Friday, August 8, 2008

Pushing Transit Into the Black

Many transit activists are frustrated: what we've dreamed of for years is happening, but it's being stymied by short-sighted politicians. People are abandoning their cars for transit, but the government agencies that run the transit systems are - in many cases - not receiving the capital funding to expand so that they can handle these passengers. The Market Street trolley in San Francisco is packed, but Muni won't buy more vintage trolleys, and would have difficulty finding them anyway.

I've been skeptical for a while, but I'm starting to come around to Adron Hall's idea that the private sector can run good transit, given a suitably level playing field. Adron is no dummy: he doesn't believe that a private company could run, say, the Dutchess County Loop system in competition with subsidized personal transportation. But he does point out that private companies did just fine with transit before around 1929.

On Streetsblog yesterday, there was a very interesting post about Alan Hoffman's "Quickway" approach to Bus Rapid Transit: instead of building and operating a "BRT Line," build a BRT corridor that can be used by any authorized bus route. This can be used to bypass general-traffic bottlenecks and keep buses time-competitive with private cars. As I posted in the comments, it sounds a lot like the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane.

I was also struck by a comment on the post by Hoffman himself, where he observed that the Brisbane Quickways were "ACTUALLY PUSHING MANY TRANSIT ROUTES INTO THE BLACK" (his emphasis). My first reaction was, "so? we've got plenty of profitable commuter bus carriers in the area: Adirondack Trailways, DeCamp, Martz and the Coachusa stable of Short Line, Red & Tan, etc." Well, guess what those lines have in common? They all use the XBL.

There are other carriers that are profitable without relying on the XBL: Bonanza, Peter Pan, the Chinatown and Hasidic buses, and the various independently owned Egyptian/Peruvian/Dominican/Jamaican "dollar vans" around the region. Much of this is because we've got the density to support such a large transit-using population. But it's also because the regulatory agencies worked with the bus and van operators to facilitate their operations. The Port Authority, in particular, has allowed a thick network of private transit operations to develop in Hudson County while policing it enough to make sure that it is largely safe and comfortable.

If the shift to transit continues and governments are unwilling to invest in the expansion of their transit systems, then they should allow others to do so. This doesn't mean "getting out of the way" of private enterprise, but it does mean at a minimum providing the basic regulatory infrastructure to ensure safe, comfortable commutes. All the better if they can fund physical infrastructure like the XBL, the Port Authority Bus Terminals and the auxiliary terminals and layover areas that compensate for the heavy subsidies given to private cars. And you know, it would be nice if they could coordinate information, publicity, scheduling and ticketing as well.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I waffle on this idea. Part of the problem I see with privatization, is that the company is not really accountable to the people and can slash service and raise fares to the point where it's dead. To companies, the profit margin is all that matters. Also, I have a slight problem with skimming the good routes off the top and leaving the rest of the system to fend for itself.

Until roads and transit are on an even playing field, transit privatized would more than likely get cut down in service, much like the airlines. They are private and look how thats going.

Part of the point of government is to provide for the common good. Many times, the common good doesn't make money.

Matt Miller said...

I am not sure that allowing private providers to 'skim the good routes' is not the better way to go. Sadly, whenever a route makes money in a public transit system, it is used to subsidize other routes that don't make money.

A public transit agency is not like a private agency--they can't cut their losses.

The worst routes, with the least ridership, are the 'coverage' routes, hourly buses providing transit on weekends to out of the way places.

Here in Utah, every time we've had a system capacity expansion, it's been accompanied by a tax increase to pay for it. It is very difficult for UTA to refocus its spending in any meaningful way.

Don't forget that most big transit agencies are at the mercy of their unions as well as their riders.

Allowing a corporation without these liabilities and limitations to have a shot at running the profitable routes seems like a viable alternative.

But for all transit agencies, their is always a need to look good, to be successful, to 'grow' the business, rather than just operate a fleet of buses.


The airlines are losing big entirely as a result of a surge in the price of gas. While gas was cheap, they built dense networks on marginal connections, based on small 60 seat regional jets. At todays gas prices, those jets are no longer economical to fly, but the airlines are still stuck paying for them at a time that they are already being hammered by high gas prices. Yet few if any of the major carriers an afford to raise prices on profitable routes, due to competition with newer, leaner airlines with less debt, fewer pension/benefit liabilities, and more fewer labor issues.

At least one, if not more, of the major carriers should have gone bankrupt and been wound down, with its assets auctioned off. However, in a manner similar to the banking industry, the impacts of this disruption have been judged to be severe enough that a political decision has been made to simply 'restructure' the airlines, rather then hashing out a process for winding down failing airlines.

The most severe problem bedeviling airlines today is probably delay. As the price of flying rises, the number of markets large enough to support air service is falling, forcing airlines to make more use of transfers, concentrating take-offs and landings at a smaller and smaller number of hubs, thereby overloading the facilities there. Already tightly constrained facilities (such as JFK) are disintegrating under the load, resulting in delays rippling across the U.S.

From what I've seen there has been an enormous expansion of secondary 'reliever' airports for major metropolitan areas, with the secondary airport serving the 'domestic' metro area, and the primary commercial service airport becoming a center for transfers.

George K said...

Instead of letting private companies take the more profitable routes, what could be done is pay them some money to run the ''coverage'' routes. The transportation agency could reimburse them for any losses that they sustain as a result of operating these routes. Of course, they would have to mandate a certain standard of service, such as buses every half hour on one route, or every hour on another one, etc.
The reason why some private routes make money is because the regular service on the route isn't frequent enough, so they fill in gaps in the frequencies.
Also, unlike regular local routes, the private routes generally only act as feeder services. For example, a private route might run from a mall to the closest subway station, while a parallel route has to run all the way across the borough.
Finally, another reason why those routes are doing well is because they are not affiliated with the public transporation system and aren't required to accept free transfers. For example, coming from Kings Plaza, the local routes are required to take transfers from the subway and other buses, essentially meaning that there is no fare paid. The private routes may run parallel, but aren't required to take the transfers.

Ian Mitchell said...

In response to George K:
"why not both?"

In South Africa (Yes, the a subsaharan African country compares favorably to the U.S. in quality of mass transit), there is the government-owned trunk route, Metrorail (Gauteng, Cape, KZN). There is also Golden Arrow (originally streetcar, now bus company, for over 150 years, not publicly owned, run, or subsidized), and minibus taxis.

The minibus taxi routes are sometimes parallel, sometimes perpendicular to the train route, though universally shorter. They stop where people request, connect at taxi ranks (many of which are at rail stations or bus stations), and are typically not much slower than driving. They leave when full and schedules are (in african fashion) unpredictable but reliable). Fares never exceed the equivalent of $1 for a ride.

The buses are pretty similar to U.S. buses, they have set stops, schedules, and stations. They're even cheaper than the minibuses, as they sell multi-ride disount passes. They're slow, and often duplicate train service on part of the line, running into areas where there isn't even minibus taxi service on others.

The overall system is cheap, efficient, and profitable. It makes the geographic travesty created by apartheid and its aftermath (think sprawl, but much, much, worse) navigable by a population which does not have cars and will never be paid enough to afford them.

We could learn a lot from South Africa.