Bus ridership down in America

Fewer Americans – 13% – are riding buses compared to ten years ago.

I’ve argued before that Americans perceive mass transit options as having different statuses. For those with more resources, trains and subways are preferable. If those are not easily accessible or the person has reached a certain status in life, driving is a must.

At the same time, bus service is relatively cheap for cities and communities to provide. Because American cities are often planned around cars and have spent decades trying to efficiently move vehicles around, adding or subtracting buses to adjust service levels is doable. In contrast, constructing new trains or subways can be incredibly costly and require years of work. It may be that in the long run trains and subways are better options to plan around but that requires a long-term commitment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ongoing difficulty of Chicago suburb to suburb commuting

The Daily Herald’s transportation writer details the difficulties of taking mass transit between Chicago suburbs:

My odyssey was prompted by the annual Dump the Pump Day, which encourages people to embrace public transit instead of driving.

Here’s a recap of the two-hour, 36-minute voyage to work:

• 8:20 a.m.: Boarded a Metra BNSF train in Downers Grove that arrived at Union Station.

• 9:23 a.m.: Caught a Blue Line train to Rosemont after a short walk from Union Station and a fight with a Ventra machine.

• 10:13 a.m.: Arrived at Rosemont and transferred to Pace Bus Route 606 at 10:30 a.m.; reached work at 10:56 a.m.

The tedious reverse commute lasted two hours, 57 minutes.

• 2:49 p.m.: Boarded Pace Bus Route 757 in Arlington Heights en route to the Forest Park Transit Center.

• 4 p.m.: Left on Pace Bus Route 301 headed to Oak Brook Center.

• 5:03 p.m.: Departed on Pace Bus Route 322 to Yorktown Center at 5:23 p.m.

• 5:30 p.m.: Took Pace Bus Route 834. Arrived in Downers Grove at 5:46 p.m.

By car, the trip is typically 30 to 40 minutes in the morning and 30 to 60 minutes in the afternoon, depending on traffic.

There are some easy answers as well as some more difficult discussions. The easy reasons to start:

  1. Mass transit in the region was constructed in an earlier era when many more people wanted to commute from suburbs to the city. The suburb to suburb trip is a product of recent decades.
  2. There is not money to do mass transit in the suburbs. This applies both to constructing mass transit (such as rail options) or attracting riders (with buses) who have too many starting points and endpoints.

But, given that so much commuting is now suburb to suburb, why aren’t there some more consistent options? Two deeper reasons:

  1. Infrastructure – not just mass transit but other systems including water – are in trouble. We are decades behind in providing good infrastructure. If it is any consolation, highway systems aren’t in much better shape as they often wait too long to add lanes or new routes (and it is debatable how successful these efforts are anyway.) It is both a funding and planning issue.
  2. Wealthier suburbs and suburbanites don’t really want mass transit. They don’t want to pay for it and they don’t want certain people coming to their community. They can generally afford driving and they like the freedom (and the exclusivity) it provides.

Overall, there is both a lack of will to build and use mass transit in many suburbs.

Mixing shopping malls and transit centers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong demonstrates a very different model of shopping malls compared to the American suburban mall:

Hong Kong has more than 300 shopping centers, but most of the city’s malls don’t sit on asphalt parking lots; rather, they’re above subway stations or underneath skyscrapers. In my book “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption,” I describe how some are connected to so many towers that they form megastructures—cities in and of themselves that can accommodate tens of thousands of people who live, work and play without ever going outside. Hong Kong also has the world’s tallest vertical malls—“mall skyscrapers” that rise up to 26 levels, with crisscrossing “expresators” that shoot shoppers high up into soaring atriums…

As convenient this urban form may be, it does come with strings attached. In the case of Union Square—as in many other podium-tower developments—the mall is deliberately placed at the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office and transit areas…

For millions of residents and pedestrians, then, entering commercialized areas becomes an inevitability, not a choice. It normalizes a culture of consumerism: Everyday life is played out on the terrain of the mall, and the private shopping atrium takes on the role of the public square. Because Hong Kong’s apartments are small—its summer climate hot and humid—the mall becomes a default gathering place. And why not? There’s plenty of space and the air-conditioning is free. And while you’re there, you might as well browse around the shops and spend some cash…

The Asian hyper-dense urban mall is also making an appearance in American cities. Miami has Brickell City Centre, a five-story mall in the heart of the city. Covering three city blocks, it’s topped by three high-rises (and was built by a Hong Kong developer). New York City is building a seven-story mall attached to two skyscrapers in Hudson Yards, America’s largest private development. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus—the centerpiece of the World Trade Center—has a mall with over 100 stores, with its white-ribbed atrium attracting an army of tourists taking pictures with selfie-sticks. Since the hub connects office buildings with train and subway stations, the stores are also “irrigated” by the 50,000 commuters who pass by each weekday.

