Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Transport Azumah to inaugurate New Haven-Boston service with unboxed bikes

Last month I discussed strategic problems with New Haven transit advocates' campaign to convince Greyhound to run BoltBus service to New York, and the possibility that Transport Azumah might enter the market. I also described how the infrastructure built by the New York City and State governments favors private driving over bus service.

In the comments for the SeeClickFix issue regarding BoltBus service between New York and New Haven, some argued that service to Boston was a higher priority, since there is no Metro-North service and the Greyhound/Peter Pan consortium has a monopoly on bus service. Transport Azumah apparently concurs: Joel Azumah writes that he will be starting weekend service between Boston and New Haven beginning on Thanksgiving. A tentative schedule is posted on his website.

Many New Haven residents said that they wanted BoltBus because of specific features that they couldn't get on Greyhound, like dynamic online ticket pricing, leather seats, and onboard wifi and power outlets. The dynamic ticket pricing is in place. Azumah tells me that wifi and outlets won't be available right away, but he hopes to be able to offer them soon. No word on leather seats.

The other key feature that many potential riders wanted is a convenient bicycle policy. This is a big deal because it allows true multimodal travel. Amtrak requires all bicycles on Northeast Corridor trains to be partially disassembled, boxed and checked as baggage; Greyhound has a similar policy. Peter Pan allows bicycles "in an empty cargo bin," but if all the bins have at least one bag in them, the cyclist is SOL. In contrast, BoltBus says, "We do allow them and consider them to be oversize items as long as space is available in the baggage area."

TransportAzumah's policy will be similar to Bolt's. Azumah writes, "We will be able to take unboxed bicycles as long as they are tagged with the owner's name and contact phone." That is a huge improvement over the current options for travel in this area.

Here's wishing Azumah success in this venture. He's listened to what people want, and is trying to provide it at an affordable price. Let's hope that by this time next year he's able to provide daily service between these two cities.

Does anyone know of competing road projects along these possible routes that could draw riders away and sabotage Azumah's chances of success?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What downtowns are supposed to look like

This morning I woke up to Liane Hansen talking about small business survival in downtown Marquette, Michigan.

She observes that the success of these businesses is a surprising contrast to what you find in many other small towns around the country. "In so many cities where the commerce has moved out to the highway and the big box stores, it's rare to see a department store in business in a small town," she remarks about Getz's Department Store downtown.

Getz's marketing manager John Spigarelli attributes this to "a lot of loyalty," but I honestly have difficulty believing that there's something exceptional about the amount of loyalty that Yoopers show their local downtowns. I suspected that there was a more basic explanation.

It turns out that this loyalty is pretty fickle. Marquette has big box stores out by the highway: Google Maps shows that there's a Target, a Kohl's, a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a J.C. Penney's on Route 41 west of town, and even a Marquette Bypass, built in the 1960s, that allows people to drive around the downtown. In fact, one local observer tells us that there is a "trend" for Yoopers to drive three hours to Wisconsin for shopping.

But clearly, enough people are shopping in downtown Marquette to enable these businesses to thrive. For at least some of their errands, they don't drive right by the downtown stores on their way to the Target and Green Bay. Why not? My guess is that the bypass doesn't actually save them that much time: it starts just five blocks south of Getz's. So if you're driving from the south or east, or even the rural areas to the north, downtown is still closer than any of the big-box stores. If you're coming from the west, Getz's is only eight minutes further than Target. It's still more or less on the way.

Everything I've ever heard about the UP has involved driving, driving, driving and maybe a long-distance bike tour or two. I wouldn't be surprised if transit's mode share were minuscule here, but I think this story shows that it's possible to have walkable, small-business-friendly "transit-oriented development," even in an area where almost everyone drives. There are two criteria: streets that were built before widespread car ownership, and not a lot of bypasses.

There are many cities around the country that are concerned about their failed downtowns. Most of them have plenty of pedestrian-friendly streets, but some, like poor downtown Belvidere, Illinois with its triple bypass, would require a gargantuan political effort to be on the way to anywhere again.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sabotaging the Tribororx

In my last post, I observed that the main reason transit projects tend to require hefty subsidies from the government is that they are competing with heavily-subsidized roads. Because of this, it is the right and duty of transit advocates not just to promote the construction and subsidy of transit lines that they feel are worthy, but to oppose subsidies to roads that parallel those transit lines and could poach riders from them. I asked my readers to think about their favorite, favorite transit projects:
Now think about the potential riders who are driving right now. What roads parallel that project? Are they being widened? Bridges replaced? New roads or bridges being built? Do the drivers pay anything to use those roads? Do they pay to park, at one end or both? Have the tolls or parking fees kept pace with inflation? Did they once pay, but no longer?

From time to time, I will dedicate a post to this theme. I will examine a transit project and look at subsidies to the competing roads. Some of them will be defunct transit lines put out of business by roads, others will be lines that are currently struggling with low ridership, and finally there will be lines proposed or under construction, whose successes are being undermined by subsidies to parallel roads.

