Public Transit and the Public Good

The transit strike in Ottawa is now in its second  week, and life is horrible.  Commuting has turned from frustation to nightmare, especially when snowfall makes things even worse.

All of which leads me to the perhaps hugely obvious point that decent transit is self-evidently a very good thing for drivers like me and not just transit users, literally shaving driving times by very large percentages.    Hopefully all of my fellow taxpayer drivers screaming at delays today will support spending more on better transit tomorrow.

(For the record, I do cycle to work for much of the year.)

This strike can be blamed mainly on our instrasigently right wing Mayor, who wants to remove driver control of shift scheduling.  This is a big issue for the drivers who, through seniority, can finally get out of working split shifts (with wasted, unpaid time in the middle of the day) to serve the morning and afternoon rush hour peaks.  I for one am prepared to pay a bit more for transit to help accommodate slightly less than fully efficient scheduling.

32 comments

  • It’s not clear what the issue is. As I understand it, in most transit systems, management creates shift schedules and the employees choose which one they want based on seniority.

    In Ottawa do employees create their own shifts or is it that management want to say who takes what shift? Why would management care who takes what shift?

  • “I for one am prepared to pay a bit more for transit to help accommodate slightly less than fully efficient scheduling.”

    But your not paying more, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen, the drivers took a 2% pay cut to pay for the added cost when the system was implemented.

  • My sense is that it’s the latter — management wants to dictate who takes what shift. Drivers want to retain the right to choose their shifts.

    Why does management want this? Good question.

  • It is very sad to hear about all the traveling horror stories in our city over the past few days. I can imagine many people have been hurt and others have been challenged in ways that will never be duly recorded. I can say this though. it is costing the city a lot more than a few bucks a shift scheduling protocol will cost (in fact you could cost it for he next hundred years and it will never amount to what the public has been through)

    This gets back at my point on public goods and transportation. Cars, buses, cycling, and yes apparently cross country skiing can all count towards the public ways and means upon a public infrastructure. There a private and public goods at ahnd, but in the end the culture of transport in the modern economy of a developed nation has become much much more than in many levels of complexity and socially determined benefits and costs. The most important component being lost here is the public good.

    The mayor needs a good kick, since when does a city administration shut down and entire city costing lives, accidents and millions and millions of dollars so that some dumb ass management scheduling protocol can be implemeyed, walking all over the motherhood issue of seniority. Again wee have a situation where a mayor and his administration lacking any real insight into solving a problem. I have never for the life of me understood the municipal politics in this city.

    I think if anything, the next time people decide not to vote at the municpal level, they might actually get up off their ass and find out about the issues, candidates and go out and vote. Municipal politics have the highest apethy and the lowest voter participation. It is the duty of local politicians to take charge and make democracy work, and as in Ottawa they have not done this, eventually voters get the out reach in a totally different way, incompentence, vision less, dumb ass mayors.This guy is a criminal and it will be proven in the spring, he will be forced to step down on the bribery charges against him and we will have a new municipal election.

    Poor Ottawa, I am from the Sault, yet after 20 years of trying not to let this place become home, it suddenly feels like it and it is definitely in bad shape right now.

    Somebody help. We need arbitration NOW!!!!!!

  • One could argue the other way as well. The OC Transpo strike reveals how unwise it is to rely on public transit, if public transit is run by a single firm and/or single union.

    Of course, it would be equally unwise to rely on auto transit, if all cars were produced by a single firm and/or single union.

  • I just want to clarify that when you say you’d be willing to pay more, you meant in taxes. Otherwise this willingness seems a bit empty given that you generally ride a bike or drive. More importantly, raising fares is a disincentive for users, especially poor users. When will we all drop the idea that transit should pay for itself through fares?

  • I agree with you Darwin: people need to make back-up plans (if they can). And cars are not perfectly reliable either. No doubt some people used to take the bus because they thought the bus is more reliable. Now fewer people will think that way. Even if the bus remains more reliable than cars, that reliability advantage will be lower than before the strike, and some people will switch to cars (or car pools, or bikes, or some other way of avoiding the need to take the bus).

