Saturday, October 1, 2016

When ridership doesn't matter

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed something that would be baffling in a lot of contexts, and is still kind of hard to believe when you see it. It’s called a pass-up, and it’s when a transit vehicle is so full that it can’t fit any more people, and leaves riders standing on the platform or the curb.

It’s bad enough when there really is another bus coming along in a minute. It’s bad enough when the city doesn’t have enough track capacity or enough train cars to move all the people who want to ride. But what I’m really talking about is when you can’t get on a bus and there isn’t another bus for ten minutes or more, or when one bus or train after another is uncomfortably packed.

It’s possible that the MTA, with its heavy debt service burden and its large employee benefit obligations, is incapable of bringing in a profit on any route at any time, no matter how many people ride it, so that it never helps the bottom line to add buses. But that would be a very different story than they told in 2010 when they cut service.

If you asked some of the people waiting for the M60 how they feel about the prospect of a fare increase, they would probably complain and tell you they couldn’t afford it. But if you asked them whether they’d pay fifty cents more to get a seat on the bus, or to just ensure there would be room for them on the next bus that came, they might say yes.

On the face of it, it makes no sense. These are paying customers; why wouldn’t the agency want their money?

We know it usually works in the other direction: transit providers don’t get enough riders, so they raise fares and cut back service, which drives away some of the remaining riders, in what is known as the Transit Death Spiral. We’ve put measures in place to protect transit systems from that. The problem is that those measures also remove most of the incentives for actually serving passengers.

The Transit Death Spiral is in fact a perfectly normal outcome for anyone who is selling something but is unable to compete. They sell less and less, and with less income they are unable to maintain the quality of their product. Customers give their money to the competitor, who can use it to improve the competing product.

Transit advocates knew there was a public interest in keeping transit around, so they got the government to subsidize it. But the reason transit was losing market share was that the government was subsidizing competing roads. There was a powerful popular consensus in favor of gas, roads and parking, and a popular distrust of railroad companies and “the traction interests.” There were also powerful undemocratic forces attacking transit, like Bob Moses, car companies and road lobbyists.

Transit advocates tried to promote an “all of the above” strategy, but rarely achieved “parity,” let alone more than 20%. They then largely fell back on charity arguments, which are inherently self-limiting because they implicitly accept the idea that nobody would take a bus or train unless they can’t afford to drive.

Then came transit advocates’ deal with the devil, the mistake that we’re still paying for today. After failing in both market competition and popular subsidies, transit advocates tried to beat road lobbyists at their undemocratic, competition-stifling game. They turned to public authorities.

Even today you see transit advocates arguing with a straight face that they can’t improve transit without a regional authority. Public authorities are the tools that Moses used to achieve power without a popular mandate. They allow elected officials to maintain a degree of control, but give the appearance of independence, protecting transit bureaucrats from all accountability to the voters or the market.

The result of this is that now, when there are plenty of passengers, the transit managers seem to have no interest in increasing frequency to serve the people who want to ride. What’s in it for them? They don’t get punished for leaving money on the table, and politicians don’t complain about crowded buses.

There are people who want to serve those people and take their money. But the city blocks them, and self-righteous bloggers spew bombast about “privatization” and “stratified transportation systems.” The state could serve them well, but the governor finds more political value in spending city money to build roads in the suburbs and the country. And on this the social justice advocates are silent.


Alon said...

What's wrong with regional authorities? "They won't raise fares or add frequency when vehicles are full" is a criticism of incompetent providers of all kinds and all levels of integration. Privatized UK railroads face the same criticisms: expensive fares, delays, difficulty of finding seats (hence, Corbyn's Traingate debacle).

In the case of passups, there's a very good reason not to raise fares: decongesting a particular bus is less important than predictable systemwide fares with free transfers. When the next bus is in ten minutes, it's net revenue-positive to add more buses to decongest the route. It gets dicier if the buses already come every 3-5 minutes, but at that point, if you're running artics and the buses have dedicated lanes and signal priority (both of which make headways more consistent and therefore raise capacity), you can build a rail line.

The problem with London Underground-style fares - trains are expensive, buses less so - is that you don't want to deal with downstream political implications of having separate vehicles for rich and poor people. It's not even about equity; it's about making sure community organizers in low-income areas don't fight against rail extensions on the grounds that they'd result in higher fares, as was the case with the DC Green Line extension to Anacostia.

neroden@gmail said...

The problem in NYC is actually pretty simple. The crosstown routes have been *so* busy for *so* long that buses can't handle the capacity. For such short routes deep subways make no sense (too much time going underground) and there's no room left to build shallow subways.

So the logical thing to do is to build trams, which can triple the capacity overnight.

But to build trams, you have to get permission to take *street space away from cars*, and the automobile lobby won't allow it to happen.

Ian Mitchell said...

"decongesting a particular bus is less important than predictable systemwide fares with free transfers."

I'm curious how this squares with distance-based fares (as in profitable transit agencies in Hong Kong), and especially with demand-varied fares, as I believe is the best way to manage a capital good with relatively low marginal cost, and high peak demand, whether that's electricity, water, transit, freeways, bridges, flights, etc.

If fares on a local bus were like fares on airplanes (or megabus, and now to a lesser extent, greyhound) where the first seats(/spots) are cheaper, and the price goes steadily higher given occupancy, then you have an incentive for passengers to shift demand to other times, and a strong incentive for firms (whether there's one or more) to increase supply. This is unpredictable- something we've just accepted of airfares. We'd all be better off if we accepted it of electricity rates. And something we'd need to roll out (no pun intended) with road and bridge tolls before it would be sensible to implement on transit.

But it's efficient.

Capn Transit said...

Alon, I thought I made it clear: what's wrong with public authorities (regional or otherwise) is the fact that the people who run them have no incentive to add more buses in order to serve everyone who wants to ride. I haven't studied the private rail operators in the UK, but I'm guessing the subsidies for those operators are not structured to provide an incentive for adding service.

I wasn't suggesting raising the fares on only the congested routes, but systemwide - and in this case, only if revenue was the reason the MTA wasn't adding more buses to these routes.

As you know, I think the equity arguments are a huge red herring. And I wonder if these community organizers are accurately representing the priorities of the transit riders they claim to speak for. A lot of poor people understand the value of their time, and are willing to spend a little more to get to work on time and in comfort. The express buses from the South Bronx have decent ridership.