American shopping malls tend to get a bad rap: they take up a lot of space with their endless parking lots, they often require a car in order to get to one, and are centers of consumerism. The Hong Kong malls eliminate two of these major issues: they are a more compact use of space and don’t require cars. Indeed, it is clever to combine mass transit space with a mall. However, these integrated malls may present even larger consumption issues since travelers have to go through these spaces rather than choose to go there. Isn’t this the complaint about gift stores in museums, zoos, or amusement parks where you finish an exhibit or ride and then have to go through the items for sale? And mass transit is supposed to be a public good so it may be a bit strange to mix it so closely with private profit-making. (I wonder if the transit facilities/authorities could take a cut of the sales in these transit malls and funnel more money into transit systems. Is this a way to fund necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvement in the United States?)

I’d love to see an analysis of how sales change when people are intentionally funneled through consumption spaces like this.

Improving transit options in Las Vegas

It may be an iconic scene to drive down the Strip in Las Vegas but the city is looking for ways to improve transit:

But consistent growth has forced a city known for sprawl to start to change its ways. Last year, voters approved a measure that ties fuel taxes to inflation, a move that will address the region’s $6 billion shortfall in road infrastructure. In addition, the Regional Transportation Commission approved a new long-term plan to expand light rail down the Maryland Parkway and massively expand bus service. In mid-March, the RTC submitted a proposal to build a multibillion-dollar light rail system that would connect the Strip with McCarran International Airport.

The Strip has limited transit solutions, most of them privately funded by the gaming industry. A series of free trams that travel from casino to casino allows tourists to move up and down the western side of the Strip without using cars. In 2004, a 3.9-mile monorail opened just to the east of the Strip that serves casinos on that side as well as the convention center. The city also created a double-decker public bus named the Deuce that exclusively serves the Strip…

Brown says comparing Vegas to other cities, especially those in the Northeast with subway and rail systems, isn’t fair. Vegas has a different growth pattern due to the influx of tourists and the large number of workers who serve them—all of whom need to move to one place—and will need a different type of technology to solve its transport issues. “Vegas is about as unique a place in the world as you can find.”

Autonomous vehicles are one option that could improve congestion, lower emissions, and appeal to tourists’ desire for novelty. Brown wants infrastructure that can support and take advantage of that technology. The city and RTC are aggressively courting autonomous vehicle companies and studying “high capacity corridors” throughout Southern Nevada to prioritize opportunities for bus rapid transit.

These options sound like they would help. In particular, giving people an option to take a train from the airport to the Strip is something that should have been done years ago.

At the same time, these are primarily changes that would take advantage of the existing road structure (outside of the monorail and light-rail options). Perhaps it is too much to ask for a city with such important structures – the sprawling casinos built along the Strip – to attempt to create a denser, more walkable streetscape. The amount of work that would need to be done to better tie together the casinos would be massive. But, as someone who has walked the Strip multiple times, wouldn’t it create a more exciting experience for tourists? Wouldn’t it reduce traffic and the long lines at the taxi stands? Maybe the true goal of the Strip is get people to do their recreational walking within the casinos – stroll through Venice or Ancient Rome so you’ll spend some money there – but there are some bigger questions about urban planning than just providing a few more mass transit options.

Snowproofing the morning commute

Hearing the morning travel times near Chicago this morning, I wondered what it would take to reduce the abnormally high drive times due to the lake effect snow. The short answer is easy: get more people to take mass transit. But, this may not be doable. Here’s why:

  1. Not desirable. Even with the troubles presented by daily commuting via car (high costs, getting stuck in traffic, road maintenance), this is what Americans choose to do, even when they have other options. It is simply too attractive to be able to go and leave when you want and to not have to be close to other people while doing so.
  2. Not practical. Much of the American lifestyle, even in a city like Chicago, is built around the car. We have our own private homes with yards and garages (even in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods), we don’t put much emphasis on promoting street life, and our activities (work, school, recreation) tend to be all spread out. If you wanted to get rid of your car, you would need to live in denser areas – which do exist – but this would be a significant change for many.

Another way to put it is that days like today might be terrible for commuting but they are likely not enough to cause significant lifestyle changes. Americans have a high tolerance for putting up with commutes and having to use mass transit 300+ days a year isn’t worth it to many.

An additional option would be to delay commutes on days like these. Can’t more businesses and institutions provide more leeway to commuters? This might free up some road space if more people could delay their start or work from home.