In the comments to my post, Alon Levy said that his favorite, favorite projects were the Second Avenue Subway (currently moving very slowly), the Tribororx circumferential line (only in proposal), and a rail tunnel from Staten Island to Manhattan (only in proposal). The Second Avenue Subway and the Staten Island rail tunnel are special cases, because of the extreme density of Manhattan and the degree to which roads there are under-subsidized relative to their use. When the Second Avenue Subway is opened, and if the Staten Island tunnel is ever built, they will fill such a deep need that they will instantly have very high ridership, enough to run an operational profit. (As Alon pointed out, whether they will ever make enough to pay back the money borrowed to build them is another story).

The Tribororx line is quite a different story. You may remember that in 1996 the Regional Plan Association proposed linking the Bay Ridge Branch, New York Connecting Railroad, Hell Gate Bridge and Port Morris Branch to run commuter rail from Yankee Stadium to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, passing through several underserved neighborhoods and connecting with twenty other transit lines along the way. As I discussed last June, it might be easier to implement the Tribororx as a series of connecting extensions of existing subway and commuter rail lines.

Working for the RPA, in 2007 Michael Frumin modeled potential ridership on the line and estimated that it would draw 76,000 riders a day, including 32,000 new riders from "other modes of transportation." This calculation is based on the fact that many trips would require a smaller number of transfers, which is more attractive to travelers. Frumin hoped that this prediction would generate interest in the line, although sadly that does not seem to have occurred.

Unlike Alon's other two choices, the Tribororx route is paralleled by one major highway in particular: the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It is also paralleled for part of its length by the Belt Parkway. Frumin assumes that these highways would continue to be just as unappealing as they are now - to everyone, including drivers. Taking the BQE from Brooklyn to Queens during rush hour is guaranteed frustration, especially on the Kosciuszko Bridge across the Newtown Creek. The Belt is also not a happy place to be.

As I've discussed in the past, the Shore Parkway is currently being reconstructed. We could save money by bringing the "parkway" back to true parkway standards, but that's on nobody's radar right now. The State DOT is also planning to reconstruct the BQE in Cobble Hill, at a cost of more millions of dollars. Finally, over the next few years the State DOT will spend $700 million to replace the Kosciuszko Bridge, expanding its capacity from six narrow lanes to nine wide ones and reducing the height of the bridge so that drivers can go faster.

So, if we're spending serious millions to make it easier for people to use the parallel roads, what do you think that will do to the ridership numbers for the Tribororx line(s)?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A transit advocate's right and duty

Recently I've been writing about the competitive relationship between transit ridership and private car use, and particularly how increases in highway capacity probably led to decreases in transit ridership, and vice versa.

This has some pretty big implications for transit advocates. I've already made the point that we can help our undersubsidized transit systems by lobbying for decreased capacity or increased fees on parallel roads. The other big one is that increased capacity or decreased user fees on roads draws ridership away from parallel transit lines. When ridership declines, revenues decline, and the line will require increased subsidies or be forced to cut service.

Because of this, it is the right and duty of every transit advocate to do what they can to prevent subsidies from going to roads that parallel their transit lines. What good does it do to get a train service started, if the parallel highway widening will make that train service useless by comparison? Why fight to keep fares low, if other people get tolls removed?

Here's a challenge to all transit advocates out there: think about your favorite, favorite project. How much do you love that project and want it to succeed at all costs? How hard are you fighting to save that service? To keep the fares affordable for those who really need it?

Now think about the potential riders who are driving right now. What roads parallel that project? Are they being widened? Bridges replaced? New roads or bridges being built? Do the drivers pay anything to use those roads? Do they pay to park, at one end or both? Have the tolls or parking fees kept pace with inflation? Did they once pay, but no longer?

Now, are you sure you're doing everything you can to help that project succeed? If this doesn't apply to your favorite, favorite project, I bet you can think of one where it does. I hope you'll blog about it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Faster, more reliable buses to Connecticut and beyond

In the comments to the original Design New Haven post about wanting better bus service, some folks mentioned that the New York-Hartford Megabus run was unreliable and took a long time. This was also mentioned by several commenters on the corresponding SeeClickFix issue, and there seems to be a consensus that buses from New York to Connecticut and points beyond (a) take longer than they should and (b) can sometimes take a lot longer. Everyone knows why: they get stuck in traffic on New York City streets.

As I've written before, the enduring profitability of the west-of-Hudson routes is due in large part to the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane, which has been making bus commuting competitive with cars since 1970. Although the Port Authority has dragged their heels on the long-overdue expansion of the XBL, which has been at capacity since the late 1980s, they have continued to operate the lane.

Another factor is the huge number of general-purpose lanes feeding into the tunnel approach, which allow the buses to move relatively smoothly even where they don't have a dedicated facility.

If you go to the Port Authority and get on a bus to Montclair or Newburgh, your bus will go right out of the terminal and into the tunnel, with at most two blocks of street shared with private cars. By the time you're on the Turnpike or Route 3, traffic is usually flowing pretty smoothly for everyone. Relatively little of the route is on the general-purpose streets with frequent bus stops that put buses at such a disadvantage.

