Is transit a public good?

It may not satisfy the economic definition, but it clearly is

A RECENT Bloomberg City Lab article by the highly regarded transportation thought leader David Zipper used recent statements by proponents of free public bus transit in Boston and Washington, DC, to assert, quite provocatively, that transit is not a public good.

His assertion relies on adherence to the economic definition of “public good,” a definition that helps frame an academic or philosophical exercise, but one that does not appropriately illuminate the important role public transit plays in urban societies. Zipper does not deny the importance of transit, but he goes out of his way to drive home that (at least in his view) public transit does not meet the strict economic definition of the term “public good.” I offer this short reflection on the article because I believe applying such a constrained definition to the term is a misguided (and potentially dangerous) exercise.

First, it’s important to understand the economic definition of public transit because this informs the analysis. The economic definition asserts that for the provision of a service to be considered a “public good,” the service must be both non-excludable and non-rivalrous. In simple terms, this means that a person cannot be excluded from using a public good, and that any person’s use of the public good cannot interfere with use of that same public good by someone else. Following from this, the article argues that transit is both excludable (because riders are required to pay fares) and rivalrous (because buses or subway cars can reach crush capacity conditions).

I’m not sure that holds up to fair analysis. First, let’s consider the topic of excludability. The “not a public good” argument asserts that public transit fails the excludability test because if you don’t pay the fare you can be excluded. But this is a tautology – it assumes that the policy is, or must be, to always charge riders a fare to use a transit service. The overarching point of the free bus movement is to alter that policy and transform the bus transit experience so that it is provided without exclusion.

It is not persuasive to say, “Well, we have always charged people to ride a bus, so therefore we must always do so, and hence bus transit is excludable.” Bus transit is not inherently excludable; we make it excludable, and we can change that. (As an aside, I note that free bus advocacy is often conflated with, or misunderstood as, free transit advocacy. The debate playing out in Boston and Washington DC, and in many other places nationally, is about whether bus transit should be free, not whether the entirety of the transit system should be free.)

Second, bus transit is not inherently rivalrous. Sure, there are occasions when a rider can’t get on a bus because it is full to capacity. But that is a rare occurrence, and it can be resolved by providing additional service frequencies. Using the demand for transit, or the failure to provide sufficient service to meet demand, as reasons to deny that transit is a public good demonstrates how adherence to rigid, academic definitions is not a useful or persuasive way to engage a debate about an important public issue.

A bus has obvious capacity constraints, but so do public hospital emergency rooms. So do public schoolrooms. Call these “public goods by design” if you will, but they are incontrovertibly public goods. In the effort to persuade the public – riders and non-riders – and their elected officials that transit is worthy of more robust and stable funding, why would you go out of your way to argue that bus transit is not a public good, or should not be a public good by design?

I wonder why we are even having this conversation. At stake is the ability to make the best possible case for stepped-up post-pandemic investments in transit. Making that case persuasively requires a commonly shared understanding of the purpose and benefits of public transportation. For many of us, that combination of purpose and benefits is what makes transit a public good in the arena of public debate and government decision-making.

The purpose of transit is singular: to provide as many people as possible with as much access to as many opportunities (jobs, education, healthcare, entertainment) as they need. In addition to fulfilling this singular and fundamental purpose, transit offers society (both riders and non-riders) multiple benefits. Indeed, there are many positive consequences or externalities (benefits) that arise from transit’s role in providing people with access. Those include reducing carbon and PM2.5 emissions; making the urban public realm safer and more functional for a larger number of users (restaurants, pedestrians, cyclists); providing a measure of transport equity and justice; supporting economic growth via agglomeration effects; promoting better and more sustainable land use choices; and making driving unnecessary for a sufficient number of people who can take transit instead and thereby ease traffic congestion.

Sometimes the benefits are understood by people as the purpose of transit, but I think it is more accurate and useful to keep them separate. While access is not necessarily an elusive or challenging term to understand, it’s the benefits that most people understand and think about and respond to. The benefits are the attributes of transit that ought to help develop the broad and powerful pro-transit coalition necessary to develop public support and the political will to strengthen investment in transit. Together with access, these benefits are what make transit a public good – not in the economic definition sense, which is too academic and constrained to be practically useful – but in the commonly understood public and political sense.

There is an element of condescension when, as quoted in the Bloomberg article, an academic says “people don’t know what a public good is.” Perhaps most people don’t know what the economic definition of the term is, but most people aren’t living each day in the hope of acing a Wharton Business School exam. Most people know quite well what a public good is. It includes transit services that provide them with the access they need to live full lives, and also provides them (and everyone else in society) with multiple benefits including a stronger economy, a cleaner environment and a more equitable mobility system.

Circling back to what appears to have triggered the article, the use of the term “public good” by some political leaders to justify making bus transit fare free, I hope that principled people can have a principled argument about the wisdom of the free bus movement. It is a challenging conversation to have at any time, but in this moment of post-pandemic transit workforce shortages and ridership decline, it is especially challenging. Yet if there is anything certain at this post-pandemic moment, it is that we have an opportunity to push a reset button and transform many of the old ways of thinking about transit funding and transit service delivery.

That transformation might include finding new sources of dedicated, stable transit funding, and it might include elevating the bus transit experience not simply by making it free but by providing key routes with dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority, and level boarding platforms at well designed, legible, well-lit bus stops. Rather than revert to the old ways of thinking about the urban public realm, that post-pandemic transformation might include introducing a new era of sharing the finite space of the roadway system, making it safer for and accessible to all users, whether pedestrians or cyclists or bus riders.

There is also the inescapable reality that ridership for most US transit agencies may take longer than anyone would like to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Lessening transit agency reliance on fares for substantial portions of their operating budgets is a legitimate and important question to discuss and resolve. Should fare recovery ratios in a post-pandemic era be reduced to levels more like 20 percent than 30 percent or higher? These are discussions that are timely and worth having.

For those of us who care deeply about public transportation and its future, what’s important is finding ways to align our thinking around building broad public support and political will to invest in all forms of transport sustainability. The purpose and externalities of transit should find strong support from a broad and powerful coalition of stakeholders from the business community, advocacy communities, and environmental communities. Those stakeholders should also include those who do not take transit, who will stand to benefit from the positive societal effects of a high functioning public transportation system.

Is transit a public good? You decide. To quote Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it, and I have no doubt transit can meet both the economic definition and the commonly understood public definition of what a public good is. I also have no doubt that spending time debating the definition of terms does nothing to advance the development of broad public support and political will to invest in strengthening and improving urban public transportation in the United States.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a member of the board of TransitMatters.