How Pete Buttigieg Could Save Mass Transit

When President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet takes office later this month, all eyes will be on the public-health officials coping with Covid-19. But one of the most difficult and important post-pandemic tasks — restoring America’s deteriorating mass-transit systems — will rest with the secretary of Transportation.

The question is not so much whether Pete Buttigieg is ambitious enough to try to do something big with what’s traditionally been a small job. (He is.) It’s whether he’s willing to take on the Democratic Party interests necessary to bring about true reform.

The size of the challenge can hardly be overstated.

The main issue is simply that the core mission of a mass transit system — delivering large numbers of commuters to central business districts — has become dramatically less relevant during the pandemic, when most white-collar workers shifted to Zoom-based work. There are plenty of blue-collar and service jobs downtown, of course, but many of those workers got furloughed or laid off from lunch spots, dry cleaners and other places that serve a workforce that’s no longer there.

That ridership collapse, combined with new costs for what can only be called hygiene theater, has left transit agencies with huge budget holes. Across the U.S., agencies are discussing “doomsday” budgets that slash service and raise fares.

That risks a service/ridership death spiral: As trains and buses become less frequent, fewer people take them, further reducing revenue and inducing further cuts. A functioning transit system, after all, is a network — so the elimination of even marginal routes hurts ridership on the core, while less frequency on core routes makes the entire network less useful. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that it’s not clear how robustly in-person office culture will resume even when it’s deemed safe.

True, the recent Covid relief package contains billions in mass transit funding, so agencies are now backing off their worst-case scenarios. But federal money won’t fully plug the hole, and transit officials have yet to grapple with the fact that the most transit-oriented jurisdictions are precisely the ones seeing declines in tax revenue and may be facing reduced state and local subsidies.

There is good news: It is very possible to reduce transit spending without drastically curtailing service levels.

There’s been a fair amount of media discussion in recent years of the sky-high infrastructure construction costs in the U.S., a pressing problem whose exact causes and dimensions remain somewhat mysterious. But many U.S. transit agencies also have exorbitant operating costs, and here the causes are generally clearer.

In New York, for example, subway trains require two people to operate — a driver and a conductor, whose presence is allegedly required for passenger safety. But many heavy rail systems around the world — including Tokyo, London, Paris, Chicago and Boston — get by with just a single driver. Commuter rail systems across the country routinely employ only one conductor to collect tickets. Standard operating procedure on regional rail networks abroad (the RER in Paris, for example) is to rely on much more sporadic fare checks with fines for non-payments. A few riders probably end up getting away with not paying, but it’s more than made up for by the labor cost savings — which in turn make it economical to run service more frequently.

Meanwhile, as a May report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, productivity in U.S. urban transit systems has been declining for years. In 2018, according to the report, it was lower than in 2007.

As long as big coastal cities were seeing increasing tax revenue due to rising property values, it was understandable that nobody wanted to tackle this problem head-on. But with money running short, the future of urban commuting uncertain, and transit agencies in crisis, it is now an ideal issue for a reform-minded secretary of Transportation.

Federal relief money is enough to stave off collapse. But America shouldn’t settle for a dignified gradual decline. Buttigieg should try to use his department’s discretionary authority — both as a grantor of funds, and as a regular of transit systems — to push for reforms that will stretch the money, maintain service levels and sustain ridership.

He should also use his bully pulpit as a well-known public figure to call attention to the excesses of the status quo. Picking fights with labor unions is not an obvious path to popularity for a Democratic Party politician. But Buttigieg is obviously ambitious, and he needs to find a way to for his star to continue to rise. Tackling the thorny and long-entrenched problems of inefficient transit operations fits the bill. It also suits his resume as a former management consultant and problem-solving mayor.

There’s no real precedent for a crusading reformer at the Department of Transportation. Then again, there’s no precedent for a former secretary of Transportation making it to the White House. Mayor Pete could be the first on both counts.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder of Vox and a former columnist for Slate, he is also host of "The Weeds" podcast and is the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."

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