Transit Is Great – But It’s Not a Public Good
Maybe it’s semantics but, this article fails to prove that it’s core argument isn’t a semantic one.
I get that you cannot label transit as a public good in economic terms.
Nobody who is presenting reasons it should be free or heavily subsidized is attempting to do so. They are presenting arguments about environment, equity, etc. They are not trying to prove that it is nonexcludable and nonrival.
The article even admits that advocates are arguing that it should be a public good by design.
But they are mislabeling it according to economic theory. Who cares (other than academic economists)? In a political environment, where you are talking to other politicians and the broader public, the commonly held version of “public good” seems to fit.
Nothing about this article substantiates it’s core claim: “Mistaken assumptions about public goods pose a growing risk to sound transit policy.”
Back in the Slashdot day's we'd call this FUD (Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt.) and move to the next discussion.
Why is this stuff so consistently making it to the front page?
Has an Enteral September crept over the online tech community while I was bust living?
Maybe HN can take a page out of that Slashdot history and add some categories to the front page which can be disabled or demoted based on user preferences. Keep the default 2-dimensional list for those not logged in and those who did not edit their preferences so the default experience remains the same - just a flat list. Each item gets a category - start simple with 'Tech', 'Business´, 'Politics', 'Current events' or something along those lines - which users can demote or promote in their settings. Don't want to see this Bloomberg post? Demote 'Politics' and it is off the front page unless it gets massively upvoted. Want to see more of these things? Promote 'Politics' and you'll get to see what has been voted off the front page. Only want 'Tech'? Demote the rest.
Add a 'Category' list to the submission page with the existing categories. If the post is miscategorised the moderator(s) can correct this. This would solve the problems some have with the increase in political chitchat while others who deem tech to be inseparable from politics can get their fill.
This would be an easy change which does not add significant extra load to the server. As it stands I already ignore the front page since I access HN through the RSS feed, others use tailor-made (web) apps to customise their entry points to the site so the argument that a change like this would lead to a fragmented experience by taking away the universal entry point is moot - there is no universal entry point.
It's noise for the sake of noise.
There is zero new revelation here.
There is zero advancement in thought, science, anything.
The only tag we need is tabolid / not tabloid
There are hundreds of news aggregators that are glorified rss readers.
HN is not that, should not be that.
> HN is not that,
HN is what its users make it.
> should not be that.
...which would be solved by something like I mentioned above.
How dare the hoi polloi confuse "good for the public (everyone)" with "public good"!
Maybe we should call it "republic good" so is not to enrage the economists.
It is an amenity. Why wouldn't businesses want to move into areas that had such... amenities.
Maybe a service; not even an amenity?
A public service in the public good.
I think the author of this article misses the point of the "public good" argument.
The idea here isn't that transit itself is a public good, which is non-excludable (people can get the benefit without paying for it) and non-rival (one person having it means someone else doesn't have it).
The idea is that the availability of quality transit is a public good. Who benefits from good public transportation? Well, if you own a shop downtown, you benefit because 1) employees can come to work for your shop 2) customers can come to buy things from your shop. If all the other shops decided to get together and subsidize public transit, you could just not join in and reap the benefits without paying the costs -- i.e., it's non-excludable. On the other hand, the fact that your neighboring shop's employees and customers are using public transit doesn't stop your employees and customers using public transit -- i.e., it's non-rival.
Quality public transit can help ensure that poorer people can get higher quality jobs. Who benefits when the poor can get quality jobs? Well, everyone -- there are more workers, there are more consumers, there's less crime, the hospitals are less overloaded, the businesses in the city center can afford to hire staff, etc. The city as a whole is a lot nicer, not just for the poor people, but for the rich people who can afford to fly around in helicopters. Again, if all the other rich people decided to band together and subsidize public transit so that their city would be nicer, you could just not join in and reap the benefits without paying the costs -- i.e., it's non-excludable. On the other hand, the fact that all your rich friends are enjoying a nicer city doesn't stop you from enjoying it as well -- i.e., it's non-rival.
