Should Transit Agencies Subsidize the Suburbs?

Next April is going to be a very bad time to be a transit-rider in Cleveland if RTA moves forward with proposed service cuts. For a system that’s been devastated with fare hikes and service cuts over the past few years, this might just be RTA’s nail in the coffin.


Something particularly important that caught my eye in the Plain Dealer story is this quote from RTA’s general manager, Joe Calabrese:

“We will spread the cuts among the seven days,” [Calabrese] said. “The staff feels it is more detrimental to have any day completely eliminated.” While routes will be evaluated by ridership, geographic coverage is also key, he said. “We don’t want to abandon the suburban territory where it is important for people to get to for work,” Calabrese said.

Based on my analysis, Cleveland’s RTA already has one of the highest base fares in the country. If the proposed cuts occur, I think few will disagree with me in saying that no system with higher fares will have less useful service.

For the most part, RTA’s fares are consistent throughout the system. You’ll pay the same fare whether you’re traveling 2 miles from the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood to Public Square or 20 miles from Strongsville to Downtown. The only exception is if you park at one of the suburban park-and-ride locations, then you’ll have to pony up an extra quarter to ride one of a few plush buses straight to your destination.

Is this the most socially responsible way to provide such an important public service?

Even throughout the Rust Belt, Cleveland is fairly unique in the way it prices transit service. Columbus’s has different fares for “local” and “express” buses. Cincinnati uses a tiered system with fares ranging from $1.50 (within Cincinnati) to $3.50 (the longest routes). Pittsburgh’s popular ‘T’ has tiered fares ranging from $1.50 (downtown zone) to $3.50 (zone 3) and special fares for rush hour and events.

Why haven’t these options been explored in Cleveland? Every RTA fare hike has been across the board, and now Joe Calabrese has shown where his priorities are when it comes to slashing service.

-Rob Pitingolo


Filed under Featured, Public Transportation

10 responses to “Should Transit Agencies Subsidize the Suburbs?

  1. Special K

    Good post.

    Here in Pittsburgh, bus riders pay an additional fee for a longer ride if the trip encompasses more than one “zone.”

    One additional point…I interviewed Calabrese several years ago for a story on commuter rail and he pointed out:

    “Ohio spends only $1.58 per person on mass transit. He said other states with comparable population spend far more money on a per-person basis — $63.29 in Pennsylvania and $20.73 in Michigan.”

  2. Seth

    I was a bit enraged by the same quote, not only for the points you raised but also for the (likely unintended) suggestion that a) suburbanites use mass transit to get to work and urban residents don’t or b) that it’s disproportionately more important to get suburbanites to work than city dwellers. Yikes, either way, not an appealing statement. Not to mention … um, cutting the density and frequency of service in and around employment centers like downtown and University Circle, or the near east or near west side, impacts those suburban dwellers’ ability to get to work, too.

    Almost every city I’ve been in has some kind of tiered system. The difference really dawned on me in San Francisco a couple weeks back. I spent $8.10 to get from the airport to the Civic Center downtown, which would have been a 13-mile drive (although the distance is longer by rail). That same 13-mile drive, the approximate distance between Cleveland-Hopkins and Tower City, would cost me $2.25, about 28% of the price. A mile-long ride on San Fran’s muni would cost me $2.00, but my one-mile commute into work on the 3 would cost me $2.25, about 113% of the price. While I appreciate the convenience and affordability of our rail-to-downtown route, that pricing strategy is a bit ludicrous and discourages me as a city resident from using mass transit as much as I otherwise would.

    Unfortunately, many (although far from all) city residents who use RTA have limited or no access to a car, so they have to endure the rate hikes. The majority of suburbanites can just pile back in the car if they see a rate go up. Very regressive.

  3. RTA has gotten so expensive. When I see low income people on the bus, I wonder how they are managing.

    This is a really good suggestion. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it. RTA needs to get it’s rates under control or they will continue to lose riders.

  4. Rob

    RTA’s board of trustees has several suburb mayors, stretching from Euclid (Bill Cervenik) to Westlake (Dennis Clough), the extreme east and west points in Cuyahoga County. It’s thus not surprising to me that a tiered fare system that would disproportionately affect those suburbs is rarely talked about.

    From a business point of view, RTA’s pricing actually does make some sense. Microeconomic theory suggests that a business should charge a higher price to customers whose demand for a service is inelastic and lower prices to customers whose demand is elastic. This is pretty much the case in Cuyahoga County, where those with the fewest transportation options (inelastic demand in econ-speak) are paying the highest (per-mile) prices. But from a social welfare point of view, this is challenging, and it’s made worse by the fact that very little wealth is concentrated in the city of Cleveland (unlike in other big cities) and the inner-city is much less concentrated than in other cities (and than it used to be).

    I honestly believe the damage to RTA is already done and may be irreversible. That’s really very unfortunate, because I personally do not wish to live in a city so lacking in this regard.

  5. Pingback: Put a Nail in RTA’s Coffin | Brewed Fresh Daily

  6. Seth

    RTA has announced 32 route cuts for April 2010, and cut evening services on an additional 11, and this is after the circulator cuts. Very depressing. Additional detail on specific routes, etc. at

    Calabrese notes the methodology and that, because it involves more fixed costs, train service will not be impacted much, but that many bus routes will now terminate at train stations to encourage suburban riders to ride the train into the city.

