Will posits the issue of public transportation, and (more to the point) the discrepancy between his few stellar experiences with it, and the more-overwhelming negative set of experiences with it.

As a design case, public transportation is interesting. The problems of it are nothing new; decades ago, Monty Python famously made a pretty hilarious mockery of the convoluted nature of British commuter rail schedules. And it’s certainly the case that the tighter-packed a city is, the easier it will be for a city to make affordable/profitable trains and public transportation that get people where they need to go relatively quickly – certain Japanese cities coming to mind, or certain venues in New York. If you have a smaller city wherein there’s one main business (say, an agricultural or manufacturing plant), a “main street” where 90% of the businesses are located, and a residential district off to the side, then there’s a certain amount of sense in a bus or tram line running one end of the city to the other.

Then you have cities like Colosse. Colosse itself resembles nothing organized at all – it’s more like a giant amoeba sprawling over the landscape. “Population density” is pretty low, and growth in the city/metroplex has come in the form of newer and newer subdivisions being built outward, each further out of the city limits. Nearby to most of these subdivisions is an industrial park/business park/stripmall or three, because historically the “new subdivisions” pop up on unincorporated land, make a township of themselves for 5-10 years, and then only get annexed when their tax base is large enough that Colosse’s city council decides to gobble them up.

End result? Colosse has 3-4 major “downtown” areas as such, a number of sub-downtown areas, a smattering of businesses all over the place elsewhere, and then each little township (whether currently annexed, self-incorporated, or otherwise set up) its own little mini-downtown. It’s not all that unusual for people to work in Thessalonica or Mayne and commute all the way to Corinth or Cruston – it may not be the original plan, but personal employment changes (job loss/switch) or businesses relocations (usually there’s better rent in one of the mini-downtowns) can be fairly regular occurrences.

Being an original resident of Melleorki, I’ve seen two instances that have bearing. Both come out of the same deal: ~10 years ago, a group of “Mayors of large cities” were invited to another large city in the South to view that city’s “major works”, and one in particular, the city’s light rail system. The mayors of Melleorki and Colosse at the time both promptly got penis envy about this, because neither of their cities had Light Rail and “logically” if it worked so well for that city, well then it would have to work well for their city too!

In Melleorki, the city council went through the motions of figuring out where Light Rail would have to run, what sort of infrastructure would be needed, how much it would cost… and nixed it every time the mayor came back.

In Colosse, alas, “Light Rail” was going to happen whether we liked it or not – the Mayor had a number of his political cronies on the city council, enough to ramrod it through, and so Colosse took it right up Main Street. The net effect? Main Street, and the street it adjoins with later on, are now virtually impassible. Their traffic capacity was cut in half (to make room for ground-level rail), turning/crossing them is difficult at best, businesses along the streets struggle (hey, wouldn’t you if you ran a restaurant/store and nobody could get to you?) and nobody likes the rail line. Worse yet, the rail line runs for less than 8 miles, just barely enough to connect two of the “Downtown” areas to each other… and doing nothing to make parking any easier for anybody. In short, our Mayoral Penis Envy got us a Light Rail “system” that was too small, barely functional, and no fun.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Colosse Public Transportation (CPT) has recently been cutting rail times and bus lines all over the place, with the argument that the ones being cut are “not financially viable.” In my view, this is the biggest downside of CPT: the fact that it is run not as a public service, but as a business.

When public transportation is a public service – even if it operates “at a loss” and requires subsidizing – it can work. Run it as a “business” and cut “unprofitable” lines, and you quickly doom it. The logic isn’t hard to follow: public transportation will work best (and be used most) when it achieves something sorta-kinda near to the flexibility of normal commuting. The more limited it is, the less people are going to use it.

Take my normal day: I get up. I go to work. I may (or may not) have plans to be somewhere after work. These plans may (or may not) take me to various areas across Colosse. During my day, these plans may change. I may get a phone call, or email, indicating that I need to be in another place instead, or that plans are canceled. If I were married or had children (more to the point, especially with children involved), the dynamic would almost certainly be similar. With a car, I’ve got the option of adapting to changes.

