Archive | Equity

Transit and those dependent upon it

There’s been quite a bit in the national press this week about the subject. Amanda Hess, writing for Atlantic Cities, penned an article called Race, class, and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America. This article drew quite a bit of attention, including a somewhat scathing criticism from Jarrett Walker, who objected to the article’s focus on “white people” as a proxy for higher economic classes, particularly in a the context of a majority-minority city like Los Angeles (on which the Hess article focuses). Not to be outdone, the long-time transit and poverty advocates supporters at Reason (yes, that was sarcasm) penned an article called How Rail Screws the Poor, accusing LACMTA of building rail projects to wealthy communities while cutting bus service elsewhere. Zooming out, a new Brookings Institute report looks at employer access to labor via transit in major US cities. (Portland does quite well on this report, actually).

The issue of whether how well transit systems ought to be optimized to focus on the “transit-dependent”–those who generally don’t have reliable alternatives to public transit for journeys too long to walk or bike–is a major topic in local transit debates. OPAL got started as advocates for those in poverty (though they’ve expanded their focus to all transit riders), and service to the poor is still a major issue. TriMet, for its part, claims that “equity” is a big part of their mission, though many of the agency’s critics would likely dispute that (or argue they are failing to carry this mission out). Unfortunately, the subject is frequently a major source of heat rather than light.
On the transit dependent

Many transit advocates hate the term “transit-dependent”. Many of us dislike even more the term “captive rider”. Both terms, and especially the latter, frame transit as a bad thing–something to be avoided if possible. (This is one reason I like to talk about the auto-dependent; whether a car is liberating or limiting depends on where you live). The terms also promote the notion that there exists a class of rider whose needs not be considered when doing service planning–they will use the service no matter what, so a transit agency can safely go ahead and ignore (or screw) them. (The private sector gouges the poor enough already).

However, it is clear that there are some people who have greater dependency on public transit than others; and in virtually all of the country, land use and infrastructure investments favor motorists over transit riders. Pretending otherwise isn’t beneficial–it fails to reflect reality, and it can also lead to those who depend upon transit to have their needs neglected. Even if an organization cares deeply about the poor and makes equitable service part of its mission, the needs of the “transit-dependent” rider will often be different than the needs of the so-called “choice rider”; and failure to account for these difference will often look like gouging or neglect.

Transit elasticity of demand

One way to characterize a rider’s dependence upon something is via the economic concept of elasticity. Elasticity (assuming that it can be measured with some precision) is roughly defined as the marginal percent change in consumption divided by the marginal percent change in price (or some other parameter)–roughly speaking, it’s a normalized derivative of the demand curve. Price is the usual parameter for elasticity, but other parameters besides price drive consumer behavior. In the case of transit, patrons are also interested in things like coverage, service span, frequency, reliability, speed, comfort, safety, social status, and amenities. Many of these things are difficult to quantify, let alone subject to a rigorous elasticity analysis, but if transit is made more useful and/or pleasant to use, it will attract riders; conversely if it is made to suck more, than they will be driven away.

Overall, a commonly used “overall” price elasticity figure for transit is -0.3, which means that for a given percentage rise in price, one can expect a -0.3% change in ridership. (The -0.3 figure is somewhat disputed; here is a good reference). If one accepts -0.3 as a valid value, this means that raising prices will increase revenue–the additional fare revenue will only be partially offset by passengers leaving the service–an important point to remember when considering TriMet’s FY13 budget planning. (Interestingly enough, analysis of the Portland Streetcar indicates that raising prices does not raise revenue; implying an elasticity closer to -1.0. If this is correct, this would imply that either the Streetcar ridership is less dependent on transit in general; or many trips on the Streetcar are more easily substituted. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the latter; it is often used for short trips that could easily be made on foot).

Often times, elasticity measures are computed and reported for an entire population. In practice, different members of a given population will express different elasticities for something. In the case of transit, this manifests itself as a significant subset of the ridership whose personal elasticity is closer to 0–the transit dependent–and another subset whose elasticity is far greater (in the negative direction) than the mean.

