Cash Fares and the Urban Poor

Cash fares are the bane of transit agencies everywhere. People who have to fumble for the exact right combination of coins or bills simply take far, far longer to board a transit vehicle than their peers who pay with some kind of electronic fare media. I’m having trouble finding quantitative evidence for the delay, but I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that most bus riders who pay with cash take 2-3 times longer than people who simply swipe. A single rider paying with cash can hold up a bus long enough to miss a light cycle; rinse, lather and repeat every couple of blocks and you get significant delays over the course of a route. Thus, reducing or even eliminating cash-fare payment (and/or out-of-date swipe cards like the MetroCard) has become a kind of Holy Grail for transit agencies. Transport for London, which manages that city’s public transit services and is at the forefront of innovation in many ways, is actually on track to eliminate the cash fare by this summer. Other agencies are investing in a wide range of new fare technologies, from RFID-based “open payment” systems that allow payment with any of the increasing number of credit cards equipped with RFID chips to smartphone apps that allow payment without a card involved. Many of these technologies seem very promising, especially the idea of open payment with any credit card–why mandate a proprietary transit card like the MetroCard when you could allow people to pay with any old credit card? Open payment and other such innovations, however, still face one major social and political challenge in this country: the fact that most people who pay cash fares are among those who can’t afford to pay for a monthly or weekly pass, much less own things like credit cards and smartphones; many are unbanked.

I try to use my daily bus rides to and from school to observe the other riders and things going on on the bus. I pay particular attention to two things: the number of people who use the front door to exit for no good reason (#$#$&^%#$ selfish idiots!) and the people who pay with cash fare.  I’d estimate that at least 80% of those who pay cash fares on the CDTA buses I regularly ride here in Albany appear (to my admittedly imperfect mind) to fall into one of two categories: poor and of color, or elderly. There’s one group of people who I’ve seen get on several times together that appears to be a family group, four or five African-American people of different ages riding together; all pay cash (and yes, it takes them forever to board). A survey of Chicago transit riders taken before that city’s (disastrous) transition to the Ventra open-payment fare system (to be clear, Ventra also includes a “closed-loop” card option that can be purchased with cash, and you can still pay cash fares on buses) found that 21% have no debit or credit cards, and that they (shockingly) tend to be poor and of color. So while a move to a fully open system fare system may be inevitable–and necessary if we wish to reduce bus delays–taking the needs of lower-income and unbanked populations into account is paramount. How can transit agencies eliminate the noxious cash fare without impacting the ability of poorer people to ride transit?

It’s worth noting that in many cities, you can’t ride some portions of the system on cash alone. In most major urban areas, only local buses accept cash fares, with subway or light rail using faregates or proof-of-payment systems (Boston’s Green and Silver Lines are an exception). Of course, it’s easy to install, protect, and maintain ticket-vending machines in subway or light-rail stations; placing one at every bus stop would be prohibitively expensive, even if it would allow for the elimination of not just cash fares, but pay-at-the-front boarding entirely. In places like Albany, though, with no fixed-guideway systems, every transit vehicle accepts cash payment, with its accompanying delays, so the challenge is to get swipe cards or other forms of payment into the hands of those who are currently using cash. A variety of options exist for this purpose, but it seems to me we could be doing more. London, of course, is simply mandating that everyone use an electronic fare medium; this is the easiest approach to implement, but the least sympathetic to the needs of lower-income people.

A far more promising approach is the idea of integrating fare media with other, more basic forms of ID or other cards that people generally carry. Keith Barry notes in The Atlantic Cities that “Across Europe and Asia, transit fare cards often double as an access card for an office or apartment building, or a payment card for restaurants and shops, or even personal identification.” In other words, fare cards can be not just fare cards; they can be integrated with other forms of identification or payment that people have to carry anyhow. As a SUNY Albany student, my university ID allows me to swipe onto CDTA buses like anyone else (though my rides are free to me). The City of New Haven recently introduced the concept of a city-specific gift and parking card, with the goal of eventually integrating it with New Haven’s first-in-the-nation city-issued ID card. It ought to be (though probably isn’t, because New Haven’s transit is run by CTTransit, a state agency) a simple step to further integrate said card with the transit system. Anyone–in New Haven’s case, even those without legal immigration status–could apply for a city card, which would provide discounts on in-city retailers as well as pay for parking and transit. The card could be refilled in specific places (at government offices, major transfer stations, certain retailers, etc), but the city could also guarantee a ride home by allowing the card to be used without a balance on it, but refusing renewal of the card if the total balance wasn’t paid off at the end of the year. Alternatively, with welfare benefits increasingly coming in the form of debit cards, we could provide additional benefits to the urban poor by integrating transit fares with SNAP or EBT cards. That, though, would require federal legislation, and as much as I think it makes sense is probably therefore an extreme long shot.