The same argument goes for education. Obviously one person's education itself is a private good; but the availability of an educated workforce is a public good which benefits all companies; and the universal availability of education benefits all people: if everyone has an opportunity to better their circumstances, there's lower crime and so on; and you never know who may discover the next cure for cancer, or the next fantastic technological breakthrough.
> This isn’t just about semantics
It really is. What people mean is "it's for the public good". Write it like that and the premise for the article is gone.
EDIT: I want to add that this looks to me like a fallacy that is very common in mathematical circles: appropriate a term that is in common use, give it a formal definition that works for your theory, and then go back to the public and tell them they're using the term wrong.
I agree that's often a normal problem, but in this case it may be that the author perceives the other side as mixing the two definitions, perhaps on purpose. Because "public goods", in econ-speak, are things which basically have to be paid by taxes. To say that public transit is a "public good" in econ-speak is to say that it is in the same class of things as armies and police and law courts -- things which, by their nature, can never be supportable as a private enterprise.
And, as I explain in another comment , I think that transit actually is a "public good" in econ-speak: Not the transit itself for the individual traveller, but the availability of good transit for businesses and communities.
Sidewalks don't even pass the test - like they say for roads, a sidewalk could become congested
And utilities are also rival, since water and electricity can run out and we've seen this.
By this definition next to nothing qualifies as public good because consumption of a thing usually… consumes it and there is not infinite amounts of things in the world.
Free transit can discourage even poor people from riding transit as service is what they need: most can afford the fares and so not charging it means you have less money to put into better service. Almost everyone who uses transit would benefit ffrom more routes and more frequent service. Even in cities like Tokyo or Paris where people use transit a lot there are missing services that more money is needed to provide.
> means you have less money to put into better service
Not really. It just means you're using taxes instead of fares. The cost doesn't go away. You only get less money for transit if the politicians holding the purse strings are not the ones deciding to make the transit free, which would be indicative of a very broken system.
Similarly, if the service is bad, you don't get riders, and you get less in fares. If you're relying on fares to improve service as you suggest, you end up with a negative feedback loop. It's simply not one or the other.
And on top of all of that, there's no positive feedback loop created by charging a fare. Transit in the US is almost never free for most people, and yet the service is still often bad. It's a weird argument to say fares are necessary for good service, and yet we have fares and no good service. Could it be worse? Sure, but there's no broad, obvious correlation between how transit is funded and the quality of service.
That money needs to come from somewhere. Those politicians need to come up with it somehow, and there is a limited pot. The fares are an additional pool of money - if they are adding money to make up what is lost in fares they can add that money and retain fares as well.
Fares + subsidy it not a zero sum game.
> And on top of all of that, there's no positive feedback loop created by charging a fare
Sure, but it isn't a negative loop either. So long as the fares are small of course. People mostly are fine with paying a small fare. So you should charge that small price and get that additional money. You can subside a few riders who are really poor, but for the most part your focus should be on riders who can afford the fare.
More money is needed to build/run more transit. If you are spending money to replace fares that is money you are not spending to build/run more transit.
I bet a transit system can save a lot of money by eliminating the overhead costs of fare collection.
I'm not sure that's true any longer.
At one point, I've read, fare collection on toll roads used to chew up about 50% of the money paid. In general these days, payment for transit and roads is largely automated and self-service. It's not free to collect but I'm sure the economics have changed.
If your fare collection is really bad that is true. However collecting fares in a way that isn't very costly is not that difficult/expensive and so most transit agencies are making a nice amount of money from their fare collection.
Your first sentence is wrong. Not charging for service does not necessarily mean less money for investing into better service. It’s possible for government to fund the service well enough that revenue from fares becomes insignificant. In effect, the fares would be paid by all taxpayers instead of just those who use the service. This is similar in concept to how public schools are funded. We don’t charge people at the point of service for using the public school system.
Nobody is seriously proposing to add enough money to transit systems that they can run a system with such great coverage and frequency that there isn't anyplace more service wold be needed. Until you are funding transit to that levels we should charge fares.
Nobody is charging enough that revenue from fare collections can provide this. So what is your point then? Clearly funding from then government can be enough to make fare collection an insignificant amount when it comes to paying for upgrades and new service.
