Social Stratification in American Transit

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten anything up here. Sorry!

The idea that public transit comes with class and racial connotations in the American imagination is hardly new or surprising. That the desire to avoid “those people” has long driven aspects of US transportation policy is hardly a new suggestion; many people who drive to work cite the desire to be alone or to avoid “crowded” or “smelly” transit vehicles as driving (pun intended) their decision-making. Fights over supporting transit with class and racial overtones are common. As Cap’n Transit points out, the driver/transit rider divide is the fundamental stratification of American transportation policy–and it’s clear who’s on top.

But there’s also stratification within our transit system. And we don’t talk about it enough.

It’s been that way for a long time. I recently found this 1975 article by Paul Barrett in the Business History Review, titled “Public Policy and Private Choice: Mass Transit and the Automobile in Chicago between the Wars.” It contains a particularly striking passage about the social stratification of transit in Chicago:

But here is another reason why the status connotations of mass transit per se should not be overemphasized. Chicago’s mass transit system had long provided ample opportunity for skittish riders to choose the character of their fellow travelers. As early as the 1880s one South Side woman, complaining of the lack of “heating” straw on the floors of streetcars, observed to the Tribune that “the rich have their [Illinois Central commuter] trains to ride.” And early streetcar routings took class into account, as Northwest Side community leader Tomaz Deuther discovered when he asked Chicago Railways president John Roach to send cars directly down State Street from Deuther’s working class neighborhood. “You can’t mix silk stockings with picks and shovels,” Roach replied. Deuther was satisfied and marked Roach down as an honest man. As late as 1947 patrons in many districts could choose among streetcar, elevated, interurban, boulevard bus, and commuter railroad service for a trip to the CBD. Each line had its own fare structure and routing and, we may assume, its distinctive clientele. In short, the argument that aversion to class mixing helped to kill mass transportation must be considered in the context of the unique transit system each city developed for itself by means of local policy decisions.

Barrett’s point is that analysts should not assume mass transit declined in the postwar years mainly because of social mixing, since it was frequently already stratified. I think he is, to some extent, wrong–the explosion of suburbanization and sprawl in the postwar era created (indeed, was premised on) new forms of exclusion–but the point that we shouldn’t idealize the egalitarian nature of some prewar transit systems stands.

And here’s the thing: it’s still like that in a lot of places. The Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union has long been vocal that LA Metro’s expansion of the rail network prioritizes a small cadre of white riders over the system’s much more numerous bus ridership, which is heavily composed of people of color. The point that capital spending on rail expansion ignores or even hurts the majority of a transit system’s riders has a lot of validity (arguably more in non-LA contexts, actually), but also lacks significant nuance–Metro’s last biannual onboard survey found that while twice as many white people ride trains as buses, the respective percentages are only 9% and 18%.

But there are other examples. I was in Philadelphia over the weekend, and took the opportunity to ride one of the nation’s most interesting transit operations, the Norristown High Speed Line. The High Speed Line is interesting not just for its unique combination of technology, but because it parallels and complements other SEPTA routes, in particular the Regional Rail Paoli/Thorndale Line (the former Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, which has lent its name to the corridor of wealthy suburbs along it) and the ex-Reading Norristown/Manayunk Line. Norristown, a struggling collar city, is served both by the High Speed Line and the Regional Rail route–and the social stratification of the services is clear.  As I rode the NHSL, Stephen Smith educated me about the line’s social aspects:

Because of a suspicious object under the NHSL viaduct, we ended up taking Regional Rail rather than the NHSL back to Center City. Midday, Regional Rail runs at hourly headways, while the High Speed Line runs every twenty minutes. NHSL is a premium service relative to other SEPTA rapid transit services, with a base fare of $2.75–but a Regional Rail fare from Norristown, which is in Zone 3, is $5.75, and $7.00 if purchased on the train. And the Regional Rail ticket office is only open until 12:45 weekdays, and not at all on weekends, meaning you have to pay the higher fare at those times, period.

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NHSL trains and a SEPTA bus at Norristown Transit Center. Regional Rail station to the left. 

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A Regional Rail train approaches Norristown Transit Center

Indeed, though diverse, the (small) crowd that ended up on our Regional Rail train was clearly better-dressed and more professional-looking than the NHSL clientele.

