H8ers Gon H8: BART Strike Edition

Well, here we are, about a month after my post Shuttle Envy, and with BART transit workers on strike, the shuttles, along with apps like Uber and Lyft, are back in the news. Kevin Roose published a piece postulating that the rise of the shuttles and ride-share apps is contributing to the poor quality of public transportation services, and eliminating the incentives for policy makers to improve service. Matthew Yglesias and Reihan Salam, with an assist from Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism, do most of the dirty work in showing that the shuttles and apps are largely irrelevant to the quality of Bay Area public transit. Salam’s third point is essentially what I was saying in Shuttle Envy.

However, I’d go two steps further. First, it is a dubious proposition that because a wider cross-section of people in NYC use transit, a transit strike would be more effective in getting politicians to improve service. Rich people in New York have other options too – that’s one of the advantages of being rich. And as Salam says, poor people in New York have other options, like the dollar cabs and Chinatown vans. Note that these services are also mercilessly attacked by both the taxi cartel on one side and public transit services on the other, for stealing ridership, but since they serve low-income people instead of Silicon Valley Millenials, they’re not ripe targets for progressive equity and social justice attacks.

But even beyond that, the whole issue at hand here – the BART strike – has literally nothing to do with the quality of public transit services. The unions are asking for higher pay, smaller health care cost increases, better pension benefits, and some tangential safety items. They are not asking for proof-of-payment fare collection, or modern signaling and driverless trains, or better maintenance practices, or any of the many things that would have a positive impact for riders. If management gives in to all of the union’s demands, the quality of BART will be exactly the same as it was June 30.

And that brings us to one of the real problems with public transit in the US, the heart of the Shuttle Envy post: the first step to fixing a problem is to admit that you have a problem and that not exercising control is part of the problem. Public transit services in the US are not poor because Mark Zuckerberg runs private shuttles, they’re not poor because Lyft stuck a bunch of pink mustaches on the fronts of cars, and they’re not poor because BART management is holding out against the unions. They’re poor because we allow them to be and don’t demand any accountability.

2 thoughts on “H8ers Gon H8: BART Strike Edition

  1. Rob Durchola

    “They’re poor because we allow them to be and don’t demand any accountability.”
    As a retired public transit professional, I think the above statement from the end of your post needs modification. I would suggest:

    “They’re poor because we allow them to be by refusing to pay the cost of the services either through fares or through taxes, even when we demand accountability.”

    Good service costs money even when one allows for a small amount of inefficiency that exists in most government functions. Want more frequency? The added frequency may attract more users; but the increased usage is unlikely to cover the increased cost. Want to alleviate overcrowding? Add service; but initially all you have done is incrementally increased cost to accommodate the same number of users (even if the usage eventually increases). Want better signage and more real-time information? Those require initial installation cost and ongoing maintenance cost.

    Yes, an active and vocal transit constituency holding a transit agency accountable will lead to improved transit services; IF that constituency also supports allocating the resources for the improvements it supports. And that part of the equation is frequently omitted.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I work on the consulting side and agree that many agencies face funding shortfalls that force them to choose between service cuts and deferring maintenance, which leads to a vicious cycle. The amount of inefficiency in public transit agencies seems to me to vary quite a bit by agency – much as it does among different government agencies of all stripes, and the private sector, for that matter. In some cases, say lack of through routing at Penn Station, the inefficiencies are due to large political and institutional barriers. At other properties, there is a problem with the agency culture.

      The thing that seems strange to me is that people tend to focus on only one thing – either the lack of funding or the inefficiencies. Some people are convinced that agencies are rolling in cash and wasting, while others seem to think that throwing money at the problem will solve things. But most agencies have both problems to varying degrees.

      I didn’t get into funding in this post because there are myriad reasons agencies have budget problems: unrealistic benefits, unstable funding sources, chronically deferred maintenance, rising health care costs, etc. Since agencies have different budget problems and different funding sources, it’s probably something that needs to be looked at individually for each agency. But you are correct, funding needs to be part of the equation.


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