Back in 2010 I wrote a list of things
I wanted from transit advocacy organizations, but wasn't getting. Well, there's a new organization in town that aims to deliver at least #3 (discuss new revenue sources), #4 (hold elected officials responsible), #7 (focus on transit) and #8 (a simple, accessible structure). It's called the Riders' Alliance
. They're just getting started, but it's a promising start. I've joined, and we'll see where they go. You might want to give them a shot too.
One of their first focus areas is the G train, and they encountered resistance from the MTA to their request for more frequent G service. The Brooklyn Paper
's Danielle Furfaro highlights their quandary
: "Activists working to better the G train say the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has created a catch-22 by refusing to make any service improvements on the line due to low ridership. But critics claim ridership on the so-called Brooklyn Local remains low simply because service is so bad."
Well, I claim that ridership on the G train remains low because it's competing
with the free, subsidized BQE, and it'll just get worse if the State spends $1.7 billion to replace the Kosciuszko Bridge with a wider one. But what if Riders' Alliance members Dustin Joyce and Sarah Kaufman are right, and there is a pool of untapped ridership that is being kept away by the six-car trains and ten-minute headways?
The most straightforward way to test this would be to simply try it. This is the approach known as tactical urbanism
that's already been applied in areas like street design. Imagine if the MTA ran ten-car trains at five-minute headways for a year. I'm guessing that they would see a big jump in ridership. At the end of the year, they could cut the frequency and train lengths back to whatever is necessary to support that ridership.
This kind of strategy is similar to the "penetration pricing" strategy sometimes used in marketing. In that case, the seller sets the price low (or free) temporarily to build awareness and brand loyalty. Examples include the special low introductory rates on credit cards and cable television. In our case, though, the goal would simply be to establish that there is a market for this service.
This has actually been done before, unintentionally, at the MTA. From 1976 through 2009 the G terminated at Smith-9th Streets. Then, when the agency reconstructed the Culver viaduct they temporarily extended the G to Church Street. This past July, after some lobbying
, the MTA leadership decided to make the extension permanent.
We should be able to do this kind of experimentation without a major viaduct reconstruction. I know that train cars are expensive, and the MTA doesn't have that many to spare, but I believe that these experiments can be worth it in the long run. If nobody's willing to do it with trains, then we should do it with buses.
Think about a bus route that's losing the MTA a lot of money. If you can't think of one, I have a few suggestions
. Or maybe it's a route that hasn't been tried
. Or a route that's popular but could use just a little oomph to push it over the edge into running an operating profit
Now imagine that some organization (it doesn't have to be the MTA, it only needs permission from the Department of Transportation to pick up passengers on the street) has a fleet of twenty brand new, clean buses with expert, responsible drivers. They take the Q79 route, say, and saturate it with buses, every five minutes or less, for a year.
What would ridership look like at the end of that time? Suppose by then you've got enough riders to provide service every fifteen minutes with a 50% recovery ratio. At that point, the MTA can take it over with normal bus service, and the Tactical Transit Strike Force can move on to, say, the B71.
We hear a lot about the power of targeted, experimental interventions to transform city life and give people a sense of what's possible. Now let's do that for transit.