Thursday 24 July 2003
‘Transit’ Housing Subsidies Redux
The Washington Post covers the ‘transit’ subsidy scam I wrote about yesterday.
The Post gets the facts straight, but can’t connect the dots:
Participants must buy homes within a half-mile of a rail station or a quarter-mile of a bus stop and must agree that they will not own more than two cars. They receive a 50 percent discount on Metrobus and Metrorail for six months, and can pay as little as 3 percent down when purchasing their homes. Discounts on FlexCar, an hourly rental car service, also will be available.
Officials said they expect that as many as 10 percent of the people who buy homes in eligible neighborhoods will participate in the program in the next two years. They estimated that about 7,000 houses and apartments are for sale in qualifying areas, which include almost every community inside the Beltway, most of lower Montgomery County and many neighborhoods along Interstates 66 and 95 in Virginia and along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and I-270 in Maryland.
I was a bit incredulous yesterday that this scheme could possible include everything that it seemed to include; I assumed I was missing something important. But, no, it appears that nearly everything in the Washington area is indeed ‘transit-friendly’. The Post cites program officials as claiming that there are “about 7,000 houses and apartments for sale in qualifying areas”.
The Post notes without comment that the program still assumes that people will own two cars (what happens if they buy a third, I wonder? Do they get foreclosed?), and the story does not question the disconnect between the fact the qualifying properties must be within a half-mile of a rail station or a quarter-mile of a bus stop, and the fact that nearly everything in the area qualifies.
At the moment, according to the MRIS multiple-listing service, the major Washington-area jurisdictions have the following number of houses and condominiums on the market:
|Fairfax County, VA||3631|
|Montgomery County, MD||1523|
|Prince George’s County, MD||2017|
I didn’t bother to restrict my search to areas definitely within the program’s boundaries, I just counted everything for sale within the political jurisdictions in question. It does in fact look like nearly all housing in the Washington area is now considered transit-friendly.
Posted by tino at 19:29 24.07.03
So I have a couple problems with this. If the 6 month mass transit subsidy is important to get folks to purchase a home why isn't it longer? Is it just to sucker them in and get them hooked? And if it isn't important why even bother with it. Shouldn't the benefits of mass transit be evident?
Next, the Smart Commute Initiative also makes the assumption that mass transit is cheaper than driving. That isn't always the case. From my anecdotal experience it would have been cheaper by about a $2 a day to drive into the District of Columbia when I worked there. That translates to an approximately $520 savings a year over mass transit. If you assume (like Smart Commute Initiative does) that I still need to own a car in this area from a finacial standpoint mass transit doen't make sense.
I think the theory is that people will ride the bus with their discounted tickets for six months, and, once they've discovered the joys of the bus, they'll continue to do so at full price for the next 29.5 years.
All over the country, the transit people do not understand the people do not like buses. In most cities, you'll find middle-class people riding trains, but the bus is, in the words of Lisa Simpson, the transport of choice for the poor and very poor alike.
And as for driving being cheaper: if you figure in all the costs of owning a car (parking, fuel, maintenance, depreciation, and insurance -- not to mention 100% of your attention while driving), mass transit probably is significantly cheaper.
However, as you point out, if you still have to own a car -- as you do in most of the eligible area -- you're still paying most of these costs, but not getting any benefit from them. Plus, it's possible to moderate your car expenses yourself, by buying a cheap, older car to cut down on the cost of depreciation; by buying a fuel-efficient car to cut down on the cost of fuel; by buying a car that the insurance companies consider 'low-risk' to cut down on the cost of insurance; or by buying a very reliable car to cut down on the cost of maintenance.
Mass transit, though, affords you none of these opportunities to tailor the expense to your means, and unless you're trying to get across a dense urban area between two places on the same Metro line -- like Union Station and Dupont Circle -- it generally takes longer to get where you're going, too.
Two things will make transit a success, I think: lots more train stations, giving the network more reach into outlying areas as well as greater density close in, and free wireless network access on trains. It would be difficult to make the trains actually faster than driving with our current suburban density; making the time spent on the train even more useful would help make that less of a disadvantage.
This isn't going to happen, of course; the only reason that buses are used to the extent that they are is that transit agencies claim that train lines are too expensive to build in sufficient quantity.
Shouldn't it be cheaper to build a train line, though, than to add road lanes? I've watched both being built, and I can state without fear of contradiction that the train line takes much less time to build. Strip down the stations to the bare requirements and build transit lines wherever the land for the right-of-way is cheap. Buy up the land around the stations while you're at it, and the transit company could operate for years off the profits realized when the land, now much more valuable, is sold off after the completion of the rail line. This is, after all, how almost all railways and transit systems were built in the 19th century, and it seems to have worked then.