If public transportation were to be (a) ubiquitous and (b) easily tracked, I could probably make do without a car. Change of plans? Get on a different set of buses, 2-3 connections tops, and get where I need to be. Where this breaks down is that CPT’s routes are not predictable, reliable, or usable. Getting where I would need to be is not a matter of 2-3 connections, more probably 5-6. Getting home (or even to the Park-n-Ride) via CPT and then going elsewhere via car is much more inefficient than simply having my car with me at work… and given the day, probably leaves me an hour behind schedule. The “alternate” option offered by the New York model, that of flagging down one of the city’s 13,000+ taxicabs, isn’t available in Colosse; hiring a taxi is more a matter of calling up a company, waiting 30 minutes or more, and then being charged $40+ to get where I need to be (and the same when I go home later).

The basic problem is adaptability. If you only service the “profitable” routes, adaptability isn’t there. Mornings are easy; you can predict that a certain critical mass of commuters need to get to work. In the afternoon or evening, you can predict a critical mass of commuters going home. If you have a vaguely centralized area where a great number of businesses are, you know where they’re going.

If you don’t service the “unprofitable” routes, however, you lose commuters in the morning. Anyone with a concern about being stranded is going to want to bring their transportation with them. The more commuters you lose in the morning, the less your available pool in the main evening hours. Thus, the “profitable” routes – the theoretically high traffic ones – need to be subsidized with the routes that may only carry 10 people, and perhaps even less from time to time, simply to be available should they be needed.

It’s my supposition that the balance for best commuter service, which maximizes the number of commuters and minimizes commuter automobile traffic, necessarily is going to operate at a loss (or at least closer to “break-even” than to a huge profit). The less options there are in the evening, the more people are going to have to ignore public transportation for the flexibility of their own vehicle. It’s one of those things that either the city/county needs to decide to just suck up and subsidize, or widespread usage will remain out of reach.


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19 Responses to Point A to Point B (via Points C,T,H,J,Q,X,L,P…)

  1. Peter says:

    Hong Kong’s subway is alleged to be the only rail transit system in the world that earns a profit at the farebox. Even in cities with very dense populations and well-defined downtowns, the “peaking” phenomenon (heavy rush hour ridership, lighter at other times) makes it very difficult to avoid significant operating losses. That being said, most transit systems are not run in anything remotely approaching an efficient manner. Most of them have bloated bureaucracies and pay high union wages.

    By the way, the reference to a new light rail system makes it evident that Colosse is not the city I’d always thought it was.

  2. trumwill says:

    I think that one of the problems with profit/non-profit is that they tend to go back and forth whenever it’s convenient for them. To take the CPT as an example, when people point out how fundamentally unprofitable light-rail is, they speak of their mission as being about mobility. Then, when it comes to cutting bus routes, they say “Oh, well we were losing money…”

    I believe that public transit needs to be public-minded. That means running unprofitable routes. It also means higher taxes. And less cool toys like the train.

    Which, for all its faults and needless expenses and inconvenience it causes, it is a cooool toy.

  3. David Alexander says:

    Most of them have bloated bureaucracies and pay high union wages.

    I don’t mind the high union wages primarily since they provide good jobs for unskilled workers that just simply doesn’t exist. Besides, except for railfans, I’d be afraid of who’d control a train for the equivalent of $10/hr pay?

    Hong Kong’s subway is alleged to be the only rail transit system in the world that earns a profit at the farebox.

    That’s because Hong Kong’s subway engages in real estate development. It’s essentially a real estate firm with the right to build, own, operate, and maintain a railway system leading to its own developments.

    “Oh, well we were losing money…”

    The problem is that most transit systems in the United States are funded via sales taxes or other taxes (see mortgage recording fees in NY) that are highly variable with the economy. Thus, when the economy tanks, transit systems receive less funding from their dedicated funding and from governments from state subsidies.

    And less cool toys like the train.

    The problem is that middle class commuters from experience tend to prefer the train even when the bus runs frequently. Secondly, light rail systems in most cases double as tools for inducing development in many cities. What ends up happening is that developers won’t zone for high density without a light rail system, and planners aware to this fact design the areas around light rail lines for increased density. For all intents and purposes, you need the rail to encourage the high density growth.