The point is government funding isn't that high and nobody is seriously suggesting making it that high. You can raise funding from government, but if that happens you should spend that extra money on more services, not the same services with less fares.
The working poor who use your system would prefer more service to cheaper fares in general. Sure there are some too disabled to work who need cheaper fares, but they are a tiny minority (and should be handled with a separate subsidy from your social works department). The rest of the riders want more service as their main consideration. (again at the current fare pricing - you can make a straw man what if fares where $1000/month)
>most can afford the fares and so not charging it means you have less money to put into better service.
No, you could take the money from somewhere else. You don't have to finance transit by transit fares.
Or you can take the money from somewhere else and still charge fares and have even more money.
> Law enforcement, national defense and clean air are other often-cited examples of public goods.
These 'nonrival and nonexcludable' examples also fail this test. In fact practically any resource in this universe effectively fails because a malicious/entrepreneurial individual can (and will, if there's enough value and not enough enforcement) force scarcity.
If I make a 911 call, finite emergency resources (Law Enforcement, medical, fire, and potentially national guard) are allocated to me. SWATing individuals has demonstrated that it is possible to prevent others from consuming these resources. Yet LE must (and should) respond to SWATing calls.
If my business pollutes the surrounding clean air and clean water, other businesses and individuals cannot capitalize (yes! The essence of this article!) On this seemingly public good.
If the article is looking for a public good argument, it should consider the not-so-direct economic benefit of reducing car accidents and DUI rates.
I personally don't think the majority of Americans drive because they want to. I think Americans drive because public transportation options outside of major cities were gutted nearly a century ago.
By this definition, a village commons is not a public good. It seems like such a strange argument, and the only reason I can see for it is some editor who is against public transit, but doesn't want to say that.
Isn't it strange how when things that demonstrably improve public life, but are not really profit generators, we have to go over every sing thing, every assumption, no matter what, with a fine-tooth comb, to see if it really is perfect, and if it's not, we need to not even attempt it.
It's interesting to note that not all services that receive government subsidies are public goods in the traditional economic sense. Services like healthcare, education, housing, agriculture, and energy are all essential for social welfare, but they can be excluded and used up by individuals, making them rival and excludable. However, governments often provide subsidies for these services to support marginalized groups or address market failures. So I don't get the nitpicking.
In Germany, typically there's a public entity doing road and sidewalk cleaning financed through mandatory fees. You basically pay for the meter of roadside in front of your lot.
But then there's a law that holds all property owners liable to care for snow removal. Meaning when it snows there's a huge number of small snow sweeping engines scurrying the cities' streets, each plodding through a few meters of sidewalk before this house number and then lift the broom to continue a few hundred meters down the street in front of another building. When it snows a lot, these guys just push the snow aside, onto the bicycle paths.
This procedure means that you can no longer use bicycle paths and pedestrians have to navigate a patchy pattern of perfectly, less perfectly and altogether not at all cleaned paths.
This is so crazy but the craziest thing is that people still have to pay for the meter of roadside in front of the house. They seemingly do not get out of the liability as the road cleaning firms will not assume responsibility, so you have to keep your fingers crossed. Even crazier people seem to assume this is normal. Hell we could just keep all those little private enterprises that do snow removal and just award them with entire blocks so they can work more efficiently.
In other words, make snow removal on sidewalks as much of a public good as is regular cleaning of sidewalks and snow removal on roadways already is for crying out loud.
This sounds easy, right? Turns out it's apparently a delicate, sensitive issue that people get to hotly debate, there will be concerns raised from the concerned, and someone will yell "all that money would be better spent on $my_favorite_thing". Nothing will ever change, except when someone comes up with a Really Stupid Idea like privatizing municipal water and electricity.
So yeah I'm strongly in favor of making public transport a public good. I feel duped by my government in that they were willing to introduce a 9€ monthly ticket last year (for only 3 months alas) and promised to continue that one-time thing somehow. Now there's a 49€ ticket but it's only a yearly subscription with monthly payments through your bank account. In other words, as shitty as all of neoliberal politics, designed by the same people how sold off our water and our electricity providers.
Public healthcare does not pass their "nonrival and nonexcludable" test...
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