Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pick two

In an earlier post, I wrote that transit needs the middle class, because we can't accomplish our pollution, efficiency and safety goals without getting the middle class to shift from cars to transit. To attract the middle class, transit needs to be classy. What might classy transit look like?

In technology fields there is a saying, "Fast, cheap and good. Pick any two." Of course, transportation is nothing if not a technology, and the saying is just as true there as in computers. Yes, you might some day have transportation that's all three, but let's not hold our breath.

The New York subway, which is one of the gold standards by which transit performance is measured, is fast and cheap - in fact, one of the fastest ways to get around town, but there are numerous complaints about the quality. It's gotten a lot better since the 70s, and it's now reasonably reliable, but it's still noisy, dirty and crowded. Cycling is also fast and can be very cheap, but the quality is mixed: some people love the exercise, others hate the sweat and the exposure to the elements, not to mention the abuse.

If you take the subway during rush hour, chances are you'll be standing most of the way. If you manage to get a seat, you'll probably find yourself with somebody's bag, newspaper, ass or belly in your face for at least two stops, and then you'll have to fight to get off the train in time. If you've got a flexible enough schedule so that you don't have to travel during rush hour, you may get a seat, but you'll probably still get bumped, jostled or at least cut off - numerous times as you walk from the entrance to the train. If it's an elevated train, you'll have to put up with somebody's obnoxious cell phone conversation. In any case, you'll probably get some jerk who thinks the whole car needs to hear her gospel tape, or who's got the techno cranked on his leaky earphones. You'll also be subjected to aggressive panhandlers, arrogant preachers, and that woman with the flute thing.

It's much worse for women than for men. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes encounter entitled males leering at them, making comments, and sometimes masturbating in front of or even on them. Many women have personally told me about being groped, pinched or fondled on crowded trains.

I have to say that I love the New York subway. It's my main form of transportation after walking. I've grown up with it and I wouldn't give it up. I'll be taking the subway until I can't climb stairs any more - and maybe after, if I last until they put elevators in all the stations. But sometimes I get tired of it. I'd like to be able to sit down at 8:05, maybe spread out and take some notes on a book I'm reading, and get off at 8:50 without having to push my way through twenty people. I'd like to have the option of quality. I'm at the point in life where I can pay for it, and I'm willing to, at least some of the time. Sometimes I'm also willing to sacrifice speed. But for most places I want to go, transit doesn't offer any quality option.

In future posts I'll talk about some quality options, and how they might be implemented.


jarrett said...

There's considerable room for disagreement on how classy transit needs to be. It depends on how large a mode shift you want, and it depends overwhelmingly on what the target population's other options are.

There is no discrete "middle class" that needs to be attracted. There is a continuous spectrum of people in every type of circumstance, each of whom is making a mode choice based on what works for them. Each incremental improvement in transit -- if it makes sense -- will shift the calculus for some of these people. A successful improvement may not be a matter of "classiness." It may just be a matter of speed, or directness, or or value for money. And for most people the decision is ALWAYS made based on what their other options are. If that weren't the case, we wouldn't see fuel prices affecting ridership the way we do.

It's misleading to just imagine that there's a "middle class" not riding transit because it isn't classy. People make mode choices based on a lot of variables, not just classiness, whatever that is.

I agree that lots of people gravitate to terms like "classiness" because the real reasons that drive mode choice are so complicated when aggregated to the level where planning decisions have to be made. But that doesn't mean people have simplified their OWN mode choice decision and are just waiting for classy transit to arrive. Even people who wish transit were classy won't use a classy service if it doesn't go where they're going, offer good value, etc etc etc in lots of other dimensions.

So as a transit planner, I keep my eye on the factors that we know drive mode shift. I try to offer services that are the fastest and/or most cost-effective way of getting from a to b. The NYC Subway achieves that, which is why plenty of people who consider themselves "middle class" ride it despite its discomforts.

Jarrett at said...

The URL for that last comment is ... Still figuring out Blogger's maddening profile system.

Cap'n Transit said...

These are all good points, Jarrett, and I've supported most of them in previous posts.

As I've argued, a mode shift big enough to wipe out the transportation contribution to global warming basically needs to include the majority of the population. That's what I mean by middle class.

The whole point of this post was to examine "classiness" and other factors that lead people to choose private cars over transit. I'm not familiar with these "lots of people" who talk about classy transit, so if you could provide some links I'd appreciate it.

I've pointed out many times that the NYC subway attracts a high number of middle class commuters. However, there are still many people in the New York area who see car ownership as a badge of having risen above subway ridership; they're the ones who killed congestion pricing. Clearly, fast and cheap wasn't enough for them. What was missing? That's what I'm trying to find out.

CityLights said...

I think a lot has to do with land use policy and zoning laws. People get cars because society rewards car owners. So yes, people make rational decisions about what is the "best" thing for them to do to get from A to B, but in making these decisions they respond to incentives, which are often not set up rationally.

Jonathan said...

I'm with you all the way, Cap'n. While driving can be a total suckfest if you are going on routes you don't know, at busy times, it has the glamour of offering a podlike respite from the kinds of bothersome behavior that you describe afflicting mass transit.

Cap'n Transit said...

CityLights, I recognize that cars have a lot of unfair advantages. However, they also have a number of coincidental advantages that could be provided by transit but aren't.

Jonathan said...

How much more would you pay to use transit that didn't involve the strong likelihood of sharing a subway car with a unwashed can-collector? Or with rowdy kids after school? Or with people clipping their nails?

Or, to address a different vector, for a subway that ran reliably on a posted schedule? I gather from reading the city room blog that this is one of Times' readers biggest gripes about life in New York.

James said...

Cap'N, depending on where you live in the city, there is another option re: a higher cost but higher quality option - it's called Metro North and the LIRR. When I find myself experiencing periodic subway burnout, I cough up the extra $2 for a Metro North ticket and enjoy a quiet, fast and immaculately clean trip home. If the MTA could find a way to make the CityTicket competitive with the MetroCard (say, pricing CityTicket at $2.50-$3.00 after rush hour on weekdays or on weekends), there would be a viable alternate transit option for a pretty large swath city residents. I'm certain it would do pretty well.