What do the dependent need?

Some riders are completely dependent on the service–they have no access to a car (or other motorized transport) whatsoever. Others may have limited dependency–someone in a household with more adults than automobiles, or who uses a service like Zipcar may have part-time access to an automobile, but not have one available on demand. Others have a car in the garage, ready to run on a moment’s notice, and elects to use transit only to avoid a difficult commute (or for reasons such as reducing one’s personal carbon footprint). These groups of riders have very different needs.

The first group needs comprehensive service–that runs to all parts of the cities, at as many hours of the day as possible. Frequency and speed are important as well, but likely take a back seat to basic availability. If you have no option other than transit, and the bus or train doesn’t run to a place when you need it to, then you can’t go there.

Part-time transit users can often afford to give up comprehensive service, and are often more interested in transit service optimized for specific trips, most often the commute. Many in this camp will use transit when it’s convenient, and not use it otherwise–and may find themselves preferring transit solutions that optimize the most common trips over the less-utilized routes and corridors. To the extent that “choice riders” can easily abandon the bus or train, they may demand amenities and virtues beyond basic service parameters like span, coverage, frequency, speed, or reliability.

The problem? Reconciling these two goals can be difficult.

The paradox of rapid transit

A major source of objection to capital-intensive rapid transit projects is that rapid transit tends to correlate more with the needs of the choice rider. This is not to say that it isn’t usable by the transit-dependent–of course it is. All riders benefit from fast, frequent service. Many capital projects which have been maligned by demagogues (whether on the right, like the Reason editors, or on the left, like the LA Bus Riders Union) in fact provide a great deal of service to the poor. But rapid transit, by its nature, focuses on corridors–corridors which are then optimized for fast, efficient, and reliable service. This is great if you live/work in the corridor. It’s good if you can drive to a park and ride, or take good connecting transit to reach the corridor. It’s bad if you are carless, and the connecting transit is poor or nonexistent–then the corridor is of little benefit to you.

Another way to put it: Transit dependent riders frequently depend on so-called social-service transit; choice riders are more likely to make do with “ridership-focused” transit. (See here and here).

Doing it right

Does this mean that building rapid transit is a mistake? Certainly not. Many large cities, including virtually all of the largest metropolises on the planet, would not function without quality rapid transit. The key, however, is to build rapid transit on top of a an existing, thriving, and functional basic service network–which in the US is typically local bus.

The problem comes when a city builds rapid transit lines, but without a core network of comprehensive basic (typically bus) service–or cuts basic service to fund rapid transit. There are plenty of examples of boondoggle light-rail or streetcar projects being built in US cities with poor bus service. These lines tend only to serve the destinations within walking distance (or park-and-ride users), and generally have poor ridership as a result. The network effects which make transit transformative, simply are not there.

TriMet has avoided this problem, for the most part. The Blue, Red, and Yellow lines were laid on top of an existing, high quality bus network. Bus service leaves something to be desired out in Hillsboro or Gresham, but is good in the core. However, the recent opening of the Green Line was more problematic, While the proximate causes of Portland’s recent service cuts are factors other than MAX–TriMet didn’t plan the Green Line with the intent of sharply reducing the frequent bus network, the fact that its opening coincided with the recession and the subsequent service cuts, did not look good. There’s a significant danger that the opening of PMLR will have similar issues–TriMet isn’t planning on reducing bus service to fund Milwaukie MAX (other than redundant lines like the 33 and the 99), but if the financial picture doesn’t improve, PMLR may be an additional expense that will have repercussions elsewhere.

Additional complications arise.