The most effective way to eliminate cash fares, though, might be the simplest: spreading the sale of of transit cards to more locations. With the implementation of Ventra, Chicago’s CTA promised to extend sale of the cards to more local retailers in the city’s neighborhoods; such an approach should be quite beneficial. CDTA here in Albany sells their transit cards online (which requires a credit card) and “at local Hannaford Supermarkets, Bank of America, Key Bank, Saratoga Springs Train Station, Proctor’s Theater Box Office and Price Chopper Supermarkets.” Hmm…supermarkets and banks…which local institutions are less likely to be located in the same poor areas where cash-fare riders cluster?  In essence, with transit cards sold primarily through supermarkets, the availability of transit cards mimics the food desert effect: they’re not available where they’re needed the most. Here in Albany, there are essentially no supermarkets in the South End, Arbor Hill, or West Hill, the city’s poorest areas, which of course means that neither produce nor transit cards are available in those areas (the Price Chopper in our neighborhood, which is solidly middle class, is known colloquially as “Ghetto Chopper” because it’s where people from those neighborhoods shop). No wonder people from the area’s poorest neighborhoods are also the most likely to pay cash on the bus. I’ve been told CDTA wants to improve its 60-65% on-time performance (yes, that’s depressingly low), and they’re on the verge of bringing in a next-gen payment system. Here’s one easy step to ending cash fares: along with the new payment system, bring fare cards into local retailers–pharmacies, bodegas, whatever–in the region’s most depressed areas. The more the local stores sell fare cards where it’s most needed, the fewer people will delay buses by paying with cash.

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The Uneven Experience of Affordability and Gentrification

Jonathan Geeting has a piece up at Next City that I think is one of the best takes I’ve ever read on the problem of housing affordability. The title of the piece is “Philly has an Income Problem, not a Housing Affordability Problem,” and that’s essentially the core of his argument–most of the article is taken up by data proving his point. As Geeting notes, Philly’s housing costs, whether renting or buying, are on the citywide level among if not THE lowest in the Northeast–and yet, the city has erupted in debates over gentrification as the city center has grown in recent years. It’s a paradox–it seems that affordable housing advocates fear for the viability of the city’s low-income population regardless of how cheap housing is on an objective scale. Geeting’s point is that driving down housing costs, by whatever method one may employ, isn’t going to solve a problem that entrenched. In other words, once housing is super cheap already–and in Philly, citywide rents haven’t gone up despite the recent influx of relatively wealthy, mainly white, newcomers–making it even cheaper isn’t going to help entrenched poverty; in fact, doing so can have all kinds of negative impacts on the city’s finances. In fact, there’s a definite floor to housing prices, below which absolutely nothing will ever get built. Philly doesn’t have a supply problem for affordable housing–if it did, prices would be higher. The problem is one of income, or really lack thereof, not one of affordability. Poverty advocates have taken up the banner of “affordable housing” because that’s a traditional way for government to help out the urban poor, but Geeting’s claim is that in the case of Philly that’s not the best tack they could be taking.

Geeting’s case resonated strongly with me. Aside from being emotionally wrought, the national discussion of gentrification tends to be colored by the experiences of certain cities–places like New York City, San Francisco, Boston, LA, and Washington, DC, where hordes of wealthy young and mostly white people have “reclaimed the city,” bringing new financial resources and excitement but also driving up housing costs and forcing lower-income residents out of their neighborhoods. In New York and San Francisco in particular (and increasingly in DC),  complaints about gentrification have been driven by a very real–and entirely fair–fear that people of lower income are not just being driven from their neighborhoods, but from the city entirely. Where the demand for housing of all kinds is for all intents and purposes infinite, it’s hard to imagine that competition for housing isn’t a zero-sum game. But Geeting’s piece is a useful reminder that even as it appears that the Millennial return to the city is a nationwide trend, the experience of every city is not going to be the same. The discussion about gentrification in Baltimore doesn’t have to be the same as in DC. Philly’s doesn’t have to be the same as New York’s.

