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Tuxedos on the Subway: Transportation Anywhere, Anytime and for Everybody


Because great public transportation systems are expensive, they only get fully funded when they’re used by both the well-to-do and the not-doing-so-well.

This is one of the sad-but-true aspects of transportation, one that they don’t teach in engineering school. No matter how well laid out the sidewalks and bike paths of a city’s active transportation network, no matter how cleverly designed its multimodal grid, no matter how easily its residents can get real-time interactive directions, if the city’s public transportation becomes a system only for the less well-off, it’s in trouble. It’s the same phenomenon that hamstrings public hospitals and public education: unless every socioeconomic group in a particular city feels invested in the system, it starves. As much as anything else, this fact explains why, despite all the well-documented problems with our dependence on private automobiles, road-building continues to have first call on transportation budgets. Streets and highways really are used by everyone. Whether we’re talking 18th-century streets like Bedford Avenue, or Houston’s hypertrophied Katy Freeway, roads are just as likely to carry a brand-new Mercedes-Benz as a 10-year-old Chevrolet Impala. Buses and streetcars, on the other hand, are the opposite of economically diverse. In the United States, 63 percent of the users of small transit systems, 51 percent of users of medium-size transit systems, and even 41 percent of riders in the largest transit systems are at or below the poverty line.

Even worse, the tendency of public transit systems to be perceived as the choice of travelers who can’t afford something better is vulnerable to what engineers call positive feedback: small pushes in one direction (either good or bad) tend to accelerate movement in that same direction. It can become a vicious circle: the more transit becomes dominated by less-affluent people, the more it becomes associated with poverty. And the more it gets associated with poverty, the less appealing it becomes for the affluent. Equity declines.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that transportation had been at the front line in the struggle for equity in the United States for more than a century, though not always in the way that I’ve used it above. The term appeared prominently in the names of two vast multiyear federal transportation bills in the last two decades: the 1999 “Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century” and its 2005 successor, the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users [SAFETEA-LU].” In both cases equity is used to describe a fair, or at least not too unfair, allocation of federal highway funds among the states.

Those multiyear transportation bills are all about something often called return-to-source or horizontal equity: a bit of jargon that describes a point at which states, municipalities, and even individuals, in the words of Todd ­Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, “get what they pay for, and pay for what they get.” SAFETEA­­[-LU], for example, guaranteed that each state get back between 90 and 92 percent of its residents’ contribution to our old friend, the Highway Trust Fund.

Redistributive or vertical equity, on the other hand, has a different definition of fairness. This kind of equity recognizes that since some groups are advantaged, others must be disadvantaged, and, to balance the inequalities of the private sector, the disadvantaged should be favored in ­public transportation policies. Offering discounted fares to less affluent riders, or increasing bus routes in poor neighborhoods, for example, corrects for the fact that not everyone starts life in an affluent family. Investing in buses that can accommodate wheelchairs balances scales that are out of ­kilter in another way.

A lot of the equity discussions today, as above, are concerned with the competing demands of relatively well-off drivers and less-affluent transit riders. But even within the world of public transit, scarce resources have to be allocated either horizontally or vertically. In fact, long before the automobile transformed travel, there were still pretty pointed debates about the allocation of public transit resources—usually between rich and poor, even more frequently between black and white. The battle for civil rights in America was famously fought out in streetcars, trams, buses and trains. …

Over and over again, access to public transportation and the promotion of social equality have been joined together at the hip. This isn’t just some vague Progressive liking for diversity for its own sake. Smart streets are diverse, but it’s not a cost: it’s a benefit. Forgetting this is one reason that the streets of so many planned communities, from Radburn, New Jersey, to Columbia, Maryland, aren’t as smart as their designers had hoped. Smart streets are more than just paths through well-designed theme parks, and they’re the opposite of exclusive. In order for a community to be vital—to be alive—its streets have to welcome the widest variety of people, precisely because that’s what makes the streets interesting and appealing in the first place. Transportation policies that segregate people by income or education aren’t just unfair, they’re self-defeating.

For most of American history, the challenge of fighting that kind of segregation was simple, though demanding: assuring access to the disenfranchised. Today, however, transportation planners have to balance two interests that aren’t always in sync. On the one hand, we’re obliged by every measure of decency to provide access to the people who need public transit the most, but on the other hand we have to make it an appealing option for the people who need it far less.

Schwartz, New York City’s former traffic commissioner, is president of Sam Schwartz Engineering, a firm specializing in transit solutions for cities and towns. This Commentary is reprinted and excerpted from his recent book, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, with permission from PublicAffairs. For more, click here.

“Commentary” features points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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