Category Archives: transit

Making transit an appealing choice

Photo credit: “Old Bus,” Flickr/Mike9Alive

Tim Haab at Environmental Economics relates an anecdote about a car-loving friend switching to a form of mass transit:

“There’s a luxury coach service that has a park and ride stop 6 miles from my house.  The bus is equipped with laptop hook-ups and comfortable seats.  It takes 45 minutes to get downtown and it drops me off at the door to my office.  And it only cost $5 roundtrip.  Also I’m working at home 2 days a week.”

So now I’m doing the math.  That’s a savings of $16.50 a commuting day ($5 in fare plus $2 in gas).  He’s saving $96.50 a week.  $4,439 a year.

This is somebody with a pretty tremendous commute, making the trip at increasingly staggering expense. And still, it’s the luxury coach service that gets him onto the bus.

You shouldn’t make public policy based on anecdotes (even if that’s what politicians do all the time), but there’s plenty of history to suggest that it’s this kind of service that’s most likely to get drivers out of their cars — not a crowded, hot, smelly old bus where they might even have to stand for much of the trip, but a pleasant luxury coach, if not an even more comfortable train. The premium people are willing to pay for comfort is very significant. With the rising cost of gasoline, more people are butting up against their limits, but it’s still not a choice based on pure financial rationalism.

So that’s the challenge for cities and regional authorities hoping to save road money, make planning more efficient, and clean up their air: they’re not just in the business of making transit available, they’re in the business of making it desirable. And in that regard, they’ve got an awful lot to learn from the private sector.

Sticky habits

Photo credit: Flickr/JenniferWoodardMaderazo

I’m not surprised that relatively few people took the San Francisco government up on its offer of free transit rides on smoggy days. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, local governments have paid for up to four days of free service in the summer months, and they kick in when air-quality predictions are particularly dismal.

The BART people are spinning an increase of 6,700 riders compared to a normal day as a big success. It’s about a two-per-cent increase in ridership.

As a result, the additional commuters who chose to ditch their vehicles and ride BART instead, prevented more than 294,800 pounds of pollutants from spilling into the air. According to the Institute of Local Self Reliance, the average commuter spews 44 pounds of pollutants into the Bay Area’s air each day.

They’re probably right. Changing how you get to work is a big deal. Aside from figuring out a different route when you’re not at your best, it means changing what time you get up in the morning, what order you do things in — if you take up biking, maybe you’ll shower at work instead of at home — and paying attention to things like bus schedules and maybe weather reports when you ordinarily wouldn’t. Chances are, it means planning for a different routine the night before.

If that’s how many people modify their commuting habits on a few hours’ notice, I bet the number would be sharply higher if they did it for a week and told people a month in advance. Could be a good marketing technique.

The tyranny of the single-number index

TreeHugger’s Collin Dunn offers up this simple comparison of the costs of transportation in a short, short post:

52.2 — the average cost in the US, in cents per mile, of driving a car alone, according to AAA. Compare that to…

20.7 — the average cost in the US, in cents per mile, of riding public transportation, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Which reminded me of this column from last weekend, by the Globe and Mail‘s Neil Reynolds (full disclosure: for whom I once briefly worked), on a study compiling the total energy costs of many, many cars, from conception to being driven. The results from CNW Research were expressed in easy-to-grasp dollar figures:

Compare the SUVs against the hybrids and you get a sweep in favour of conventional technology. The best-rated smaller SUVs are more than twice as eco-friendly as the hybrids: Dodge’s Durango, $1.57; Ford’s Explorer, $1.61; Chevrolet’s TrailBlazer, $1.61; Jeep’s Grand Cherokee, $1.80.

More remarkably, one of the larger SUVs, Ford’s Expedition, beats the hybrids with an eco-cost of $3.54.

CNW found wide differences, however, within classes of vehicles. For 18 models of luxury cars, the average energy cost is $4.45. Yet the best of these luxury cars are superior, in lifetime energy use, to hybrids.