Moreover, there are, in fact, very few cities where the zero-sum logic of gentrification as derived from NYC and San Francisco actually applies. In most of the country, urban housing prices are still very, very low–artificially so, the product of mistaken public policy that has and continues to subsidize suburban sprawl–and even as urban population numbers have stopped declining and in most areas begun to grow again since the turn of the Millennium, prices haven’t exactly skyrocketed. There’s no lack of affordable housing in Philly. There’s no lack of affordable housing in Baltimore. There’s definitely no lack of affordable housing in Detroit. There’s not even a true lack of affordable housing in Chicago, which (the conglomeration of sprawl that is Houston aside) may be the cheapest major city in the country. And there’s certainly no lack of affordable housing in many smaller cities, including Albany. What those cities lack isn’t housing–it’s wealth, income, stable neighborhoods, and local businesses at which to spend money. Certainly some neighborhoods have changed, but on a citywide level very few cities are experiencing the kind of crazy competition and upward-spiraling prices that characterize gentrifying New York and San Francisco. Very few cities will ever experience that kind of demand. And it’s worth remembering that while there are all sorts of banners for urban activists, particularly those on the Left, to be carrying forward, affordable housing isn’t, despite its emotional power, in most cases one of them. 

How to Make a Walkable Town Car-Mandatory

My partner G’s parents live in Sharon, MA. It’s a wonderful little town halfway between Boston and Providence that is thoroughly pleasant and surprisingly diverse ethnically if not socioeconomically, and which Money recently named the best place to live in the entire country. Though the township now encompasses large swaths of typical suburban sprawl, the layout of the village’s core dates to the colonial era, when Sharon was also home to probably the town’s most famous inhabitant of all time, Deborah Sampson. It’s a relatively neat grid that works pretty well for the town’s many Sabbath-observant Jewish residents:

Sharon is also home to a station, accessible by foot from most of the town’s core, on the MBTA’s Providence Line, running along the Northeast Corridor. So at first glance, Sharon would seem to have all the ingredients necessary for one to live a minimum-car lifestyle despite its suburban location. And yet, life in Sharon is essentially car-mandatory, even for those living in the core’s largest multifamily development, the newish (and partly affordable-mandated) Wilber School Apartments. Simply put, Sharon lacks commercial activity to walk to, and secondary public transit to move people around town. Measuring from village’s central intersection of Main, Billings, and Depot, the closest supermarkets are 2.1 miles away at Cobb Corner in Canton and 3.1 miles away near Exit 8 on I-95. The only places to buy food in the village center that I know of are a CVS and a gas-station minimarket  (there are a few restaurants as well, though oddly none that cater to the town’s large kosher-keeping population). There is no bus up and down Main Street (the closest bus stop is at Cobb Corner, and that’s for a few-times-a-day commuter bus to Mattapan), and I certainly wouldn’t want to try biking on that STROAD even if I knew how to ride a bike.

So yeah, Sharon has a nice “small town” feel, and it’s a great place to live if you need to be able to walk to synagogue, but you can’t really live a low-car lifestyle there. You still need a car to get any groceries aside from the odd roll of toilet paper. You more or less need one car per family member who has even a part-time job (with the possible exception of people holding jobs in downtown Boston); G’s little sister who’s in high school couldn’t easily get to, say, a job bagging groceries at one of the local supermarkets without one. It is far easier to commute by public transit into downtown Boston than it is to move around the village itself. The affordable housing provided in the Wilber School apartments might be a nice option for someone with a job in downtown Boston, since they can walk to and from the train and still live in a pleasant suburb, but they’re still going to need a car in order to get the necessities of life.

Sharon’s not about to become a dense town center with large multifamily developments–but there are a few relatively easy matters of public policy which would make using a car less more feasible for, say, the elderly or a young family who wants to join the Jewish community there but is struggling with the town’s expensive housing. Having some kind of a food market downtown would make it possible to not have to hop in a car every time you wanted a loaf of bread–perhaps the town should consider subsidizing such an operation. Providing even skeletal bus service on Main Street–say a half-hourly or even hourly bus between Stoughton and Foxborough–would make it possible for teenagers to have a part-time job without plowing all of the earnings back into a car. These things aren’t cheap, but they are relatively easy and uncomplicated–and they might help make the area remain competitive in the 21st century.

