The Value of Mass Transit

As someone with a degree in labor relations (I'm not kidding), I feel I should have more to say about the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations between the MTA and the TWU. The posturing before the Friday deadline is typical of these types of negotiations and you have to understand the history of the TWU to understand why it is more militant than many other public sector unions. More than the actual dollar amounts involved, I believe this union is fighting for respect. The kind of respect that blue collar workers used to get, but so rarely do in this age of globalization. But you can't outsource a bus driver or a track repairman(not yet at least). They simply want a fair share of the wealth that they help create for the city. And to be fair, a lot of wealth rides on those rails.
What I always find interesting about the run-up to the contract deadline is calculations of just how valuable mass transit is to a city like NYC. In the city's lawsuit to seek an injunction against the possible strike, they estimate that everyday the system is shut down, the city will lose $440m - $660m per day and the city would lose $8m - $12m in tax revenues from lost business. By that calculation (365 x $660m) the subway system is worth $240 billion annually to New York City and the nation's economy. That's a staggering figure and shows that employers and business are just as dependent on the subway system as much as the everyday riders. This is why it always baffles me when people complain about "subsizing" mass transit and therefore raise fares higher. Mass transit allows workers, shoppers, theater-goers, tourists, etc to efficiently get around the city which creates economic value for thousands of businesses. I can't imagine that all those businesses want to create a higher barrier for people to come do business with them.

New York's mass transit system is the lifeblood of the city's economics and we should treat the workers servicing that system with respect by paying them a wage that gives them a good middle class salary. The MTA, the governor and the mayor should explain to businesses the value of taxes to fund mass transit. And I add that the union should do a better job of making their members more service oriented toward the public.

If a strike does happen, perhaps this will wake up some people who take mass transit for granted.

Also, I don't want a strike anymore than the next person, but I'll be much less affected than most because:

  1. I have a bike to get around the city
  2. I live 2 miles from my job
  3. I am within walking distance of friends, shops, restaurants, etc.
If this strike happens, my students may not be able to take their exams. Great.

But enough being selfish. For all parties involved, I really hope this gets resolved before a strike happens.

One potential silver lining: Tremendous upsurge in bicycling. It'll be like critical mass, but people won't get thrown in jail, hopefully.
My company is offering indoor bike parking during the strike and encouraging people to ride bikes. I wrote to the health director that this should be offered year-round. He replied that they may bring back a bike room in the spring. He said it's a space issue...
I hope there is no strike, but I also hope that the MTA does not concede massive pay raises ... requested because there happens to be a "surplus" at the moment. (I would refer you to increases in pay and benefits awarded to state workers in California about five years ago during a temporary surplus, and their impact on fiscal balance in the state)

As a transit advocate, across the country in LA, I strongly support getting "bang for your buck" in transit Dollars.

To the extent that Unions ram through above market pay raises they hurt transit users and provide ammunition to those, and there are many, who claim the transit is a waste of money.

I cringe.

I've been trying to encourage PeakGuy to ride his bike to work for a while now, and this just might be the catalyzing event he needs. <grin>

While New York's land use pattern is heavily dependent on mass transit, it's also resiliant to a strike in some ways. People will be able to bike to work. It's safe to say that more New Yorkers walk to work than do people who live in any other part of the country. (For better or for worse, I live 300 feet from my office.) And the strike will encourage people to carpool and to take the many transit services that won't be affected: the Long Island Rail Road (to or from Queens and Brooklyn), the Metro-North Railroad (to or from Harlem and the Bronx), the Staten Island Ferry, and New York's "other" subway, the PATH, which would operate special service between Midtown and the Financial District.

The city's plan to prohibit all but four-person high occupancy vehicles makes a lot of sense - maybe even when there's no strike happening! It seems somewhat similar to London's groundbreaking Congestion Pricing program.

300 feet! Why not just set up a zip-line to connect your home window to office window? :)

Speaking of the SI Ferry, it has great bike facilities.

Yes, that's my bike...

