New Yorkers crowds the subway in 1956. AP Photo

A suggestion that the New York City subway could be replaced by tunnels for autonomous cars would only exclude the riders who need it most.

In conversations about transit, does the word inefficiency sound boring to you? If so, whenever you hear it, just replace it with inequality or exclusion. With one exception, noted below, that’s what inefficiency is.

For example, consider this shocking piece by Peter Wayner in The Atlantic. In it, the author proposes destroying the New York City subway system: “Instead of fixing the old trains,” he writes, “let’s rip out the tracks and fill the tunnels with fleets of autonomous vehicles running on pavement.” People who understand transit are reacting with horror to this idea, which contradicts the basic math of how transit succeeds.

Because cars take a lot more space per passenger than trains do, no matter how automated they are, this is a proposal to reduce how many people the subway can serve. How will we apportion access to these tunnels? Wayner is explicit: “People would pay to reserve a slice of the pavement at a particular time; and the tunnels would be maintained by these fees. The prices would move up and down, adapting to demand.” As always, cutting capacity means increasing the fare, which means poor people will have to walk (or more likely, will lose their jobs for lack of transportation).

Elon Musk’s Boring Company raises a similar issue. They propose to build subways cheaper by making them smaller, so that (compared to real transit subways) very few people can use them. They, too, began with the idea of private cars rushing through this subway, an even more inefficient solution than narrow subways in general.

There is no way around this math: When transit plans reduce the number of people that transit can serve, they are planning for more people to be excluded from transit.

Transit agencies always have a fixed budget, so efficiency describes our ability to serve lots of people for that budget. To serve many people, and thus be available to everyone who wants it, transit must serve people at a low cost per rider.

We can also talk about energy efficiency—but energy is cheap compared to space in a big city. There’s also labor efficiency, but automation of high-capacity transit is always possible if we decide we care about that.

In cities, the only truly finite resource is space. The whole point of public transit in dense cities is to liberate many people to have rich and prosperous lives while taking no more than their fair share of the limited space.

Today, certain sectors of the tech industry are spending vast sums promoting the idea that transit should take more space to serve fewer people. Perhaps you have also heard tech pitches implying that what’s wrong with transit is that you have to walk to it, and that the future is “service to your door.” A vehicle that comes to your door will carry fewer people per driver hour than a fixed route that people walk to, because it will spend more time each hour meandering to get to individual people’s doors. (More on this here. And on the version of this notion that’s branded as microtransit, see here.)

These visions imply that transit should carry fewer people than it otherwise could, so that those people will have a nicer experience, all at the taxpayer’s expense. The people with the nicer experience are usually more fortunate people, especially if the low efficiency translates into a higher fare, as the free market would dictate.

You can demand that these cool new things be distributed in ways that include poor neighborhoods, and call that equality, but a low-capacity service will have room for fewer people, and when it runs out of capacity, those who can’t afford it will be left behind. (Or, when this happens, more low-capacity service will be added, which means less high-capacity service will be affordable, further reducing total ridership.)

These ideas, which are nearly universal in the world of tech “disruptors” of transportation, imply the upward redistribution of the benefits of public subsidy.

To be clear, in my work as a transit planning consultant, I won’t tell you not to do this. Communities get to decide their own values through their own political process. Some business leaders, for example, demand that transit subsidies focus on the needs of people they see as customers or senior employees, even when this implies less attention to other people’s needs. If the goal is indeed a transit system focused on the relatively fortunate—in the full knowledge that this means serving fewer people at a higher cost—leaders are free to make that decision.

But if you claim that specializing service around the tastes of the more fortunate will attract more riders, that’s a basic fallacy called elite projection. Very fortunate people are a minority, and you don’t attract lots of riders by appealing to any one minority’s tastes.

There is one exception to the claim that inefficiency is the opposite of equality: Sometimes, inefficiency compensates for some existing inequality. Transit agencies do tolerate low ridership in order to meet the needs of some disadvantaged populations for this reason. One example is paratransit for disabled persons: It costs vastly more per rider to operate than fixed routes, but in the U.S. it is justified as a civil right. A similar “leave nobody behind” principle helps justify low-ridership coverage service, where availability rather than ridership is the goal. If you define equality as equality of subjective experience (everyone gets some service) rather equality than investment (the taxpayer spends the same amount on everyone’s service), then that idea of equality is consistent with low-capacity, low-ridership service.

But that’s the only exception. If you reduce the capacity or quantity of transit, you are making it a nicer experience for fewer people. If these fewer people are not disadvantaged in some way, then you are deepening inequality. That’s what the math says. Know the consequences when you decide.

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