City Buses: So Why Not Ride Free?
Buses in Yonkers, N.Y.
Bring Back the Trolley Cars!
The town of Westport is rolling a large stone uphill in its commendable effort to keep the buses rolling. Public hearings on the Transit District's future were held this week (in 1992) by the RTM's (Representative Town Meeting) Transit Committee.
Facing a 50 percent cutback in state funding, a continued lack of ridership and the need of major repairs -- on top of a million dollar court judgment against the district won by the Gilbertie family who lost their taxi service -- officials are weighing a reorganization plan that would cut seven drivers and two mechanics and forgo raises for those who remain.
Facing Escalating Expenses
Sliding ridership? Escalating expenses? Upward pressure on salaries?
What else can one do? Pull back, retrench, cut costs! Cutback on routes, schedules! Eliminate special rates! Bring costs in line with the available budget!
It's the usual, natural response to economic hard times.
Taking the Wrong Turn
On the other hand, one knows that cutting back is the exact opposite of what one would want to do to make a public transportation system, i.e., bus service, healthy and viable.
Want to create a thriving, popular bus service for a community? Almost anyone can tell you how to do it: Operate lots of clean, efficient buses throughout the district over a wide range of routes on a schedule that cuts waiting time and transfers to a minimum with well-paid and happy bus drivers.
The Road to Utopia
Ah, but this is Utopia! And we all know that Utopia doesn't exist.
If the proverbial man from Mars circled the globe in his spaceship and viewed the traffic patterns around the world's major cities -- and even many smaller burgs -- he no doubt would marvel at the inefficiency of our transportation system as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev did some years ago when he commented on the clogged highways of the Los Angeles area and wondered aloud why so many stalled and creeping cars were occupied by only one person.
Free Public Transportation?
Nobody wants to hear it, but the truth is that Mike Quill, the erstwhile New York City transit union chief, was right: Public transportation should be free.
Yes, free! That is, as free as anything gets. Free, in this case, means that the cost would be paid through the general fund (that's a euphemism for taxes.)
On the face of it, free transportation has a ring of absurdity. But upon reflection it makes a lot more sense.
Think of it. Free public transportation would make it possible to meet all criteria for efficiency and popularity. Funds would be available to create a complete system with adequate routes and good schedules as well as the nitty-gritty costs, such as salaries, operating expenses and capital investment.
Yes, but wouldn't all those buses run empty?
No. Creation of a good system of free public transportation would entice droves of people -- many of whom now believe that buses are only for people too poor to afford their own car -- to shun the exorbitant cost of owning an automobile in favor of a free, enjoyable socially desirable ride to work or play. Who would want to pay for a car, with all its attendant expenses, if he could ride free?
Bring Back the Trolley Cars!
Of course, institution of such a system would go hand-in-hand with the promotion of other, complementary forms of transportation such as expanded use of taxicabs. Personally, and I'm not alone, I would love to see the return of the trolley car.
To achieve all this, however, would require a knockdown drag out battle with a lot of vested interests.
Until the world wakes up and actually creates this "Utopian" transportation system, I will continue to watch log-jammed cars on highways that look like parking lots and think to myself: These hapless bottlenecked people are the same people who call good public transportation "Utopia" and downgrade it at every opportunity. Let them eat cake.
One thing I know for certain: If you lie down with cars, you wake up in a traffic jam!
I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on March 26, 1992.