More comments on public transit

We’re still not quite sure what it’s for, yet.  Are we trying to get poor people to work on the bus, or are we trying to get rich people to reduce their carbon footprints on light rail?  Since the same agencies are pimping us buses and light rail — and claiming both — we don’t really get to debate the point.  And wouldn’t you know it: rich folks win again.

Warren from Coyote Blog gives us this datum:

Part of it is incentives – heads of agencies with rail get paid more than bus-only agencies, and unions love the higher-paying rail jobs that never go away (part of the flexibility issues with rail).  Part of the explanation is cultural – rail is now hip and edgy and allegedly green and modern.  Buses are so last century.

And part of it is social/racial.  White upper middle class yuppies wouldn’t be caught dead on buses.   They like trains better, particularly when they are successful in running rail routes through middle class commuting routes.  If the cost of this forces cut backs on buses that run where the poor need to go, oh well.

Wait, wait: that’s not the datum, it’s the hypothesis.  This is the datum:

Portland bus service has been gutted in favor of rail, such that total ridership in the city has dropped despite spending a lot more transit dollars.  These maps from the Portland Oregonian show another effect — shifting transit dollars to modes favored by rich white people has… caused Portland to be increasingly white.

I note in passing that Greater Vancouver’s transit authority wants to spend one and a half billion dollars on a new light rail line that parallels a middle-class commuting route.

Over at WCI, Frances Woolley ponders the incentives behind riding the loser cruiser:

People will use public transit if it’s the lowest cost way of getting from point A to point B. Costs have three components.

The first is money costs – the cost of gas or a bus fare or a train ticket.

The second is time costs – the opportunity cost of time spent driving or riding or walking or cycling.

The third is psychic costs or benefits – the satisfaction of putting pedal to metal, the quiet relaxation of sitting on the Skytrain and gazing out over the North Shore mountains and, last but not least….

Social status.

Time costs and “psychic” costs are far from independent, of course.  One of the prime reasons why gazing out over the North Shore mountains whilst riding the Skytrain can be relaxing is that Skytrains are punctual and frequent: you don’t have to worry too much about whether you’ll show up on time, or whether missing your connection at Commercial-Broadway will make you late for work (another train will be along in two or three minutes if you miss the first).  Your bus, on the other hand, isn’t guaranteed to show up at all.  You don’t just suffer the time cost of being half an hour late once a week or so: you suffer the stress cost of not knowing, every time you stand at a bus stop.  I’ve written about this before, as you may have guessed, and I find it hard to credit the idea that status costs dominate people’s decisions not to take the bus to the extent that other costs can safely be neglected.


14 Responses to “More comments on public transit”

  1. May 4, 2011 at 09:28

    “you suffer the stress cost of not knowing, every time you stand at a bus stop.” – I agree absolutely about those uncertainty costs. It’s the reason why those signs that say ‘the next train will arrive in X minutes’ are such a good idea.

    But social status matters too. Things that are considered serious hardships when experienced on public transit – e.g. standing up in a crowded compartment holding onto a strap – are viewed entirely differently when experienced in a high status environment e.g. a ride up the mountain in the gondola on a skiing holiday.

    • May 4, 2011 at 12:31

      But social status matters too. Things that are considered serious hardships when experienced on public transit – e.g. standing up in a crowded compartment holding onto a strap – are viewed entirely differently when experienced in a high status environment e.g. a ride up the mountain in the gondola on a skiing holiday.

      I imagine this differs significantly from rider to rider. For example, my issues with public transit — lack of agency, forced confinement with large crowds, unpredictable and often opaque delays — bug me even more when I’m flying (a higher-status mode of travel, with higher-magnitude delay/confinement/agency flaws). But I’m an introverted computer nerd; an extroverted marketer will almost certainly have a very different utility function.

  2. 3 perlhaqr
    May 4, 2011 at 11:35

    shifting transit dollars to modes favored by rich white people has… caused Portland to be increasingly white.

    Unsupported claim, really.

    The two things have happened in concert, but there’s no specific reason to presume that one caused the other.

    • May 4, 2011 at 12:35

      If you add incentives for rich white people to move to Portland, and Portland becomes richer and whiter, it’s reasonable to suspect causation. Of course, causation could go the other way: Portland got richer and whiter, and consequently shifted its transit dollars to light rail. It’s certainly possible for the two to be independent effects, but it would surprise me.

