I was a mass transit fan when mass transit wasn’t cool. My first job after graduate school was at New York City Transit, in logistics and inventory control in the mid-1980s, and I was a loyal transit rider for decades (though if I had gotten into bicycle transportation sooner, I might weigh 40 pounds less today). And I studied transit systems, read books about them, and after the development of the internet allowed those with similar interests but not much free time to communicate, made the acquaintance of other transit buffs and transit historians.
For much of the time from the late 1970s to today, metro New York’s rail transit system was on the upswing. Management improved, some of the worst labor abuses of the past were done away with (at least on the subway), and money was invested. As a result reliability improved, the inflation-adjusted cost per vehicle revenue hour fell until the mid-1990s, ridership increased and filled the trains, and the cost per rider fell even faster. Today ridership and revenues are vastly higher than 20 or 30 years ago on all major rail transit systems in metro New York, and those transit systems have been the engine of the New York Metro economy. If I and other transit buffs could go back in time 30 years, to the crime and grime and constant breakdowns of the 1980s, and know nothing of today other than how high ridership and transit revenues now are, what would we have thought the transit system would be like in 2017? We certainly would not have expected the disaster we seem to be facing. And collapsing systems despite soaring ridership are present elsewhere in the U.S. as well.
It has been a few years since I downloaded and compiled mass transit finance data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, so I redid the analysis to see if anything had changed since 2012. Boy, it sure has. Between 2012 and 2013, based on that data, the reported operating cost of the New York City subway soared by 27.2% in just one year, an increase of more than $1 billion. There were no similar spikes among other major transit agencies in Metro New York. Suddenly the share of the subway’s operating costs that is covered by the fare is merely somewhat better than Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, instead of much, much better. And the wages and benefits of NYC subway workers, per hour worked, are the second highest behind PATH among major U.S. rail systems, instead of lower than those of NYC bus workers.
I’m not saying the figures for either year are false. In fact, as you’ll read, I have a possible explanation. But the new figures sure solve a lot of political problems. For TWU head John Samuelsen, who came out of the bus division and might have been catching heat from subway workers. For Governor Cuomo and suburban politicians, who might have been catching heat for the vastly higher level of subsidy for the suburbs. And for LIRR workers and their unions, who might have been concerned that featherbedding and graft would become more of a public issue, despite their control of – actually I’m not sure which politicians they control. But let’s take a look at what the data now shows, for 2015 and over the past 25 years. This post will cover operating costs, and the next one revenues.
If there is one thing that virtually every public policy commentator and politician seems to believe, it is that more should be spent on infrastructure. And yet the direction of public policy has been in the exact opposite direction, with maintenance often unfunded or funded by debts that now soak up a large share of revenues dedicated to roads, bridges, airports, and transit, water and sewer systems. The trend has been at its worst in the Northeast. And as costs from the past, including pension funding and debt service, increased between FY 2004 and FY 2014, expenditures on the future – on the infrastructure – decreased when measured per $1,000 of personal income. It’s a trend that, according to anecdotal evidence, continues to this day, with consequences that continue to appear over time as the sold out future becomes the present.
In the 1990s there was an improving statistic that was as central to New York City’s turnaround as the decrease in the crime rate: the increase in mean distance between failures (MDBF) on the New York City subway. This figure, which measures how long the average subway car goes before it breaks down in service, is considered a key measure of the overall health of a railroad.
In any statistic there are random variations, in part due to temporary unusual conditions. That’s why a one-month increase or decrease in the crime rate, compared with a year earlier, or a one-year increase or decrease in school test scores, doesn’t really mean much. Once a trend is really established, however, it ought to be news. Which is why I was shocked to find, in the MTA Board materials, that MDBF has been falling for three years, not on a one-month basis but on a 12 month moving average basis. The decrease is now significant enough to affect service as people experience it, and may mark the start of a significant downward spiral for the system.
There are places in this country, generally rural areas, where people don’t get very much from state and local government other than schools, state police, and a road. Instead of public water and sewer, they have private wells and cesspools. Instead of municipal garbage pickup and disposal, they have to take their trash to the dump or pay someone else to do it. Instead of public libraries and parks, they have their own books and backyards. And, as in most of the country, there is no mass transit, no roads that are safe to bicycle or walk, not even many shared rides. Drive your own vehicle or be stranded.
New York City is, at least or based on its state and local tax burden and charges for services ought to be, the complete opposite of this. It has municipal water, sewer, solid waste pick-up, and mass transit. Highly developed at a high density, with most people having small or no private yards, city residents rely on public parks and related facilities for exercise and recreation. And the city has a network of public libraries, most within walking distance, even as most information shifts to the internet. One would, therefore, expect New York City’s public employment in these categories to be higher than the U.S. average. But how much higher? And is this fair value compared with what people could purchase themselves?
The demand for subway service is soaring. In the private sector, such soaring demand would probably lead to more service. Why not at the MTA, where peak hour subway service is more than 20 percent lower than it had been 60 years ago, as I showed here?
I plan to review a number of technical and financial issues below, but will state the underlying issue up front.
Who rides the subway? People that the political/union class, the New York State politicians and the interest groups that support them, think of as serfs. Younger generations, who have been made successively worse off in the economy, public policy and even family life. And who tend not to vote, and certainly do not challenge incumbent politicians by running for office in state and local elections. Immigrants, who can neither run nor vote. And the working poor, young and old, immigrant and native. Many of these people chose to move to New York City precisely so they could live a life that was not organized around automobiles. And the political/union class, whose members tend to drive everywhere and think of mass transit, walking and bicycling as beneath them, seek to make the serfs pay as much as possible with as little as possible in return, for transit and in general. Because they can. No so much up front, which might provoke a reaction, but in the future, which has a way of becoming the present.
Because most of the existing U.S. housing stock is built in the suburban pattern, that is where the majority of Americans are going to have to live, for several generations. It is a high cost lifestyle because of the high cost of getting around in one automobile per adult, and the even higher cost of providing mass transit service to such low-density areas. For younger, poorer generations to live in these places affordability, different ways will have to be found to get around. To allow young singles and couples, and seniors, to live without owning their own cars, families with children to get by with just one, and moderate-income households, a growing share, to afford that one car. For trips outside of walking and bicycling range, this probably requires some kind of carpooling.
This is something I realized 20 years ago when, as an employee at the NYC Department of City Planning, I was asked to come up with a transportation proposal that would work for Staten Island, New York’s suburban borough. I suggested dynamic carpooling, with drivers and riders matched for trips using the technology of the time – touch tone phones and conference calling – with a fixed fare. As it happens, Uber has introduced a new carsharing application of its own, using the more advanced information technology now available. According to the Daily News:
“Uber is introducing a carpooling service that will match riders in the five boroughs with other travelers going in the same direction, bringing down prices by as much as 50%.” Unfortunately, however, Uber’s computer app, even if it works great, would not come close to what is required to meet the needs of those seeking affordable transportation in suburban America. That would require a different plan.