Indeed, what Americans call commuter rail is, arguably, a fundamentally inequitable mode reliant on social exclusion.  It’s a high-cost service whose fares are frequently unintegrated with other forms of transit and that runs only frequently enough to be useful to those who have significant flexibility in their schedule, or the privilege to define their own time management. But it has a powerful constituency that keeps it going–and just functional enough to suit their needs.

For example, there’s been a ton of talk in the Boston area about cuts to the MBTA–but, while expansion may be slowed some, there’s been little talk of cuts to commuter rail, even though it’s by far the most highly subsidized of the agency’s modes on a per-ride basis:

In a nutshell, this is why my senior paper research focuses on making commuter rail more egalitarian. The fundamental inequity of American transportation policy is the privileging of automobile use and abuse over everything else, but too much of the inegalitarian stratification that defined transit before World War II still persists. Indeed, in some ways it may have gotten worse. And that’s something planners and transit advocates need to address.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Frequency Works, Again

Last month I posted a quick note on the importance of frequency in transit, spurred by some research I’d done for my ongoing research project. Here’s another one, this time courtesy of the Philadelphia suburban rail system (today’s SEPTA Regional Rail). From this 1958 article in The Nation:

A similar experiment, is now being attempted on commuter lines serving Philadelphia–so far with a similar result. Philadelphia appropriated $160,000 on the promise of the Pennsylvania and the Reading to step up commuter and off-hour service to the northern residential suburbs. The Philadelphia, city fathers explained that they did not regard the $160,000 as an actual subsidy, but merely as an underwriting of increased operational costs, to see if improved rail service would take some of the clutter of cars off city highways. If this could be done, the pressure for ever larger highways, ever more bridges and tunnels, ever increasing parking facilities would be eased, and a subsidy to the railroads, even from the taxpayers’ standpoint, would justify itself.

The New York Herald Tribune reported last month on the Philadelphia experiment at the end of the first month of a six-month test period. The Pennsylvania had increased the number of trains on its Chestnut Hill run by 33 per cent to thirty-six daily; service was stepped up to every fifteen minutes in rush hours, every half-hour in off-hours. The Reading boosted the number of its trains from thirty-three to thirty six daily, Saturday service on both lines was almost doubled, and cheaper fares were tied in with bus-line  transfers. The result: In the fourth week of operation, the Pennsylvania carried 4,133 more passengers than it had in the test week of October 6, before the plan went into effect, a gain of 14.8 per cent; and the Reading picked up 2,422 passengers in the same week, an improvement of 7.6 per cent over its test week in May. For the entire four weeks, the Pennsylvania gained 11,128 additional riders; the Reading 7,099. The effect on city traffic already was observable; 600 fewer automobiles a day were coming into the city from the suburbs.

Philadelphia hopefully assessed the advantages of the plan this way: cheaper fares mean a saving, for the individual commuter, of 90 cents a day over automobile operation (including parking fees, insurance and fuel costs), or a total of $100 in the six months of the test period. This saving to the individual driver is projected into a much greater saving to the city. It means, Philadelphia estimates, that about $81 million annually can be saved on the cost of maintaining existing roads and providing police protection. And this is apart from the merry-go-round cost of building ever more and wider highways.

This was a truly different world for transit. SEPTA wouldn’t be formed until 1963, and it wouldn’t take over any responsibility for the commuter lines until 1966, or direct operation of them until 1983. And yet, the truth that frequency translates to ridership is apparent in this report. Indeed, the actions taken on the Pennsylvania’s Chestnut Hill West Line (the two Chestnut Hill lines run very close and parallel to each other, entirely within the boundaries of the city of Philadelphia), mirror closely the idealized set of recommendations that Jarrett Walker or any frequency-minded planner would make: clockface schedules, decent off-hours service, reduced fares, and schedule and fare coordination with buses.  There are, quite frankly, any number of transit agencies that can’t get their act together to make these things work in 2014. Perhaps we don’t give the people running our public transit systems during their decline phase in the 1950s enough credit?

Note: The numbers reported work out to a daily 1958 ridership of a little under 4,000 on Chestnut Hill West and about 4,400 on Chestnut Hill East before the experiment. Today, both lines carry about 5,500 riders daily, despite service that maxes out at half-hourly at peak and hourly off.

A Note on the Importance of Frequency in Regional Transit

Apologies for the long periods between posts. I’ve been caught up with school, work, and the Jewish holidays, so time for blogging has been infrequent. That being said, here’s a short post on something that caught my eye as I was doing research for a paper.