      • 5 perlhaqr
        May 5, 2011 at 19:09

        My concern is that it’s just too convenient of a hammer to smack typically rich-white-liberal light rail lovers with. I can’t believe the universe handed it to me.

  3. May 5, 2011 at 19:33

    The elitism of Oregon’s political class is a one-off. We challenge Michigan, New Jersey and California for having a deaf-ear for rudiments of political economics. We continue to impose costs on business, we continue to impose barriers to development and investment, we continue to view growth and change as the enemy, rather than as the eventuality.

    Outsiders cannot begin to experience the shifts imposed upon the poor in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. Affordable housing? Hasn’t been a policy goal for Oregon since the 1970’s. If you can’t afford to live here, you’re simply dismissed as not having the correct character for, indeed, living here. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a burgeoning low-income class. We give more support for housing, food and clothing than any other state in the union. Our state’s Medicare program is one of the nation’s most expensive and expansive. We even have a place, in Portland, called Dignity Village.

    Twenty years ago I was surprised to find myself in an area of Portland that had previously been known as the “black section” of Portland. Under the gentrification rules of the time, properties were being subsidised for potential home-owners who fit a “planning rule” of young, urban professionals. My sister-in-law and her husband bought one of these previously poor homes. And then sold it at a profit. The entire section around North Portland has changed. What was the remnant of Vanport has become a new urban warrior setting. And as property values increased, homes were sold or re-developed for the young urban warriors who saw cheap property as what it was; a chance for profit.

    Just take a look at Martin Luther King Boulevard. What had been a basic transportation route has been changed into a controlled access-way, and simple traffic loading has shifted the amount of carrying capacity at drive times. It extends the day, since getting to where you’re going requires you to “beat the traffic” by leaving for your journey at least an hour earlier than would be warranted by a modern, efficient traffic and mass-transit system. I’m not alone in seeing this. But the planning class won’t hear criticism.

    Traffic patterns are the result of both endogenous and exogenous variables. If you live at a certain place, such as a neighborhood, I would consider that to be an endogenous variable. When the city restricts transportation, I would consider that an exogenous variable. But I could be wrong. Imposing restrictions from the outside may have another relevant means of nomenclature. But I would think that homes, neighborhoods, existing streets, weather, etc., would be considered endogenous in this moment. Those shifts that occur from the outside, as a result of ideological or political views, might be seen as originating from without those conditions.

    Your thoughts?

    • May 5, 2011 at 20:02

      If you want to use mass transit to change traffic patterns (ideally by reducing traffic), you run into the problem that mass transit is a substitute good for driving a car. The first issue is that, as Dr. Woolley mentioned, mass transit is trying to substitute for two very different kinds of “driving a car to work” behaviours: one based on minimizing monetary costs, and one based on minimizing social costs. I’m simplifying outrageously, but you get the point. Buses are pretty good substitutes for the first, and light rail is a potentially adequate substitute for the second, but we haven’t found much in the way that’ll substitute for both. (Someone in Dr. Woolley’s comments mentioned private commuter shuttles in Mexico as a possibility. I’d love to try to let the market deal with this one: I can’t for the life of me figure out why bus service has to be a public monopoly.)

      The next problem is that most of the parties involved in planning transit aren’t terribly interested in producing good substitutes for either form of car-driving. They want to signal fearless modernity, or showcase their environmentalist credentials, or guarantee well-compensated union jobs, or steer sweetheart contracts to suppliers and contractors, or whatever. None of this is likely to be efficient, and it all reduces the appeal of mass transit as a substitute for driving.

      The last problem, or at least the last one that comes immediately to mind, is that since traffic is a public-good problem, no one commuter is all that invested in trying to make it better to the point where they’re willing to make meaningful sacrifices to improve it. Widening roads for bike paths, tram-lines, or simply two more lanes of traffic falls afoul of NIMBYs who (not unreasonably) don’t want their homes or businesses eminent-domained to make room. Property owners don’t want their taxes hiked to pay for expansion, and other municipal departments don’t want their budgets slashed either.

      • 8 perlhaqr
        May 6, 2011 at 08:14

        I’d love to try to let the market deal with this one: I can’t for the life of me figure out why bus service has to be a public monopoly.

        Fleet size. Transfer costs.

