The chicken-and-egg problem facing public transit


This month, the Chicago Transit Authority is rolling out their latest series of service cuts. Unlike previous changes, these are far-reaching: every train line will have fewer cars, adding another 2-5 minutes between most trains. Obviously, this means more waiting and additional crowding, especially for those who take the train back and forth to work each day.

Luckily, I don’t rely on CTA for daily travel. But a lot of people do. And with these severe service cuts, I’m sure many people will get fed up and start driving to work. That’s a shame, but I can’t blame them. What’s more, this situation underscores the chicken-and-egg problem facing public transit nationwide.

The scenario goes something like this: not enough people are taking the train, so there isn’t enough fare revenue to cover the operating costs. To make ends meet, the city cuts back on service or raises fares. But this further reduces the number of passengers, making the situation ever more dire. Regardless of whether low ridership or reduced service/higher fares started the cycle, the problem keeps escalating. Repeat this every few years, and you can see why virtually every public transit system in the US is losing money.

What’s the solution? Well, the first step is to make riding the train as pleasant as possible, which usually means restoring service to the old levels. Then, adjust the fare structure so frequent riders pay less than occasional ones, probably by exempting those frequent riders from fare increases. Finally, put more effort into targeting occasional riders who aren’t price sensitive, like business travelers who are heading into the city from the airport. If even 10% of the people who hop in a cab at the airport took the train instead, that’s a ton of new revenues.

Granted, this might not solve the funding shortfalls. But it’s a lot smarter than the hopeless spiral of service cuts and widespread fare increases that America’s public transit systems are turning to today.