The most congested city in the world is…

…Not much of a surprise. But, Los Angeles does lead the way by quite a bit over other cities:

Drivers in the car-crazy California metropolis spent 104 hours each driving in congestion during peak travel periods last year. That topped second-place Moscow at 91 hours and third-place New York at 89, according to a traffic scorecard compiled by Inrix, a transportation analytics firm.

The U.S. had half the cities on Inrix’s list of the top 10 most congested areas in the world and was the most congested developed country on the planet, Inrix found. U.S. drivers averaged 42 hours per year in traffic during peak times, the study found. San Francisco was the fourth-most congested city, while Bogota, Colombia, was fifth, Sao Paulo ranked sixth and London, Atlanta, Paris and Miami rounded out the top 10…

Study authors said a stable U.S. economy, continued urbanization of big cities, employment growth and low gas prices all contributed to increased traffic and congestion worldwide in 2016, lowering the quality of life.

The city built around the car and highways lives and dies with those same cars and highways.

What would it take to dramatically reduce that time in Los Angeles? The city has both a history of mass transit – extensive streetcar lines in the early 1900s – as well as rumblings about increased mass transit options in the future. See this 2012 post that sums up this potential “mass transit revolution.” But, any such effort must be monumental and involve both infrastructure as well as cultural change. Could we truly envision a Los Angeles in several decades where the car is not at the center of everyday life (both in practice and mythos) or will we have piecemeal efforts (including continuing trying to maximize driving through schemes like boring under the city) that don’t add up to much? Large-scale transformation would take a significant shift in focus by the city and other bodies and require sustained pressure for decades.

Another thought: are there effective ways for angry drivers to protest congestion? Yes, they can vote for certain candidates or policies. What if drivers one day symbolically walked away from their cars during the afternoon rush hour? (Such a protest, unfortunately, only would add to the congestion.) Could drivers clog the downtown streets in protest to block politicians? Refuse to go to work? There does not seem to be many options for the average driver to express their displeasure.

Cities using ride-sharing services to supplement mass transit

Several pilot programs in American cities take advantage of the rise of ride-sharing companies:

Transit agencies, perennially strapped for cash, have embraced these pilot programs as a way to save money and, potentially, provide better service. Outside Tampa, for example, the East Lake Connector bus cost the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority about $16 per person per ride. Riders paid $2.25 each. That route has since been discontinued. In its place, starting this month, riders will pay $1 for an Uber, Lyft, or cab ride from anywhere in the county to the nearest bus stop. The transit agency will achieve the low fare by providing a $5-a-head discount.

And here is some criticism for such efforts:

There are serious concerns with such programs: For starters, the savings are in part derived from trading public-sector employees like bus operators for low-wage stringers like Uber drivers. For the most part, though, the partnerships have made bad service a little better. In Pinellas, for example, the program emerged in response to a 2014 referendum in which local voters declined to adopt a 1 cent sales tax in support of transit.

But now that chain of cause and effect is being reversed. The rise of ride-hailing companies is increasingly viewed not as a fix for bad service but as its justification. It is invoked, as you might expect, in bad faith by conservatives who have advocated against public investment for decades. But even pro-transit politicians and officials have begun to see ride-hailing services as an acceptable substitute for public transit. As a result, cities across the country are making important decisions about transportation that treat 10-year-old companies as fixed variables for the decades to come…

We’ve known for a while that Uber is unprecedentedly unprofitable, its $60 billion-plus valuation notwithstanding. But as we begin to make policy decisions based on it and its competitors’ impact, we have to recognize that this state of affairs can’t last. It is not just the taxi cartel that makes conventional cab rides cost more than Uber rides. It’s the patience and optimism of Silicon Valley investors. Maybe Uber will continue its shift into shared rides, which (as a prior generation of transportation operators learned 150 years ago) are more profitable. Or robot cars will eliminate driver jobs, dropping the marginal cost of providing rides (though adding billions in capital expenditures). But in any case, whether it achieves its desired market share or not, the company will have to start raising prices.

This criticism makes sense: mass transit is all about economies of scale and having large numbers of people following more fixed routes. Failing to build infrastructure now means there will be reduced mass transit options in the future.

But, I think there may be a larger issue that undercuts this criticism: what if large numbers of Americans don’t want to use mass transit, either when given other opportunities or they have enough resources on their own to get where they want or they don’t want to pay for it through taxes and municipal funds? Even with plateauing driving in recent years, this doesn’t necessarily mean Americans want to sacrifice their mobility or personal space to use mass transit more. If this is true, perhaps driverless cars are the true answer for individualized mass transit – not ride-sharing – as they would offer personal space and mobility but without the hassle of driving oneself. Of course, this could also destroy mass transit as we currently know it…