Local governments often make decisions that are profoundly unjust for the communities they are supposed to serve. Some of those decisions have the potential to be even more dangerous thanks to the power of a bad example. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, better known to locals as Metro, may be about to make one of those precedent-setting poor decisions.
Metro, the public transit agency serving the nation’s capital and its inner suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, has been operating on restricted hours for almost three years now. The need for critical safety repairs led to an initial series of “safety surges” followed by a period of “enhanced preventive maintenance.”
These cutbacks have posed serious hardship to people who work at night – often low-wage service workers in the health care and hospitality sectors. In Metro’s defense, the restricted hours were required to do urgently needed repairs. It was unjust, but it wasn’t necessarily Metro’s fault. Other, larger forces were at play, including the prevalence of low-wage service work, and gentrification that compels these same workers to live far from their jobs so they can afford the rent.
But a new proposal from Metro is both unjust and a mistake entirely of its own doing. The agency’s Board of Directors has announced a plan to subsidize transportation from companies like Uber and Lyft for late night and early morning workers, rather than restoring Metro service during those times.
If Metro goes ahead with this plan, it will effectively be financing its competition, undermining its own long-term viability in exchange for short-term monetary savings – all at the expense of low-income workers and the environment. And with those short-term savings, the Board can justify its lack of late night service – likely killing the prospect of ever restoring Metro’s full hours.
Metro’s quick savings comes on the backs of low-wage workers in the D.C. area. The plan will subsidize $3 per trip each worker makes to and from their job – not nearly enough to ease the financial burden on low-wage workers forced to use transportation network services like Uber and Lyft instead of Metro.
A worker who commutes from the center of Washington, D.C. to their home at the end of the line would pay $3.65 for late night Metro service. An Uber trip between the same points would cost more than $20, according to the ride-share giant’s own fare estimation website. Even using Uber’s carpool option could come in at nearly five times the price of the Metro fare. A $3 subsidy is grossly inadequate for a low-wage workers’ budget.
Gentrification heightens this injustice. A recent study found that the Washington DC metro area has experienced the highest rate of gentrification in the country. Lower income residents displaced by gentrification face longer commutes and higher transportation costs. Denying them late night Metro service in perpetuity and expecting them to use Uber and Lyft instead, even with a token subsidy, amounts to a policy choice to raise the cost of living for those who can least afford it.
Not to mention, the subsidy is restricted to 10 trips per worker per week. Anyone who commutes more often than that – not uncommon for low-wage workers – won’t get even this meager subsidy on all their rides. On top of that, the program budget is capped at $1 million per year, raising the prospect that the program may not be able to serve everyone who needs it throughout the year.
Then, there’s the planetary impact. Shifting trips from transit to low-occupancy vehicles locks in higher carbon emissions. The transportation sector is the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Paying to put more people in low-occupancy vehicles instead of providing them with transit is a giant step backwards.
Uber and Lyft claim to be “green” – and who doesn’t in this day and age? The facts, however, show that they’re greenwashing – marketing themselves as environmentally friendly when, in reality, they’re anything but.
While Uber has committed to full electrification of its fleet in London, their pilot electrification program in the U.S. does not include the Washington, DC metro area. Likewise, Lyft has only recently announced a vague commitment to introduce “thousands” of electric vehicles on its platform. The company’s very small geographical footprint for the rollout that also excludes the Washington, DC metro area.
These pledges are nothing more than chump change in our fight for climate justice. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded, we need “rapid and far-reaching transitions…with no documented historic precedent” in all of our social, economic, and technological systems. We need bold, concrete action today – not vague promises of future electrification.
The greenhouse gas emissions of the transportation network industry are exacerbated by the industry’s business model, which saturates markets with unlimited numbers of vehicles. Transportation network companies lobby hard against attempts by local governments to cap the number of vehicles the industry can have on the road at any given time. This has consequences for congestion, emissions, and traffic safety.
One academic study in the Denver metro area found that transportation network drivers spend more than 40 percent of their miles without a passenger in the car – and that’s considered a conservative estimate. Worst of all, the study found vehicle miles traveled increased almost 84 percent in Denver thanks to the introduction of transportation network services.
The widespread use of these services has cannibalized the share of trips that would otherwise have been made on public transit – the single best way to reduce the environmental impact of transportation other than biking and walking. A recent University of Kentucky study found that the entry of transportation network companies into an urban market causes bus ridership to decrease 1.7 percent a year and rail transit ridership to decrease 1.3 percent a year — and the effect is cumulative.
And the growth of companies like Uber and Lyft appear to play a role in reversing a decades-long trend of decreasing traffic fatalities in the U.S. One recent study estimates that the growth of the industry can explain a 2 to 4 percent increase in fatal accidents.
The industry also has a terrible record when it comes to providing access to people with disabilities. Uber has gone so far as to claim it is exempt from complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that it’s a tech company rather than a transportation provider.
This shortsighted strategy will also have a harmful impact on workers’ rights. Metro workers are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and have family-supporting jobs with good benefits.
But the transportation network industry, along with other parts of the so-called gig economy, routinely classify their employees as independent contractors. In doing so, they’ve exempted themselves from following minimum wage and other labor laws, denied healthcare and other benefits, and starved governments of payroll taxes. This is an abusive practice, and WMATA must not subsidize it.
Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft have a shameful record of trying to resist regulation on many of these issues — workers’ rights, environmental impact, disability access, and traffic safety. The companies have aggressively lobbied state legislatures to overrule local governments’ efforts to rein them in, and have even illegally entered markets, opting to pay the resulting fines as a part of their cost of doing business. WMATA should not finance businesses with such utter disdain for regulations in the public interest.
For all of these reasons, a coalition of organizations has written an open letter to the Metro Board, urging them to do the right thing and restore late night service instead of subsidizing an industry that undermines affordable public transit, harms the planet, exploits workers, disrespects people with disabilities, contributes to worsening traffic safety trends, and dismantles common sense regulations in the public interest.
The letter has the support of the Metro workers’ union and local community and labor organizations. A number of national organizations and local labor and environmental justice groups from outside the D.C. area have also signed on, recognizing that this policy has the potential to set a terrible national precedent.
Washington’s Metro is public transit. It belongs to the public and is meant to serve us. Let’s keep it that way and end this creeping privatization.