Devising a middle-class transit system

Despite the Santa Clara County bus system’s having lost about 30 per cent of its riders in the past few years, most local governments would still be pretty pleased to have a transit system on the financial footing of the Valley Transit Authority. According to the San Jose Mercury News (free registration required), the VTA has “nearly broken even” for several years despite the pounding taken by Silicon Valley’s economy and a plunge in ridership from about 150,000 a day to 100,000.

Still, in the interests of attracting more riders again, the VTA is hoping for political support for a plan to cut its prices.

Among the lost riders: a 25 percent drop in the number of youths taking the bus and a 35 percent drop in elderly and disabled passengers.

That decline led to a task force of transit advocates, elected officials and riders that concluded lowering fares would be the best way to attract people back on buses.

“We questioned how much ridership would drop off when fares were hiked,” said Dolly Sandoval, a VTA board member from Cupertino, recalling the decision to raise rates. “Unfortunately, we did not expect such a large number of riders would drop off.

“If we want people to ride our system, we not only need to make it more convenient, we need to make it economically feasible.”

Comparisons of this sort of thing are difficult because populations and geography don’t match, but for reference, Santa Clara County has a population of about 1.6 million; Ottawa’s transit system (which is mostly buses) carries about 350,000 people a day on a population of about 800,000; and Edmonton’s ETS carries about 120,000 out of 1 million or so in greater Edmonton, so despite its almost breaking even, the VTA is not an enormous transportation success.

The price cut is not what you’d call significant: a day pass for an adult will go from $5.25 to $5, and a monthly pass for an elderly or disabled person from $26 to $20. Twelve-and-a-half cents per commute seems an incentive unlikely to get them flocking onto the VTA’s buses like they did in the old days.

Here in Ottawa, the city is financially strapped thanks to Ontario’s messed-up system of putting social programs on municipalities’ tabs and a public unwillingness to pay any higher taxes (Mayor Larry O’Brien was elected partly on the strength of one slogan: “Zero means zero”), and the transit system is in the midst of a five-year program to hike fares by something approaching 50 per cent. The theory, according to the city manager, is that the system’s biggest problem isn’t price, it’s quality of service.

As a bus-rider myself, I’ve whiled away many minutes waiting at bus stops in the bitter cold and grinding my teeth while the noise bleeding from some guy’s earphones half-deafens me, calculating just how much cheaper this single ride is compared to what it would cost if I were driving myself. Roughly speaking, I spend $900 a year on tickets, maybe an eighth of the typical cost of ownership of the Mazda 3 I test-drove a few summers ago. There’s really no comparison, and it’d get worse if drivers paid any significant fraction of the cost of the public roads they use. Price is pretty definitely not the issue, especially for the middle-class riders who get to and from work in private cars in droves. They’re happy to pay a hell of a lot more for the convenience and comfort of their own vehicles.

If the reader comments on the Merc story are anything to by, Santa Clara County has much the same challenge. I suspect they’d be a lot better off if they stuffed the fare cut and invested the money they kept in improved service. The objection to that, of course, is that public transit isn’t just a means of saving on the public cost of roads, but also of helping people with less money get around the sprawling municipalities that are the result of cheap oil, free road travel, and loose zoning codes.

My solution, assuming that tightening up density requirements and charging private drivers for the convenience of using public roads aren’t options, is a two-tier transit service. It’s virtually impossible to turn a profit on a transit line except in the densest development (and even then, only at limited times of the day), but let private companies have those concessions, and let them operate intra-city transit the way they do inter-city motor coaches: let them charge whatever they can get away with, but provide comfortable middle-class-level service in exchange.

A candidate in Ottawa’s municipal election proposed almost exactly this last fall and a disappointing number of people found the idea laughable. Even if transit exists partly to serve those too poor and/or young to buy cars, if you run a system as though they’re the target market, they’re the only riders you’re going to get.

(Via Planetizen.)


One response to “Devising a middle-class transit system

  1. I was skeptical of a two-tiered idea until I got to college, where I get to contrast the municipal buses with a coach system that ferries students to their homes. The former is incredibly crowded, limited, and often entails waiting out for 15 minutes in the freezing cold. The latter has posh seating and goes where the demand is. Guess which I prefer?

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