Buses Take on New Importance in a Subway City

And Minneapolis transit advocates push for more equitable transit service and more in this week's The Mobile City.

(Photo by nybuspics / CC BY 2.0)

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy developments in urban transportation.

In most of the country, even in cities with rail transit systems, buses are the workhorses of public transportation, carrying more people in total than the rails do. The one exception to this rule is New York, where subway ridership has long outpaced bus ridership for reasons any visitor should understand by just looking at the traffic on city streets. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has flipped this script. For the first time since the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began keeping track, bus ridership now exceeds subway ridership. Yet city plans to speed up bus service by adding more bus-only lanes are meeting pushback from some local businesses.

Because subways can carry far more people than buses can, and do so more efficiently, an energy researcher who has studied the issue gives five reasons why cities with subways should make them fare-free.

That might be easier to pull off in cities where toll road revenues help fill transit agency coffers. But there’s a problem: the sharp drop in driving has also caused toll road revenues to plunge, putting both transit and free road projects and operations in jeopardy from another direction.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, transit system employees in the city where our current concern for racial equity got kickstarted say the Twin Cities’ transit system can and should be run with more concern for the needs and interests of nonwhite communities.

A Historic Ridership Reversal in New York City

As anyone who has attempted to drive on its traffic-clogged streets can attest, the quickest way to get around New York is to avoid them altogether. That means taking the subway. And for decades, more New Yorkers have used the city’s subways than its buses.

According to a New York Times news report, that’s no longer the case: For the first time since the MTA began keeping track of ridership more than 50 years ago, bus ridership now exceeds subway ridership. Average daily ridership in April and May was 505,000 on buses and 444,000 on the subways. And as the city reopened in June, the gap grew even wider: While an average of 752,000 New Yorkers rode the subways each day that month, 830,000 rode the buses.

The article lists several factors contributing to this reversal. One is the sharp drop in car traffic on city streets, which has enabled bus speeds to rise after falling to near walking speed. Another is the overnight shutdown of the subways, which leaves buses as the only 24-hour transit option for those who need to travel late at night. A third stems from where the subways operate: Riders who worry about the risk of COVID-19 coronavirus exposure underground feel less anxious riding buses, which operate in the open air. Besides, riders can see if a bus is crowded as it arrives and wait for the next one or get off a bus they’re on if it becomes crowded. Buses also serve many parts of the city subways don’t reach, making them essential for many lower-income riders who have long relied on them.

The City of New York is taking steps to make the improvements in bus service that the crisis has brought about permanent. Chief among them: adding five new busways that would get cars off city thoroughfares, like the one on 14th Street in Manhattan that caused bus patronage on that street to soar. The targeted streets include Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Main Street in Flushing, Queens.

But, the article notes, business owners on some of these streets object to the plan. The head of the Flushing Business Improvement District, Dian Song, told the Times that removing car traffic from Queens’ busiest business district would harm small shops still struggling to survive in the wake of the pandemic.

Even with the pushback, however, city and transit officials in New York say that the buses will get the attention they deserve.

Researcher Makes Case for Bringing Subway Riders Back by Making Rides Free

Even as buses get newfound respect, subways remain the most efficient — and most energy-efficient — people-movers around. Their environmental and energy benefits have led at least one researcher to call for making them free.

Lucas Davis, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, posted “Five Arguments for Making the Subways Free” on the Energy Institute at Haas’s blog last week.

Davis’ interest in the subject of free subways was stimulated by a “fare holiday” in Monterrey, Mexico, that produced a spike in subway ridership there. His working paper goes examines the effect of price changes on ridership in Mexico’s three largest cities, including the fare holiday. From it, he comes up with five reasons to consider making subways free all the time.

One: Low marginal costs of carrying additional passengers. Subways may be expensive to build, but once built, the physical cost is taken care of and doesn’t go up with additional riders. Meanwhile, the additional cost of carrying one more rider on a subway is negligible.