Sharon, as G is fond of saying when I complain about suburbs, isn’t a typical suburb; it’s pretty and walkable and feels like a town. Good planning, though, makes it possible to make the most out of walkability, and Sharon just hasn’t done that. A town that’s walkable for pleasure and because of religious restrictions isn’t the same as a community in which one can actually walk to most of life’s necessities. Pushing commercial activity out to the periphery made Sharon into the former; it may never become fully the latter, but there are small improvements that can be made to move in that direction.  It’s actually an interesting test case–as young people are more drawn to urban neighborhoods, will the Jewish community in Sharon  (which has always drawn a higher-than-usual proportion of young couples and families to the suburbs) benefit because of its walkability–or suffer because living there is still car-mandatory?

“Pro-business” Only Counts So Long as it Fits Ideological Preconceptions

A subtitle to this post might be “Or: Why the Theory of Urban Amenities is a Mortal Threat to the GOP’s Economic Agenda.” I’ve been immersed in economics in my first semester of grad school; I’m taking a course on economic development, and another one which is heavy on the economic aspects of urban developments. With economic considerations in my head, a couple of recent stories out of Tennessee, of all places, caught my eye.

The first was the relatively well-publicized battle by the United Auto Workers to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Though it ended in defeat for the unionization effort (a result which has, rightly, resulted in a lot of self-examination by the campaigners), the Chattanooga fight was remarkable even before that for its unusual dynamics. The automaker, unusually, didn’t oppose, and indeed welcomed the unionization effort. Apparently in VW’s German plants the standard practice is for management to run the plant together with a labor-organized “works’ council,” and labor holds a strong position on the automaker’s board. The opposition to the union came, then, not from the employer but from outside forces–local and state Republican officials and national conservative groups. Ultimately, the scare tactics employed by the anti-union forces (associating the UAW with President Obama, threatening that VW would not bring a new plant to the area if the original one unionized), prevailed.

The second story is out of Nashville. There, the mayor and others have been trying for years to bring Tennessee’s first high-capacity transit line, the Amp bus rapid transit line, to fruition. The battle over the line has been ugly, breaking down largely along racial and class lines. This week, Republican state lawmakers proposed an amendment to a bill that would ban the key aspect of the Amp, the dedication of center lanes to the buses on some streets. The reaction among many in Nashville has been, from what I can gather on Twitter, furious; many are dumbfounded that the state would interfere with Nashville’s attempts at progress in such a petty, mean-spirited way. (Though really, they shouldn’t be; just look at the antagonistic relationship between New York State and New York City on transit issues. State governments rarely look out for the interests of their cities.) Of course, part of the attempt at destroying the Amp project is simple reactionary conservatism; old white men rarely understand transit as anything other than a conveyance for the Great Other, and it’s often perceived as a blue-state luxury. What’s more remarkable to me, though, is that Amp seems to have strong support from Nashville’s business community. Apparently, supporting businesses looking out for the interests of their city isn’t “pro-business.”

And that, I think, gets to the central idea of what I’m trying to tease out here. The common thread between the two Tennessee stories is the economic idea of amenities–that is, that there are certain things government, employers, and others can do to grease the wheels and make work and public life a little more efficient. Volkswagen wanted to allow the UAW into its plant because doing so would allow them to set up a works council, an industry best practice that gives assembly-line workers more input into the way the plant is run. Does doing that concede a little power to the workers, and make production maybe a little less efficient in the short run? Would unionization mean shelling out more in salary and benefits? Sure. But VW understood that in the long-run, providing workers with certain amenities can make production more efficient. In Nashville, business leaders understand that the only realistic way to combat urban transportation congestion is through transit, and that to attract the kind of young, talented workforce the growing area needs the infrastructure needs to exist for a low-car lifestyle to be possible. And they’re willing to put their tax dollars where their mouths are.  Urban amenities matter. You might have to spend more money now, but it’s an investment–it will pay off down the line.