    Plus, in the long-term, if you’re aiming for high ridership levels, the train holds more people, uses less energy, requires less long-term damage to the street, and lasts longer than a bus.

    BTW, so far, judging from ridership statistics, your light rail system is doing rather well in terms of ridership. 20K riders with about 2K riders per mile…

    I must also add that I’m biased since I LOVE light rail systems, and what geek wouldn’t love the whirring noise of AC traction or the beauty of concrete ties or constant tension catenary.

  4. Peter says:

    I don’t mind the high union wages primarily since they provide good jobs for unskilled workers that just simply doesn’t exist. Besides, except for railfans, I’d be afraid of who’d control a train for the equivalent of $10/hr pay?

    ZPTO can be technologically feasible on most systems.

    The problem is that middle class commuters from experience tend to prefer the train even when the bus runs frequently.

    Without question. Unless you’re talking about suburban commuter buses, riding the bus has a stigma that taking the train does not. And of course in urban traffic, buses can be absurdly slow.

  5. Webmaster says:

    I must also add that I’m biased since I LOVE light rail systems, and what geek wouldn’t love the whirring noise of AC traction or the beauty of concrete ties or constant tension catenary.

    Colosse’s “light rail” is badly built – rather than being elevated (like any sensible light rail) they literally stole 2 lanes from Main Street in order to build it in. There are no concrete ties, no tonstant tension catenary… just a bunch of really fugly-unsightly wiring hanging about 12 feet off the ground the entire Main Street length, a plethora of “no turn left… EVER” signs down Main Street (good luck to you if you’re heading west trying to turn south), and street signals that occasionally give a 2-second greenlight because the train “happened” to trip the sensor at a lousy time.

    In short… it’s a mess.

  6. David Alexander says:

    ZPTO can be technologically feasible on most systems.

    Older systems can do ZPTO, but I suspect city governments like using the agencies as a de facto jobs program for unskilled workers, and older stations have issues with dealing with platform doors.

    rather than being elevated (like any sensible light rail)

    The vast majority of light rail systems built in North America and Europe are NOT elevated. Most light rail systems combine private right of way operation with street-running operation primarily to cut costs and to avoid tunneling (which is expensive) or building elevated stretches (which is less expensive than the tunnel, but just as unpopular) over the streets. Some systems do have elevated portions, but it’s never in the downtown portion, and tunnels are generally the preferred method.

    they literally stole 2 lanes from Main Street in order to build it in

    Again, standard operating practice for light rail construction.

    I just looked at the ROW, so unless I’m discussing the wrong city, I see very little street running in the light rail system. Otherwise, I can only think of two cities that recently opened with light rail systems with extensive street running, and only one of them has the wiring you describe. If it’s the “second” city, then I’m amazed they didn’t just close off Main Street in full similar to what Portland did with the transit mall.

    Mind you, it’s no different than what they do for busways…

    just a bunch of really fugly-unsightly wiring hanging about 12 feet off the ground the entire Main Street length

    That wiring design is generally used in areas with lower speeds as it’s less expensive. I don’t think it’s ugly, but I’m a railfan.*

    *I am also a roadgeek, but I hate Southern interstates. Bland and boring…

    a plethora of “no turn left… EVER” signs down Main Street

    That’s an interesting decision on the planners part. Some cities use electronic signs that change depending on the distance of the train to the light. I suspect your city simply chose to do away with left turns to avoid accidents by inattentive drivers.

  7. David Alexander says:

    Monty Python famously made a pretty hilarious mockery of the convoluted nature of British commuter rail schedules

    Actually, judging from the sketch, the references point to regional rail services that run into the rural countryside, particularly the stuff that’s off the main and regional mainlines, but the dinky shuttles that connect to the mainline service.

  8. trumwill says:

    unless I’m discussing the wrong city,

    Yeah, wrong city.

    I’d be more sympathetic to the “unions providing good jobs” and that it can recruit better people if they were in the business of recruiting better people. Then again, I really have no complaints when it comes to the transit employees I’ve dealt with in the past.

