The New Covenant of Public Mobility: Public Transportation as Beneficial Employment

Monday, August 8, 2016

If you use the above link, you will find a report in the LA Times to the effect that ridership on the Metro system has surpassed the capacity of rail cars available to carry passengers. While this is bad news for those who are making use of public transportation, it is also an encouraging sign of a shift away from automobile driving. Nevertheless, the fact remains that freeways are more jammed than ever, and it will take a radical solution to relieve this ecological catastrophe. Hence, today’s blog entry:

Public Transportation as Beneficial Employment

Southern California has almost seven percent of the nation’s population. This regional density cannot help but make transporting residents out of and back into their residential neighborhoods a daily, massive spasm of wasted energy. While freeway congestion in the Los Angeles metropolitan area was renown even a half century ago, those who lived here in the early 1970s can remember being on a major freeway at midnight and seeing relatively few cars. By the late 1980s, however, freeway traffic became a constantly whirling ferris wheel, and it has only intensified in the years since. As Los Angeles has become the first county in the United States to surpass the 10,000,000 mark in population, and the economy has rebounded from the Great Recession, traffic now imposes debilitating stress on every driver and passenger at every moment of the day and night.

The expansion of a rail system has done almost nothing to alleviate the cantankerous average speeds of driving on the 405, the 710, the 101, the 60, and the 10. The larger regional flow is nothing short of being even more exasperating: the drive from DTLA to downtown San Diego can take four to five hours. I am not certain that getting even a third of the people currently in cars to use some combination of rail and bus will alter and significantly reduce the congested circulation of public movement, but unless that target has a feasible plan to accompany it, the air quality, public health and the emotional well being of Southern California’s frustrated citizens are going to continue to decline.

The problem with getting people to use public transportation is that it costs people too much to use it. I do not at all mean the cost of the ticket. I am talking about time and the pressures each individual faces in maximizing the cost-income ratio of each unit of time. Let me be blunt: this article does not merely propose that public rail and bus transportation be free, but that individuals riding that transportation be paid for doing so. There is no other way that a significant number of people are going to start using non-automotive transportation unless it is in their best interests, and by that I mean their pocketbook.

In this renovation of the social covenant, each time a person who is a resident of Southern California boards a bus or a metro rail car or an Amtrack rail car in Southern California, she or he would swipe a card at the turnstile entrance, and this card registers the journey, for which the person receives a reduction in their state income tax. Given that California’s state income tax is already far below what it should be, the commitment by each person to use public transportation would quickly shift on each domestic ledger to being a rebate at the end of the year that would put the average federal tax return to shame.

In other words, time spent getting to and from work would be paid labor. One wouldn’t, of course, make as much on the bus or metro car as on the job, but it would not be idle time spent among desultory strangers.

Unless each person is recognized as someone whose time is valuable enough to be compensated for when they board a form of public transportation, then we will never reduce the insanity of automobile addiction. As for individuals who bicycle to work, such self-motivated movement would provide even greater percentages of payment.

I am perfectly aware of the effrontery of my proposal and how it will be met with scornful disbelief by those who regard public transportation as a necessary evil. Who rides buses? – Why, the poor and the disenfranchised! Why should they be paid to ride the bus? Well, yes, it’s true that they will now be paid to do something that they are already doing, and what’s the benefit in that? How would that increase ridership by those who may grouse about traffic, but all the while also enjoy showing their social status in the form of their expensive automobiles?

The benefit that the working poor receive, it should be made clear, would be only in proportion to their income. If someone is only taking home $25,000 a year, their rebate for riding public transportation is not going to be the same as someone who takes home $75,000 a year. If we want to get the well-off from behind their steering wheels, I propose an ever escalating rebate for those who make more money when they ride public transportation.

It may disappoint some friends for them to hear this, but I am not some socialist egalitarian. I believe in a performative meritocracy that is extremely imperfect, but nevertheless is the only feasible means to adjudicate any system of social rewards. I am not putting you, Ms. or Mister Executive, on the same footing as the janitor or the person who clears your dishes at the restaurant. If you board a bus, your rebate will be significantly higher. If you still choose to drive your BMW to work, fine. Those who work under you, however, have not had substantial cost of living raises for many years, and this is one of the ways to begin to redistribute the wealth of the one percent.

Now the obvious question becomes one of paying for this. Someone has to foot the bill, and it is high time for California to stop being the tax trough for the federal government, which makes daily stops to feed at our economy but provides proportionately little support for our infrastructure. If this nation wishes to run on individual cars operated by gasoline, then the cost of gasoline in the rest of the country must go up. Public health in Southern California is not a local issue. If we are to improve the health of seven percent of the nation’s population, it is going to take a national investment, and it begins with a radical and yes – hostile takeover – of ideological self-identity. Our sense of income entitlement must be transformed if the flow of public life is to become sustainable for the rest of this century in this crucial corridor of cultural production. We move; we are moved: the boundaries between public transportation and privatized income must be intermingled. It is time for the populace of Southern California to stop playing by house rules of consumer individuality, and to demand an equity stake in the very manner in which we engage in the commerce of public economics and cultural development.

This is an improvised manifesto, and it is meant to start a conversation, not to be some definitive solution. I would be more than happy to hear about other, even more radical proposals that might shift the balance of environmental and economic power.