Thursday, March 26, 2009

We Could Do Worse Than Ride the Rocket

When it comes to public transit, there are two cities in the English-speaking world that are built upon that bedrock - London, with its historic, storied Underground, and New York City. There are few cities in the world which rely on public transit like New York does, thanks to its criss-crossing network of subways, bus routes, and commuter rail lines that bind Manhattan to the boroughs and the suburban metropoli of Long Island. Compared to New York's mileage, Toronto might as well be Poughkeepsie.

Nevertheless, despite the eleven million people that ride its rails and wheels every day, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been as clobbered as anything by this economic Grand Slam of ours. Yesterday's New York Times carried an article by William Neuman, "M.T.A. Votes to Raise Fares and Cut Service," covering the MTA's bid to remain solvent and workable with service reductions and fare increases which I can only describe as punishing.

Unless the state government in Albany can get its house an order and provide the MTA with additional funding, which would be raised by increasing tolls on bridges spanning the East River and the Harlem River, the MTA will cancel thirty-five bus routes and two subway routes to get its ducks in a row. Fares would also increase by fifty cents to $2.50, and a monthly pass would go up $22 to $103.

Predictably, there is a lot of argument and back-and-forth over this in Albany, where the issue of bridge tolls are the polarizing issue. Because, after all, people who drive cars into work naturally have less responsibility (!!) to pay for the services they are taking advantage of than do those who ride in on the rails. While I grant that I am not a maven of the New York public transportation system, it's easy to see that fare increases and service cuts of this magnitude would push people away from the system into their cars, thus increasing traffic and pumping yet more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Here in Toronto, there are frequent complaints about the kind of service we get from the TTC. I've had plenty of experiences waiting for the 501, looking with frustration down the street as the clock ticks closer to the time I have to be at my desk, only for two - sometimes even three! - streetcars to arrive like a sunburned convoy, one after another. No system is perfect, though I've only been late because of it once or twice. What subway problems Toronto has usually takes the form of suspicious packages discarded at Jane Station or arguments over how much money Mel Lastman wasted by building a subway under Sheppard Avenue.

So how do the systems compare? For one, "service problems" for the TTC have been, of late, barely having enough vehicles to deal with rush hour demands. Ads rife with typos (well, one typo) have appeared all over the system, trumpeting that 80% of surface routes now run until 1 AM. Planning for the Transit City light-rail system is proceeding apace and shovels will break the east end of Sheppard later this year. In New York, they're rolling back, pulling up the drawbridge and hunkering down to see if they can outlast the siege.

A comparison of the two systems' fares is instructive. Here in Toronto, one ride on the TTC will set you back $2.75, so long as you're not hopping on a Downtown Express route or one that shuttles into York Region or Mississauga. A one-month Metropass can be had for $109, and even that is tax-deductible. Converted into Canadian dollars, the MTA would bury Toronto at $3.07 per ride, and for a New York City MetroCard you'd need to hand over $126.82 in loonies and spare change. As far as I know they don't work nearly so well as shields from the taxman.

I can understand the need for the MTA to maximize its revenue, particularly in the face of these economic conditions. New York's transit infrastructure is far greater in scope than Toronto's and as such requires a significantly greater investment - but the importance of sheer psychological impact can't be forgotten. This is the second year in a row New York's transit fares will have gone up, and this year they are going up in a big way - 20% per ride. Metaphorical punches like that are hard for people to take, and the effect can't be discounted. I would not be surprised to see a version of the Laffer curve come into play here - it's easy to envision a situation where higher fares prompt an exodus from the system, which necessitates further service cuts and fare increases to maintain what's left, and so on until equilibrium is finally reached in a system that is a shell of what it once was.

For the moment, while not flush the TTC appears stable, and if Dalton McGuinty delivers on expectations there will be cash laid out for public transit in Ontario's next budget. For the good of the city, I hope dearly that's the case.

I don't care how many times I have to wait by the curb wondering how much longer it'll be until the streetcar grinds into sight, I ride with pride. Because I know I'll get there in the end. Because I know I'm better off not having to worry about parking fees, and gas prices, and parking costs, and all the idiots on the roads and the Gardiner. Because I want to decouple myself from the myth that a car brings freedom.

The government of New York would be wise to recognize the necessities of the future, and fund New York's public transit system to the best of its ability. Somehow, I doubt that's going to happen.

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