Great photo I found over at the NYTimes:

Larry Reilly, president of Transportation Alternatives, directed bicycle traffic on 34th Street.

Well well.

Now we get to see how the "Price signal" is generated.

Those who value values get to evaluate
the invaluable human assets of their corporate family
for what they are truly worth.
Compassionate conservation of the owner's wealth,
they say, begins at home.

What say you?
What are my bids for this fine strapping TWU worker?

He still has all his teeth.
He's strong as a third rail powered motor.
He'll help your mule trains plow through those earthen tunnels.
What say you?
What are my bids?

Ownership society scams by the vaulters of values? Priceless.

THose estimates of economic impact sure seem high to me. $650m per day? And if the $250 billion annual number is right, then NYC counts for around 2% of GDP?

Maybe that's actually true, but two quibbles. First, with TOD's calculation, perhaps the mid-point of the estimate should be used, so say $500m, and used on business days since the weekends and holidays are certainly lower. Call it 250 days. Still that's a big number: $125 billion, and still about 1% of US GDP.

Second, using the estimate by the plaintiff in this case is probably specious, given their self-interest in over-stating their impact. (Sounds almost like OPEC members estimating their own reserves in the 1980s).



  1. Fair enough on the high end of the estimate - I should have said "estimated to be up to". I have found no other estimates of the economic impact of a strike.

  2. Actually the city's economy is estimated to be more like $500 billion. That would mean that mass transit helps create economic activity that is "estimated to be up to" half of NYC's economy.

Here's the Wikipedia quote on the size of NYC's economy:

NYC serves as an enormous engine for the global economy, with an estimated Gross Metropolitan Product of nearly $500 billion, and is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any other place in the United States. New York City's estimated gross metropolitan product of US$488.8 billion in 2003 was the largest of any city in the U.S. and the sixth largest if compared to any U.S. State. If it were a nation, the city would have the 16th highest gross domestic product in the world, exceeding that of Belgium ($387 billion), and the second highest per capita GDP in the world, at about $59,000/head, about $7,000/head lower than Luxembourg.
This illustrates a core problem with mass transit. Most of us can't get excused from going to work because there's a strike. And we can't even get unemployment if we get fired for failing to show up, since that's firing for cause.

It follows that as long as strikes are permitted - i.e. the state is unwilling to call out the National Guard to do the trivial job of driving the busses if necessary - most of us must be ready with another means of getting to our jobs. And once we do have another workable arrangement - normally a car, except in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn - what's the use of the mass transit? We just pay heavy taxes as an availability charge for something that's not 100% available.

If there is a strike, I think traffic would be a nightmare, thus your workaround would probably be pretty awful and I think many people will realize then just how indispensible the mass transit system is to NYC. And while I don't think many employers will pay their employees I sincerely doubt many will be fired from their jobs for missing days during a strike.

Again, I don't want a strike, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out if there is one.

How many years of bus driving experience do you have? I have 24 years experience. There are good reasons why the National Guard can't drive the buses. First the Feds require a Commercial Driver's License with an air brake and passenger rating. It takes several weeks to train new drivers which requires the assistance of experienced drivers who may be on strike. Half of driver trainees fail either the written or road tests on the first try. The feds require a medical certificate which some applicants fail. They must pass a manditory drug screening. Finally the New York National Guard might be in Iraq Like the Louisiana Guard was when Katrina hit.
I guess it all depends on what you consider a "fair share" of the wealth generating properties of Mass Transit. We as riders finance the maintainence of the infrastructure and operations, do we not also deserve a fair share of using the system?

Viable mass transit is one of my favorite things about living in NY and it is indispensable but no individual within the MTA (management included) is irreplaceable even though nobody wants to admit it.

The TWU wants full pension benefits at age 50...why not 35?!? Given that the transportation authority's annual pension contributions have tripled since 2002, it's quite a ridiculous demand but the wage increases sound reasonable enough especially because the "half fare weekend" idea was a horrible decision by management that slapped the face of the TWU and gave the impression that the MTA could give away money. Nobody was motivated to take extra trips on mass transit thanks to "half fare weekend."