    I really do think that the train is really cool. I don’t think it’s unsightly at all. What I was never sold on was that it was a good idea for actually transporting people economically.

    Of course, maybe I’m not convinced because they never really tried to convince me. All they had to do was say that all the cool cities were doing it and enough people ooohed and ahhhed to make it happen. That’s the subject of another post, though.

  9. David Alexander says:

    Yeah, wrong city.

    After re-reading your colleague’s post and re-writing part of my post above, I just realized it’s another city, and traits he described are unique to that city’s design.

    What I was never sold on was that it was a good idea for actually transporting people economically.

    Think about it this way, the 90 ft light rail cars fit roughly 220 passengers, while a 60 ft bus usually fits 140 passengers. In addition, while one train operator can run two trains together in multiple unit, one bus cannot be operated in such a manor, which means as ridership increases, the bus system requires more drivers to be used. In addition, while light rail cars tend sell in the $2M range, their electric motors are more reliable than their diesel counterparts, and light rail vehicles tend to last from twenty five to fourty years while buses barely last longer than fifteen years. Plus, you get the benefit of quiet transit vehicles that have better acceleration rates than buses while attracting ridership and downtown development. I’ll also add that buses inflict more damage upon pavement* when compared to trains which push their weight into the track. As a New Yorker with car-only highways, I must point out the big difference between parkway pavement which lasts longer and lacks the rutting of expressway pavement.

    If you’re willing to absorb the capital intensive construction costs, the light rail system with proper planning is probably the better bet in the long term…

    *There’s a reason why bus stops have concrete pavement.

  10. trumwill says:

    The biggest problem with Light Rain is that it more-or-less limits you to people going from some point on the spectrum of Point B to Point A. For that particular route, having a train instead of a bus may well be the better answer over the long term.

    I can’t get too much further into this without getting into Colosse particulars, but the problem is to pay for B-A you have to reduce services to people that happen to live in Point R and work at Point F. Deciding that we need to move these people around very efficiently at the cost of people that it is not as convenient to move around.

    Not coincidentally, there is very much a class/cultural aspect to all of this. People who live and work in Points A and B tend to be quite wealthy. And not those icky,cultureless suburbanites that might ride commuter rail. I think that one of the things that bothers me on a most visceral level is that it’s entirely set up to serve the right kind of people… at the expense of the people that need it the most.

    I would rather public transportation be geared towards those that have no other way of getting around (or no other way that isn’t dreadfully inconvenient) before serving those that don’t want to be bothered to drive themselves. The train, for me, symbolizes the latter.

  11. David Alexander says:

    The biggest problem with Light Rain is that it more-or-less limits you to people going from some point on the spectrum of Point B to Point A.

    That’s why systems generally have plans for expansion set up before the line is even fully planned for funding. While your system is still a one-line wonder, there are plans on the books for expansion into several corridors to flesh out the service to other areas of the city. Admittedly, even the most ardent transit planners will admit that there are places where trains can’t go for various reasons, hence the push for better and more frequent bus service to compliment that light rail. So while the light rail may serve A & B and A & D and A & E, depending on potential ridership, you can get a light rail (or streetcar) line between B & C and a frequent bus between D & B.

    Plus, one must not also discount the fact that cities also like to use their light rail (and streetcar) systems to spur development in their urban cores. Increase density and increase property tax revenues from the increased real estate values.

    I would rather public transportation be geared towards those that have no other way of getting around (or no other way that isn’t dreadfully inconvenient) before serving those that don’t want to be bothered to drive themselves.

    Growing up with women who didn’t drive, or just simply sucked at driving when they did so, I grew up with public transport from a different perspective. While you may see them as people who couldn’t be bothered to drive themselves, I see them as people who’re doing a favour to everybody by not driving. As a roadgeek, I want public transport to be usable so that the marginal drivers who shouldn’t be on the roads can use alternative transports to cut down on their driving. I’m not arguing that these marginal drivers will stop driving entirely, but giving them an alternative gets them off the roads, particularly at peak, and given that Colosse is a city with awful traffic jams, getting cars off the roads and bodies into public transport is a great way to reduce traffic congestion.