  • Rapid transit lines (unlike freeways) are frequently regarded as a valuable amenity to live near, which can have the perverse long-term effect of pushing the poor away from the transit service they are dependent on. Much of greater Portland’s lower-income population lives outside the inner city. While Portland has built MAX lines into lower-income communities like Rockwood or south of Lents, the strongest concentration of service is in the “core” between the West Hills and I-205, Johnson Creek and Killingsworth–a region which contains some pockets of poverty (particularly in the eastern corners) but is mostly middle-class in nature.
  • In times of economic difficulty, the lines which are easiest to cut are the social service lines–as they are the ones which lose the most money. No matter how much an agency cares about equity, it has to balance its books at the end of the day.
  • Exacerbating the problem, many grant-funded capital projects include operational commitments as part of their funding conditions. Many proposed delaying the Green Line opening as a way of dealing with the recession, on the grounds that it was mostly redundant with the 72 bus and the existing Red and Blue lines into downtown. The trouble with that proposal was that TriMet had to run it. This is especially a problem when a capital project turns out to be a boondogggle.

Some advice

For TriMet: I would get the operational house in order prior to any more major capital expansions on rapid transit corridors. (I’m not talking about Portland-Milwaukie, which is already in progress, but things beyond that). There are plenty of ways that capital dollars can be spent (assuming local politicians will continue to have a goal of winning federal grants to goose the local economy) that don’t place all the eggs in one geographic basket.

For the USDOT/FTA/Congress: Funding of capital projects (both urban rapid transit and urban freeways) ought to be conditioned upon having a thriving and useful bus service in place–before laying track or pouring concrete, efficient use of existing infrastructure should be encouraged. Transit projects without good bus service lack the network effects to be successful. The best transit projects are those that are built to relieve overcrowding in an existing bus system, not ones dependent on speculative new riders, even if one suspect that there are large numbers of potential patrons who will ride trains but not bus. And likewise, freeway construction should be discouraged until more efficient utilization of existing streets is made. (Transit project is subject to unfair funding competition with freeways as it is; it would be undesirable for a proposal design to reduce boondoggle projects to have the effect of diverting funds to highways instead).

Honored Citizen and youth fares: Are they fair?

A discussion of honored citizen and youth fares, and potential alternatives.
I was going to post this a few days ago until all of this week’s news. But while the discussion after the announcement of TriMet’s budget cutting has focused on service changes, the other component of what’s going on–fares–is still worth considering. The recent announcement, and the tradeoffs between equity and ridership/revenue, leads to an interesting discussion. To what extent should reduced fares for “Honored Citizens”, as TriMet calls them, be provided? A similar question should be asked about youth fares as well. Do these serve a socially beneficial purpose? Are they little more than age discrimination? Assuming there is a useful purpose served, would it be served better by some other, more direct policy?

The nitty-gritty on fare categories

Before we get into the idealized discussion of the whys and wherefores of age-based fares, one important detail must be mentioned up front. The Federal Transit Administration requires that federally-funded transit systems, such as TriMet, charge senior citizens no more than 50% of the full fare during off-peak hours. (I’m not sure if the FTA defines these hours, or gives agencies some leeway to tailor the definition to their local circumstances). During peak hours, the requirement is not in effect. TriMet, however, does not levy peak-hour fares–the same fare is charged all day, for all riders. Also, the discount given to seniors is greater than 50%–an all-zone ticket for adults is $2.40, but for seniors is $1, a discount of 58%. The discount on passes is even greater–a monthly pass would cost me $92 but my mother could have one for $26, less than 30% of the price. Honored citizens living downtown can get a limited bus pass for $10/month. (TriMet’s fare schedule is here).

Seniors, along with the disabled, are grouped into a category TriMet calls Honored Citizens. This category includes the following:

  • Senior citizens 65 and older, who require proof of age when riding.
  • Medicare recipients, who are required to carry a Medicare ID. If one is receiving Medicare prior to 65, it generally means either that the individual is near 65 and has opted for early retirement, or is disabled.
  • Other disabled persons who meet specific requirements, and who are required to carry a TriMet-issued ID stating such.

This article is only concerned with regular transit service; LIFT paratransit is another issue altogether.

