What is Transit: It’s Time to Decide!

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MTI researchers explore the many social objectives transit is often tasked with solving and the issues transit should be tackling instead
February 14, 2023
San José, CA

Transit is often asked to solve many problems—traffic, pollution, global climate change, and inequities, not to mention issues that occur on transit such as crime, homelessness, racial profiling, public health concerns, and more. But transit is facing a fundamental financial paradox pushing it toward a no-win financial situation. This paradox occurs because transit is asked both to reduce the number of people driving cars and to provide a public service for those without cars. The latest Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) perspective, What is Transit: It’s Time to Decide, posits that transit cannot be tasked with solving multiple social issues and should instead follow a narrower, financially sustainable path forward that can also lead to viable social change. 

Transit frequently fails to work as a public service or as an adequate alternative to driving and continues to struggle financially because communities do not want to burden vulnerable transit users with the full cost of transportation. Hence, most cities find that transit cannot achieve its lofty goals of social change.

There are several paths forward to improve how the system operates, with two different objectives:

  • Transit as a business. Ideally a transit agency should have an objective very similar to other purveyors of private goods and services: to provide a product that satisfies its customers. If the agency achieves this objective, it will likely also find that demand for its product will increase, thus satisfying many other aims. But the first step is to put out a good product—first by prioritizing customer service.

  • Transit as a public service. If transit is going to act as a public service, then it should be funded explicitly for that purpose, just as we fund other public services, without fares. When we provide libraries, parks, schools, and fire departments, we do not ask people to pay per use. Instead, we use taxes to ensure that these services exist, that (hopefully) they are delivered effectively, and that anyone can use them as needed.

“One method to find the right path forward for transit is to deal directly with funding first. The method by which revenue for public services is raised has a substantial impact on how it is spent. For example, the federal government has used a gas tax to fund much of its transportation investments over the last 60+ years. This could be a way to financial stability for transit in the United States,” explain the authors.

Many urban areas are negotiating the future of public transit right now. Revenues and ridership have fallen, COVID relief money is running out, and new funding sources are needed to keep transit afloat. This is an ideal time to have a conversation about transit’s purpose and to focus the mission and funding of transit agencies on achievable goals to ensure transit is serving everyone in our communities and becoming even more accessible, efficient, and sustainable in the future. 

Authors of this Perspective will be featured in an upcoming MTI Research Snaps webinar “Advancing Transportation Equity” on February 21. Join us to learn how free transit, microtransit, and other efforts can make a major impact on equity in transportation and bring fair, accessible transportation to all.


At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nations’ transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. Founded in 1991, MTI is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants, including those made available by the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017 (SB1). MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.

Joshua Schank
is an MTI Research Associate who holds a PhD in Urban Planning from Columbia University and a Master of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a Managing Principal at InfraStrategies, and a Senior Fellow in the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Schank previously served as Chief Innovation Officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, and Transportation Policy Advisor to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Emma Huang is a Senior Consultant with InfraStrategies LLC. Emma previously worked as a Transportation Planner in the Office of Extraordinary Innovation at LA Metro. She has a Master of Public Policy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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