    As for marginal bus service, in most cases, light rail systems don’t suck up the operating costs of these systems, and without the light rail system, the marginal routes are generally the first to get cut. Even here in New York, with pending budget cuts, it’s marginal routes that are “old people buses” or duplicative of existing subway service that gets cut, and I’ve seen awful bus only systems get even deeper cuts.

  12. Webmaster says:

    While your system is still a one-line wonder, there are plans on the books for expansion into several corridors to flesh out the service to other areas of the city.

    Actually, there is precisely one (1) “expansion” plan currently being touted, but the businesses down the street it’s supposed to go through are dead-set against it happening. They watched what happened to the Main Street businesses and have no desire to see their businesses equally inaccessible to people.

    Admittedly, even the most ardent transit planners will admit that there are places where trains can’t go for various reasons, hence the push for better and more frequent bus service to compliment that light rail.

    Again, see above; CPT has been cutting “unprofitable” bus lines (and so-called “off-peak times”) left and right recently. The end result is that if you want to use CPT to replace a car, you can’t because you are at the mercy of an entirely-too-limited CPT schedule.

    Plus, one must not also discount the fact that cities also like to use their light rail (and streetcar) systems to spur development in their urban cores. Increase density and increase property tax revenues from the increased real estate values.

    And if this actually worked, I’d see it as a bonus. Perhaps it works in other cities. In Colosse, it’s a complete bust and as previously mentioned, caused a lot of businesses down Main Street to go from “doing fairly well” to either the “barely hanging on” or “out of business” level.

    I grew up with public transport from a different perspective. While you may see them as people who couldn’t be bothered to drive themselves, I see them as people who’re doing a favour to everybody by not driving. As a roadgeek, I want public transport to be usable so that the marginal drivers who shouldn’t be on the roads can use alternative transports to cut down on their driving. I’m not arguing that these marginal drivers will stop driving entirely, but giving them an alternative gets them off the roads, particularly at peak, and given that Colosse is a city with awful traffic jams, getting cars off the roads and bodies into public transport is a great way to reduce traffic congestion.

    I agree to a point; the better public transportation is, the more likely those who are “marginal” (physically handicapped, elderly, etc) in their capacity to drive, or even simply those who are lousy drivers, will get off the road. However, Colosse’s traffic jams are more the result of incredibly poor planning on the part of road designers.

    For one example: my drive to work takes me past two key points on a given day. (highway numbers fictional, obviously).

    Inbound, I take highway 130. There’s a point where H-130 and I-460 intersect, and another point a mile later where I-460 and I-60 intersect. In this region, you have a single mile in which, generally speaking, people from three right lanes (the I-460 folks) are trying to cross to the three left lanes to keep on I-460 and go to Downtown #2, while people from H-130 are trying to go from the same three left lanes into the three right lanes in order to get to I-60 and go towards either Downtown #1 or Downtown #4.

    Going outbound, there’s a spot where H-130 drops from 4 lanes to 3. But it doesn’t just have a bottleneck; oh no, that would be too simple. It’s the center of a 5-mile stretch, and the only on-ramp and off-ramp for 5 miles are between Oliveoyl Rd and 44th St, respectively. In that one city block we have:
    – On-ramp traffic trying to merge IN
    – Exit ramp traffic trying to merge OUT
    – The “Exit ramp” lane (formerly the 4th lane) ending, cutting the highway to 3 lanes
    – Nincompoops trying to “pass” everyone using either the service lane or the “exit ramp” lane, then force their way back onto the highway.

    Admittedly, the last is a human-behavior problem. Fundamentally, however, this bottleneck is a bottleneck because it’s still another 8 miles or so past 44th St where you really get to the current “fast-growing population center”, as well as the beltway junction.

    The other really, really irritating problem if this one is that there were, previously, plans to expand H-130 to 4 lanes further out. They were nixed last year because the corrupt state planners’ office embezzled all the road funds to pay for lobbying efforts trying to convince state lawmakers that a “highway in the middle of nowhere” plan distrusted and disliked by 90% of the state was somehow a good idea.

