinations.
There are a two main issues with Matt's point. First, borrowing is only free as long as interest rates stay near zero. Since we continue to run budget deficits, the debt we incur now will still be around when rates rise. It's not free forever. Sure, the economy--and with it, tax revenue--may be higher in the future. That's plausible, but (second) if the returns are so high, cities can borrow the revenue, backed by future revenues as collateral. It's not just the federal government that can borrow at historically low rates. Every level of credit borrower is seeing historically low rates. Cities could sell more muni-bonds to take care of this. States and cities with balanced-budget mandates could repeal those mandates. It is an emergency after all. If cities and state legislatures don't think it is worth deficit spending, then that's there prerogative.
Life is all about opportunity costs. Rich cities--the engines of our economic growth--have the fiscal capacity to rectify their mass transit problems (higher taxes). Taking money that could go to poor black families in rural Mississippi to spend a disproportionate amount of money subsidizing better-off mass transit riders seems wrong.
Thanks Matt for another thought-provoking piece. Best of luck...and I look forward to continue reading.
I really enjoyed his other Substack piece recommendations, considering it would be overly cost prohibitive to regularly follow a large group of Substack newsletters, I hope he regularly provides similar recommendations every now and then.
A bit late to the thread, but there’s a fantastic 99% Invisible episode about how making buses more functional/enjoyable could do a lot to save public transit - https://castbox.fm/vd/227493439