How Mass Transit Austerity Targets the Poor

By Josh Sager


While public mass transit is available to anyone within its operating area, it is disproportionately utilized by working- and middle-class Americans, particularly Americans of color. This disparity in who rides our nation’s buses and subways means that austerity targeted at mass transit systems has an extremely regressive impact on the American population—in short, it affects the poor and vulnerable far more than it does the rich.

According to a study by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 65.6% of all mass transit riders make less than $50,000 a year while only 9.5% make over $100,000. The study also indicates that most riders are regular riders, who utilize the mass transit system to transport themselves to their place of employment.

Racial minorities utilize mass transit in disproportionately higher percentages then Caucasian Americans. In aggregate, 47.6% of mass transit riders are either African American or Hispanic, while only 40.6% are white. This disparity may not look large, but when one considers that the 2011 census indicates that only 29.8% of the US population is Black or Hispanic (approximately, 90 million people, out of 310 million Americans), we see that this is a significant disparity. It is important to note that the ridership percentages are in aggregate, and that some areas have significantly higher percentages of minority ridership (for example, the Detroit Transit system has a much higher percentage of riders of color than Boston).

Due to financial concerns that arose during the Great Recession, federal and state governments have looked towards cutting as much as they can out of their budgets. Unfortunately, many of these austerity measures have been directed towards the funding that mass transit systems require to remain functional. According to a recent study, approximately 80% of American mass transit systems have had their budgets cut to the point where they needed to alter their operations or rates since the 2008 economic crash.


These cuts manifest themselves in three ways.

Fares Increase. Rather then cut services, some mass transit systems choose to increase fares in order to increase their revenue. These increases allow the transit system to keep running by shifting the burden from state funds onto the riders.

Increasing fares in order to keep the busses and trains running may sometimes be necessary, but the poor and middle-class people who depend upon mass transit are the ones who foot the bill. These are the people who are unable to easily afford an alternative form of transportation and who use public mass transit to get to work. Rich people don’t usually end up paying a significant portion of the fare increases simply because they are a very low proportion of the ridership.


In recent years, we have seen numerous cities ask for fare increases in their mass-transit systems—one such example of this increase is Boston’s MBTA system. During 2012, the MBTA increased fares by significant percentages for both bus and subway fares (the increase depends upon the type of fare, and you can go to to see the table announcing the new rates).


Services are cut. Reducing coverage to less-profitable transit lines (like cutting service to some areas outside of central hubs) allows transit systems to sustain the core services at a standard price. Cutting services for mass transit lines in order to save money has the potential to be extremely disruptive to people on less populated lines. When relatively few people travel along a transit line, it is sometimes cost-effective to cut services during non-peak hours, or even shut down the line completely.

Unfortunately, this method of cutting costs in transit systems leads to blind spots in communities outside of the transit system’s central hubs. Areas with less economic activity are more likely to be cut, leaving workers in those areas stranded. Once a service line is cut, those living in the affected area will need to find new methods of transportation and there is simply no easy replacement to mass transit—cabs, car services and car rentals are too expensive, while bikes limited to those physically able to use them.


Maintenance and upkeep are reduced. Minor problems like broken seats and dirty stations may be simply ignored in favor of keeping the entire system running below cost limits. Some cities simply let non-vital problems in their transit system go unattended. This reduction in maintenance can result in consequences as benign as decreased sitting space, but can also lead to serious delays due to breakdown.

Cutting maintenance isn’t regressive, per se, but it makes it much more unpleasant for all transit riders. When seats are broken, cars are coated in graffiti, and stations are in a state of disrepair, the daily commute for working class riders is simply made needlessly more difficult, uncomfortable and unreliable.


The Big Picture. When looking at mass transit austerity, we must not disregard the good of the program while assessing what to cut from it. Millions of Americans rely upon mass transit for their livelihood and any cuts or fare increases to these programs burden these people.

Cuts to mass transit may appear penny wise, but they are truly pound foolish. If you make it difficult or more expensive for workers to travel to their jobs, it is not only unfair, but a burden on the economy. Rather than being able to spend their money taking care of their families, these workers are forced to waste more on transport. Their buying power is decreased and the economy loses important demand for goods.

The budgets of cities and states must be balanced in some way, but there are better ways than cutting vital mass transit. Rather than fixing budgets through shifting the burden onto the poor, we could utilize slight increases on higher income tax brackets in order to add money to state and local general funds, which could make transit cuts unnecessary. This method of balancing the budget would spare the working- and middle-classes cuts and cost increases that they cannot afford by taking a little from those who are now paying record low percentages of their incomes in taxes.

If state and local governments are unable or unwilling to protect their mass transit systems from cuts, then the federal government must step in. By passing a relatively small economic stimulus focusing upon supporting local and state mass transit through the federal government, these vital mass transit programs can be preserved. Some federal legislators have pushed this type of stimulus—Obama even suggested this as part of his American Jobs Act—but such legislation has yet to be successfully passed.

It is entirely possible to balance budgets without cutting mass transit services that are vital to the people who can least afford to pay; we must demand that our politicians not eviscerate our public transit systems.

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