A Case For Free Public Mass Transit
Case study: Philadelphia's SEPTA system. And before you say "it's too expensive," just stop - the money is there & the city's economy benefits substantially
Joint Composition | Ellison & Potter
This is a frequently repeated cycle: when White residents in a major city or metropolitan center like Philadelphia demand bike lanes, dog parks, green spaces & other things that clearly add value and better health to the urban-life experience, cities like Philadelphia will bend over backwards, someway, to figure it out. It won't be perfect, but it will get figured out and there will seldom be questions about the cost - typically, it's "ok, how do we make this happen?"
But, as the case for free, no-fare mass transit begins to gain steam in the public discourse in Philadelphia [prompted, partly, by this recent column here], there's a distinct pause from many, primarily White, calling themselves "transit advocates." Everyone agrees that the Philly region's public transit system, SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Administration) needs to increase its ridership now, and there's multiple ways to go about that. But, why not make it easy and just make it free - at least for a year or two - to ride the system for free? Because - oh, that’s right - we're demanding no-fare mass transit for a system that has a majority-Black and low-income population using it the most.
If Philly was a majority-White city - as is the case where "fareless transit" is either being piloted or deployed in about a hundred American cities & in 17 European cities - trust that folks jittery about "free public transit" would be avidly clamoring for it right about now. At the moment they're not since, instead, Philadelphia is a majority-Black city and SEPTA's ridership is majority-Black as well (see images)
Any analysis or action related to a major mass transit agency's budget should not happen without an organized conversation with or buy in from that majority stakeholder population. Transit advocates, in their quest to revive a fast-dying public mass transit system, seem unprepared or unwilling to do that. But, why not talk with SEPTA’s largest rider population? Black and low-income residents are the majority of riders on SEPTA, yet they're still not benefiting from the contracts, as Drexel's Metro Lab notes. And, as the Philadelphia Transit Riders Union points out, White suburban commuters get the most out of federal SEPTA subsidies which favor the system's regional rail line over other modes of transport.
Free, no-fare mass transit in Philly is not only possible, but since SEPTA's latest FY23 projection shows $1.8 billion over 6-years of revenue from ridership alone, it's not entirely out of fiscal reach either. As Drexel Metro Lab also emphasizes, in total, the Philadelphia region is receiving upwards of $9.2B in American Rescue Plan funding. That will include $700M for SEPTA) + $500M for SEPTA from the Infrastructure Act, all equaling $1.2B. At the very least - if we're taking into account the concerns of SEPTA's majority ridership - we could be doing free SEPTA for low-income riders. The cost of implementing a project like that, statewide between the two major Philadelphia and Pittsburgh systems, is just $90 million. Philly would likely absorb $60 million of that. Ultimately, the money is always there: Philadelphia County's GDP is $112 billion. The Philadelphia regional GDP is $500 billion. This is always about who that money is spent on.
The question isn’t “can Philadelphia afford to make transit free?” The question is, “does Philadelphia want to continue paying to f*ck over poor Black people?”
By your estimates, SEPTA fairs bring in close to $300 million per year. SEPTA’s key card system alone costs over $200 million. It’s not about the money. Yet, White people always like to hide behind the money.
The economic benefits of fare-free public transportation are overwhelming. And over 100 cities in the United States are making the transition. There are just as many models of direct funding that can be used to make it happen. And there are the economic benefits of increased revenue generated from higher levels of employment, more shopping, better public health and decreased levels of violence.
But do those outweigh the White calculations of the cost of keeping Black competition out of the workplace, keeping Black people out of their communities, and keeping Black folks sick and struggling? Philadelphia hasn’t answered that question.
Like you said, it never seems to come up when wealthier Philadelphians want their potholes, stop lights, road signs, bike lanes complete and maintained without having to pay an additional fare for their transport. What would happen if car drivers had to pay a fare or toll for every street they drove on? Imagine how much money the city could generate from that! But oh no, there would be no talk of how much the city would lose if those tolls were removed. You’d have nothing but armchair statisticians crying about how that would destroy the economy. But if you suggest making transit free, especially in the spaces where white “transit activists” exist, you will be met with a barrage of pseudo punk hipster angst and racism poorly concealed in arguments like “we don’t have the money” and “your research is wrong because I said so.”
That’s what they are saying, anyways. What I’m hearing is: “Rosa Parks just made people have to let Black folks sit wherever they want. She didn’t say White people had to let them on the bus in the first place.”