Now if you get on a bus to Hartford or Providence, your bus might go right out of the terminal and onto Tenth Avenue. There's no bus lane on Tenth Avenue, so you're mixed right in with the cars and trucks, and if traffic is bad, you're stuck in it too. If a light turns red, you sit there, and if someone blocks the box, you could be sitting there for a long time. So it goes up Tenth Avenue and Amsterdam Avenue. At some point the bus crosses to the East Side and gets on the Bruckner Expressway. There are no traffic lights on the Bruckner or the New England Thruway, but sometimes car traffic can get congested. The Bruckner has no bus lane, not even an HOV lane, which means that any bus is going to be slower than a corresponding car trip. Getting back is similar, except you're going down Ninth instead of up Tenth.

Because of this, some bus operators will actually use the XBL even for trips to Connecticut. That's right, they will go west, through New Jersey, up the New Jersey Turnpike and across the George Washington Bridge to the Major Deegan Expressway, and from there to the relatively less-congested Interstate 287 to 684 to 84. According to Google Maps, that adds about fifteen miles to the trip, but you know they've figured out that it's a more reliable - and often faster - route.

So why do we care if the buses are slow and unreliable? There's train service; shouldn't we put our government dollars into making that better? Well, maybe not; the old New Haven mainline is pretty much at capacity right now, and it's clearly not serving all the people who currently drive on these highways. Many people want a one-seat ride to a place that's not on the train, like Stockbridge or Northampton. Others want a level of comfort that they can't get on Metro-North, but maybe aren't willing to pay Acela rates. Some, as has been said before, want wifi, power outlets and a place to stow their bicycles.

We want to decrease the demand for building and rebuilding the highways of New England. We want to decrease the pollution and carnage along I-95 and US 1. We want these drivers to shift to the bus, and to do that the bus has to be at least as fast and reliable as the car.

That's why buses heading to the north and east need their own XBL, where they can be free from intersections and car traffic until they get to less congested highways. Ideally, this would be highway all the way. Why don't these buses take the LIE to the Whitestone Bridge? Well, thinking back to the few times I've attempted to drive the LIE at any time near rush hour, it was a lot slower than the Turnpike. The short morning rush HOV lane doesn't seem to be enough. If we had a bi-directional, 24/7 dedicated busway from the Midtown Tunnel to the Van Wyck Expressway, you know those buses would be flying out to Connecticut.

The LIE is a touchy subject with some people, so it wouldn't surprise me if it were difficult to get that bus lane approved. A less ambitious plan would put bus lanes on Ninth and Tenth Avenues (and Amsterdam and Columbus), similar to the ones on Fifth and Madison for the East Side. Don't West Siders - and Riverdale residents - deserve as much?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

New Haven bike-n-wifi bus update

Following the comments on SeeClickFix is a little difficult because of all the repetitive "Another person wants this fixed!" auto-comments. But in among those on the New Haven BoltBus issue (discussed here previously) are a few interesting news items. User Mark points to a Yale Daily News squib that reports that TransportAzumah CEO Joel Azumah has taken interest in the market. "Azumah said he is currently drafting a tentative schedule for the service to show the New Haven community, adding that if feedback is good, the line should run in time for Thanksgiving break."

Some readers will remember TransportAzumah as one of the more entrepreneurial bus operators in the New York area. It was Azumah who stepped in when Coachusa dropped the 144 route from Staten Island to Jersey City in 2007. He was rewarded for this by seeing the MTA run competing service; watch this video for Azumah's take on the events, plus a jaw-dropping quote from now-Congressman McMahon.

If the New Haven riders are looking for Boltbus comforts on the cheap, they probably won't get leather seats from Azumah. On the Staten Island run, customers complained that the buses were old and not very well-maintained - particularly regarding the bathroom plumbing. Azumah also has a relatively small fleet and contracts out with other operators for any additional buses he needs; consequently he has less control over the amenities on the ride. But it's clear that if he had had more than six months before he had to compete against subsidized service, he would probably have been able to take care of some of those issues.

Azumah is young, techno-savvy, and a regular contributor to various online transit forums around the New York area (like BusChat). I'm sure he understands the value - and potential draw - of onboard wifi. I'm guessing by his name that he has probably also been to Ghana and seen how for-profit transit operators act in a true free market. He has released a detailed proposal for express bus service from Long Island, and I think he may also be the author of this one for restoring competition to NYC buses. He might be able to set up the Boltbus-style dynamic ticketing scheme that the New Haven residents like so much. His entry into the New Haven discussion - and his potential entry into the market - could really bring a lot.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Does the transition movement have the answer?

I'm not sure where I first heard about the transition movement, but it must have been before last May. I find it intriguing because it seems to be catching on fairly fast. The Transition Towns Wiki lists 204 towns that have some "official" participation in the movement. It started in England, but is now gaining popularity here in the US. There's a "mullers' map" listing groups that are considering drawing up some kind of transition plan. Here in the greater New York area, there's an informal organization.

