Ventra is among the smallest of potatoes; or: dear Rossi & Hilkevitch, et al

Jarrett Walker’s post makes me nod:

OPAL, an environmental justice organization that claims to focus on the needs of low-income people, is demanding that Portland’s transit agency, Tri-Met, institute a fare cut…. At the same time, Portland has a throughly inadequate level of midday service, by almost any standard…. OPAL’s demand for a fare cut costing $2.6 million (about 2% of the agency’s revenue) is, mathematically, also a demand that Tri-Met should not restore frequent service.  This money is more than enough to restore frequent all-day service on several major lines…. So OPAL’s position is that because service has been cut, Tri-Met must mitigate the impact on low-income people instead of just fixing the problem…  If you are money-poor and time-poor — working two jobs and taking a class and rushing to daycare — you will benefit from a good network that saves you time as much as from one that saves you money.

The connection to Chicago is not that we’re debating between lowering fares and improving service, but that for the last three months, we’ve been waging an extremely intense war on the wrong battlefield. Consider two transit-related problems facing the city:

Problem A is Ventra, a new farecard system that has been poorly implemented in a variety of frustrating ways, and which is also bad for low-income occasional transit users, and anyone who decides to activate its optional debit card feature and doesn’t intimately acquaint themselves with the schedule of fees. The ways in which these things are the case have been rehashed so many times that it makes me angry even to consider rehashing them here, so I will leave it to you and Google if you’re not familiar. Suffice it to say the problems range from annoyances that will eventually be fixed to more serious obstacles for the truly cash-strapped.

Problem B is the ongoing crisis of transportation in the Chicago region, in which virtually every poor household outside the central city – and many inside it – must pay thousands of dollars a year in car expenses to have basic and timely access to critical amenities like jobs, or risk being isolated from mainstream economic and social life.

Problem A has been treated in the local media as a catastrophe of nearly unimaginable proportions. Seriously, if you are reading this from outside Chicago, it is just impossible to overstate how breathless the coverage has been. After months of it, Chicago Tonight just held a big special live-cast forum about it, during which I can’t imagine what new things they thought of to say. Non-Chicago-based Jacobin recently linked Ventra to global class struggle. It’s quite a thing.

Problem B, which is more serious than Problem A by at least three orders of magnitude,  has mostly gone unremarked upon. But it’s worse than that. While this Ventra thing has been happening, the CTA has proposed a program that would go further to mitigating Problem B than any other initiative in at least the last 20 years: bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue, doubling transit speeds and radically increasing in a single stroke (and at an incredibly effective cost) access to amenities among the low-income. What’s more, an expansion of BRT to a network of other arterials has the potential to be truly revolutionary. How has this program been reported on? Well, mostly it hasn’t; but to the extent that it has, it’s been portrayed as an elite attack on the common people, who will have less space to drive.

The point is not that we shouldn’t talk about Ventra, or that no reasonable person could oppose Ashland BRT. The point is that if you care about public transit – and especially if you care about public transit in its role as a crucial service for those of moderate incomes – then you need to get your priorities in order. It is just insane – and self-defeating – to spend this amount of time on Ventra while pretending that something like BRT is a sideshow. This goes for reporters; it also goes for the activists and lefty urbanists who have been a little too eager to jump on this as a public rallying cry against public contractors.

Because at the end of the day, the reason that Ventra is getting so much attention has nothing to do with its downsides for the low-income. It has to do with the fact that it has spread minor but real frustrations around to nearly everyone who uses the CTA, including many middle-class and wealthy newspaper readers (and less-wealthy journalists). As soon as those inconveniences are remedied – and they’re already much, much better than they were a month ago – the subject will be dropped. We are advancing the conversation about the fundamental importance of transportation not at all, and doing much less than we might to actually make it better.

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