Two: Low externalities. Electric-powered subways already produce less pollution than other modes of transport, and they’re getting cleaner as more electricity is generated by carbon-free methods. Thus each additional rider will actually make the air cleaner by getting rid of a rider on the bus or a car driver; both of these methods, at least for the foreseeable future, will continue to add pollution and carbon to the atmosphere with each additional user.

Three: Operating efficiencies. “I love the idea that you’d never again need to wait in line to buy a ticket,” he writes. “No annoying turnstiles. No enforcement. It would be particularly nice for visiting other cities. No need to figure out the pricing system, or buy a new card. Just walk in and get on a train.” And, he continues, eliminating the hardware and personnel needed to collect and enforce fares would produce additional savings in operating costs.

Four: Doing so will put money in the pockets of those who need it most. In many cities, he writes, the bulk of subway riders are lower-income, younger, and more vulnerable than the population at large. Especially now, he says, free fares would not only ease their burdens but stimulate the rest of the economy.

Five: It would increase overall transit system efficiency and utility. More people riding means more trains running, which means shorter waiting times, which in turn attract more riders in a virtuous circle of improvement. While making subways free might cause problems with crowding at peak hours, a major concern in the time of COVID-19, Davis still argues that free subways would help return urban transportation to a better equilibrium.

Toll-Shunning Drivers Mean Less Money for Transit

Davis’s argument is intriguing, but we would still need to pay the cost of running and maintaining the subways in some fashion. In a number of U.S. cities, some of that revenue comes from tolls paid by drivers who use bridges, toll roads and HOV express lanes.

The Washington Post reports, however, that the agencies operating those toll facilities are also seeing their revenues sink. The toll road industry estimates its losses could top $9 billion nationwide as a result of the pandemic. Even as traffic returns to the highways as cities reopen, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) estimates that toll-facility traffic remains 40 percent below pre-pandemic levels as motorists who can do so avoid toll roads.

Thus the three public agencies and one private company that operate toll roads in the Greater Washington region all report significant fall-offs in revenue. They also project continued fall-offs for years to come. State toll road authorities elsewhere report similar losses.

This, in turn, means less money to build, operate and maintain not only the toll roads but also free highways and mass transit facilities. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission skipped a mandated payment to the state Department of Transportation; the payment funds highway maintenance and mass transit operations statewide. The result of the reduced payments: deferred or delayed maintenance and improvement projects on both roads and transit systems.

Twin Cities Transit Employees Say Black Riders Matter

Add to the voices calling for transit that better serves Black and low-income communities some 200 current and past employees of the Twin Cities’ mass transit provider.

The present and past workers for the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul, signed a letter they presented to their bosses June 26 saying the agency needs to pay better attention to the needs and interests of its nonwhite patrons and employees.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s report on the letter says it questions the way decisions are made at the regional planning agency, especially those affecting people of color, and calls for changes in the way public transportation is policed. It also notes that as one-quarter of Metro Transit riders and half its employees are Black, Metro Transit riders and operators “are disproportionately impacted by the trauma of George Floyd’s death.” Black people account for just under eight percent of all metropolitan Twin Cities residents.

One of the chief changes they seek: Replacement of police officers by unarmed safety ambassadors, who can enforce fare collection without the use of force. The letter also calls for part of the Metro Transit olice budget to be diverted to community-based programs that provide emergency medical and social work services to transit passengers experiencing homelessness or mental health crises.

Other changes called for in the letter: An end to the use of Metro Transit vehicles to transport arrested protesters, law enforcement officers or military personnel and greater transparency in Metro Transit police operations. “Our riders are leading the uprising and demand change,” the letter states.

Met Council officials declined to comment on the letter publicly, saying they preferred to confer with the employees first: “This was a very thoughtful letter that raises important issues and questions, it deserves an equally thoughtful response,” Met Council spokesperson John Schadi told the Star Tribune in an email.

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: new york citypublic transportationbusessubwaysminneapolisroads

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