On an Amtrak train this summer, my family and I happened to be sitting next to a young man who had a book sticking out of his bag, the Transition Handbook. I asked him about it, and he let me flip through it. What particularly struck me was a chart adapted from one by Bryn Davidson. Go look at it now. Seriously; I'll wait.

What Davidson's chart says is that there are a bunch of responses to peak oil that essentially defend the status quo or trust to "technology" to save us. There are a bunch of similar responses to global warming. But if you take peak oil and global warming together, every one of those status-quo or technocentric solutions is a no-go. We can't combat peak oil with dirty fuels, because that would release megatons of CO2, and we can't combat climate change with energy-intensive projects because we don't have the energy. In the Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins gives persuasive arguments against the other "solutions" like nuclear, solar, biofuels and wind, and makes a pretty good case that in the not-too-distant future we'll have to make do with much less energy.

A pretty scary thought, right? But the transition movement is much more positive than you might think, and that's intentional. Hopkins spends a fair amount of time arguing that the gloom-and-doom put forth by environmental advocates has alienated more than it has inspired. He says that the meetings for transition towns have attracted large numbers of enthusiastic people who put hours and hours into projects. There's even a chirpy fashion article about it (offline, but still in the Google Cache, and here's an excerpt.

I was intrigued, and a few days later I bought a copy of the book. It (and the movement) hasn't quite lived up to my expectations. But I think there are a number of insights and ideas that we can borrow from it. I'll get into all that soon.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The magic of Metro-North

In my last post I gave the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

In response, Alon Levy writes:
You don't need steps 2 and 3. Transit already has a high modal share on the market it serves well, namely suburb-to-CBD commutes. Even Metro-North, which competes with numerous free bridges and parkways, achieves an 80% market share for commutes into Manhattan.

Alon is more or less right, in that Metro-North has a tremendous advantage over cars in terms of rush-hour trips to Manhattan. However, I would argue that Steps 2 and 3 are partially being followed. It's not like it's smooth sailing and completely free to drive from Scarsdale to Midtown. Either you pay the toll on the Henry Hudson or the Triboro, or you sit in traffic at the "free" Fifth Avenue Bridge. Either you pay a tremendous amount of money for parking every month, or you've got a "free" parking placard. Any of these scenarios, you probably spend at least half an hour stuck in traffic somewhere. It's not ideal, the way it would be if we had true cordon pricing or market-rate parking with no placards. But it is a deterrent to driving, and probably accounts for that high mode share.

So Metro-North has an 80% mode share, but it only has 59% farebox recovery. This is actually the best ratio of any commuter railroad in the country; the next highest are the MBTA with 54.1, New Jersey Transit tied with the South Shore Line in Chicago with 51.5 each, SEPTA with 50.9, LA's Metrolink with 50.3, and the LIRR with 46.3. Why are they all so low? Well, Metro-North's ridership (passenger miles per revenue mile) is only 37.4. This may seem high compared to the buses, but remember that Metro-North's M7 train cars have 101 or 110 seats, depending on whether they have the bathroom or not.

I know what you're thinking: it's that fucking middle seat! Nobody wants to sit in it. But you'd be wrong. If the trains had 64 people per car, they would make a profit and no one would ever have to sit in the middle seat.

One of the shortcomings of the Magic Formula is that it only applies to a particular origin/destination pair, and it succeeds for trips to Manhattan. In the rush hour, the trains are pretty much full. If there are some middle seats free, there are probably more people standing. In other words, those trips are making a profit. It's the system as a whole that's not making a profit, and that must mean that the off-peak trips aren't making a profit. Certainly if you ride Metro-North at night or on weekends, you'll see plenty of cars that are less than 64% full. Although there are plenty of carfree households in Westchester, there are plenty of people who use the train for their commute and a car for shopping and socializing.

On one level, of course, it's a good thing that the trains run all day, seven days a week. Metro-North could probably make a profit by only running trains during rush hour, like VRE. But then Westchester would look even more like Northern Virginia than it already does. As Jarrett wrote, "A profit-oriented operator will tend to skimp on late-evening service, for example, but you need really good late-evening service, even if unprofitable, to make lower car ownership viable on a large scale."

So if we wanted Metro-North to be profitable, we'd have to make evening and late-night service profitable. One way of doing that is to save money on fare collection. The conductors are quaint and helpful, and I don't want to see anyone get laid off, but we seriously don't need four or five people on every train. A proof-of-payment system would probably save a ton of money and make it possible to break even with forty or fifty people per train. Maybe Jay Walder will do that.

We could also apply the Magic Formula to the most popular night and weekend routes. What if we restored the parkways (Bronx River, Saw Mill, Hutch, Taconic and Cross County) to parkway design standards - four lanes with green space on the sides and a multi-use trail? What if we ran trolleys down the middle of Routes 1, 9, 22 and 100, in dedicated rights-of-way appropriated from cars where possible? What if we tolled the major crossings of the Croton Reservoir and River system?

