A note on free public transit

Urban areas have inherent limits on road space; additional growth requires public transit.

July 26, 2018

"We cannot build our way out of congestion." Right. We cannot have a highway with a ramp to each property; that is another name for a "street". An urban area has an inherent limit on the amount of vehicles it can handle, not because of cost, but because of inherent physical/spacial limitations.

The more dense a city, the more it must rely on public transit. In fact, public transit makes possible additional increases in density: by relieving congestion at the current density, it facilitates an increase in density until the old congestion level is reached. In a city's evolution from low to high density, there is a predictable evolution of the type of public transit adopted, each being optimal relative to the volume of public transit use at the time:

   buses —> streetcars —> subway.

A second axis of parameters is:

   local/slow —> rapid —> high-speed.

You can have a geographically small high-density city or a large low-density city without substantial public transit, but not a large high-density city (e.g., New York).

If we want Syracuse to grow, become more dense (add 50k-100k pop), create an attractive, diverse, and efficient city (place-making), in short create a traditional city (more people than car oriented)---as Syracuse used to be, we have to actively make it happen. We'll need to: establish a robust public transit system (much like Syracuse used to have when the population was 220k); and establish efficient transit corridors and encourage their development through new zoning and public infrastructure improvements (i.e., create the needed efficient transit network/corridors that do not yet exist...for the city to grow around).

To get there, we can leverage the I-81 Project. By adopting a street-grid solution, we will have the funding to redesign/rebuild/upgrade numerous streets and intersections, and take advantage of all the digging to "add on" public transit infrastructure, including streetcar lines, at a fraction of often quoted costs.

We could also make national (international) headlines by creating a free (free to use) public transit system. How? Consider that our public transit system is already subsidized nearly 90%; closing the 10% gap is not much of a stretch (~$5M?). A "public transit utility fee" on real property (~$100 per median household) would more than cover the gap. Free public transit will radically increase ridership as well as demand for more comprehensive service. Think of the $1000s/year households would save by getting by with one less car. If we start to think in terms of the "community transportation budget" (individuals, businesses, and government) we will see an enormous expenditure, one which can be greatly reduced while creating a state-of-the-art free public transit system. "Mom, will you take me to the mall?" "Oh, honey, just take the bus".

How will the large expansion of public transit be funded?

  1. The same way as the existing system. Cities that demonstrate the greatest demand and projected efficiency (riders per dollar of investment) for public transit get greater State and federal funding. Free service will guarantee a high ridership (efficient/justifiable investment).
  2. Incorporate Transit Oriented Development (design/plan/rezone/build/promote) into the I-81 Project; leverage its funding (wherever applicable) and street digging to dramatically reduce costs and by treating public transit infrastructure as an "add on" (a far more favorable accounting view). This is a task for the City (community) to initiate and lead.
  3. The "Public Transit Utility Fee" will cover the lost ticket revenue and additional operating costs.
  4. A rising population will will increase the "Public Transit Utility Fee" revenue in proportion to expanding service.
  5. Eliminating ticketing costs (investment in dispensing machines, vehicle or street installation, maintenance, overhead) should reduce costs 5%, maybe 10%.
  6. Might save $1-2 million/yr on municipal road maintenance due to less wear?

"Free" bus service really means "pre-paid" service. It costs very little to each household because all households and businesses pay into it. We already do it this way for sidewalks and streets. We already do 90% of it this way for public transit.

A comprehensive and attractive free public transit system will save local residents 10s of millions of dollars per year in private transportation costs while dramatically spurring the economic development of Syracuse.