Due to a peculiar aspect of American exceptionalism, unlike most countries, we persist in governing transit as if it were a public good. This misleading and inaccurate model prevents consideration of policies that will lead to better transit.
Public services are often provided by the public sector. However, not all public services are public goods – following the economic definition of public goods as neither excludable nor rivalrous, and thus capable of only being provided by a government or government-like entity. Many public services which are provided by the public sector in one place and time, are privately or cooperatively provided at other points in time (college is an example).
Every time someone arrives at a station or boards a bus, they must pay or can be prohibited from riding (or fined after the fact in the case of proof-of-payment systems). To be clear there are free transit systems, but that is by choice, they are excludable if not excluding. Many such as the Campus Connector on my own University of Minnesota campus don’t charge, but are also not particularly useful to non-members of the university community. These are functionally excludable, in that they are only of value to people in a particular geography.
Transit is in the short run sometimes rivalrous (when congested, if I have a spot on the train, you might not), sometimes not rivalrous (when uncongested, we can both sit on the bus – though stopping for me adds time for you), and in the long-run anti-rivalrous: the more people who use transit, the better transit gets. The Mohring Effect observes that each additional bus per hour lowers waiting times and schedule delays for travelers. Further note that creative scheduling (express plus local, e.g.) can lower travel times as well. We might extend that observation spatially as more direct routes are implemented with higher demand, reducing travel distances and thus times. Transit is a great mode in relatively dense areas where “everybody” uses it.
These characteristics define transit as more club-like than public. If we talk about transit accurately as a club-like good we can consider different types of institutional structures beyond the government department or agency, such as the utility model. Its institutional organization should reflect that.
My earlier post: Club Transit, discusses some of the ways we might reframe transit as a club good, with members rather than users.