Of course, if we made the whole Metro-North system profitable, those profits would probably be used to cross-subsidize the other MTA services. So any profitability boosting strategies should be applied across the board.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Magic Formula for transit ridership

Here, as I've written before, is the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

I want to briefly go over each step and why I think it works. Step 1, exclusive right-of-way for transit, insulates the transit from the effects of Steps 2 and 3. The reason that both Step 2 and Step 3 are necessary is because drivers are a fairly diverse bunch. Some are very price-sensitive and will switch to transit as soon as the price hits a certain level, but are willing to sit in traffic indefinitely. Others are time-sensitive and will use whichever mode gets them there quickest, but are willing to pay more for that speed. So unless you hit both 2 and 3, you may not get enough riders to make a profit. And as I wrote before, even if the government pays for the entire cost of the transit system, high ridership is necessary to build a political base for those subsidies.

Turns out I'm not the only one saying this. Last month, L.A. Times columnist David Lazarus talked about it, quoting UCLA's Brian Taylor as saying, "We now keep the cost of driving as cheap as we possibly can. As long as we do that, we won't be able to make public transportation work." Lazarus repeated this in a Marketplace interview. But note that Lazarus - and Taylor - all talk about the cost of driving (Step 3), but not the difficulty of driving (Step 2).

Yonah Freemark gets at this indirectly when discussing ways to make high-speed rail competitive:
There are two ways to encourage people currently relying on road-based transportation to travel by trains: one, lower ticket prices; two, increase speeds.

In the comments to his post I suggested that a third way was to make driving more expensive or less convenient. But really, it's the same as his two ways. The key is that it's relative. To give transit a relative cost advantage, you can make them cheaper, or you can make cars more expensive. To give transit a relative access advantage you can make it faster, or you can make car travel slower.

Really, it's like all competition: you can boost yourself or you can bring your opponent down. You've got four options, and in a given situation any one of those options could be the best one. It depends on the political climate.

Strong road lobbyWeak road lobby
Short-term financial hardshipTransit expansionHighway toll increase
Long-term financial hardshipTransit fare reductionHighway reduction

Of course, a weak road lobby could be a small weakness, a chink in the armor. But it doesn't hurt to keep blasting wasteful projects to drive home the point that highways cost a lot of money, and don't necessarily accomplish all that much. If you keep blasting them all, one of them will probably go down.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Greyhound is not a government agency

New Haven residents, apparently, have spent so much time with government-run transit agencies that they've forgotten how to deal with a for-profit company. That's the message I'm getting from this Design New Haven post featured on this morning. The SeeClickFix website (founded in New Haven) is a forum for people to post local non-emergency issues that they would like their government to act on. "About 1 month ago," SeeClickFix co-founder Ben Berkowitz posted an issue, "Bolt Bus Should Run From New Haven to New York," which has become one of the most popular "fixes." It has attracted the attention of Alderman Greg Morehead, who sponsored a resolution that was passed unanimously by the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday, and has used the issue in his re-election campaign.

In theory, this is nice to see: people want transit! But note that the New Haven-New York route is not exactly transit-starved. Metro-North runs hourly commuter rail service ($14), supplemented by more frequent trains during peak times. Amtrak runs almost-hourly Regional service ($26) and an additional almost-hourly Acela Express service ($61). Peter Pan and Greyhound also run a total of ten daily buses between the two cities ($25). If you're in Union Station (the initial suggestion for this desired Bolt Bus service) you've got four options at three different price points.

So why do so many people want BoltBus? It can't be for the company: BoltBus is just a special premium service offered by Greyhound (which in turn is owned by the Scottish company FirstGroup). It could be the price: Bolt uses computerized airline-style variable pricing, with at least one seat on every bus selling for a few dollars. But the Yale Daily News writes, "Greyhound Lines spokesman Timothy Stokes said the company has no plans to expand the BoltBus to New Haven, or any other city." They've clearly decided that at this point they're not going to make money by running the Bolt service to New Haven, so the New Haven residents couldn't be pressuring them to run it at a loss, could they?

But it could be the service: Bolt has free wifi and electrical outlets, more legroom and leather seats. They also have a friendlier policy towards bicycles, allowing them to be stowed in the luggage compartments without being boxed up. The other services can't match all these features: Amtrak has the legroom and electrical outlets, but they don't allow unboxed bikes on the Northeast Corridor or offer wifi. Metro-North allows bikes on off-peak trains, but doesn't have any of the other amenities.

So let's assume that it's the service. Why does it have to be Bolt? On the New York to Boston run there are at least two competitors. Megabus (owned by another Scottish company, Stagecoach) also offers wifi and electrical outlets, with a similar pricing scheme. Limoliner offers wifi and outlets, plus wider seats, more legroom and an attendant, and just started running to Hartford for a flat price of $49 (which is probably beyond the budgets of most students, even Yalies). No word on the bicycle policy. Did anyone from New Haven approach Megabus or Limoliner?