TriMet also provides youth fares, for passengers 7-17, and persons 18 or older pursuing a high school diploma or GED. College students are not covered by this program (some colleges provide passes for their student body; however this is a separate program and not discussed here). Children 6 and under ride free with a fare-paying adult. Youth fares are also a substantial discount over adult fares, though not as much (presently $1.50 for a all-zone single-ride ticket, and $27 for a monthly all-zone pass).

TriMet’s stated rationale for the discounts it provides may be found here and here.

Rationale for age-based categories

The senior discount is a longstanding fixture of American business and political culture. Many businesses provide discounts to senior citizens–restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, and transportation companies both public and private. And as noted above, public transit agencies in the US are required to provide them to passengers. In the context of transit, several rationales are frequently offered for this:

  • Seniors live on a fixed income, generally from Social Security or private retirement plans, which may (SS) or may not (most pensions) be indexed to inflation. Most are not in the workforce (and many of those who are still working are doing so due to poverty). Senior citizens also frequently have higher medical expenses associated with geriatric and end-of-life care, though Medicare benefits offset this.
  • Senior citizens are also more likely to have mobility issues than are younger age cohorts, simply due to the biological pathologies of old age.
  • Senior citizens are more likely to be transit-dependent, particularly when driving is no longer an option due to medical issues.
  • Senior citizens, by virtue of being less likely to be in the workforce, are more likely to use transit during off-peak hours, and thus are desirable customers to have.
  • Many in US culture associate advancing age with virtue, and believe that mere survivorship past the working years ought to merit reward. Certain generations are venerated for the hardships their members collectively endured during their youth, and some consider making it to old age to be evidence of wisdom and/or a cleaner lifestyle, assuming that those who engage in chronic pathological behavior are more likely to perish before reaching retirement. Senior discounts are widely viewed as an entitlement–even by wealthy seniors in good health–and the designation of “Honored Citizen” does nothing to counteract that meme. (Could you imagine TriMet–or any government agency–referring to a benefits program targeted towards the poor in such glowing terms? I can’t either; poverty is routinely stigmatized in our political culture, but advancing age is praised).

Similar arguments apply to youth fares as well. I covered youth fares (and other issues related to families on transit in this Human Transit guest post).

  • Youth traveling alone are likely to not have much money, and be dependent on parents for funds.
  • Those who travel with children are more than likely to be carless–having kids along often tips the balance from bus/train to car for many trips–if nothing else, bringing along kids in the minivan makes you (legally) a carpool. Also, in many cases the only reason children are brought along on errands is that nobody may be available to watch them at home.
  • Families with small children (particularly those still using strollers) also frequently have mobility issues.
  • Families with children also are often engaged in off-peak travel. (Students using transit to get to and from school generally are peak riders on the way in, and off-peak riders on the way home, unless activities delays their departure from school)

Price discrimination, generally

Age-based fares (for identical trips on transit) are examples of price discrimination, which occurs when the same supplier sells identical goods and services to different customers at different prices. Some sorts of price discrimination are commonplace and generally considered unobjectionable, such as volume discounts (TriMet’s passes can be considered an example of this). Other types may be viewed with skepticism, or may be outright illegal–certainly if you’re the buyer being asked to pay the higher price, you might want to know why. Price discrimination doesn’t include practices like distance-based pricing (different prices are charged for different trips) or off-peak discounts (trips made at different times are generally not substitutable), though sometimes these practices may have a discriminatory effect, and sometimes this is intentional. (Airlines’ common practice of offering lower prices for round-trips involving a Saturday stay are intended to distinguish between tourists and business travelers, and charge a higher price to the latter).

One reason that price discrimination occurs is to permit suppliers to capture as much of the surplus value as possible. When a supplier charges a flat high price for something, volume is lower, as those market participants who are unwilling or unable to pay the high price don’t buy. When a supplier charges a flat low price, then he/she wins the business of those who won’t pay the higher price–but loses money from those customers who were willing to pay the higher price, but instead get a better deal. If the supplier can figure out which customers would be willing to pay a high price and charge those the high price, but make the same product/service available to the more price-sensitive customers at a lower price, the supplier can get more revenue than s/he would from a single set price.

