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No Trains for You: the Dangers of Zero-Sum Thinking

May 7, 2019

Amtrak, Insufficient Funding and the Dangers of Zero-Sum Thinking

By Jason Lee, Rail Passengers Member

After riding trains in Europe and Asia, many Americans return home wondering why Amtrak is not more modern and comprehensive. Most developed countries prioritize and fund passenger rail, but in the United States many elected officials call for Amtrak to be profitable – a standard that passenger railroads in other countries and even other transport modes in the U.S. are not expected to reach.

Revenues today cover 95% of Amtrak’s operational costs. But beyond a handful of showcase corridors, the outcome has not been so rosy: Despite a national population growth of nearly 120 million (57%) since Amtrak’s founding, the rail network has shrunk by thousands of miles – leaving Las Vegas, Phoenix, Columbus, Nashville, Dayton, Boise and dozens of other cities without rail service. Large cities like Houston, Cleveland and Cincinnati only see trains three times per week or when most people are sound asleep. Meanwhile, Americans have lost vital rail connections in the South, the Midwest and the West. ­­

Why does Amtrak's network have so many gaps? More generally, why are there so many policy-induced public transit “deserts”? Why do 45% of Americans lack any access to transit, much less frequent transit?

In response to insufficient funding, many influential transportation planners and policymakers have embraced a zero-sum approach to service allocation. Rather than defining a vision for a truly comprehensive network and then advocating for additional funding to achieve it, those transportation leaders believe they can maximize ridership by shifting resources from sparsely-served “coverage” areas to “ridership” areas. On Amtrak, that would be like responding to the president’s budget threats by sacrificing long-distance routes to preserve the Northeast Corridor, instead of challenging this artificially-imposed constraint itself. In the zero-sum world, some must lose – sometimes everything – for others to win, ostensibly for the greater good.

This zero-sum argument basically goes like this:

  • Routes are either “ridership”-oriented or “coverage”-oriented.
  • Given a fixed budget, a transportation board must determine to what extent its goal is “ridership” and to what extent its goal is “coverage,” because those goals are opposite.
  • The premise for “coverage” service is that everyone is entitled to service based on need. Advocates for preserving “coverage” service must win that argument against advocates for “ridership” service.
  • Elected officials and transportation boards are equipped to determine how to allocate resources between “ridership” and “coverage” services because they are opposite kinds of networks.

There is a lot to unpack in this argument, and it starts with considering underlying premises.

Premise: Ridership and coverage are opposite goals. Investing in “ridership” routes yields higher ridership than “coverage” routes.

On a guitar, each string plays a different role in creating music. Some strings are used more than others, but they do not compete with each other. Cutting a string leaves the music incomplete.

In a well-structured transit network, routes complement rather than oppose each other. Instead of classifying routes as “ridership” or “coverage” pitting them against one another, alternative terms might be “corridor” and “connector”. Labels matter. “Corridor” and “connector” underscore a symbiotic relationship between routes. Eliminating “connector” service severs the first/last mile connection to the “corridor” route, possibly causing people whose travel is not confined to the “corridor” to abandon riding altogether. In contrast, strengthening “connector” service improves access to the “corridor” route, leading to systemwide ridership gains. This is the classic network effect.

Long-distance routes play a vital role in the Amtrak network. They link station pairs in regions with few affordable transportation options and make multi-leg journeys possible, such that seats turn over multiple times. Riders also connect between long distance and more frequent “corridor” trains, further boosting ridership on both types of routes.

In transit, dismembering a route network can have devastating consequences. San Jose has lost nearly 40% of its bus ridership over 20 years, in large part due to subscribing to the zero-sum mentality and sacrificing “coverage” for “ridership” to the point where “coverage” has now almost entirely disappeared. Bus ridership has even fallen below 1988 levels, when the network was far more comprehensive – despite service-area population and population density having increased by over 30%.

Premise: “Coverage” service is more expensive to provide per person than “ridership” service. Therefore, people in “coverage” areas must justify why they deserve service.

As a nation, we no longer find it acceptable to base health insurance coverage on gender or preexisting conditions. We strive to provide public education system for every child. Our postal service delivers to all addresses because it is in the national interest to connect people. Why do we then find it acceptable to deny even rudimentary transportation to any American so they can access jobs, education, health care and other necessities to improve their lives?