Since Stagecoach recently sold most of their New England bus operations to Peter Pan, and Peter Pan operates under an agreement with Greyhound, Megabus may be unwilling to enter the New Haven to New York market. But there are a number of other bus operators in the region, many of which serve the nearby Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. If there are profits to be made, one of them could probably be convinced to outfit their buses with the necessary amenities and make the run. Or even a brand new start-up.

If there are profits to be made. That's the big question, isn't it? Apparently Greyhound doesn't think so - or at least, not enough to justify putting resources into right now. On the other hand, they are currently rolling out wifi, outlets and legroom under their own brand on their most popular routes, and maybe New Haven will come soon. But if the New Haven residents really think Greyhound is wrong, why not prove it? Yale has an economics department, and a world-renowned MBA program. Surely they could find a grad student willing to spend a day crunching the numbers. If they're good enough, it would convince any bus operator.

And if there aren't profits to be made? I don't think any amount of aldermanic resolutions are going to convince a private company to subsidize intercity bus travel. There's not even any point in asking the government to subsidize the service, since there's already subsidized transit between the two cities. It doesn't have wifi, but beggars can't be choosers. If it's wifi you want, then you'd have better luck petitioning Metro-North to install wifi.

The bottom line is that this isn't really an issue for government. But I would like to see better bus service, so I hope that the people of New Haven can get the numbers crunched and find out that it really could be profitable for someone.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

More examples of profitability

I've spent a bunch of time recently talking about the profitable Lincoln Tunnel buses. Some of these companies, particularly the ones that operate the jitneys, are relatively new, but most are companies that have been running these buses since the Tunnel was built, and many of them used to run trolley lines. But I would be remiss if I didn't tell you the story of one of the companies that didn't make it. So pull up your chairs and gather round the fire, kids, and your Cap'n will tell you the story of Transport of New Jersey.

When I was a wee lad, I would go to the Port Authority and see buses with the big TNJ logo on them. TNJ was a mysterious, larger than life figure, like Frank Martz or Carl R. Bieber. I got it confused with the logo for the New Jersey Turnpike that we would pass in the bus.

While riding along the Turnpike, I would look out the window and see the large PSE&G power plant. Not long ago I actually tried to figure out what the letters stood for, and I was pretty sure that Pacific States Electric and Gas wasn't it. Little did I know that there was a connection.

Dave Mackey has a great history of the Public Service Coordinated Transport if you want the details. You may also want to read two very informative guest posts about streetcar history (one, two) by Scott Bernstein at the Overhead Wire. Briefly, though, it used to be very common for the same company to own both an electrical generating plant and a network of trolleys powered by that plant. Such was the case with the Public Service company of New Jersey. During the mid-twentieth century, they switched to buses along with most other streetcar operators, with the notable exception of the route that is now the main line of the Newark City Subway.

Mackey and Wikipedia user NE2 tell us that in 1971, Public Service no longer considered its bus operations to be profitable, and spun them off as Transport of New Jersey, which operated the routes under contract to the New Jersey Department of Transportation. In other words, the State of New Jersey paid for the buses and was responsible for any losses. In 1980 the state formed New Jersey Transit to take over those routes, and another set of routes in Mercer County. A few years later they took over the commuter rail operations of Conrail, which left the agency in the basic form that we know today.

So if the combination of the Lincoln Tunnel XBL and cordon pricing makes bus companies profitable, why didn't it do that with Transport of New Jersey? Well, first of all, it doesn't guarantee profits, it just enables them. An agency is free to mess up in any number of ways. There are plenty of businesses that fail despite having market advantages.

Secondly, there were a number of massive highways constructed in northern New Jersey between 1950 and 1971, any of which could have subsidized car travel to the point where TNJ was unable to compete. If they were not sufficient, the opening of Interstate 78 and Interstate 280 probably did. Newark was a major PSCT and TNJ hub. This does not quite fit with the fact that the Orange-Newark-Elizabeth buses are still profitable, but I don't know what the exact story is there. Maybe some of you out there have more details.

This raises a new question, however: the Passaic River is crossed by five major highway bridges downstream of the Great Falls. Would some kind of cordon pricing there have saved Transport of New Jersey?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Us and them

In recent posts I've introduced the Magic Formula for Transit Profitability. Here it is again, for those of you just tuning in:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

Since it seems to work well for fare-free transit systems, I should maybe have called it the Magic Fomula for Transit Ridership. For a company that charges market rates, the connection between ridership and profits is fairly straightforward: the more riders you have, the fuller your vehicles are, and you take in more in fares for every dollar you pay the driver.

Until today, I had a hunch about the relationship between ridership and the ability of public transit agencies to win subsidies from governments, but I hadn't quite figured it out. Then I came across this seemingly unrelated Streetsblog post about Portland, Oregon's first cycle track. Bike Portland's Jonathan Maus was quoted as saying,
On other local media websites, the comments are flying in. The majority of them that I’ve read are negative. There are all the usual concerns that bikes are getting a free ride, that cars are being relegated to the margins, that the city is going insane, and so on.