    Bus ridership will not return to its previous levels before the strike. People view the bus as less reliable than they did before. And some will have invested in alternative methods of getting to work or school, and won’t switch back after the strike is over.

    Politically, it could go either way. Some people will agree with Andrew, realise just how bad traffic is without buses, and be prepared to pay more in taxes to get more buses. Other people will realise that buses are less relaible than they thought they were, and be prepared to pay less in taxes for the buses, and more in taxes for roads, bridges, parking, roundabouts, trains, bike paths etc.

    Perhaps a better solution, that meets both objectives, would be to allow more competition in bus service, ending the monopoly of OC Transpo and its union. There are economies of scale in local bus service, so having just one company does have advantages. But the disadvantages now look bigger than they did before the strike.

  • “Perhaps a better solution, that meets both objectives, would be to allow more competition in bus service, ending the monopoly of OC Transpo and its union.”

    Ah the old time religion…sing it again, it does sooth my heart so.

  • Old or new Travis, suppose we were to put it to a vote now, whether to break the OC Transpo monopoly on bus service? I don’t know if it would win, but I believe it would get more votes now than before the strike.

    I haven’t checked this, but I hear from a colleague that Carleton’s student’s association, despite nominally supporting the strike, have set up their own bus service.

  • “Carleton’s student’s association, despite nominally supporting the strike, have set up their own bus service.”

    Imagine that Nick, finding an alternative while not advocating for the undermining/destruction of the union.

    “suppose we were to put it to a vote now”

    You might be onto something there. We could put lots of things to vote on lots of sectors of the economy, and how they are run, and what prices and fees they charge, and how their employees are paid.

    How often do you think we should hold these votes?

  • To K Huth – yes I am willing to pay more in taxes and would happily pay for free transit.

  • Travis:

    I think that the actions of the students’ association in running their own buses did reduce (undermine) the bargaining power of the union, to some small extent. It reduced the costs of the strike. I don’t find their actions surprising.

    If the OC Transpo monopoly is something that the City of Ottawa can decide to change, and if the people who run the City are elected, it might matter what voters think about the OC Transpo monopoly, either now, or in the next election. Comparing hypothetical votes today and before the strike is a thought-experiment, to help us think about how voters’ views might have changed as a result of the strike.

  • Speaking hypothetically, Nick, why don’t we wait on the vote until someone to the left of our current Mayor Lex Luthor comes in? Someone a little less eager to break a union in a show-down he doubtless engineered according to the Harris School ie create a crisis then act as if you have the solution.

  • “I think that the actions of the students’ association in running their own buses did reduce (undermine) the bargaining power of the union.”

    Is suspect you would be hard pressed to find a member of the transit union that would conclude a temporary transport plan by students was undermining their bargaining position.

    “Comparing hypothetical votes today and before the strike is a thought-experiment, to help us think about how voters’ views might have changed as a result of the strike.”

    Yep we could compare hypothetical votes today and before the banks starting withholding credit (and jacking-up spreads) to help us think about how voters’ might have changed their views on Banking regulation as a result of the credit strike.

    Not sure that is great way to run policy though. Although I do admire your commitment to democratic planning.

  • Todd: we could do that, but I find it interesting to discuss Andrew’s point that the strike may make people (drivers) more aware of the benefits of public transit and so may make them more willing, as taxpayers, to pay for OC Transpo. Andrew makes a valid argument in favour of his point, and I have made arguments pointing in the other direction.

    (It’s tempting to get into an argument with Travis about unions in general, but I’m going to stay on topic.)

    Stephen: Ah, you found a link to the Santiago case! One article (I think it’s one of Felix Salmon’s links) I remember reading was just excellent on the pros and cons of both systems, all the network effects, etc.

  • As to “A propos (sic) of something or other”

    With such a large N sample size and such high quality quantitative data I know I am convinced by the argument.

    Now 9 trillion spread over multiple national jurisdictions, and the prospect of rampant inflation as a consequence of the fix is a rather more robust indictment of the profit motive I would say.