As with health care, education, and mail, the costs of providing transit to people in different circumstances will never be equal. While we must continue to strive for land use that is more conducive to walking and cost-efficient transportation, the real world is not SimCity. The location and layout of cities, towns and neighborhoods are often the product of historical chance and past planning decisions, both good and bad. This does not mean each place merits identical transit service or fares, or that transit must extend to where hardly anyone lives. But it does mean we should seek appropriately-scaled solutions for communities that are more geographically-challenging to serve, especially because we are asking residents for funding. Transit should not be an all-or-nothing choice. Without such solutions, these places are missing a critical component of a sustainable and equitable future.

Premise: Current ridership on “coverage” services is indicative of actual demand.

By design, “coverage” services are generally of poor quality even if their routing is well-planned. Limited schedules force riders to plan their trips carefully and budget extra waiting time, particularly when transferring. Thus, “coverage” routes struggle to attract prospective riders with other options, and ridership never reaches its true potential. Instead of acknowledging that low-quality service suppresses ridership, low ridership becomes an excuse to cut service further, creating a death spiral that may ultimately lead to the route’s elimination.

Amtrak’s “coverage” routes offer the bare minimum level of service. Two routes currently operate just three times per week; not surprisingly, these routes also have the lowest ridership among long-distance trains, which themselves provide “coverage”. Peer routes that operate daily have up to 4½ times the ridership. In contrast, Amtrak discovered there was latent demand when it increased its Chicago-St. Louis route from three daily trains to five. Ridership more than doubled.

Places like suburban Toronto refute conventional wisdom that “coverage” areas are hopeless for transit. With street patterns even more circuitous than many U.S. suburbs, Toronto still achieves much higher ridership because it offers more frequency, longer service hours and a dense route network. Increased transit funding in outlying Brampton caused ridership to skyrocket 41.6% over 5 years – more than triple the population growth – to 31 million annually.

Premise: People in “coverage” areas could access public transportation services if they just lived in places with high demand for transit.

Americans are not always able to live in places with high demand for transit. Within many metropolitan areas, housing prices tend to rise with better transit accessibility, forcing many into the inescapable predicament of trading transit accessibility for housing. Nationally, much population growth is in more affordable regions, many of which have fewer intercity transportation options like Amtrak. Also, patterns of ethnic and economic segregation continue to affect the ability of disadvantaged populations to live in communities with the most transportation choices.

Premise: Elected officials – or by extension, agency Boards of Directors appointed by those elected officials – will make optimal decisions with respect to allocation of transportation resources.

Six of the eight members of Amtrak’s Board of Directors belong to the same demographic group. The same imbalance is true of many regional transit boards, whose members rarely depend on transit to the extent their constituents do. People of varying age, ethnic, gender, physical ability and income backgrounds tend to have different lived experiences and priorities. They use transportation systems differently. More diverse representation can better equip boards to assess the impacts of service elimination and other decisions on a diverse ridership.

Premise: Public transportation has a fixed budget, so the most effective way to grow ridership is by diverting resources from low-ridership routes to high-ridership routes.

Investing more to further improve service in high-ridership areas can certainly grow ridership, but it is a false choice to think that public transportation investment must be zero-sum. Advocates should not accept this self-limitation. Annually, Amtrak spends under $6 in federal taxpayer funds per American – far less than Europe or China. Is this the best we can do?

Instead of providing only zero-sum options, planners “reimagining” transportation networks should identify service gaps and present scenarios for how more funding could close them. History proves that voters will fund tangible service improvements – if they are given the opportunity. It helps if voters can see community-wide benefits and envision themselves, or at least someone they know or to whom they can relate, using this service. That is much harder if a transportation system retreats from a “coverage” area where potential supporters may reside.

There are plenty of successful examples. In 1990, California voters approved the $1 billion Proposition 108, which transformed the state’s Amtrak network and expanded commuter rail and light rail. A 2014 vote set the stage for massive bus service increases without compromising “coverage” in Seattle, currently the nation’s leader in transit ridership growth. Most recently, in the 2018 election cycle, over 80% of transit-related referenda passed – in cities, suburbs and rural areas alike.

In the world of zero-sum thinking, some riders must lose for the greater good. So what options are there for those left behind? There is no answer, and that cannot be ignored. There are many underlying premises but nothing other than “I’m sorry” for the millions of Americans who find themselves in policy-induced transit “deserts”, as if they caused underfunding. Not only are real people hurt, but as in the case of Amtrak, the outcome is unrealized ridership and a compromised network in pursuit of an unattainable goal of profitability for a public service.

We can do better. Americans have proven they will support solutions, perhaps not perfect and certainly not free, but only if we are willing to make the case for a more inclusive public transportation system.