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Are transit strikes bad for the environment?

Eric Biber, professor of law | January 6, 2014

Even if you’re not from the Bay Area, you’ve probably heard about the labor troubles at the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) – the rail system that is one of the largest public transit providers here in the Bay Area in terms of passengers.  Hundreds of thousands of commuters use the BART system on a daily basis.  But twice this year, those commuters had to find alternative routes to work because of strikes by the unions that operate the BART system.

Those strikes have prompted backlash, even in the union-friendly Bay Area and California.  A recent poll found that for the first time a plurality of Californians stated that unions did more harm than good.  A majority of Bay Area residents in the same poll supported a ban on strikes by public transit employees.  Board members of BART are now pushing for such a strike ban, as is the leading Republican in the State Senate.


Walnut Creek BART station (Jon ‘ShakataGaNai’ Davis via Wikimedia Commons)

There are a lot of issues that such a proposal brings up, but I want to focus on the environmental ones here.  It seems clear that transit strikes have negative environmental impacts.

First, during a strike more individuals will drive, simply because transit options they rely upon are no longer available.  That means more congestion and more air pollution.

But I think more important are the long-term impacts of a strike on the use of public transit by commuters.  Reliability is one of the most important factors determining whether people will use a transit system.  If they can’t count on the system, many people won’t use it.  (Here is a recent study by Berkeley graduate students on the issue, with some related news coverage.)

Reliability may be particularly important when people make major investment and lifestyle decisions.  For instance, someone may be considering whether to buy or rent a residence in an area with minimal parking but excellent public transit service.  Will that person make the commitment to an urban residential environment (including giving up their car) if they are not certain that transit service is reliable and regular?

Lack of trust in the reliability of a public transit system may lead people to choose residential options that are more auto-dependent.  The result may be increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased air pollution, and increased pressure for development in remote exurban areas that destroys important habitat for native species and ecosystems.

There is another way that transit strikes can reduce usage of public transit systems.  A lot of the day-to-day behavior for individuals, behavior such as daily commuting, is determined by habits.  But habits can be broken – particularly when there is a major disruption that forces people to adjust their daily patterns.  Ideally riding public transit is the kind of habit that we want to encourage for commuters, instead of driving by car.  But a transit strike can be just the kind of major disruption that breaks the public transit habit, and instills a new habit of driving by car.

I want to be clear that a ban on transit strikes is not necessarily a step that could or should empower management over unions.  One could imagine a range of other options to resolve labor disputes – for instance, binding arbitration to resolve contract negotiation disputes.  In fact, it’s conceivable that binding arbitration might produce more favorable results to unions over the long-run than strikes.  (Here is an example of a labor-friendly web site supporting binding arbitration in New Hampshire.)

Other major cities that are known for their union sympathies – e.g., New York City and Chicago – prohibit transit strikes.  In fact, San Francisco’s local public transit system (Muni) also prohibits transit strikes.  State lawmakers should seriously consider the proposal, at least if they’re focused on the environmental impacts of transit strikes.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comment to “Are transit strikes bad for the environment?

  1. The student survey of Muni riders, while interesting, is an opinion poll, whereas empirical data for BART is available for both the recent strike and the prior strike. Also, there are more alternatives for in-city travelers than for intercity riders.

    However, your point about BART strikes being environmentally destructive is a good one. BART, being built by and Aerospace company, is a highly proprietary system with many maintenance anomalies. It is almost impossible for management to run the system.

    So, a binding arbitration solution would seem reasonable. However, in California, the Govt employee unions have come to dominate the political process. For example, in Berkeley, rank and file Firemen have now penetrated the $400K TCOE. A large boost in Pension costs stating in 2015 will continue to push compensation levels far beyond inflation for the next five years.

    I believe that the only real solution is for the transit systems to be run by private contractors. This is already in place for the OAK Airport extension, where the contractor will also operate the system.

    If you look at Europe you will see this solution is widely adopted for roads and infrastructure projects. What is occurring in CA is that we are getting less government services, delivered at a cost which continues to exceed inflation. This is not sustainable, but our elected officials continue to defer the problem.

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