Friday, January 19, 2007

What I'd pay for a mind free from DC subway minutiae

I recently went to Washington DC, and as always, was frustrated by the subway system's complicated payment scheme, where travel between different zones costs different amounts, and you must use your transit card on both entry and exit from the system. Hope you don't change your mind en route!

This kind of system earned me a $30 euro fine (that I managed to talk my way out of by playing the bewildered tourist) in Frankfurt, Germany a few years ago. The train I was on was running skip-stop, and skipped a connecting station, so I had to get out and get on a train going back to make my connection. The transit police who found me (and spoke good English) were unsympathetic to my suggestion that riders agree to travel from specific source to destination stations, but never swear to take only the most efficient route.

The New York City MTA subway has plenty of cryptic information about train routes and schedules, but little overall instruction for payment besides handwritten "Subway costs $2" signs. The other options--discounts for Metrocards above $10, unlimited passes for periods of a day, a week, or a month--all operate simply and automatically. For example, you do not need to provide a starting date for the unlimited cards. The only unpredictable behavior of MetroCards is that if you use one to swipe several people, and then transfer to the bus, you must only swipe the card once; the absent-minded who swipe again find themselves $1.67 poorer.

But a visitor to New York needs only to walk up to a $100,000 MetroCard machine (the city signed a very bad contract), decide between unlimited and regular cards, and decide how much they want to buy. One swipe and they're in the system, and free to go where they wish.

The DC subway, on the other hand, requires visitors to study the map, figure out that they must look up their destination station on a grid, and find the proper column for the current time and type of ride. Then they must decipher the ticket machine's cryptic interface of buttons and switches, and press these repeatedly until the proper price is shown. If they wish to save time by buying several rides at once, they had better know their future travel plans perfectly, because traveling between different stations will cost different amounts.

There are at most a few sentences of general instructions you are asked to read to buy a MetroCard for the first time. On the DC subway, ticket machines have 483 words of instructions, plus a grid listing 88 stations that contains 442 pieces of information (such as a station name, price, and time).

This level of detail allows the DC subway to scale prices to the distance, and therefore value, of the ride. New York's does not do this, which means Greenwich Villagers who hop on to go to Canal Street are paying too much and Forest Hills residents who commute to midtown are paying too little. But there is overall cost savings of simplicity in peoples' lives, lower costs of enforcement, and improved time savings because riders can exit New York's small, often crowded stations quickly.

This is a very small example of the cost of a system with too many rules that demands too much attention from its users. Even with the subway, which everyone quickly learns to deal with regardless of its quirks, a simpler system is a less intrusive system that saves countless hours of peoples' lives. (New York, for its part, would do well to change the way it deals with service interruptions, which even if unavoidable do not need to cause so much confusion and unintended backtracking.)

The value of simple rules is something that Republican reformers understand, expecially regarding complex tax laws and burdensome approval procedures. But because so many deregulators wish to tear down rules that protect workers, consumers and the environment, Democrats generally view government rules as beneficial, and their reduction as craven. We must realize that this isn't always so.

For example, income taxes are ridiculously complicated for even low-income earners, especially the self-employed. I spent over twenty hours doing my taxes this year, though I earned less than $25,000; I could have paid a few hundred dollars for a cheap accountant, but don't trust them to properly account for unusual details like deducting the rent of my separate home office.

A flat tax would be regressive, certainly, but why not introduce a flat tax for those who earn less than $40,000 per year, and eliminate income taxes for those earning less than $20,000? True, this would punish business owners, families with lots of kids, the very sick, and those who give to charity, but it would save everyone time and if the savings from reduced auditing work and improved compliance were spent on keeping the flat rate low, could save most people money.

The country of Georgia, whose president I worked for in 2005-6, has reduced by 81% the number of licenses required of businesses and professionals. It has also introduced a flat tax (per Estonia's example), and has passed a law that converts license application receipts into valid licenses after 60 days if the government fails to grant or reject the license by that time. There are many offices and rules that have not been so transformed, but some members of the young ruling party really want to make citizenship and business in Georgia less encumbered by bureaucracy--not for the benefit of profiteers (though they seem to be doing fine), but for the increased convenience of everybody.

That's a spirit hard to find in American government. Even Eliot Spitzer doesn't mind nonsensical laws that do no one any good, and he is the closest thing to this type of reformer we have in New York since Mark Green lost the Attorney General primary to Andrew Cuomo (who wouldn't know a bad law if it bit him in the Farkas). Michael Bloomberg seems to care, judging from the success of nonpartisan ideas like his 311 phone number, which has allowed me to get dozens of potholes filled, always within two days of calling.

I criticized Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, but he's right that there is a perniciousness to modern life's complication, and that reducing it sensibly is not a partisan issue. But voters understand and appreciate the concepts of lower taxes and smaller government, and this has served Republicans well; perhaps Democrats could seize the unclaimed ground of simpler government?
Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Jan 22, 09:31:00 AM:
Did you know that they got rid of "fare irregularities" on the T as of January 1? No more exit fares on the Braintree branch of the Red Line, but no more free outbound rides on the Green Line, either. They also got rid of tokens and, as far as I can tell, those little boxes next to the token booth where you could dump exact change. What's the catch? All rides cost the same now, but no one can figure out exactly what that cost is since it varies according to the type of fare card you are using. Eliminate one kind of confusion and add another--the MBTA in action!
Blogger Meg Lyman on Tue Mar 20, 09:44:00 PM:
You think self-employed taxes are complicated? Try self-employed and clergy!