Could Americans be convinced to use buses by new technology?

Technological advances to buses might make them more attractive…or they might not. Here are the five new features:

Electrification

Autonomy

Minibus/trackless train

Seamless payment

Accessbility

Two things stand out to me from the argument:

  1. Newer technology tends to make things more attractive in society. This does appear to be a general pattern though I am not sure technology alone could overcome misgivings wealthier Americans have about buses.
  2. The shifts described here tend to reduce some of the features that might be less attractive about buses: they would not be as large and they would be less tied to particular routes. This makes them less like traditional buses and more like large vans that have flexibility.

One aspect of mass transit to which I’m surprised there is not more discussion of in this argument is whether these smaller and more flexible buses would be faster for users. If so, this could be a tremendous plus. One of the promises of self-driving vehicles is that traffic flow could be better coordinated and would not be affected by drivers slowing things down.

City vs. suburbs in Nashville transit vote

An ambitious transit plan in the Nashville metropolitan area was roundly defeated by voters:

Had it passed, Let’s Move Nashville—the boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory—would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city. Depending on how you do the math, the scheme would have cost $5.4 billion or more like $9 billion, funded by a raft of boosted local taxes. More than 44,000 voters across Metro Nashville’s Davidson County came out in favor of the referendum, with more than 79,000 voting against it…

That’s a simplified version of the city’s politics, of course; while the vote fell broadly along urbanite versus suburbanite lines, a map reflecting the vote tally, and not just the vote result, would look more purplish. But not all that purplish. In the end, a vision for transforming transit in Nashville could not transform the politics of the city.

“There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments),” writes Emily Evans, managing director for healthcare policy for Hedgeye Potomac Research, in an email. Evans previously worked as a municipal financial analyst and served on the Nashville City Council for nine years.

A complicated plan like this has a lot of moving parts that voters could either support or vote against. At the same time, it can be a difficult sell for those outside the city core or in the suburbs to support mass transit plans that (1) they feel are not as necessary since they are able to drive where they need to go and (2) that might bring new people to their neighborhoods. When given a choice and their own personal resources, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit, particularly if they would have to pay more for something they do not perceive helping them.

I would suggest this gets back to larger issues of whether regions really want to work together. Can cities and suburbs both thrive due to joint projects and shared resources? Or, is this a zero-sum game where resources can taken from one area and given to another in the same region is seen as a loss? The voters of Nashville remain to be convinced that mass transit is a big enough boon for themselves, let alone everyone.

Defining a social problem: “transit gaps” or “transit deserts”

One skeptic of the concept of transit gaps explains his concerns:

The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology recently unveiled its AllTransit Gap Finder—an online mapping tool designed to point out areas with “inadequate” transit service. It’s a good effort, and it’s certainly good that we have more tools for understanding transit demand…

A transit gap is some kind of difference between transit service and transit need or demand. But need and demand are different things. A need means that there are people whose lives would be better if they had transit. A demand is an indication that transit service, if it were provided, would achieve high ridership.

These terms correspond to the two opposing goals of transit service. If the goal of service is ridership, then it should provide excellent service where there is demand. On the other hand, many people who need transit wouldn’t be served if transit agencies ran only high-ridership service. So transit agencies run a certain amount of service for the non-ridership goal of coverage, which responds to need. In other words, they spread service out so that everyone has a little bit, even though low ridership is the predictable outcome. This critical distinction is explained more fully here. It’s a difficult budgetary choice about dividing resources between competing goals, one that local governments need to think about…

Although AllTransit’s claims are framed in misleading terms, the idea of being able to accurately see exactly how well any given neighborhood is served by transit is a laudable one. Over the years I’ve written about other efforts to get this right. An especially important idea, buried deep in the overly complex methodology, is that a transit quality index should be about where you can get to in a given amount of time, rather than what transit is available. In my own work I routinely use this measure to describe the human benefits of transit service changes, because getting to destinations, and having a choice of more destinations, is what makes for a great life.

There seems to be two issues here: separating community values from possibilities as well as how to best measure transportation options. No city has an endless pot of money with which to fund mass transit. Yet, I imagine proponents of transit deserts would note that the general American orientation is toward driving and roads while mass transit has to regularly scrap for money. The measurement issue is hopefully an ongoing conversation as researchers with different decisions and aims work to find measures that both reflect the social realities as well as provide helpful information for residents and local governments.

But, I also suspect that this is critique is missing a key concern of some of those working in the food/transit/grocery stores/parks/medical care desert literature: the key is which groups are most affected by these deserts or have less access to these necessities. Many of the deserts – however defined and regardless of the goals of the community – seem to affect lower class and non-white residents. One could argue that a community might not have the resources or vision to extend mass transit to a particular area but this does not necessarily address the issue of residential segregation that is alive and well in the United States.

Unusually successful experiment: the CTA Yellow Line

The CTA Yellow Line to Skokie was constructed in the 1960s and quickly became a success:

The proposed transit test brought together a unique trio: a federal agency looking to improve transit, a city rail system experimenting with expansion, and a suburb grabbing at the chance to maintain a rail connection to the city. Funding for the concept was split between the three parties—$349,217 came from the Department of Housing and Development, $1,837,415 from the CTA, and $37,193 from the village of Skokie. At the conclusion of a two-year test, the parties would figure out next steps…

After one day, the CTA logged 3,959 riders, and almost immediately added weekend hours. By early 1965, 6,000 riders a day rode the Swift (the CTA estimated that the service removed 1,000 cars a day from the highway). The CTA logged more than 3.5 million rides during the two year test period, and by 1967, the passenger load had grown 170 percent from already-high 1964 numbers, hitting a record high that year of 8,150 riders a day. Chairman DeMent told the Chicago Tribune that it was “a perfect example of how good rapid transit can induce motorists to leave their cars at home.” Not only did the service prove itself, it made a profit of $216,717 on revenues of just under $800,000 in its first two years of operation. At one point, the Feds actually asked for $250,000 of their funding back.

This success didn’t necessarily lead to much change across metropolitan areas:

In short, the experiment wasn’t replicated. As some writers at the time noted, other Chicago suburbs could have set up similar lines, and even had the abandoned rail lines to do it; the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Railroad, which ran through western suburbs such as Wheaton and Glen Ellyn, lay dormant beginning in 1961 (to be fair, the line was eventually turned into the Prairie Path, a wildly successful rails-to-trails conversion). In the late ‘60s, Skokie voters rejected a bid to apply for a federal transportation improvement project.

Perhaps most importantly, during a period of highway expansion and urban renewal, the money wasn’t there, and additional capital for building such systems from scratch was hard to come by. Just look at the 1967 federal transportation budget. Of the $5.35 billion spent, only $160 million, or 3 percent, went to transit. As Joe Asher, a writer for Railway Age, wrote in 1968, “the streets and highways of U.S. cities suffer arteriosclerosis, the urban population chokes on auto exhaust, and one downtown after another gets chopped up to make room for new spaghetti-bowls of highways.”

It is hard to convince suburbanites to use mass transit unless it has significant advantages compared to driving. The Yellow Line to Skokie seems to offer such advantages: a relatively short ride with Skokie right outside the city, a big parking lot, and a fast train. But, could this work further out from the city? What if the train was a slower commuter train or a bus? Or, if parking was hard to find in the suburban lot?

Rather than seeing the Yellow Line as a model to follow, perhaps it is difficult to replicate. That does not mean cities shouldn’t attempt similar efforts – we have a good sense of what building more highways leads to – but they should be realistic about what is possible.

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.