Mass Transit And Freeloaders

By Bonnie Sesolak, NMA Development Director

Last Friday’s Wall Street Journal had two articles neatly juxtaposed. The first was “Riders Swamp Public Transit” and the second “Revenge of the Freeloaders.” Seemingly, the two articles were completely unrelated, but not really.

According to the public transit article, high fuel prices are driving commuters to city busses, trains, and other forms of mass transit. The irony is that the same high fuel prices are bankrupting the agencies responsible for public transportation systems.

Consequently, instead of making hay while the sun shines by accommodating all these new riders, these agencies are cutting back on service, dropping routes, and actually reducing their capacity to meet transportation demands! Busses and trains are jammed full of riders, and other customers are left standing on the sidewalk because there is no room for new passengers.

If we start at the source of this conundrum we have the owners of petroleum who have raised the price of their commodity because of growing demand. Then we have the oil companies engaged in the extraction, shipping, refining, and retailing of the petroleum who raise their prices because their costs have increased. Certain of the commercial users of petroleum products also increase there prices to accommodate their increasing costs to do business.

But wait, what did the public transit agencies do when they were hit with higher fuel bills? Did they raise their prices to offset the higher fuel bills?

Of course not! Public transit is part of the welfare system, it is in place to provide transportation to those who can’t afford transportation, at least that seems to be the operational philosophy.

Now we get to the “freeloader” issue. Are all those commuters stuffing the busses and trains actually welfare recipients that just like to ride during the morning and evening rush hours? Obviously not, they are workers, shoppers, students and other gainfully employed folks who have one thing in common; they can count. It’s a lot cheaper to use public transport and let someone else subsidize their travel.

The solution is fairly straight forward. We move public transit from the welfare model to a transportation model.

The people who use the system pay for the system. The population that cannot afford fares can apply to the welfare agencies for vouchers or passes that permit use of the public transit system. The transit system can be compensated for the vouchers/passes by the welfare agency.

Transit fares would undoubtedly increase, significantly, but there would still be substantial savings in comparison to driving and parking an automobile each day. A transit company that is dependent on its customers, and not government funding and grants, is more likely to be accommodating and receptive to meeting their customer’s needs.

Unrealistic, utopian? Not really. Sure, many public transit companies would fold, either because they were redundant and unneeded, or because they were unable to adapt to a transportation model that pays its own way. But, others would flourish and new private entrants could enter the market because they would not have to compete against publicly subsidized systems.

Five dollar a gallon, and up, fuel costs could usher in the golden age of mass transit, all we have to do is shed the welfare mentality and let the riders and the providers sort it out.

Image Credit: einarfour

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