In the comments, a reader named Jon (presumably a different Jon) wrote this:
There are the "usual concerns that bikes are getting a free ride" - don't car drivers get a free ride? The highway/road system was originally developed for cars without any support from the car companies - car drivers have ALWAYS gotten a "free ride" - why shouldn't bicyclists?

That put me in mind of Bertrand Russell's famous example of an "irregular verb": "I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool." Clearly, for some, street space allocation is an irregular verb, and probably any government action. Something like "I am receiving essential government services; you are dependent on subsidies; he is getting a free ride."

As with the cycle track, it looks like the difference between a well-funded public transit system and a badly-funded one is whether the people funding it think that it's for "us" or for "them." Dave Olsen touches on this in his report on the fare-free transit system in Hasselt, Belgium: "Now, people in Hasselt often speak of 'their' bus system, and with good reason."

What about Whidbey Island? On August 18, voters approved an increase in the transit sales tax from 0.06% to 0.09%, 12,963 to 10,768. Comments opposed to the increase included arguments like, "Those buses/vans are never full, or half full. Usually just a few passengers Dont believe me? Look at them when they go by your SUV." Letters in favor included arguments like, "It is for the people in our community, it is something we control, and we see the results right here," and "Why let the members of our community suffer when the inevitable is right around the corner?" It may indicate something about the prevailing sentiment that even while recommending against the increase, the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce was very diplomatic and didn't use "them" language.

Tellingly, several of the comments in opposition to the Island Transit tax increase were from regular riders who said they supported the transit company and were willing to pay a fare, but were opposed to the tax on principle. The number of island residents who consider Island Transit to be for "us" is probably higher than 54%.

So that's how ridership helps to fund even fare-free transit: by turning voters and opinion leaders into "us." And the Magic Formula helps to increase ridership and turn the perception of transit from "welfare" to "essential service."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sticks, carrots and sugarlumps

Today, featured a post that relates to what I've been writing recently about the Magic Formula for Profitable Transit. The post is by Ann Arbor transportation promoter Nancy Shore, on the Get Downtown Blog. Shore discusses incentives to use transit, employing the "carrot and stick" metaphor. She's particularly insightful in this comment:
We have a huge carrot known as the go!pass, that gives employees unlimited rides on the buses, including to park and ride lots in addition to other incentives. But those carrots only work if there isn’t also a chocolate cupcake (such as employer paid parking) on the plate.

Let me refine Shore's metaphor for a minute, to make it even more apt. The "carrot and stick" metaphor is actually from the field of transportation, discussing the best way to get a donkey to move a load. You can put a carrot in front of it, and it will move forward to get the carrot, or you can hit it with a stick and it'll go forward to try to get away from you.

In fact, your Cap'n has actually had the privilege of traveling by donkey cart, and let me tell you, it was all stick. There were no carrots or other positive incentives in sight. But my experience is just one data point, so let's assume that it's not completely representative and that sometimes it's possible to motivate a donkey with rewards.

Imagine that you're getting downtown in your donkey cart, and you get stuck in the mud. You walk around in front of the donkey and hold out a carrot, and lo and behold, she starts moving forward. But then a thief comes along and offers the donkey a sugar lump. Although it's well-documented that donkeys like carrots, I've been told that they like sugar lumps even better. All of a sudden, the donkey starts following the thief as he backs away. And she's pulling your cart with its load of plasma televisions and Kindle DXes away from downtown, towards the office park!

For whatever reason, Shore seemed to end her article as though removing the free parking passes were a stick, instead of simply chasing away the thief with the sugarlumps. And really, that's what entitlement is, right? You get so used to the reward that when it's taken away it feels like a punishment.

So now let's get away from the culture of entitlement for a little while, and travel with Dave Olsen to the town of Hasselt in Belgium, where the buses have been fare-free since 1997. The crux of Olsen's argument is here:
Hasselt City Council's principal aim in introducing free public transport was to promote the new bus system to such a degree that it would catch on and become the natural option for getting around. And it did -- immediately. On the first day, bus ridership increased 783 per cent! The first full year of free-fare transit saw an increase of 900 per cent over the previous year; by 2001, the increase was up to 1,223 per cent and ridership continues to go up every day.

Olsen's entire article is definitely worth reading, because he makes it clear that the planners and government officials really did an amazing job in this town. But critically, they didn't just make transit free. Olsen kind of slips this one in there:
The "Green Boulevard," formerly the inner ring road, was a traffic nightmare in the 1960s. Starting in 1997 and finishing in 2000, it has been transformed into a multi-use transportation dream: a nine-metre wide pedestrian area (Vancouver's standard sidewalk width is less than two metres), separate bike paths, separate lanes for transit, and roads that are engineered to ensure that cars drive at a maximum of 30 kilometres an hour. Although there are only two lanes for cars, there is rarely any congestion.

Okay, now wait a minute. They took a congested four-lane ring road and turned it into a two-lane, traffic-calmed street with a parallel greenway and separate lanes for transit. And you're telling me that this had nothing to do with the way that people flocked to transit?

