Reuters

With money tight for traditional public transportation, cities consider alternatives

Tough times call for creative solutions, and times are certainly tough for urban mass transit. Public transportation agencies are cutting service or raising fares, or both, on systems across the country. With funding tight, some local leaders are thinking differently about how to help residents who rely on mass transit. Last week the mayor of Colorado Springs challenged his city to consider novel responses to the problem. He even got them started with a few ideas of his own, including providing people with vouchers for cab fare:

“Other cities have done that and have found that, in some cases, it’s less expensive to provide somebody with cab fare than it is to buy more big buses,” he said.

“We need to be looking at every possible alternative in order to increase service, improve service on a limited budget,” he said.

The use of cab vouchers does seem to be catching on in places. A taxi voucher program in Southern California's Coachella Valley, aimed at seniors and the disabled, was expected to go into effect this week. Phoenix launched a similar program this summer, and New Haven did the same last fall. These programs and others like them [PDF] — which typically cover up to half the cost of a ride — have been aided by grants through the Federal Transit Administration's New Freedom initiative.

These types of programs expand a region's transit system beyond its normal boundaries. That's great for seniors and the disabled in particular — populations that often have trouble accessing a region's bus system or need to get somewhere outside the fixed routes, but often can't afford a full cab fare. As a recent report by Transportation for America made clear, the number of elderly Americans without reasonable access to public transit stands to rise as the baby boomers age. A similar report [PDF], released in 2010 by the American Public Transportation Association, also concluded that "increasing numbers of older people will certainly increase the need for taxi subsidy service." That analysis found an average subsidy cost per trip of about $13. 

Cab vouchers can also work well for a broader population. They're particularly effective as part of "guaranteed ride home" programs. These programs ensure that commuters who don't drive alone have a ride somewhere in case of an illness, emergency, or the like; an employee who carpools to work can get home to a sick child without waiting for the carpool driver, for instance. Of 55 transit agencies that offer guaranteed-ride programs, some 60 percent rely exclusively on cab vouchers, according to a 2007 report by the Federal Transit Administration [PDF]. The result, the report concludes, is that more people are willing forego single-occupancy vehicles for carpools or other forms of commuting:

Every year, more communities realize that GRH programs may serve as an incentive for commuters to leave their cars at home and use public transportation and other non-SOV modes. This should continue to increase transit ridership and other non-SOV modes of commuting, and contribute to reduced levels of congestion.

Pair that conclusion with more recent research on ridesharing programs and cab vouchers take on greater potential. A study of travel in the Berkeley area found that about a fifth of commuters who drove to campus alone would be willing to arrange for a shared ride if the circumstances and financial incentives were right. Cab vouchers for those who agree to the carpool might be one way to elevate this latent interest into action. The solution might not be ideal — in the end, cab vouchers still perpetuate a car-centric culture — but then again neither are the times.

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