Today most mass transit systems are publicly provided and subsidized. That wasn't always the case. Decades ago, transit systems were largely run by private interests. Due to many market and regulatory factors — but not a vast conspiracy by automakers — private transit collapsed in the United States, and by the early 1970s nearly all mass transit was publicly owned and operated.
At that time, public control of transit had broad political and popular support for three main reasons: environmental concerns, traffic relief, and the social benefits of mobility for non-drivers. While environmental and congestion goals remain popular justifications for transit, the social service aspect of transit receives less attention (except when a fare increase is proposed, when suddenly everyone becomes concerned about the poor). After more than four decades of public ownership, it's worth considering how well public transit fulfills its social obligations.
The public takeover of mass transit happened on the heels of widespread acknowledgement that many inner-city social problems were associated with a lack of adequate transit options. (A few systems, such as the New York system, were placed under public control many years earlier.) A well-known study of the era is the 1965 McCone Commission's report on the riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, which identified lack of transit access as a key factor fostering social exclusion. By the mid-1960s, it was clear that automobility was leaving many behind, that private transit was unable to adapt, and that the public needed to adjust mass transit in part to promote social equity. This era set the stage for why the public should be concerned with the supply and operation of transit.
Public transit agencies are in a difficult position, as they're expected both to provide a social service and to be cost-efficient. Too often this dual mandate results in required-but-infrequent service in areas that can't support transit without financial aid. Transit opponents then argue that these empty vehicles are evidence that transit spending is wasteful.
Of course, lifeline transit services exist because somebody wanted them and people need them. Transit agencies are expected to pay for these services that serve a social purpose but that strain operating budgets. If transit providers were allowed to operate only in areas where fares covered the costs of operations, they would offer many fewer bus and train routes. While such an arrangement would be cost-effective, it would not be optimal from a social point of view, as many people would be without critically needed mobility.
Public transit's responsibility for social equity has been addressed through federal legislation and litigated in the courts. Federal efforts to regulate equity stem from Title VI in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and from Executive Order 12898 signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 establishing "environmental justice" as a criterion for evaluating projects and policies. These laws and orders explicitly address equitable distribution of public resources, including transit, but do not provide guidance as to how equity should be pursued. Transit providers are left with quite a bit of discretion for dealing with equity concerns, but also are vulnerable to legal challenges.
Since the 1994 Executive Order, a few lawsuits against transit agencies have been brought in the courts. In 1995, the Urban League and the Straphangers Campaign sued the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, alleging that the MTA's fare policy violated federal law because suburban commuter rail riders received favorable treatment relative to city transit riders. A similar lawsuit was brought in Philadelphia. In both the New York and Philadelphia cases, the transit agencies were found to be within their rights to favor policies that better serve suburban commuters, who tend to be wealthier and less dependent on transit. It seems there are limits to what federal law can achieve to ensure fair distribution of transit resources.
The stronger focus on suburban commuters over the past few decades is partly an outcome of greater reliance on local and regional ballot initiatives to fund transit. The support of higher-income suburban voters is crucial for ballot box transit finance, but affects the priorities transit agencies pursue. (See Seattle's recent failed ballot for a clear example of the difference between central city and suburban votes.) One result of these political realities is that total mileage of commuter rail has nearly doubled in the United States since 1996. Similar improvements in local transit have not kept pace with these suburban services, and new investment is not fairly distributed.
So does public transit serve its social obligations? Increasingly the answer is no. The way transit is financed in the United States distorts investment and operating priorities away from those who rely on transit service the most. Transit agencies are also asked to provide a social safety net — offering reduced transit fares for school kids, senior discounts, or lifeline services to underserved areas that few politicians are willing to pay for. A more relevant question is why public transit agencies are solely responsible for managing disparate social goals. It need not be this way.