Another reason for price discrimination is equity concerns. The reasons for age discrimination given above are equity-based–TriMet doesn’t give seniors and children lower prices because it thinks it will lose their business otherwise; it does so for perceived social reasons. (And because of the FTA mandate).

One problem, however, is this: Maximizing revenue and maximizing equity frequently call for opposite pricing strategies. A transit agency’s customers are often divided into “choice” and “captive” riders. (The latter term is problematic for many reasons, some of which are revealed by this discussion, but it suffices to illustrate the point). The latter group has a low elasticity of demand (they are stuck with transit, more or less) while the former has a high elasticity of demand (they can easily switch should transit no longer provide sufficient value). The choice riders are generally wealthier than the captive ones are. Were a transit agency to try and maximize social equity by assisting the poor, it would find a way to charge the poor less. On the other hand, were they to try and maximize revenue, the ideal strategy would be to charge the poor more–they’re the dependent riders, after all, and will have less ability to contest the fare increase by switching to another mode.

(This is different than the strategy employed by many retailers, who try to find ways to charge the wealthy more for the same or similar products and services. Gasoline, for example, is generally more expensive in wealthy neighborhoods than in poor ones, despite being the same in both locations).

This is an important point to keep in mind, both for this discussion, and in the broader context of TriMet’s budget woes. When an agency is strapped for cash, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a pro-equity pricing and service strategy, and soaking the poor becomes a tempting option.

Should we focus on age?

For the purpose of this section, we’ll focus on senior fares. A similar analysis can be applied to youth fares, but that is left as an exercise for the reader. (Feel free to discuss in the comments!)

Consider the five justifications for senior discounts given above. Only one of them–the desire to venerate senior citizens as a matter of social custom–is directly dependent on the age of the passenger. The other reasons–poverty, disability/mobility issues, off-peak travel, and lack of availability of cars, correlate with age, often strongly, but are not dependent on it. There are plenty of young people who are poor, disabled, have no access to an automobile, or more likely to travel off-peak. So the question is obvious: Why not replace the age-based discounts with discounts based on these other criteria?

Disability and mobility issues are, in fact, covered by TriMet. As mentioned above, Honored Citizen fares extend to the disabled, in two broad categories. TriMet also provides services to the mobility-impaired via LIFT (at far greater financial cost to the agency). TriMet assists mobility-impaired passengers in other ways besides the farebox as well. The agency’s operations are (as required by law) compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. All vehicles are designed to accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility devices. And many routes feature short spacing between stops, in part because the mobility-impaired are adversely affected by longer walks to a transit stop.

TriMet’s does not presently provide benefits to the poor at the farebox–there is no means-testing of fares. Poverty advocates such as OPAL are upset at the loss of return privileges on a single-ride ticket, on the grounds that it will impact the poor adversely. On the other hand, many of TriMet’s routes are social-service routes–routes with consistently low ridership that are expensive to operate, and which are arguably inessential for a comprehensive regional network–operated to provide lifeline service to low-income riders and communities along the line, and with no expectation of good financial performance. (These lines are often the most likely to be cut during a budget crisis). There are, however, a few roadblocks to reduced fares for the poor: For one thing, the poor often don’t have terribly effective advocacy in the corridors of power. Groups like OPAL do a fine job, but other constituencies often bring far more political muscle to the table, muscle that the poor can’t afford to purchase. For another, being perceived as a welfare agency can be damaging to a transit authority’s standing with the broader public–the poor aren’t popular in many quarters, and agencies which carry out a primarily social service mission risk losing popular support and funding.