And it’s that idea–of investment in amenities leading to longer-term growth–that the GOP in Tennessee apparently finds so threatening. The idea that investment in amenities can lead to longer-term growth and development flatly contradicts essentially the GOP’s entire economic platform, which can be characterized by the word “cheap”: cheap labor, cheap taxes, cheap goods. The idea that in order to achieve the latter you might occasionally want to invest in the first two is anathema to many Republicans, to the point that they’re willing to throw aside their “pro-business” image in order to prevent it happening. If you hear a faint whiff of desperation there, I don’t think you’re alone. The idea that businesses might be willing to invest in amenities for their workers or for their cities holds the potential to bring the logic of the GOP’s entire economic platform (such as it is) crashing down around them. It must be terrifying. And it’s already started.

Sometimes it’s the Small Things

Most days, I take the CDTA‘s #114 Madison Avenue bus to school. It’s not as useful a line as it could be–it only runs twice an hour, and it seems to me that ridership could support more frequent service–but it stops two blocks from our apartment and goes right to the main entrance to the UAlbany campus, convenience which can’t be beat. One thing I’ve noticed since becoming a regular rider of the line is that there are a very few minor streetscape factors that could be tweaked to make the bus run more smoothly and make the rider experience a little easier.

At the corner of Madison and Main, the 114 makes a quick right off of Madison to cut over to Washington, the main arterial which it takes to campus. The right turn is illustrated below; we’re facing west on Madison, wanting to turn right (north) onto Main.

It’s a tight turn for a full-size bus. Main isn’t quite wide enough for two lanes of parking AND two lanes of traffic, particularly when one of those lanes is taken up by a wider-than-your-average-car vehicle. This is especially true in the winter, when the plows push a few inches of snow up against the curbs, making the street a crucial foot or two narrower. On almost every trip over the last six weeks that I’ve been riding the bus, there’s been some conflict over street space at this corner. Most often, the bus can’t make the turn, and any cars that are lined up southbound on Main at the light have to back up and let it through. As a driver, I can attest that this is a hugely stressful situation, and of course it can delay the bus by a minute or two. There is, however, a very simple solution of minimal impact: simply ban parking in the first spot on the right on Main north of Madison, the one that appears in the Google Maps shot to be occupied by a black crossover. This would allow buses to make their turn more sharply, reducing or eliminating conflict with oncoming traffic. Why has this not happened? My best guess is that it’s simply a situation where the city (which is in charge of parking) and the transit agency haven’t thought to work together. It’s a symptom of the minor irritants of urban life that are a result of the fragmentation of governance and purpose from which New York State (and many other jurisdictions, of course) suffers.

There’s actually a second minor irritant on the route, just a block away at the corner of Main and Western, another major arterial.

We’re looking north on Main, with Western running east-west (at a slight slant towards the south) across the scene. The stop for the outbound 114 is on our right, on the southeast corner of Main and Western. The stop for the CDTA’s #10 and #11 routes, which run along Western, are across Western on the northeast corner. So it’s no big deal, routes that cross on a grid often have stops that are across an intersection from one another, right? Actually, this is an issue of some importance. The 114 and 11 both stop at UAlbany (the 11 terminates there; it’s primarily a university shuttle route), and the 114 and 10 both terminate at Crossgates Mall, which is also a major suburban transfer point. The ridership in this area is heavily composed of students. The upshot is that virtually all  riders at this stop can get where they’re going by taking any two of the three available bus routes. In this case, the practical thing would be to place all three stops on one corner, so that riders don’t have to decide where to stand. The practical import of the current situation is that more often than not I watch out the window of my bus as someone runs across Western when they see the 114 coming, often against the light, which is obviously a dangerous situation. Again, the solution is simple: move the 114 stop across Western to the northeast corner (albeit on Main, not Western), so that the stops for the 10/11 and 114 are only steps apart, and not separated by an arterial road and a light. To prevent stopped buses from backing up traffic on Main into the intersection, you’d probably have to allow them to pull to the curb by taking away a parking space or two, but that’s not a big deal in this medium-density residential neighborhood.  Why has it not happened? CDTA has few to no far-side (of the light) bus stops, so I imagine this was just a result of a lack of imagination. I’ve that they’re looking at the possibility of  moving to far-side stops, however, so one can hope this might happen sooner rather than later.

Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a big difference. And sometimes I can write 800+ words on very minor things.