Equal Access to Transportation, a Right?

Original post date: November 06, 2013
Article by: Anonymous

Ray LaHood, the recently retired secretary of the Department of Transportation, said that equal access to transportation is “one of the most fundamental of American rights.” Mobility is a crucial aspect of life for many people today, and there is a large transportation need. Many people are unable to afford private transportation methods, creating a market for public transit.

Providing transportation within the immediate vicinity of one’s home seems simple, but the farther one needs to travel, the higher the cost of providing transportation becomes. As infrastructure grows, so do the costs that must be passed along to the consumer, or else subsidized.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, buses, trolleys subways, ferries, commuter trains, monorails and streetcars provide a number of benefits to society. These benefits include reducing gasoline consumption, providing personal freedom for people from every walk of life, and returning $4 for every dollar invested.

There are two ways of looking at the problem of providing mobility. The first view looks for a solution to the problem of transporting people by subsidizing it with public funds that will provide quality transportation to all those who need it.

The other option is to allow the market to determine prices and what types of transportation services will be provided.  Proponents of this view claim that the market will be better at gathering the knowledge necessary to understand the tradeoffs involved with any transportation project. When viewed as a right, however, anything that may prevent access to transportation—even particular modes such as busses or trains—can be viewed as a deprivation of a right.

Those in charge of public transportation programs recognize that for every action there is a cost. Public transportation programs implement fees to help offset this cost. When prices must rise due to increased costs, those who view transportation as a right would rather disperse the cost through subsidization, than to raise the cost to consumer by increasing fares. This is what happened in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the largest city in Latin America.

Public transportation in Sao Paulo is crowded and commute times are long. Sao Paulo transportation officials recently increased fares for the metro and bus from 3 reais (about $1.40) to 3.20 reais (about $1.50).Annual inflation around 6% was one of the factors that caused this raise in fares, though the cost from inflation was larger than the fare increase.

This increase in fare, combined with the subpar service provided, sparked a protest by a group called the Free Fare Movement. Protests became riots and a simple fare raise led to a national cry for revolution and a new approach to society. The riots, where cars were burned and buildings vandalized, were well documented and publicized. The violent response of police in riot gear raised sympathy for the protesters.

Under the pressure of the protests, vandalism and the media, Governor Geraldo Alckmin announced the reduction of fares to their previous levels. The protestors were not satisfied by this reduction though. Due to the vague demands of the protest and a lack of an official structure, the unrest continued.

The riots seem to be less about the actual price increase, but rather a symptom of deeper discontent with the way the government is run. A question to ponder is whether these protests would have happened had buses, trolleys, subways and trams been provided by private companies.

Customers expect private companies to respond to new costs and market forces by changing service levels or fares. They also expect that companies will compete to provide the best service, for the best price. When a business provides a service it is seen as a tradeoff between inputs and outputs designed to maximize profit and provide utility to consumers. On the other hand, when a government provides services, people expect a low fixed rate, or even no cost at all.

Transit is a service like any other, and requires inputs of capital and labor in order to produce output (transportation to citizens). If fares were nonexistent, the only capital input would come from taxpayer money, even though public  transit is used by a small portion of the population. Fares and fees charged enable those who use the services to contribute to them, while those with private transportation are not held financially obligated.

The right to equal access to transit does not imply the same entitlement as the Free Fare Movement protestors felt. Citizens are not entitled to be transported free of charge to their chosen destinations, but they ought to be physically capable of taking a bus, train, plane etc., should they choose to. LaHood would like to see disabled individuals using common forms of transportation with as much ease as nondisabled citizens. Anyone who has a need and the appropriate bus fare should be able to use the service.

About DeVoe Moore Center

The DeVoe L. Moore Center is conducts economic research and policy analysis focused on state and local policy issues and is located in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. As an educational institution the DMC provides professional research experience to undergraduate and master’s students through an extensive program of internships and independent study, preparing them for a future in public policy, economic development, public sector accountability and entrepreneurship.
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