        So, I’m envisioning a “bus service” that actually consists of a fleet of modified commercial vans, like those airport shuttles, but probably cheaper. It operates like a taxi service. It requires a GPS with a two way data connection to the main headquarters, which takes calls, plots them on the computer, and the computer figures out what taxi is closest, headed the right direction, and hasn’t had a passenger “captive” for too long. (It’ll have to implement queueing of a sort, to make sure that one poor rider doesn’t keep getting bobbled around when the routing instructions change, yet again. It’s like the travelling salesman problem, only you don’t even know all of the points in advance!)

        So, the busses are small enough that the driver can actually see and deal with customers who are, oh, pissing themselves or engaging in other anti-social behaviour. The routes are even more flexible than a regular city bus, let alone something that runs on bloody rails. You can have a real cargo area, so you can go shopping. (Call for a taxi, take it to the store, first taxi trundles onward to deal with the rest of the passengers. When you’re done, call again, and another taxi comes to pick you up to take you home.) Driving a car that gets 11.5 mpg, making it cheaper than driving, with today’s fuel prices might not be impossible. You lose some on the time issue, there’s going to be a cost to calling in advance and waiting, rather than just hopping in your own car.

        But it’s going to take a huge fleet of vans and drivers. Typically, only governments can afford that sort of infrastructure. Hrm. Well, maybe you can open source it, and let independent contractors connect to a central dispatching center. You’d have to be able to prove that the code didn’t favor drivers, though, or they won’t want to work with it… Ok, anyway, detail to be worked out at a later date.


        Then there’s the transfer costs issue, which is a harder one to get around. Most public transit systems operate at least partially via taxation. Moving money from “people who don’t ride the bus” to make riding the bus cheaper for “people who ride the bus”. Private companies clearly don’t have this option.

        • May 6, 2011 at 08:29

          Transfer costs I’ll give you. Operating private bus lines on huge public transfers is a massive moral hazard problem, although we don’t seem to have a problem operating car companies and investment banks the same way.

          I’m thinking of different shuttle/bus lines serving different parts of the city and different types of clientele. Corporate-commuter bus lines run between office parks and suburbs, every three minutes during rush hour but maybe every hour (or not at all) off-peak, and provide kerb-side pickup (txt them when you’re ready and the next bus will stop at your house) and wi-fi, as well as an environment full of Patrick Batemans and businesslike trimmings. Other lines contract with construction companies to pick up workers at a dozen or so more-or-less central sites (think k-means clustering) and get them to the job site on time every morning. More generic lines compete like cellphone providers (“We’re cheaper!” “We run buses after closing time!” “We run more frequently!” “We have a cute puppy mascot!”) and use the same set of stops to reduce customer lock-in and poach riders from their competitors.

          Start-up costs would be enormous, as you mention. One way to do it would be to grow minibus lines from taxi companies, although taxis tend to be hyperregulated.

          • 10 perlhaqr
            May 6, 2011 at 10:34

            although we don’t seem to have a problem operating car companies and investment banks the same way.

            Feh. Fuck that noise.

            One way to do it would be to grow minibus lines from taxi companies, although taxis tend to be hyperregulated.

            Well, I’m pro-regulation-reduction, so, I wouldn’t cry a river if that came about to make it happen.


            The biggest problem I see is that the largest proponents of “public transportation” tend to absolutely loathe private business. They see a virtue in losing money on the deal. And competing against a publicly funded semi-monopoly as a purely private business is hard. So, you’ve got the problem of the fact that the city buses and light rail isn’t going to go away to create the market vacuum for industry to fill, you’re going to have to try to forcibly drive the government solution out of business (ha!) and deal with all of the regulations the government unions will get passed trying to put you out of business and protect their cherry government jobs.

            Holy God I’m depressed.

            • May 6, 2011 at 11:16

              Yeah. When I wrote “I can’t for the life of me figure out why bus service has to be a public monopoly”, I was referring to the provision of a public good in the theoretical domain. It’s pretty obvious why bus service has to be a public monopoly tomorrow or next year.

              I suppose private companies could start shuttle services or something, and try to carve a niche that’s not too close to taxi services or bus service. (“We’ll even pick you up at the nearest bus stop!”) As soon as they got too successful, though, all the usual suspects would start climbing out of the woodwork to complain about the “attack on public jobs” and so on, and the companies would either get killed outright or regulated into impracticality.

          • 12 perlhaqr
            May 6, 2011 at 10:52

            I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot of things that have to happen simultaneously to make it work, and coordinating all that shit seems vanishingly unlikely.

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