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.


Alon Levy said...

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.

The problem is that American transit is never configured for anything more than that. Even the New York City Subway, the least monocentric US rapid transit system, isn't very good for diagonal commutes, such as East Side to West Side north of 59th, Bronx to Queens, and even Brooklyn to Queens. The commuter rail system is even worse - it has no through-routing and little service for non-CBD neighborhoods. Chicago manages to outdo New York in poor planning: Metra has 3 different terminals, without even the 1-to-S connection between Penn and Grand Central.

That's not to say reaming difficulties on car owners isn't useful. Hong Kong and Singapore, the two most car-free cities in the developed world, both have steep car taxes and an urban policy encouraging transit use. However, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo are at least as transit-oriented, without the same anti-car policies; they have gas taxes, but their cars are much more fuel-efficient, so the cost of driving is about the same.

John said...

^Metra has four terminals; Union Station, Ogilvie Transportation Center, Millennium Park (Randolph St) Station, and LaSalle Street Station.

Cap'n Transit said...

You make a good point about Metro-North, Alon. But I think the Magic Formula still works on a route-by-route basis. Metro-North definitely benefits from Step 2, and you could argue that Step 3 exists, for some people, in the form of high parking costs in Manhattan. The reason it continues to be dependent on subsidies (besides the MTA's heavy debt) is that it operates relatively low-ridership off-peak service.

Since we don't want to reduce off-peak service, how can we boost ridership? Maybe you're right that through-routing and non-CBD service would improve things; I imagine that the new Yankee Stadium station will improve Metro-North's bottom line considerably, and service to Penn Station and beyond even more so.

But I'd like to see some figures for off-peak trips. Where are people who live in the Metro-North zone going outside the peak times? Where are people who visit the Metro-North area off-peak coming from? Or, where might they want to come from or go to?

Unknown said...

Tokyo has quite a few anti-car policies. You cannot register a car unless you have a parking space for it, there is very little on-street parking, private parking spaces are very expensive, registration costs are very high, and expressway tolls are very high (approx US$50 for a 150km one-way journey). Not to mention that the roads are narrow and congested, making driving very inconvenient.

So I'd say 2 and 3 are well satisifed for Tokyo.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you have solved all of the transit problems.
How about this one.
In Vancouver, Canada, urban transit is pitiful
All new bridges have Tolls on them, about $7.80 CD.per day.
There is NO incentive for rural commuters to take the transit - you know why - there is NONE. We drive up to 100 miles each way!
So we get punsihed for going to work; pay Tolls, pay for gas, time and headaches. There is no workable Park-and-Ride system in Vancouver. The transit reaches out to the edge of the City, then there is the next 75 miles with no Transit.