    Money down the drain…

  13. trumwill says:

    David,

    It’s noteworthy that these bus routes and times were cut prior to the current economic mess… when times were relatively good. They only started getting cut deeply after the rail was built. That’s when the CPT suddenly had to go into “We’re a business” mode and cut less popular routes and times.

    If I could be convinced that this was entirely coincidental, I might review my stance on the matter. Prior to the cuts, I was conflicted on the subject of rail. I thought that a commuter line was a better idea, but figured that maybe having the light rail would be a trial run. Then they cut the bus routes (and hours) and for the proposed second route they decided to relocate it from the underdeveloped poor part of town to instead (ta-da) connecting wealthier parts of town.

    It all suggests to me that they’re making more of an effort to serve the “right” people (people that aren’t poor or icky suburbanites) rather than the people that need it the most.

    Traffic in Colosse really isn’t that bad given its size. Far worse in Santomas and far, far, far worse out here. Taking cars off the road is nice, but providing service to people that rely on it is more important.

  14. Peter says:

    I suspect your city simply chose to do away with left turns to avoid accidents by inattentive drivers.

    Assuming that Colosse is the city I am almost certain it is, there actually were quite a few collisions between cars and light rail trains when the system was new. In fact I believe it was discussed at Sub Chat.

  15. Kirk says:

    “It all suggests to me that they’re making more of an effort to serve the “right” people (people that aren’t poor or icky suburbanites) rather than the people that need it the most.”

    I figure there’s a lot of that going around. I mean, is global warming an actual problem? Or is it just a way for the media to pander to young people, their prime demo? Ditto for when the media “question” a war.

    And when a politician expresses support for subsidizing college students at taxpayer expense, does he actually think it’s necessary and right? Or is he just pandering to the very important, upper-middle class voters who don’t want their kids joining the military? (On a side note, I still find it astonishing how the NYT never mentions the military as a way to pay for college.)

  16. David Alexander says:

    It all suggests to me that they’re making more of an effort to serve the “right” people (people that aren’t poor or icky suburbanites) rather than the people that need it the most.

    Since I don’t have the facts in front of me, I’ll refrain from making judgments on that local transit system. Mind you, I will add that transit is very political, and yes, in some cases, services for poorer residents are sometimes gutted while services for the middle and upper classes are spared. Even if you guys has a busway or “bus rapid transit” or even regular bus service instead of a light rail, similar cuts *could* have transpired.

    I thought that a commuter line was a better idea, but figured that maybe having the light rail would be a trial run.

    Interestingly, my transit planning & railfan friend viewed the light rail in Colosse as a bit of an abortion, and wanted a commuter rail system complemented by a streetcar network similar to that of the two in the Zallem Sound area and Shaston. The idea would feature deep bored tunnels with high frequencies (every 15-25 minutes) with a streetcar serving as a distributor. The problem is that Colosse’s soft soils are questionable for deep-bored tunnels, and the federal government’s regulations for commuter rail applications means that European fleets designs for the service he envisioned are illegal or barely usable, and the federal government won’t pay for the cheaper streetcar networks for some reason, so you’re stuck with the “light rail”.

  17. David Alexander says:

    BTW, a definition of modes…

    Streetcar -> Replacement for bus service. It’s like light rail, but “lighter” with smaller vehicles, lower maximum speeds, and less intensive infrastructure. Generally cheaper to build, but it carries less people. Really good for smaller cities, and great for connecting with existing “heavier” services or replacing heavily used bus service.

    Light Rail -> Basically a poor man’s subway. Designed generally for medium and high density areas where a subway is wanted, but capital costs preclude construction of a tunnel or fully grade separated line. Headways in the 5 to 15 minute range. Thanks to modern technology, the line has blurred considerably between what constitutes a subway and a light rail system. It competes against bus rapid transit (buses with priority & special dedicated “stations”) and busways (buses with private separate lanes).

    Commuter Rail -> A system designed for a regional focus dedicated more so on bringing in suburbanites (and satellite cities) into the urban core. Headways are generally from 15 minutes and up. In some areas, they can function as subway substitutes.

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