    But hey who can compete with the single case of quasi public quasi private transit Santiago? If anything the article demonstrates that Santiago’s PPP model for transit was a disaster. That is of course if you leave off the ideological gloss in the conclusion.

  • Nick it was you who raised the subject at 10:00am this morning not I.

    “Perhaps a better solution, that meets both objectives, would be to allow more competition in bus service, ending the monopoly of OC Transpo and its union.”

    So I guess I am sorry for following you off-topic?

  • Nick said:

    “Andrew makes a valid argument in favour of his point, and I have made arguments pointing in the other direction.”

    Actually, your proposal was to marketize the bus system in Ottawa. When challenged on it, you then suggested a vote to break the monopoly. I’ve yet to see an argument from you on something beyond the text-book obvious about how competition can drive down prices (not to mention wages).

    You are aware of the ramifications of your position, right? And the environment in which you’re posting it? And yet, you claim you’re not interested in discussing unions. Curious.

  • Travis: we both stayed (just about) on topic. But if I had succumbed to temptation and got into a general argument with you about unions, I would have gone off topic. And if you had joined me, so would you.

    Off topic: have you checked your efficiency wage post?

  • Todd:

    If you read back, you will see that my main, earlier point was about the effect of the strike on the public perception of reliability of public transit. The possibility of breaking the OC Transpo monopoly, and public perception towards that, was a second point I made.

    I made no mention of any argument that competition could drive down prices and wages. (Actually, my mention of economies of scale in bus service could be construed, if anything, as arguing the other way). My argument (implicit from the context, but let me make it explicit) is that having two (or more) bus services would make us less vulnerable to strikes–it would increase average reliability of service (unless of course the strikes were perfectly correlated across the two services).

    I do not know what you might be referring to by the ramifications of my position. I understand some of the ramifications, but perhaps there are others I do not understand. (The same could be said of anyone of course.)

    By “environment” in which I am posting do you mean this blog? If so, yes, I understand this is a blog in which most people posting will disagree with many of my views.

    I am interested in discussing unions in general, but not right here right now, because I want to discuss Andrew’s topic instead.

  • The public, in general, tolerates unions until they are inconvenienced by them. Transit unions know this better than most. I think Andrew was trying to suggest a frame through which people could be brought to think differently then: “Oh shit, no bus I hate transit workers and public transit.”

  • Nick said:

    “If you read back, you will see that my main, earlier point was about the effect of the strike on the public perception of reliability of public transit. The possibility of breaking the OC Transpo monopoly, and public perception towards that, was a second point I made.”

    From your first post:

    “The OC Transpo strike reveals how unwise it is to rely on public transit, if public transit is run by a single firm and/or single union.”

    (BTW, the union doesn’t run public transit; the city does.)

    In your post after that, you then mention how more people will perceive public transport as less reliable and quickly segue (again) into your competition proposal.

    The point I was making was that you never made anything like an argument about why competition would be better. I humbly admit that experience has quite probably deformed my thinking into assuming that, when anyone talks about competition as an alternative (or even an adjunct) to unions, this is code for “bust the union” by forcing them to compete with non-unionized labour (as is the case globally) or to contract out labour away from unionized employees to non-unionized ones. You never actually made your argument, so I assumed this was what you were talking about. If it wasn’t, I’d be delighted to hear something different.

    “By “environment” in which I am posting do you mean this blog? If so, yes, I understand this is a blog in which most people posting will disagree with many of my views.”

    Isn’t posting something to a blog or list when you know that most other posters will likely disagree with it trolling?

    “I am interested in discussing unions in general, but not right here right now, because I want to discuss Andrew’s topic instead.”

    You say you’re not interested in talking about unions in general, and yet, under the circumstances of this post (and the situation in Ottawa) unions (or at least one union) play a (big) part. I’m not saying that we have to discuss “unions in general” but a union is part of what’s happening. AFAICT, it’s disingenuous of you to make such a proposal as you did then demur about involving unions as part of the discussion given the context of Andrew’s post and what’s happening in Ottawa.