Anyone interested in planning, economic, or transportation issues should be aware of a series of papers authored by Richard Voith, a former economic advisor to the Philadelphia Fed, Wharton School professor, and member of the SEPTA board. His writing covers topics like capitalization of transit access, urban-suburban real estate dynamics, and transit efficiencies. The last topic is the subject of a 1994 paper titled “Public transit: Realizing its potential,” published in the Philadelphia Fed Business Review. The paper is a general argument, but it also includes some interesting data on Philly transit systems circa 1994, which I thought it would be interesting to present here.

In a kind of appendix to the paper, Voith presents two charts (modified here for readability). SEPTA refers to the Regional Rail (commuter) division ONLY, not the urban rail subway or trolley lines or bus operations. Remember, this is 1994 data; I’m sure the numbers have changed since then:

SEPTA PATCO
Fare $3.25 $1.60
Trains per Line 7 33
Annual Ridership per Mile of Railroad 75,312 785,261

And:

SEPTA PATCO
Cost per Rider $7.32 $2.26
Subsidy per Rider $4.37 $0.89
Annual subsidy per mile of railroad $329, 698 $699,225

As Sunny Zheng pointed out on Twitter, these numbers don’t capture absolutely everything; SEPTA has (and presumably had) pass products that would have lowered the average fare charged to most riders. I don’t know whether the subsidy numbers account for those lowered fares; the SEPTA fares quoted are peak, Zone-2 (a distance that roughly corresponds to PATCO’s length).  Still, the numbers say a lot. As Voith wrote:

As shown in the figure, PATCO’s fare is less than half of SEPTA’s. PATCO runs almost five times as many rush-hour trains on its single 14-mile line as SEPTA runs on its average commuter line. PATCO also runs much more frequent off-peak service. The net effect of the lower-price, higher-quality service is that PATCO carries over 10 times more people per mile of railroad than SEPTA does.[b] Thus, for very similar suburban markets and the same destination, ridership levels are dramatically different. The level of current SEPTA ridership doesn’t necessarily reflect transit’s potential.

I see three possible contributing factors to the ridership differences. One, and likely the most powerful factor, is frequency. As Jarrett Walker has repeatedly stressed, frequency is the single best way to attract riders to a transit service. Another is the low fare, which was well below that of SEPTA. A third is that transit demand from South Jersey to Philly is relatively inelastic, because driving a car into the city requires paying a toll on one of only a few congested bridges.

It’s possible that the low fare helped to attract riders to PATCO, and the pricing of car access to Philadelphia closer to true cost certainly helped the situation. But, especially accounting for the passes, SEPTA fares in Zone 2 were’t really that much higher than those of PATCO. I think it’s pretty clear that this data validates everything Jarrett Walker has ever said about frequency. In fact, ridership on PATCO was so high that had the agency been willing to raise fares $.89–$1.43 today, arguably a raise that a relatively wealthy suburban clientele could have afforded–it could have eliminated subsidies altogether.

There were downsides to the frequency with which PATCO was blessed, of course. The subsidies per mile of railroad were more than double those of SEPTA’s regional rail. But one thing is very clear:

When you invest in frequent transit, you get what you pay for.

Ridership follows investment in operations. We can argue about the necessity of subsidies; I’m guessing that the value to Philadelphia of keeping all of the cars used by PATCO commuters in 1994 out of Center City was far greater than the $.89/passenger subsidy. This is yet another argument for the rapid-transitization of the SEPTA Regional Rail network (and others!), a case that has been made repeatedly by transit advocates and some professionals. Frequency is expensive in absolute and per-mile-of-rail terms, and probably unworkable without reworking of the labor agreements that American commuter rail systems currently operate under. But in terms of “buying” passengers, frequency is cheap–almost certainly cheaper than anything else transit agencies can do.

I don’t want to shortchange the place that the bridge tolls hold in PATCO’s success; pairing realistic car pricing with high-quality transit is the future of American urban transportation policy. But driving into and parking in Center City is expensive regardless of where you’re coming from, and the success of PATCO’s high-frequency service is apparent. There are many, many places in the US where more-frequent regional rail service would be feasible; looking back 20 years, we can see the economic justification for what has become a popular idea among transit advocates.