Both sets of figures come loaded with caveats.

CNW Research even included a note (PDF) saying its figures for cars such as the Prius could be misleading, since so much original work had been done on the Prius that has only been spread out over a couple of years and one model, whereas Hummers, for instance, use a lot of established technology (adding less energy in the design phase) and spread the costs of innovation across several models.

At TreeHugger, the comments thread is full of “But what about..?”s and “This doesn’t consider…”, most of which complaints are true. The cost of taking public transportation is heavily and directly subsidized, for instance, and that’s not reflected in the price. But then, so’s the cost of driving, on smooth and well-signaled roads, and that’s not reflected in the price, either. People pay for both out of their taxes, so they’re real costs, just not coming out of people’s wallets right off. Besides, who cares what the average cost is? What’s it cost me? is the real question.

But nobody’s going to remember these warnings and reservations. Instead, we have masses of complex information condensed into single, easily remembered, inherently problematic and frequently misleading figure.

Consumers need information like this, but to make useful decisions, simple one-number indices aren’t good enough.

Free public transit?

Stay behind the yellow line!Andrew Sullivan, the thoughtful Anglo-American libertarian, thinks free public transit is a good idea.

Here’s a great idea: no fares for buses in major cities. It speeds things up, gets more people out of cars, opens up parking spaces, helps the enivronment… How to afford it? Tax cars some more, or enact the London-style traffic tolls.

His link goes to The Tyee, the B.C.-based online magazine, which has a full treatment.

I’m careful, when writing about the subject, not to assume that mass transit has to be public transit. In theory, I can’t think why the private sector couldn’t do the same job with intracity transit as it does with transit between cities, particularly using buses. It always strikes me that the problem with transit now is that it’s monolithic and lowest-common-denominator; maybe we’d have better luck getting people out of cars if they had more options and could, if they wanted, choose to pay extra for luxury service.

From a purely urban-planning perspective, though, it’s a no-brainer that free transit would be better, and that would obviously have to be paid for out of the public purse. Yet even running a free transit service would surely be cheaper than all the roads and other infrastructure a city wouldn’t have to build.

(Photo credit: “Stay behind the yellow line!“, Flickr/Marios Tziortzis.)

Guilt is an ineffective tool

This is a touch depressing, or would be if it were strictly true. Reports the CBC:

Canadians have gotten a little bit greener over the past 12 years, especially where governments passed laws to force behaviour changes, a newly released survey suggests.

But in other areas, consumers are acting just as they did in 1994, says a Statistics Canada report released Wednesday.

In two areas where there were big changes — garden pesticide use in Quebec and composting in the Atlantic region — governments compelled greener behaviour.

Nationally, chemical pesticide use fell an insignificant two percentage points between the two surveys. But in Quebec, “where strict regulations on pesticide use were imposed in recent years, the proportion [using pesticides] plunged from 30 per cent to 15 per cent,” the survey said.

As for composting, while there was a slight national increase, the gain was “especially large” in the Atlantic provinces, “some of which prohibit the disposal of organic materials in landfills or incinerators.”

What the CBC appears to miss is that consumers also responded strongly to price signals where they’ve been visible, mainly in household energy use. From Statistics Canada’s survey:

Households are taking advantage of new power-saving devices, the survey showed. Between 1994 and 2006, the proportion using at least one compact fluorescent light bulb more than tripled from 19% to 59%.

Households in all provinces contributed to this rise. In 2006, British Columbia and Ontario had the highest percentage of households using compact fluorescent light bulbs, nearly two-thirds in each province. In contrast, only one-half of all households in Quebec used them.

Programmable thermostats, which automatically adjust the temperature setting, have become increasingly popular. In 1994, 16% of households with a thermostat had one that was programmable. By 2006, this proportion had more than doubled to 42%. On the other hand, among households that had such a device, about 16% had not programmed it.