    But I could be mistaken: I have a nasty, suspicious nature (like all communists), and it could make me nip someone on the nose when said nose was innocent all along. If I’m mistaken, I’m very sorry to have troubled you.

  • Todd,

    “Isn’t posting something to a blog or list when you know that most other posters will likely disagree with it trolling?”

    That is a rather Canadian view on disruptive behavior and a rather tight definition of trolling. Echo chambers are boring and rather uninformative. No?

  • Nick,

    This report is certainly contrary to what I wrote and you thought. Inter alia:

    “Meanwhile, only three people turned out for a commuter rally yesterday at City Hall to protest the strike failed to materialize. The rally organizer, Emrys Graefe, could not be reached for comment, but then he didn’t show up either.”

    At least the Trotskyists show up to their own rallies.

    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/Business/City+officials+transit+union+resume+talks+today/1101427/story.html

  • Travis: Hmm, yes, I would have thought that more people would have shown up. Maybe it wasn’t publicised or organised well, since I can’t think of any pre-existing organisation that would represent Ottawa commuters. Was it Stigler who argued that (for example) industry lobby groups will always win, politically, over consumers, because it’s easy to organise a small number of people with a lot at stake than a large number of people with less at stake (easier to overcome the free rider problem)?

    Todd: here’s the comments policy: http://www.progressive-economics.ca/comments-policy/

  • Oh, no, no. Not Stigler that is straight up…oh shit what is his name…wait…wait…wait…aRGH!…first year…Ma seminar on the reason why capitalists always win… the problem of collective organization…no…must google…the Logic of Collective Action. Mancur Olsen! That took me back.

    And I remember my prof at the time tried to use Olsen to explain why betting-on the success of working class resistance was futile. Something right in the fabric but terribly wrong in the texture.

    Personally I would go with the snow just before Christmas! Even the North and South, not to mention even the first and second world war, took a pause for noel.

    I can’t wait for the new year!

  • Travis said:

    “That is a rather Canadian view on disruptive behavior and a rather tight definition of trolling. Echo chambers are boring and rather uninformative. No?”

    I’m not asking for an echo chamber, but I am curious why someone posts an idea so relatively “deviant” from the “mainstream” of this blog’s general opinion.

    How long do you think it’d be before a (nasty) argument started if I politely posted, on, say, Little Green Footballs or the Free Republic’s list, my opinion on immigration (informed or not)? It’d be a stretch for me to claim that I was innocently advancing an opinion, especially if I had taken some time to read the the entries and comments.

    Nick, don’t fret: my question on your intent wasn’t concerning anything listed in the comments policy as worthy of getting your comments scrubbed and you booted.

  • OK Todd. Since you asked. Here (as best as I can explain it, especially briefly) is my general view of unions:

    1. I am against unions, BUT

    2. The main reason I am against unions is that I believe unions reduce workers’ bargaining power and wages, BUT

    3. That isn’t quite right either, because unions are more a vehicle of the problem than the underlying cause, AND

    4. I am still exploring precisely what that underlying cause is, AND

    5. If that underlying cause could be identified and fixed, I think I would be in favour of unions.

    I don’t expect you (or anyone) to agree with my views (or even to think they are coherent). But I think you can agree that it’s not a view that is simple to explain, and can understand why I wanted to avoid discussing it, because it really would (and now has) take us totally off topic.

    Why do I hang out here sometimes? Because it’s interesting; and because neither I nor anyone else has a monopoly on the truth or good ideas.

    It’s the same reason I (sometimes) go to Post-Keynesian seminars, even though I am not a PK: sometimes I learn something new, that seems right (or might be right, or at least interesting). And I comment at PK seminars, when I think they have something wrong, or have missed something. But I try to avoid getting into an argument at PK seminars about their general underlying philosophy, because it would just waste time and lead the seminar off topic. (Unless of course the seminar is precisely about the underlying PK philosophy.)

  • Nick said:

    “Since you asked.”

    Which I didn’t.

    There’s some serious miscommunication going on here.

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