The third criteria is transit dependence. Defining transit-dependence, and coming up with ways it could be proven to a TriMet ticket agent or fare inspector, is potentially problematic. Some examples might include discounts for those who can prove that they are not licensed to drive and/or do not own an automobile; Giving explicit discounts for this might be difficult, as proving transit dependence isn’t easy. One might be able to supply a DMV ID card or suspension/revocation order to prove one isn’t able to drive easily, but other situations (such as low-car households) may be more difficult to document. I’m not aware of any agency that offers discounts of this sort; and a quick Google search doesn’t reveal anything.

The final alternative–peak-hour surchages (or alternately, off-peak discounts) are something which has been talked about recently. Currently, TriMet has no plans to implement such a thing, but the recent white paper on electronic fare collection mentioned this as a possibility. In addition to having a load-balancing impact, charging a lower fare for off-peak travel also can promote economic equity, as it gives cash-strapped riders an option for journeys which are flexible in time, such as shopping trips or other errands. An alternative to different fares might be different expiration times. For example, TriMet could limit tickets to two hours of one-way travel during rush hour (opening to 9, and 4-7, say), whereas tickets purchased outside the window might be good for longer and/or include round-trip privileges.

One other thing

One other thing to consider: Senior citizens have long enjoyed quite a bit of political power, compared to other age cohorts; this is especially true with the boomers entering into retirement, due to simple demographics. Senior citizens are generally regarded as more reliable voters than are younger groups; there are age-specific lobbies (such as the AARP) which both provide advice to seniors on issues, and lobby the government on their behalf. There’s a good reason that many of the current plans to “reform” Social Security which are being bandied around Washington DC tend to delay the effects of austerity until the next generation (us Xers) reach retirement age: doing otherwise would be political suicide. Any attempt to substantially reform the current pricing structure would probably produce some uncomfortable pushback, even if the net effect for most people is nil.

Thus, a few questions to consider:

  • Do age-based fares (whether for the old or for the young) serve a legitimate and useful purpose?
  • Would other pricing or service strategies be better?
  • What balance between equity (whether based on economic factors, or other parameters) and financial performance (maximizing farebox return) should be struck?

A Couple of Things I’d Like TriMet to Think About

I’ve been following the impact of TriMet’s budget woes with great dismay. It’s very painful to watch this level of degradation to a system. There are a couple of particular choices that I think could stand some further review:

  • There’s no question the changes in fare policy make short trips less attractive. As this blog post by Sarah Gilbert makes clear, this effect is amplified for families. I think TriMet should carefully examine the potential for a family ticket of some kind that fixes a price for a parent and any number of children.
  • Now that the decision has been made to cut the Red Line short at downtown outside of rush hour, what happens if you turn it around at Gateway, rather than downtown? That would be a lot of service hours, and could potentially put a lot of bus service back on the table. Who gets hurt by this (there are still two other lines serving the corridor)? And who benefits? I’d love to see an equity analysis on this.

Transit Equity Back in the Crosshairs

With budget cuts at TriMet and new fare policy under consideration at Portland Streetcar, equity issues are front and center. So here are two attempts by agencies to get at these issues:

  1. TriMet will hold a budget forum in conjunction with IRCO (Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization) specifically to reach out to transit-dependent folks:

    What: TriMet & IRCO Community Budget Forum
    When: Thursday, February 9, 2012 (reception starts @ 5:30pm, forum begins @ 6:00pm)
    Where: IRCO, 10201 10301 NE Glisan Street, Portland, Oregon

  2. The City of Portland has released their required Title VI analysis for Streetcar fare issues (PDF, 651K).

TriMet: Simplification or Fare Increase?

Joe Rose at the Oregonian is reporting that a TriMet fare task force may will recommend doing away with zones, and prohibiting using transfers for return trips (transfers would only work in one direction).

While I’m a big proponent of keeping things simple, this proposal does not excite me. Beyond potential equity issues (I honestly don’t know if this is better or worse for transit-dependent folks, but OPAL is already objecting) which should get a very thorough analysis, I generally prefer some relationship between distances and fares. Tying trip cost to distance is important to encourage compact land use patterns.

I suspect this is just the beginning of what will be a very intense conversation this Spring.