In Ontario, 52% of households had a programmable thermostat, more than double the proportion of 24% in 1994. Households in the Atlantic Provinces were the least likely to have one.

Quebec has very cheap power as a matter of government policy and provincial pride; Ontario’s gone to something more closely resembling market prices, albeit with very deep government involvement still in the electricity sector. Quebecers also disproportionately use their inexpensive electricity for heat while Ontarians use oil and natural gas, whose prices have been even less cushioned as a matter of public policy.

Astoundingly, the agency also found three in 10 Canadian households mainly use bottled water (you have to dig into the survey questions [PDF] to find that tidbit) for drinking.

What’s very clear from these results is that guilting and pleading with people don’t work.

The public-housing death spiral

Keeping housing affordable is a problem anywhere, but it’s a particular problem in a city built on a foundation of sustainable urban design.

Portland, Ore., might be North America’s best example of sensible urban planning — compact development, lots of mass transit, etc. — and as such it’s a really desirable place to live. Desirable places to live are really expensive: in 2005, Forbes did some math and found Portland was the third-least affordable American city in which to live, better than only New York City and Seattle. So it’s a natural that the city government would spend a lot of time trying to help poorer people get by, particularly in their housing arrangements.

One of their methods is about to bite them, according to the Portland Tribune, which reports on the desperate attempt to keep rents down in 950 privately owned apartment units. They’ve been subsidized by the federal government, but the subsidy deals are all set to expire by 2013, when the mortgages do — the deal with the Housing and Urban Development Department back in the late ’70s and early ’80s was that the feds would subsidize the rents for that long.

The rent is geared to tenants’ income: they pay 30 per cent of what they make, and the government makes up whatever the difference is between that and the market rent. To get in, you have to be making less than half the median income for a family like yours in Portland.

The Tribune reports that the city is trying to scrape together the money from many sources to buy the buildings before the subsidy deals expire, and the process is a mess:

The funds needed to buy the 12 buildings and pay for any needed repairs probably will have to come from a variety of sources, including private financiers, the state of Oregon and the Portland Development Commission, the city’s urban renewal agency.

The city’s share of preserving the buildings will probably total in the millions of dollars. Although the buildings have not yet been formally appraised, the PDC estimates they are worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $25 million each, depending on the size and location.

“This will be a significant resource issue for the city for years to come. It’s going to cost us some money,” [city housing official Margaret] Bax said.

PDC funds may not be available for all of the remaining buildings, however. Six of them are in existing urban renewal areas administered by the PDC. The rest are not.

Although some members of the City Council have suggested that PDC funds should be available for projects outside renewal areas, the agency is not yet authorized to help finance such projects.

Now, this situation was predictable from the very beginning — everyone knew the subsidies would end, because they were time-limited from the get-go, and everyone knew the tenants living in the apartments when that happened would be screwed unless some other subsidy program kicked in. Now the city wants to make that happen, but doesn’t have the money, and is considering using money set aside for urban renewal projects for non-renewal purposes, just because it’s convenient.

Permanent subsidy programs are just a terrible idea. They always end up like this, one way or another.

There’s no easy, principled solution. The traditional approach is to allow ever-more construction out where land is cheap, but that’s off the table in Portland, where a firm urban-growth boundary constrains budget-eating, environment-killing sprawl.

(My libertarian argument for such boundaries is that it’s reasonable to draw a line beyond which many expensive city services simply will not be provided — you want to live way out there, you’re on your own — and a similar principle applies to justify most elements of ordinary zoning within the boundary.)

Instead, the only viable long-term solution is for Portland to loosen its zoning codes to permit even more compact construction, while spending more on transit to make it easier for people to live farther from expensive destinations and still get where they’re going efficiently. Seems to me that’s a much better investment than sinking tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars into buying social-housing buildings so you can take over the rent subsidies forever.

Update: More on the Portland housing situation here.

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.)