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April 07, 2009


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Fred Camino

Well, I think the reason transit in most places in the U.S. is so bad is because it is primarily seen as a service provider for those who cannot afford to drive, and nothing more. Using your subsidized cafeteria example, certainly you wouldn't expect this cafeteria for the hungry to be serving high quality delicious and nutritious meals cooked with the freshest ingredients by world-class chefs. No, this subsidized cafeteria, but the very nature of it's existence would only provide the lowest possible quality of food that would still be considered a meal. If a cheap peanut butter and jelly sandwich on day old bread is enough to keep someone from being hungry, then that's the highest quality the subsidized cafeteria would serve. Certainly you wouldn't expect this cafeteria to serve an all-u-can-eat buffet of exquisite cuts of filet mignon.

And so it is with transit. By catering to the lowest common denominator, you get the lowest possible quality of service. If it's between having no transportation or a slow, dirty, crowded, plodding bus, for the lowest common denominator the bus is still better, but only by the smallest possible threshold. And this is what we have in most U.S. cities today, transit systems that are just a hair better than being stranded with literally no way to travel farther than your feet will take you. And there's really no compelling or logical reason to make it any better... unless you decide to make it a universal transportation alternative, not transportation welfare.

Nathan Landau

I agree completely with this comment. I'd also note that the concept of not trying to attract discretionary riders ignores the environmental benefits of using transit. If people take the bus instead of driving they're reducing both "conventional" air pollutants and greenhouse gases. This is a benefit to the community as a whole, not just the individual rider.

If would be drivers are able to reduce the number of cars in their household--or in some cases eliminate them entirely--they'll drive even less and have less need for parking spaces. Parking spaces are an unproductive use of scarce urban land that could be used for something else--housing, businesses providing jobs and/or taxes, cultural facilities, parkland, etc.

Transit systems have to strike a balance in who they serve and what kind of services we provide, but a social service only mindset does not maximize the benefits from transit.

paul foer

Good grief! What does it cost to attract discretionary customers? Comparing bus service to a cafeteria completely misunderstands the whole concept of margin, unless you are talking about added service or added capacity. Margin is not margarine. In other words, if buses are at capacity and attracting more customers means adding capacity (routes, buses etc), your marginal costs will increase. However, a seat is a seat is a seat and if a seat is empty on the Smithtown to Flugleville Route on Wednesday at 3:45 it will always be empty on that run and can never be sold again until the next run. Same with a Delta, United or USAir flight. They want to fill every seat as should a bus operator, as the flight costs the same whether every seat is filled or not. Of course, a couple of hundred pounds may ( I stress may) raise fuel consumption--but marginally. Yet revenue can go up to capacity, so on a bus route, empty seats do not produce revenue, but full ones do--and the issue of farebox recovery and subsidy becomes moot. $2 is $2 is $2. If there is a loss per passenger, more passengers do not mean further loss but means more revenue. But fewer passengers does mean more loss. On the other hand, in a cafeteria situation, you need to actually serve and therefore have more margarine and everything else consumed if more people come, so costs do go up. Not so with a bus that has empty seats waiting to be filled. Therefore, unless it is costing a lot more to attract more customers, and such costs really are negligible, it does not cost more, but actually gains more revenue to attract more customers. An empty seat is fully subsidized but that seat with a paying customer, is less subsidized, bringing all costs down--not adding to those costs! What is so complex about understanding this?

Ron Kilcoyne

Early in my career I read an interview in which a Canadian transit official responded to the question “Why is per capita transit ridership three times higher in Canada than in the US even though economically and socially the countries are very similar?” His response has guided my career since then. “In Canada we position transit as an alternative; in the US transit is fashioned as a social service.” I find the attitude that we should only focus on the transit dependent condescending and quite offensive. This has been the prevailing attitude for the past 50 or 60 years and US transit has declined precipitously as a result.

I have always told my staff that there is no such term as “transit dependent”. No one is totally dependent on transit . People can get rides from others, not make trips, walk long distances or take cabs. Many households own a car or more cars than they can afford because they don’t have good transit alternatives. We must not treat individuals with limited transportation choices as second class citizens and if we do a downward spiral will continue - dollars will decline and political support for transit will whither.

Ron Kilcoyne

The food analogy doesn’t fully apply. Not all individuals with limited transportation choices (or auto independent) are poor and there are compelling reasons that we should be attracting so called discretionary users. Technology alone will not reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality or reduce energy consumption – we need to reduce VMT which means walking, bicycling and transit needs to be more attractive and available. Providing more transit capacity can be less costly than providing more road capacity. And why should Americans be deprived of transportation choices that our economic competitors take for granted? And each additional transit customer doesn’t increase the subsidy when otherwise empty seats are filled.

