I recently wrote a piece for Pacific Standard on the never ending rail v. bus debate. As I wrote the article I ended up being overwhelmed by how pointless the conversation seemed in the shadow of the austerity pressures that constantly threaten most networks in America.
Neither the rail infrastructure, nor the bus service, is going to be improved any time soon because SEPTA’s tiny capital budget—$308 million—is not even large enough to maintain the current system. Harrisburg is run by hard right, mostly white Republicans, while transit systems are in urban areas with majority black, solidly Democratic populations. (Pittsburgh is Philadelphia’s only other urban ally with a strong public transit system.) The likelihood that Republicans will substantially increase revenue for public transit in cities where no one votes for them is exceedingly slim. And this is a relatively common political dynamic. From the perspective of a rural or exurban Republican politician, Lind’s desire for more rail lines and Yglesias’ advocacy for upgraded bus systems look equally unpalatable.
Nationally our increasingly paralyzed government is proving just as incapable of nudging people out of their cars and into buses or trains, regardless of a continuing stream of data indicating the popularity of transportation alternatives. In an environment as gloomy as this, the bus vs. rail debate seems almost meaningless. Or maybe that’s just the way it looks from Philadelphia, where SEPTA’s doomsday scenario would replace all trolleys with buses, scrap most of the commuter rail network, and close one of the city’s two subway lines. It looks like I’d better start devoting more time to the secrets of the bus schedules.
The politically-imposed boundaries of this conversation are not acceptable. More funding is needed, preferably from a regional tax where the suburbs finally contribute more to the service that keeps traffic from getting even worse and keeps the state’s largest economic center humming. Public transit isn’t meant to turn a profit. It shouldn’t have to. That’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to get people places in a city where it often doesn’t make sense to use a car.
Buses have to be a part of that and a good chunk of their bad reputation is simply attributable to the fact that buses tend to be used by lower-income populations who tend to crappier public services because of their lack of political power. Cities like New York, D.C., and Philly are dense enough that there is more of a cross-class ridership, at least on some routes.
When I take buses in downtown Center City, which is pretty thoroughly ritzy these days, the ridership is very mixed both racially and, from appearances, economically. The 42 bus goes through the heart of downtown to the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital complex to my neighborhood in West Philadelphia and on over the city line. Starting at 5:00AM it runs more than four buses an hour until 8:00PM.
But the 64 largely serves lower-income neighborhoods in West, Southwest, and South Philly and is probably more representative of most bus routes in the city. The ridership is largely African-American and generally (from appearances) much lower-income. It also comes very infrequently: Only at 7:00-9:00AM and 3:00-5:00PM do more than 3 buses run an hour. There are no shelters, unlike downtown, so if you miss one you’ll be standing there for 20 or 30 minutes, getting ravaged by the elements. It’s not much of a choice if you have any other option.
The upside of routes like the 64 are that they cheaply serve lower-income areas that don’t have much, if any, access to rail lines. Philadelphia’s inner-city rail network is rudimentary: You can’t take the train straight from West Philadelphia to South Philadelphia, let alone to the majority lower-income and African-American Southwestern neighborhoods. But because they serve these poorer areas, and don’t really touch downtown, they don’t come as often which disincentivizes those who have a choice from riding them.