It looks like the people of Hasselt followed at least part of our Magic Formula for Transit Profitability:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

More details of the Groene Boulevard can be found in this PDF report from Sust. I actually haven't been able to find pictures of this transit right-of-way, or any sign of road pricing, but they have clearly made it harder to drive in the town. They even made drivers travel in a loop, and we know that very few people actually want to travel in circles! Since Hasselt, like Curitiba, seems to be a popular destination on the Bus Boosters' World Tour, some of our readers may have been there; please fill us in.

What seems to have been the deciding factor is that the people of the area created a consensus Mobility Plan together, and seem to have really taken ownership of it; Olsen writes, "Now, people in Hasselt often speak of "their" bus system, and with good reason." The Sust report confirms this: "The stimulus for such a radical approach was multi-faceted: the city centre population had declined significantly over time, which lead to reduced levels of activity within the area. In addition, there was also a high rate of traffic accidents within the central boundary. These were some of the facts that indicated that city was in decline and needed a new focus and direction. Against this backdrop, the decision was taken to revitalise Hasselt by redefining mobility and the supporting infrastructure, making it more sustainable."

Apparently that's what it takes to turn a stick into a carrot: a shared sense of responsibility that outweighs feelings of entitlement. Not likely while the city looks to "leaders" like Bill Thompson and Pedro Espada.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Profit and profitability

In my last post, I revealed the Magic Formula for Transit Profitability:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

In response, Jarrett wrote,
No question that you could make transit profitable by that method. Are you sure you WANT transit to be profitable?

Isn't its loss-making nature part of what keeps it under government control, and thus accountable to the city? Sure, a profitable carrier is good to its customers, but it's not always a very good partner for government's efforts in infrastructure development and planning.

Alon pointed out that profitable transit companies in Hong Kong and Japan do promote transit-oriented development, because it suits them, and this has also been true of other private transit operators in the past.

I'm a lefty from way back, and I've got a major mistrust of the profit motive. But I honestly don't trust the government to do a better job promoting transit. In fact, here in New York we've got a mess of government forces, of varying degrees of corruption and accountability, who take turns sabotaging transit. Ten years ago it was Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki starving the MTA of funding and directing their appointees to saddle it with debt. Now we've got a pro-transit mayor and governor, and it's the state legislators who are keeping transit down. If nothing else, we need profitable transit operators so that they can bribe the state senate on their own initiative without running the risk of bringing down the city government.

But in actuality, the government can still have lots of control even if transit is profitable. Let me show you how.

I'll start with Dave Olsen's examples, since he holds them up as successes of fare-free policies. But the money comes from somewhere. First, on Whidbey Island, Washington, Olsen writes that fiscal conservatives have tried to defund the agency, along with the rest of the government:
In 1999, State Initiative 695 eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax as a source of revenue for transit systems, taking away 60 per cent of Island Transit's funding at the time. They've since more than doubled their 1999 operating budget by doubling the local sales tax collected (60 cents, up from 30 cents, for every $100 spent in Island County). The district could legally increase the sales tax by another 0.3 per cent, or 30 cent per $100 spent, if and when local voters are asked to approve it.

So the voters of Whidbey Island voted to increase taxes, bucking a wider anti-tax trend, in order to fund this fare-free transit system. Why did they do this? Probably because they see the bus as something they use, not something other people use. And why do they use it? Olsen gives us a hint:
One of the many things we could learn from Island Transit is how they've worked with the Washington State Ferry system to prioritize walk-on, cycling, and vanpool travelers. Buses meet every ferry (at a half hour frequency from 4:40 a.m. to 11 p.m.), drop their passengers within steps of the ferry, load ferry travelers and depart the terminal before any car traffic starts to unload. Vanpools load and offload the ferry first and are guaranteed never to wait even one sailing.

There are only three ways to get on and off of Whidbey Island, aside from private boats and airplanes: a bridge and two ferry routes. The two-lane Deception Pass Bridge connects to the north end of the island, in the opposite direction for commuters to the Seattle area. The peak ferry fare is $8.60 with a car, $3.95 without (PDF), and Olsen tells us how the ferries prioritize transit riders and cyclists. Apparently, the ferry is such a hassle for drivers that as many as 300 commuters keep a second car on the mainland and either walk or take the bus to the ferry.

In other words, Island Transit works by the Magic Formula as well: (1) the buses bypass the only significant congestion on the island, (2) there are often long waits for cars at the ferry dock, (3) the ferry costs significantly more if you take your car. But instead of taking the revenues in as fares, it takes them as sales taxes, and instead of riders voting with their feet, they do it with voting machines.

If Island Transit were a regular corporation charging fares, it probably would make a profit. Instead it's non-profit, but it is profitable in the sense that it's able to make a profit. The bottom line is the same: the service is stable and well-run, and feels like something that people want to ride, rather than being forced to by circumstance.

And to answer Jarrett's question, even if the buses weren't run by a municipal corporation, the State of Washington runs the ferries, and the bridge, and the roads. In other words, it holds the keys to profitability. That's enough to persuade a bus operator, I think.