3.14.2007

Price Inelastic

I had just come from a meeting on the very subject of SEPTA's possible
impending service cuts and fare increases when I got stuck at a
downtown station for over twenty minutes during rush hour waiting for
a trolley. The few well-dressed, mostly white folks who came down to
the underground platform either looked impatient and pissed, or simply
walked back above surface after deciding they weren't going to wait
more than five minutes for the luxury of jamming their bodies into a
crowded car. Meanwhile, the majority of people around me, who were
black, simply waited: some cursing at SEPTA, others cracking jokes,
and still others just waiting.

This is exactly why SEPTA having to cut service and increases fares is
bad. Because public transit is more price inelastic for the poor than
for the rich. Meaning a fare hike and a longer wait time is more
likely to cause upper-income folks to decide to stay above ground,
where they can hail a cab or use their cars. Lower-income folks, who
don't have the same options, have to swallow those same fare hikes and
longer wait times.

You can say SEPTA needs to fix this mess on its own because it's so
inefficient, but you'd be wrong, because an audit conducted late last
year to prove that point actually found SEPTA to be quite efficient.
And you can say that transit users should just have to pay their way,
since drivers pay for their own cars and gas, except that drivers
don't pay for the construction and maintenance of roads. And all
residents - both transit users and car drivers - benefit in their
pockets from public transit, which has been shown to have a strong
influence on our property values, on the availability of our jobs, and
on the income-generating capability of our region.

So ride public transit sometime this week. At the very least, you can
read about SEPTA's budget crisis, as notices of upcoming public
hearings are plastered on every window. And at the very most, you can
get more connected to an issue that has profound implications for the
plight of both the poorer among us as well as all of us who own
property, work jobs, make money, and care about the vitality of our
region.

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