White supremacy demands Black (and BIPOC) struggle. Trauma is capital in the White man’s economy. They will pay for that kind of power.
Philadelphia is the poorest, Blackest city in the nation. How Black? Black folks make up 42 percent of the population. White folks make up 40 percent of the population. Philadelphia is a BIPOC city, emphasis on the B. How poor? More than 26 percent of Philadelphians live in poverty, and the median household income is $40,000 per year. In Philadelphia, though, it would cost $51,000 per year to live comfortably according to the local cost of living standards.
SEPTA means something different to poor Black folks than it does to more affluent White people.
Car ownership varies widely, but on average, one-third of Philadelphians don’t own a car. That number can range between half and two-thirds, though, in particular areas like Washington Park, Chinatown, and Rittenhouse. White people are more likely to own cars than BIPOC folks. Wealthier people are more likely to own cars than poor folks.
So if you are poor and Black and don’t have a car, how are you supposed to get to work? How are you supposed to get to school? How are you supposed to go shopping or access medical care? If you can afford it, you take SEPTA. If you can’t, you walk.
If you can’t afford SEPTA, your world is limited to the distance your feet can carry you. That means your employment options are reduced dramatically. According to Pew Research Center, 40 percent of workers from Philadelphia travel outside of the city for work. They additionally report that …
The jobs held by lower-income Philadelphians—those paying less than $40,000 a year—are more likely to be located outside the city center than are jobs with higher salaries.
Let’s pause there. If you are poor and Black in Philadelphia, the majority of your job opportunities will be found either outside of the city or outside of your community. How far can you make it if you don’t have a car and can’t afford public transportation? People in Philadelphia can and do only walk about .43 miles per trip, but an additional 39 percent walk about .62 miles each day to get to a specific location like school or work. The average trip for a SEPTA rider, though, is over 4 miles.
Without access to public transportation, most Black folks can’t access employment opportunities outside of a half a mile’s walk. This distance is shortened for people living with disabilities and elders. In many ways, refusing to provide poor Black people in Philadelphia with free access to public transportation is a form of labor discrimination. If you keep them off of the bus altogether, you can really keep your place of employment White.
Reducing someone’s world to a half-mile radius also takes years off of the lives of poor Black folks by trapping them in food and medical deserts. Much like access to cars, access to food varies widely by neighborhood in Philadelphia. While less than 1 percent of residents in City Center live more than half of a mile away from a grocery store, in mostly Black Germantown or Belfield, the numbers increase to between 40 and 50 percent. Access to primary care can also vary widely between neighborhoods in Philadelphia, making mobility an important component to escaping a health care desert should you live in one.
Let’s pause again. Poor Black people are forced to live in communities far away from employment opportunities, food, and healthcare. They, more than anyone else, need access to transportation just so they can meet the basic requirements for survival. And that’s before we can even discuss access to cooling centers during the summer, parks, libraries, shopping centers, community colleges, and – oh, yeah - ballot boxes. Poor Black folks in Philadelphia can physically, on average, travel just over half a mile each way to meet these basic needs by foot, but sure, let’s completely deny them the possibility of riding a bus and tell them they are too lazy and stupid to earn more money and live better lives and make them suffer maternal mortality rates more than four times their White counterparts.
It's lethally poor logic if you are a poor Black person. If you are White, it’s an investment in your superiority.
According to I Septa Philly …
87% of public transportation trips involve direct economic impact on the local economy, including getting to or from work (49%), shopping (21%) and recreational spending in the local economy (17%).
When workers can’t work, the city loses income tax money. When people can’t spend their money, the city loses out on sales tax. When people can’t access healthcare, the costs of public health maintenance go up. When people can’t access opportunities, the costs of public safety and containing crime go up. But when people can access employment, healthcare, and opportunities, they can work more, spend more and contribute more to the community.
In addition to these indirect benefits, fare-free transit also eliminates the need to pay for fare collection. In some cities, the costs for machines, workers, and maintenance for fare collection actually takes up to 77 percent of the revenue collected through fares. And I repeat: SEPTA’s key card system alone costs over $200 million!
The economic benefits of fare-free public transportation are overwhelming. And over 100 cities in the United States are making the transition. It’s not about losing money in fares. The economic benefits of free transit are overwhelming. White Philadelphia isn’t concerned about diminishing returns on investments. It’s worried about diminishing the strongholds of white power.
And so again, the question isn’t “Can Philadelphia afford to make transit free?” The question is: “Does Philadelphia want to continue paying to f*ck over Black people?”