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At-large candidates condemn high transit fares

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for DC Council at-large. See all of the discussions here.

Left to right: John Settles, Nate Bennett-Fleming, Pedro Rubio. Images from the candidate websites.

In our discussion about transportation, both Nate Bennett-Fleming and John Settles spoke about how lower-income residents find fares on the bus and train, or fees for car sharing and other transportation options, to be a significant barrier to getting to jobs and making a good living.

Settles said:

If you try to go from far Southeast to upper Northwest, the time and the cost is prohibitive. A lot of women who graduate from [the workforce development program at the Southeast Children's Fund] get jobs in Northwest. They're paying a bus fare to drop a kid at school, a second bus fare to get to Metro, then a Metro fare to get to their job in Northwest. Cumulatively, they're spending $15-20 a day on transportation, and for someone that makes $10 an hour that's prohibitive. And it doesn't make sense.
Bennett-Fleming pointed to newer technology-based transportation options as one approach to help lower-income residents:
[N]ew things like Lyft and Uber—those are tools that can really be a bang for people that are economically distressed, and that's an option for them, and how can we encourage more people to know about these tools, have awareness about these tools, and actually use them.

Because at the end of the day, the transportation cost in the District of Columbia is a form of regression tax. So many people don't have the resources and they're spending so much of their incomes getting around the city. So we have to make sure we have options to bring the cost of transportation down, make sure people are equipped, even our most vulnerable residents, with the options that they need to get around without fundamentally changing their budgets and ability to afford to live, to put food on their tables, etc.

Bennett-Fleming went on to talk about open government and open data. He cited tools like "Outline" which help residents see the effects of legislative proposals and contact their elected officials.

Settles praised new options like car sharing, but argued that these are not really going to significantly decrease costs for low-income residents:

We have to look at how we expand options. The Circulator has been effective at providing options downtown; we need to expand it east and west. And other multimodal options. A lot of people are driving in from Maryland and Virginia. Why don't we have multimodal transportation hubs so they can park their car, pay us a parking fee, and get on public transportation so we're reducing the cars and the on-street traffic.

For me personally, I can afford the multimodal uses ... [but] for lower income individuals the cost is prohibitive. They can't spend the $10-12 an hour for Zipcar, Enterprise Car Share or car2go. So I think we have to get serious about having better transportation solutions.

Both Settles and Bennett-Fleming seem generally on board with the streetcar program, but have concerns about the way DDOT is planning it as they go, not to mention the many missed deadlines. Rubio said,

I'm glad we have it and I hope that we expand it more throughout the city. It's definitely been a slow process and I'm disappointed with that. We've been waiting forever for the H Street streetcar. And I'd like to expand the streetcar to other neighborhoods.
He specifically cited Ivy City as a place the streetcar could benefit. Rubio also supports dedicated bus lanes: "I've taken the 16th Street bus ... but during rush hour your commute doubles, and I agree that we preserve a lane for just buses, and also for bike riders."

Bennett-Fleming and Settles were generally positive about the idea of bus lanes, but didn't explicitly endorse a 16th Street lane; rather, both called for studies to figure out if it can work.

On the topic of cycling, Bennett-Fleming suggested that to get more people bicycling, rather than adding cycle tracks DC needs to "change the culture" around transportation. He pointed to Berkeley, where he went to school, and where they have more bicycling but fewer miles of cycle tracks. Instead, there is just a strong culture of cycling, he said.

How can that happen? He pointed to driver education programs for young drivers, public information campaigns, and perhaps programs when people renew their licenses.

Watch the whole discussions with each candidate about transportation:




David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Seems like people spending a huge amount of money on fares is a good argument for why we need unlimited-use passes. $100 a month for unlimited rides $2.50 or less is a good idea. And it shouldn't matter whether the rides are on bus or rail.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 28, 2014 11:43 am • linkreport

Did Bennett-Fleming really imply that Uber and Lyft are helping the "economically distressed"

Did I misread that?

For a candidate running on "understanding over the river," he really doesnt.

by potomacaveres on Feb 28, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

Is it just me, or has Bennett-Fleming been very underwhelming in these videos?

by Luke on Feb 28, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

Bus passes are $16 a week. Even paying full fare most people arent going to pay more than $10 round trip if they're staying in the city.

by BTA on Feb 28, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

@potomacaveres--I was thinking the same thing! I watched the previous At-Large videos. It seems like Bennett-Fleming uses "word blizzards" to compensate for a lack of experience. He barely takes a breath in between thoughts. It makes me believe he's just regurgitating talking points. What has he done that would convince me that he would be able to represent the city At-Large especially since he believes Uber & Lyft are viable options for the economically distressed citizens in his own Ward 8. He seems like a bright and ambitious young man, but IMO the At-Large position needs someone of real substance.

by DonnaB on Feb 28, 2014 12:56 pm • linkreport

Are you saying $50 a week is viable for someone making minimum wage? And what if they have to jump on and off for kid pick up?

by DonnaB on Feb 28, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport

No, my point was that bus passes are viable at $64 a month. With a smartrip you should never pay more than one bus fare within a 2 hour window. There is also the seven day shortrip Metrorail pass (unlimited up to $3.50 for $35) if you need Metro to make the trip. I'm not saying $50 a week would be easy but I would not consider it copmletely out of reach on $10 an hour.

by BTA on Feb 28, 2014 1:20 pm • linkreport

1. It's not clear without watching the videos (I prefer someone else to summarize them for me) if the people decrying high fares are calling for greater DC funding of transit to keep fares down.

2. The price of fares and transit passes has to do with "not enough subsidy" being provided by the jurisdictions.

For there to be "transit-integrated-communities" (a la this paper, "Rail integrated communities in Tokyo," Journal of Transport and Land Use) passes have to be a good deal.

In NYC and SF they are. Here they are not. WMATA isn't in charge of placemaking and quality of life, but running a transit system and raising enough money to do so.

Making passes a good deal is a political decision that requires more funding from the jurisdictions.

3. The thing about Uber-Lyft type services and "low income areas" is that people already sell rides, but not with a mobile app, as part of the underground economy.

It's too bad at the forum that no one suggested jitneys and other more innovative options.

I haven't seen writing about it in DC, but it has been covered elsewhere:

by Richard L. Layman on Feb 28, 2014 1:43 pm • linkreport

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