Sunday, June 6, 2010

Glamour, habit and the single trip

In recent posts, I've examined the effect of glamour on people's choice of transportation mode - but separating out different types of mode choice. While it is transportation habits that have the biggest impact on pollution, health, safety, efficiency and society, glamour primarily affects those habits indirectly. It does that through the three other types of mode choice: single trips, investments and subsidies.

I talked about investments on Friday and subsidies last night. What about single trips? Well, single trips only count for our goals if they develop into habits. Let's take this example from everyone's favorite Federal Transit Administrator:
Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a "special" bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.

The problem with this line of thinking is what happens after that first bus ride. Let's break it down using the three other factors of mode choice, Availability, Value and Amenities.

If the bus doesn't go where Mr. Diehard wants to go (no Availability), then he goes back to driving. If it's slower, less safe and/or more expensive than driving (lower Value), he goes back to driving. If it has roughly equal Value with driving but differs on Amenities like on-board wifi, absence of loud cell phone talkers or the ability to pull into the drive-through Starbucks, he may or may not choose the bus based on that.

There is a particular light rail effect that Rogoff and other Bus Rapid Transit promoters are trying to replicate. In many cities where light rail has been built, such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Charlotte, the glamour of the train attracted curious riders, who discovered that it offered them Value over a parallel car trip. Based on that Value, they developed Habits of taking the light rail. Many even Invested in housing or jobs along the light rail.

Something similar has happened with the BRT in Curitiba and Bogota. Because the buses run in dedicated rights-of-way, they are significantly faster than driving, so people choose them over driving. People even invest in housing along the BRT corridors. It's not clear to me, however, that the BRT systems have glamour, or ever did, for potential passengers. (On the other hand, it's very clear to me that they have glamour for transit planners and bicycle advocates.)

Rogoff and friends have taken this to the extreme, thinking that all that's necessary is the glamour. Make it flashy, and people will ride it. Walter Hook gets into some of this territory with his "killer BRT vehicles" and "iconic stations" They often forget that Value is what converts a single trip into a habit.

Lest anyone think that I'm just anti-BRT, allow me to point out that Mike Dahmus has been making the same argument against rail projects that add no real value, and Jarrett Walker has been saying the same things about streetcars.

The Investment and Subsidy effects of glamour are significant, and not to be ignored. But let me suggest that the single-trip effects are wildly oversold. If the Value exists, people will find their way to the transit service and make a habit of it. Glamour can work as a short cut, getting the word out quicker about that value, but glamour is not value. If the value is not already there, people will figure that out pretty quick, and the service will fail.


BruceMcF said...

I think the most important point made in Jarrett Walker's piece is: "But when the thinking starts with the love of one technology, you're in danger of producing an inferior transit service, because when compromise needs to be made, technology-first thinking will tend to sacrifice the goals to save the technology."

Especially, note that it is technically insane to treat streetcars and express bus lanes as intrinsically distinct. Streetcars should be running in lanes that cars do not run in. Ideally so should buses.

But there is no reason in the world why a city bus ought not use a streetcar lane closed to automotive traffic as an express lane.

A particularly appealing design in my mind is the parallel streets design where auto traffic is one way down one street with a reserved transit lane running the opposite direction ... and then parallel, auto traffic one way the opposite way with a reserved transit lane also running the opposite direction.

The solid yellow line with stubby guards and streetcar and express bus traffic coming the opposite way seems an effective way to discourage encroachment by cars. The one way traffic reduces special turning traffic signal patterns at traffic intersections, and the same signpost priority system used by streetcars can also be used by the express buses to further speed transit.

Tyler Hurst said...

I can only handle two of these three things regarding public transit: long waits on hot platforms, long ride times and obnoxious riders. Phx is three for three.

Helen Bushnell said...

Tyler, in well run transit systems, you don't have to handle any of those things.

Matt Fisher said...

What about the BRT proponents' other favorite example, Ottawa? (NOTE: I live there, but was born in Newfoundland and Labrador.)

Oh, Helen, a well run example would be Calgary's C-Train, which is true electrified LRT.