Sunday, January 27, 2013

Winning by default, or losing by a landslide

There's a point I've been trying to make. Maybe I haven't been really clear about it. It has to do with transit being in competition with cars, so much so that the real reason most of us care about transit is because it will hopefully get people out of their cars.


There's a thing about competition. When I was a kid I was on a kid baseball team. We sucked, partly because my catching wasn't very good and my batting was worse. But we won some games. Why did we win if we sucked so much? Because sometimes the other team sucked worse.

In competition, it doesn't matter how bad you are, if the other team is worse. It doesn't matter how good you are, if the other team is better. When I posted about the competition facing the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, lots of people wanted to tell me how horrible the VTA is.

Cap'n: The VTA is in competition with roads and parking.
Commenters: But they suck!
Cap'n: Yes, but they're building these roads and parking lots...
Commenters: The shitty routes and they go really slow and curves and...
Cap'n: Yes, and highway widenings and interchange upgrades...
Commenters: and bad zoning and they don't go where you want to go! Sucky trolleys! They suck!
Cap'n: Sigh.

Yes, I believe you. I've never ridden the VTA, but if you say it sucks, I'm prepared to concede that point. But have you been to Santo Domingo, or any of those Third World cities that have humungous transit market share? In most of those places, the transit sucks and they don't even have rail. But people ride it, because the roads and parking lots suck worse. Conversely, I'm sure there's some place where they did all the transit "right" and still lost mode share because the government was building lots of highways at the same time. Certainly that's what happened all over the country in the sixties and seventies.

This is not a defense of sucky transit. I'm all in favor of transit that doesn't suck, and in general I believe that not sucking helps to get people out of their cars. But when there's competition you can't just talk about one side of it. Sometimes you can really suck, but win by default. Other times you can be really good but just get outgunned.

11 comments:

arcady said...

I sort of tried to capture this in my statement that to be successful, a transit system needs to go from where people are to where they want to go in a reasonable time compared to the alternatives. A different statement of the same sort of idea is the general rule of transit in LA: it doesn't particularly suck, and takes you pretty much anywhere, it just takes three times longer than driving.

Alon said...

The problem with sucky transit is that it turns cars into an aspirational product. In Israel, car ownership is about the same as in New York, and buses have a very high mode share. Does it mean people like riding transit? No, it means social justice protesters fight against gas tax hikes and oppose upzoning on infrastructure capacity grounds and say the buses are so unusable that People Need Cars. Transportation networks comparable to those of the 1920s will lead to political effort to change the situation to be more like the 1960s. In contrast, where transit is useful - i.e. where it is frequent, comfortable, fast enough, etc. - people do not regard cars as so aspirational, and will support further reductions in car infrastructure on environmental grounds.

The other problem, completely independently of cars, is that sucky transit is a sucky social service. If I live in Providence and want to get to Boston, less-than-hourly commuter rail makes this inconvenient for me regardless of whether there are Interstates. Reducing auto options makes half-hourly takts and a fast EMU schedule easier to implement, but they can also be implemented in competition with the expressways (and, done right, beat them), and historically before the Interstates service was not frequent or fast.

kantor said...


The simplest way to state this is: mass transit should not compete with cars, rather it should replace cars, especially for commuting.

This is the viewpoint all across Europe and it works 99% of the time.

Matt D said...

Agree w/ Alon. People in those Third World cities ride it not only because the roads and parking suck worse, but because they can't even afford a car. If people get wealthier, and the transit doesn't stop sucking, they'll buy cars and there will be political pressure to build freeways.

Consider China's cities, which have been rapidly evolving from Third World to developed world over the last 20 years. In 1994, Shanghai had no subway, and now it has the largest subway system in the world. Transit has gotten a lot less sucky there, but even so, many people have been buying cars and there is pressure to build freeways. As Alon said, cars become "aspirational".

This attitude persists in many US cities too. Lots of people riding transit in LA would like to have their own cars. I moved to LA from Boston, and sometimes I get strange looks when I tell people I choose to take transit. "But you could afford to drive!" they say.

The real trick is to try make the transit better and build that constituency, without aggravating the driving lobby to the point that they elect Rob Ford, who comes into office and axes all your transit expansion plans.

amandainsjc said...

But you can't post all this shit about the VTA without having lived here, or at least taken it. I mean, you're just ignoring everything we've said about it. The VTA is indeed in competition with driving, and the way to change that is to improve (massively) VTA light rail service.

Ironically, that picture shows the freeway median on the Santa Teresa line south of San Jose, where times to get to downtown San Jose are pretty competitive with driving. From downtown north is where the line horribly fails.

amandainsjc said...

My own opinion, from having taken VTA every day for the past 4 years, is that the Santa Teresa line south of downtown SJ is actually one of the few bright points of the system (along with the Winchester line from Campbell to Diridon, since it has its own ROW). San Jose is such a spread out suburban eyesore, that if you tried running light rail on the street from south San Jose downtown, it'd take *forever*.

There are circumstances where it makes sense not to run in freeways, of course-even Portland's lauded MAX has plenty of freeway median running. In an ideal world, both Stevens Creek and El Camino would have light rail running on them (its also important to remember that most light rail in Santa Clara County serves San Jose, not the rest of the valley).

amandainsjc said...

The other thing is, it's hard to lay down light rail track and totally avoid any roads. You could just as easily change that picture to be the Winchester line chugging down Tasman or Java drive surrounded by cars during rush hour. Pretty much the only place for VTA light rail to expand that's not around roads is the remainder of the Vasona branch to Cupertino when it inevitably shuts down.

Matt D said...

Shorter version: relative quality matters, but absolute quality also matters, because people have the "do nothing" option.

Example: I hear about some place I would like to go. But the traffic sucks, and there's no good transit option, so I stay home. (happens to me in LA all the time)

Good transit will have its own induced demand. And while making things harder for drivers will reduce car trips, it might not necessarily increase transit trips.

Transit is competing with cars. But they're both also competing with doing nothing.

Alon said...

Does San Jose have wide arterials flanked by major development? In Vancouver, parts of the SkyTrain system are elevated over such roads - for example, much of the Millennium Line is elevated over the Lougheed Highway, which is a fast, pedestrian-hostile road but is not a freeway and has malls right next to the SkyTrain stations and dense-by-suburban-standards residential development on side streets behind the highway. One of the future expansion proposals is also elevated over a similar road, the Fraser Highway. The SkyTrain system is fully grade-separated, but those roads are configured for fast through-traffic and the strategy of following them could be adapted to at-grade light rail.

Cap'n Transit said...

Sorry if I wasn't clear, Amanda. The picture is there to show that right next to the line is a wide-open highway. Transit in medians is okay, if it wins the competition.

One way to win the competition is not to suck. The other way is for the competitor to suck worse.

Alon, rather than repeating superficial observations about "aspirational" transit, you might take into account what I wrote about choices and glamour. Value doesn't actually affect Glamour all that much.

J said...

@Alon: There really aren't any areas in SJ with any 'major' development, but Story Rd, Tully Rd, Alum Rock Ave all come to mind as bustling roads with bustling businesses