We need to pull out all of the stops to significantly increase investment in transit and build the best transit network in the world

Transit professional

While the cafeteria analogy is not perfect, asserting that there are no variable costs to added ridership is simply wrong. One single rider at a bus stop forces the bus to consume more energy braking and then accelerating again. Boarding time takes away from running time. More riders mean more customer service calls, more use of transit facilities, more garbage at bus shelters, and ultimately as buses fill, more scheduled running time and more buses. While subsidy per passenger may go down, it has yet to reach zero in America, so more rides will always equal more cost which means more subsidies. I’m not sure how prioritizing transit dependent riders is condescending. Keeping their fares low and service plentiful I would imagine is a show of respect for their value and needs. We are their servants, and perhaps the true issue is condescending transit professionals who do not want to admit that. Saying that all riders are discretionary is rather condescending and reminds me of when Reagan said all homeless people are homeless by choice. We live in a nation that has made it almost impossible to live without a car. As we build more and more roads, all our hospitals, schools, grocery stores, businesses become more and more spread out. Telling people to cope by riding a bicycle or bumming a ride is insulting. If you do not have the money to pay for a taxi everywhere you go and you are too young to drive, too old, disabled, or cannot afford car payments, you ARE transit dependent. For most people, being homeless and taking transit is not a choice!

The reason Canadian, European, and Asian transit does so much better than us is not the attitude that transit is a social service but the simple fact that transit receives more funding there. Instead of lobbying for more transit funding and raising gas taxes to better reflect the social costs of automobiles, we are simply making a bad situation worse by raising fares and cutting service to entice people out of their cars. Fact is, automobiles in America are heavily subsidized since all taxpayers pay for roads, the cost of pollution, overseas wars, and now automaker bailouts. So not only are we subsidizing the person who buys a car, but now we have to subsidize their occasional transit trips??? The plain and simple question is this: Is it fair to ask a 12 year-old, a 70 year-old, a disabled person, a person making minimum wage, to pay a higher fare and receive less service so we can attract more 40 year-old’s making $100K/year, design new routes for their commuting needs, create new routes between higher income residential communities and downtown?

The argument seems to be that in order to get public support of transit funding, we have to make transit attractive to the entire voting public. I think this will backfire in our faces. The voting public will scoff at the high price of transit and subsidizing rides for their neighbors who have cars sitting in their driveways. Most of the voting public will never ride transit, and asking them to subsidize rides for discretionary riders is like asking them to subsidize their neighbor’s dry cleaning. The only way to raise funding for transit is to convince political leaders to make the unpopular decision to raise gas taxes and move money away from building more roads to building more routes. Fortunately, with more pollution and costly wars, America is more receptive than ever to gas automobile alternatives. For now, if you truly want to reduce your carbon footprint, ride a bicycle or carpool or simply set up your own non-profit transit cooperative. Jumping on a bus and paying below cost just made transit more expensive and less convenient for the disabled person across the aisle, the minimum-wage worker next to you, the 12 year-old sitting behind you.

paul foer

You wrote "One single rider at a bus stop forces the bus to consume more energy braking and then accelerating again. Boarding time takes away from running time. More riders mean more customer service calls, more use of transit facilities, more garbage at bus shelters, and ultimately as buses fill, more scheduled running time and more buses."

This is sophistry. There may be some additional dwell time and service slowdown, but unless there is a big jump--it is negligible. And if there is a big jump--then you add service and then your argument becomes more credible. (You did use the word "ultimately" but if that happens--it should be viewed positively) Let me be very clear and repeat that an empty seat is an empty seat is an empty that cannot be resold on that trip--ever. Additional customers may raise costs by a tiny fraction, but each dollar brought in, if not a dollar less in subsidy, is perhaps 99 or 98 cents less in subsidy.

Let's be very clear, many if not most political leaders and citizens want to see more ridership and showing more ridership brings more support. Decreasing ridership make it easier to cut service--which hurts everyone. It's a positive feedback, whereas declining ridership is a negative feedback. Which one do you want? If it is the positive one, then stop complaining about costs for more customers.

Much of this argument can go around and around and we can beat each other up, but the bottom line is as more people ride transit, we get more service, and more benefit. So can we please stop arguing about whether attracting new customers is a good thing? Of course it is! That does not mean it has no impact or does not cause any challenges,but it should be what we all want.

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