One way to protect bus riders

Michael Lewyn's picture

As gas prices keep rising, the public demand for buses and trains keeps growing. Yet in some cities, government is actually cutting back transit service, because rising gas prices make transit vehicles more expensive to operate.(1) But as a matter of substantive policy, service reductions are not only less desirable than service increases, but also less desirable than fare increases. As a bus rider, I'd rather pay $1.50 and know that my service is safe from fiscal crises than pay $1 and worry that my service might be reduced or canceled next month. Moreover, if fairness means spreading pain equally throughout the population, it is fairer to have everyone pay a little more than to have some neighborhoods be left without service.

Accordingly, I would like to throw this idea out for discussion: a state government (or maybe even the federal government) could require as a condition for its financial support that local transit agencies be barred from reducing existing service (by which I mean shutting down a transit route entirely, or significantly reducing its hours without providing compensating service).(2) Local governments would still have plenty of options in tough times; they could (a) run their agencies more efficiently, (b) reduce government spending in other areas, or (c) raise fares. But they could not cut service. The advantage of this proposal for transit users is obvious: they could rely on the status quo in deciding where to live and do business - and if transit users did have to sacrifice, they would all sacrifice equally through higher fares. After all, we don't close highways every time fiscal times get tough- so why eliminate bus routes?

The most obvious problem with my proposal is that perhaps higher levels of government should trust local transit agencies to decide which routes are efficient and which are not. On the other hand, local governments have a strong incentive to reduce transit service (especially bus service) rather than to cut spending in other ways: many other beneficiaries of government largesse (such as transit unions and road builders) are wealthier and more organized than bus riders, so a local politician who wants to be reelected is more likely to stick bus riders with the costs of fiscal crisis than to gore some other ox.

So if we trust local transit agencies, we will get rid of some underpopulated bus routes- but on balance, we'll wind up with transit service that is less stable and less extensive. And unstable bus service creates its own inefficiencies: the more bus service changes, the harder it is for riders to keep up with service, which in turn means fewer riders in the long run.

Even transit critics have reason to support my proposal. A common argument against new rail systems is that they take money that could more efficiently be spent on buses.(3) My proposal wouldn't prevent the construction of new rail systems (nor would I want it to). But it would prevent transit agencies from reducing bus service in order to pay for rail service.


(1) For a story on this issue, see

(2) Of course, there should probably be an exception for experimental bus service, so that local governments could have the flexibility to experiment with new routes here and there. Perhaps a statute could cover bus routes as soon as they have been in effect for over a certain period of time- say, six months.

(3) See, e.g., , Sec. III.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Sure! Just freeze the current route maps in all cities!

That'll teach those transit agencies! Sure! Just have MORE state and federal regulations without funding the impacted transit agencies! Isn't that fun? And of course we know there is ALWAYS something else a government transit agency is doing that can be cut without any harm, right? Oh, and raising fares is easy, so that's always possible!

Michael Lewyn should spend a day or so in the real world, where transit agencies struggle in a world of soaring demand, soaring expenses, and people who think that the answer is another regulatory restriction. Instead he proposes a regulation that preserves routes that have few riders at the expense of providing more service on crowded routes, after all, those people don't need more service, let 'em stand closer! That's what Mr. Lewyn thinks will "protect bus riders."

Why not fund transit at a decent level and follow good planning practice (including citizen participation) to determine the best transit services? Recognize that the problem is not that the transit agencies want to cut sparse routes to serve crowded ones, but that we have underfunded transit for decades and are now living with the consequences.

Michael Lewyn's picture

I told you so

When I first posted on this issue a few months ago, lots of people suggested that instead of installing legal firewalls to protect transit service, we should just follow "good planning practice" and trust planners to decide where to cut.

And in Bizarro World, where transit agencies get all the money they want, this makes sense.