    Unfortunately, breaking apart routes has really impacted quality and reliability of service by requiring riders to transfer much more frequently. For example, to get from my place in Asiatown to friends who live near Coventry, I can currently time my walk to Euclid and E. 36th so that I can catch the 7 or the 9 with a minimal wait. Starting in April, I’ll have to take the Health Line to Stokes and Euclid and walk to University Circle, then wait for the 7 or 9 from there. Or using Calabrese’s recommendation, I can take the 3 to Tower City, transfer to the Rapid, take the Red Line to University Circle and then transfer to the 7 or 9.

    Even on a good day, at peak hours of service, this could now be a 3-hour round trip. 3 hours to travel 9 miles … again, at peak service!!!

    So I skip the trip. But what do you don’t have a car and you rely on that type of route to get to the doctor? Or a slew of decentralized social service providers? It’s unbelievable. I truly do feel sorry for RTA and the fact that the state refuses to fund mass transit at anywhere near a reasonable level, but I feel even sorrier for my fellow riders.

  7. In a recent APA podcast a Chicago Transit Authority bus route planner said he found it hard to justify running buses to the suburbs. The guys that get on downtown and ride to the end of the line put the company in the red. Under that system, he found that he often had to cut the routes entirely.

    It is possible to use a zone system like Barcelona and plenty of other cities use. Draw concentric rings around the city. Travel in one zone is not expensive. Travel beyond that and pay more per zone.

    Cities with modern transit systems use smart cards. With a smart card you pay a rate based on the distance you travel. Swipe your card when you get on the bus and when you get off and the charge is automatically given based on how far you went. There are free and automatic transfers between buses and trains. You pay only as far as you go.

    Transit companies should be subsidized by foundations, municipalities, and business associations. Transit companies should not subsidize passengers.

  8. I know it seems too weird to even talk about but in some places like Hong Kong– a private transit company actually needs no government help at all and makes a big (huge) profit. It tries to break even on the fares and then owns property around it’s stations where it has built major apartment complexes, indoor malls and other mixed use developments.

    The key is to tie transit to land usage and allow much more high density development. One can see the obvious synergy with transit oriented development insuring riders and the line vastly increasing the real estate profits per square foot.

    One can easily see how this might work in a plce like Pittsburgh’s
    Downtown and Strip.

    MTR, the main company that does this has contemplated operating in America but can’t make a profit at low densites.

    It should be remembered that NYC’s original subway lines were built by private companies.

    Anyway– don’t expect rational ideas like that here to gain steam untill the country is absolutely broke.

  9. Here is the quote from the wikipedia.

    “MTR, or Mass Transit Railway, is the rapid transit railway system in Hong Kong. The MTR first began service in 1979 and officially merged with the Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR) on 2 December 2007, still bearing the same name in English. The network includes 211.6 km of rail with 150 stations, including 85 railway stations and 68 light rail stops. The MTR system is currently being operated by MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL). Due to its efficiency and affordability, the MTR system is a common mode of public transport in Hong Kong, with over 4 million trips made in an average weekday. As of first-half 2009, the MTR has a 42% market share of the franchised public transport market, making it the preferred transport option.[3] The integration of the Octopus smart card fare-payment technology into the MTR system in September 1997 has further enhanced the ease of commuting on the MTR. The MTR is also a world leader in operations, setting the standards for East Asian cities such as Singapore, Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou as well as the rest of the world.”

    I want so very much to visit Hong Kong once before I die.

  10. Sorry for going on a rant. Here are some quotes from MTR LTD’s 2005 annual report which talk about the finacial sustainability of their business model and also talks about their expansion prospects.

    “The rail business spearheads our global expansion into the Asia region and Europe. In mainland China we are undertaking two major railway projects, in Beijing (Beijing Metro Line 4) as a joint venture and in Shenzhen (Shenzhen Metro Line 4). We are also project-managing the Shanghai Metro Line 9 and conducting several consultancy contracts for training and management in major urban centres around the PRC. In Europe, specifically in the UK, we are actively seeking operating franchise opportunities emerging after rail privatisation. Through our London office we are able to closely monitor such developments for future potential.”

    Skipping ahead.

    “Sustainable business model ¡E The rail+property business model provides us with the maximum opportunity for low risk/high return on our assets and stewardship of sustainable best practice for the life-cycle of our properties. Underlying this model are the negotiated rights to develop and own properties adjacent to and along our rail lines providing the means for long-term profitability while investing in and building new rail projects. Our current portfolio of properties includes primarily shopping centres and commercial properties with a land bank for future development of 27.4 million square feet, mainly located along the Tseung Kwan O Line. It is our practice to tender out under joint venture arrangements the construction and delivery of properties from our land bank. We develop the master planning for the urban design and set the environmental criteria and quality standards for the properties. Under a three-phased ‘through train’ strategy of planning, development and management we are able to influence and achieve our sustainability goals. In 2005, we successfully tendered the first of our development packages of Dream City at Tseung Kwan O Area 86.”

    Anyway– this how a real capitalist free market system might work.

    People need to understand just how collectivist socialist and fascist our current road and transit systems are. As you state– because of the large number of voters who have built their lives and development in the suburbs they are destined to be perpetually subsidized for political reasons leading to the bankruptcy of the entire region.

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