Taxes on Time

What the Tax on Time Costs Transit-Dependent People

Great big hat tip to Cathy O’Neil, aka MathBabe, who wrote about the domestic complexity tax here, which has ever since had me thinking about the various and different regressive taxes paid by the least fortunate among us.

As I plod away drafting The Transit Trekker Manual, I’m keenly aware that while I can help would-be transit trekkers greatly reduce the time it takes to discover and plan transit-based trips, I can’t reduce the tax on time that using transit all too often imposes on users.

A small example came up in the thread responding to Zipcar founder Robin Chase’s recent tweet about her transit-riding husband’s predicament when called to appear at 8 a.m. for jury duty, a trip that was 1.5 hours via the austere transit service available to him. “In the future, you can usually call them and say that you don’t have a car and need to be scheduled at a closer facility,” replied one tweeter.

The problem with this “solution,” I pointed out, is “making that call represents an additional tax on time, however small, that people who depend on public transit must pay because the default is assumed that people can and will drive everywhere.”

I had intended to add that for people who *depend* on transit — not the coveted “choice” rider who when convenient opts for transit — these small taxes on time are everywhere. And they add up. And many of these taxes on time are hours in a single day, as a result of long waits for transfers, absurdly detours around construction zones that de-prioritize the mobility needs of non-drivers in favor of drivers, and on and on. For just a short list of examples, peruse Transportation for Everyone: Washington State (a white paper I worked on as a Fellow at the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington).

One of the greatest taxes on time is trying to plan a trip requiring a transfer between two buses or modes on different systems that have different policies and/or schedules and/or levels of service. That’s something I can help transit trekkers minimize. But people who depend on transit to get to medical appointments or meet up with friend and family or just go to a community park are paying this tax on time day in and out — rather than occasionally for recreation.

It’s very common for economists to calculate the dollar value of time for, say,  lost productivity to traffic congestion or other conditions that are viewed as impinging on the economy. I’m sure they could do that in this instance, but I’m more interested in the human value of that lost time, the consequences of delayed medical care, trips to visit friends or spend at community events forgone because trip planning is too complicated or would take too long, the difficulty finding and maintaining work — the tax on time imposes emotional, physical, and mental costs and eats into basic quality of life.

I suspect that for Robin Chase and her husband, their overall quality of life is probably not impacted to this degree, as reasonably well-off people whose affluence can offset these taxes on time. (Please correct me if that is a wrong assumption.) No, people who chose to forgo car-dependence shouldn’t need to pay these taxes on their time. Transit and cycling and other active transportation modes should be easier and more convenient and quicker all of the time, not just under select conditions in select neighborhoods in select cities.

But to continue to extract time from people who are transit-dependent is, I think, to quite literally extract life.