But on Earth, where funding is much more hit-and-miss, trusting the planners means this kind of disaster:

As long as transit funding is subject to a boom-and-bust fiscal cycle, we'll have inconsistent, boom-and-bust service - which is why I think that in the long run, only legal firewalls will protect riders.

trust the politicians??

That is very bold of you to make a claim that politicians (state and federal ones have big donors too) are better at managing transit systems than the people who devote their careers to it. And how would a route change be classified? Is it a reduction in service if it is a shorter route? What if it serves more people? There are just too many little flaws in this idea that would enable the politicians to micromanage the transit system to serve their own needs.

Perhaps a better solution would be trust funds. When a route is established, fund a trust fund for it that enables its continual operation.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Lots of interesting points

You [and the other poster] raise a lot of interesting points that would have to be addressed if anyone raised anything like my proposal in the real world. Taking quotes one by one:

"That is very bold of you to make a claim that politicians (state and federal ones have big donors too) are better at managing transit systems than the people who devote their careers to it."

Actually, I think that my proposal REDUCES politicians' role in managing transit systems. It is the politicians who are ultimately responsible for service cuts; in some places they make the call themselves, in others they cut spending and force the careerists to make specific choices about where to cut. Either way, it is basically the politicians who are cutting service whenever times get tough; the careerists' role is merely to tell them what routes to cut.

But my proposal actually LIMITS the politicians' discretion by taking one option of the politicians' menu: you can protect transit spending or raise fares, but you can't cut service. (And I do believe that if cutting service is not an opinion, politicians are more likely to protect transit investment generally- though I could be wrong about this).

"And how would a route change be classified? Is it a reduction in service if it is a shorter route?"

Of course. If you take two miles off the route, those people would go without service.

"What if it serves more people? There are just too many little flaws in this idea that would enable the politicians to micromanage the transit system to serve their own needs."

As I said, my proposal would reduce political micromanagement with transit, not increase it, by setting a floor under existing transit service. But having said that, I do agree that the one downside of my proposal is that it does make it hard for transit agencies to tinker with service in small but beneficial ways. But I wonder if this downside of my proposal is outweighed by its benefits. It seems to me that when times are tough, planners and politicians are not able to cut weak routes to benefit strong routes. Instead, they just cut, cut, cut.

"Perhaps a better solution would be trust funds. When a route is established, fund a trust fund for it that enables its continual operation."

Interesting. But where would the money come from? And wouldn't the money run out during recessions, times of high gas prices, etc?


The problem that I see is virtually anything could be considered a "reduction in service". Think about the options for a cost-cutting agency. They can eliminate, consolidate, or shorten routes; reduce bus frequency; reduce number of stops along the route; adjust routes for effciency; and improve scheduling for personnel and equipment. All except for the last one could be considered a reduction in service. So this rule would force the transit agency to go to the government entity in control for virtually any change.

I do see your point though that in the government had to vote to authorize a reduction in service, it would be less likely to happen. But they could use the vagueness of "reduction" to suit their needs, say certain things are not reductions when they need to cut budgets, thereby avoiding a vote. I do not see a way to write legislation that does not prevent these loopholes. I am not a lawyer, however.

My trust fund argument is politically infeasible, but it would prevent budget issues from taking tolls on transit. Basically a trust fund would be set up for the transit system, which by law would have to operate on the interest generated from the trust (like how a private university operates). That way, there is always a steady stream of income, no matter what. If the government wants more service, they contribute a lump sum to the trust. This way, the annual political wrangling over transit funding is not required.

Michael Lewyn's picture

drafting is of course a big issue

Certainly, my article presupposes that any statute would be carefully drafted enough to define "reduction" very broadly, so that the only change allowed would be an improvement (subject to whatever loopholes you might want to create to give transit agencies a little extra flexibility). That's the idea.

Of course, losing flexibility (or as another poster put it, "good planning practice") to tinker with service in good times is a disadvantage. But I think that disadvantage is outweighed by the advantage of avoiding massive cutbacks in bad times.

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