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Public Transportation Tue Nov 27 2012

"Let Them Drive Cars!"

TrafficI met with skepticism the Tribune's report that Mayor Emanuel responded to CTA riders' consternation over hikes to the cost of daily, weekly and monthly passes by suggesting they can choose to either drive or use public transit:

The mayor suggested commuters who don't like the new fare structure are free to get behind the wheel, setting aside the fact many Chicagoans who rely on the CTA to get to and from work don't have cars. "Now you, as a commuter, will pick. You can either drive to work or you can take public transportation, and the standard fare will stay the same," Emanuel said.

This is a stupendously politically tone-deaf thing to say. But forget about the politics of it; it's wrong on the supposed policy justifications as well.

Actually, let's go back to the politics of it. Mayor Emanuel has faced a persistent perception that he's more friendly to big business interests than to working class Chicagoans. Two reports -- one from the Reader and one from the Trib -- have focused on the mayor's meeting agendas, full as they with millionaires and lacking in community voices. The first teachers' strike in a generation aided in this perception, particularly given articles like this one from Reuters pointing out how out-of-town wealthy donors were bankrolling his fight against teachers. Early in his Mayoralty he faced outrage over the closure of mental health clinics for poor Chicagoans.

Whatever the reality of his concern for working-class Chicagoans, the perception isn't great.

So to say people upset with fare hikes can just go ahead and drive is... ill advised, I guess.

Many people don't have that option. They take the bus because they must -- either they don't own a car, share a car, can't afford the gas, or can't pay for parking (more on that in a bit). And from the point of view of a supposed Millionaire's Mayor, weekly passes may seem to be something that tourists buy, thus raising their cost a way to milk out-of-towners. But they're also purchased by people who can't afford to pay for a monthly pass in one shot, even if they'd ultimately save money, because they rarely have that much free cash on hand. Since something like 55% of CTA users buy daily, weekly or monthly cards, that has to be a significant proportion.

It's also bad policy, more to the point. One of the only positives to come out of the parking meter privatization was that market-pricing of parking would induce people to walk, bike, and use public transport, thus freeing up the streets and improving circulation. Parking is a regressively funded subsidy; non-drivers subsidize drivers. There's a lot of reasons for this, but it mainly operates through the zoning code; developers are required to provide a certain amount of parking, which is therefore built into the cost of development that is passed on to consumers. Parking also creates inefficiencies of time; people cruising looking for parking and people pulling in and out of spots (or double parking) interfere directly with the operation of buses (and preclude the possibility of bus rapid transit).

So, the market-pricing of parking can be a good thing insofar as it reduces the number of cars and makes parking more available (and thus quicker to find, park in and pull out of) for those who can afford it. But in the urban context, that only operates if there are viable alternatives. "Viable alternatives" means, among other things affordable alternatives. Absent the privatization aspect, actually, market-pricing parking is great because you can reinvest the windfall revenue in bikability, walkability, and holding down public transportation costs.

So, raising public transportation costs and pitching driving (and thus parking) as an alternative actually is the worst thing a government can do: it sets two policies to work against each other. More expensive fares and more expensive parking is using a regressive revenue booster to incentivize an activity that was, already, disincentivized through a regressive increase. That's a double regressive whammy -- in other words, it thumbscrews working class people.

A word in the mayor's general defense. There aren't all that many options for cities. Since the 1970s, the neoliberalization of urban planning and policy, at the federal and state levels, has starved cities of revenue and left mainly regressive revenue sources, or issuance of debt in the form of bonds, as the principal tools. The federal government should be slathering cities with funds for public transportation. (You know, maybe instead of spending billions on private contractors in Asia Minor).

That's a feasible, if not wholly convincing, defense of the policy necessity. It isn't defense of the apparent callousness of the sentiment. But again, it's so tone deaf, I'm a little resistant to taking it at face value. Maybe he was making a hilarious "I'm being sarcastic" face when he said it. Or maybe he did a little cigar-ashing pantomime and said it in a Groucho Marx voice, and CTA Chair Forrest Claypool dropped a duck on a string.

Photo by Seth Anderson.

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Ramon / November 29, 2012 10:18 AM

Emanuel is not neutral with respect to the neoliberalization of urban policy. He is a hard-line neoliberal himself and has pushed for those policies at the Federal level. Until I hear city officials calling these policies for what they are and demanding higher taxes on the wealthy and more federal funds for city infrastructure, I don't think we should give them a break. Many of them are complicit or guilty by association. I don't think we should let them off the hook too easily. Particularly when they're fond of giving out big public subsidies to profitable corporations---see Joravsky's recent article on United for example.

garcho / December 3, 2012 1:31 PM

He's an investment banker who made 16 million dollars in two years, despite having no relevant education or experience. While he was on the Board of Directors of Freddie Mac, they had multiple ethical and legal problems, later covered up and buried by President Obama. Who expected him to care in the first place?

Rich / December 5, 2012 6:29 AM

Some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in TIF money given away to real estate developers would be better spent on schools, public safety, and infrastructure, like improved bicycle lanes and the CTA.

Star Carlton / December 29, 2012 12:08 PM

At the Western Blue Line stop - they put a farecard machine right under the heated lamps - so only one person can stand there - next to the garbage can.

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