Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thinking of Transit agencies as Welfare Providers ... Really?

The Transport Politic has an interesting discussion about how to look at transit agencies and their respective subsidies. I'm disappointed by the conclusion of looking at transit agencies as welfare providers. Though, it is reality in today's America.

While it's not quite in the american psyche to consider transit as a viable alternative to the car, in the end change comes down to a chicken and egg problem, both in terms of supply and demand, as well as mind set both of planners and users.

Routes planned for today's usage pattern of the poor rarely encourage new users from more affluent neighborhoods. Placing transit stations on the median of freeways tells you something about the relative appreciation of transit users. Poorly timed transfers between transit agencies, and/or disparate fare systems, make using transit very inefficient, and yield nonsense like monster-long urban bus routes (e.g. in San Jose, Route 68 from Gilroy to Milpitas, or Route 22 from Palo Alto to Eastridge).

Furthermore, the true cost of daily automobile subsidies (yes, building roads costs money, too) and their relative cost to society (e.g. traffic accidents) is rarely discussed, and mentioned in the blog post only in passing.

However, I have very little hope that views on this topic will ever change in America. A clean, efficient, and fast public transportation system would be nice, and I'd use it. I guess my only option to experience that (again) would be to move back to Europe.


Mikal said...

We have the same problem in Australia -- routes are provided for the customers the networks have, not the customers they don't have. I guess its like software -- if you never reach out to users you're lacking, you'll never extend your market.

However, the "transit as social welfare" argument doesn't hold all over the US. Just is spread out cities. Everyone seems to use the NY transit system, the DC system is popular, and lots of people seem to use SFs.

Bernhard Beck said...

Being used to "one ticket for everything" (slogan of the Zurich transit system) it continues to baffle me how fragmented US public transit is. Even in New York there's the MTA, Amtrak, LIRR, and what not, ... each with their own fare system (and I don't think a MTA subway ticket is valid on a MTA bus).
The SF Bay area finally introduced the Clipper card last year, but that merely makes it more convenient to pay the different transit agencies.

High density cities naturally encourage transit use (because using a car and parking is such a nightmare in those cities), but even in New York using the subway is not particularly inviting. It's dirty. It's noisy. The air is stuffy. And it's crowded. People deal with it, because the alternatives are worse. Maybe that's an unfair characterization, because New York's subway is so old. I need to visit Paris and London, try the Underground and the Metro to get better comparison data.

I'm clearly not impartial on this, and the US systems simply work differently than most European systems. I've grown up with and used German transit a lot. I can't expect that things work the same everywhere. If I have the choice I tend to use transit (because I really, really hate driving in traffic), but I also can't expect that everyone thinks like me.

Hmmm, I'd love to have an out of the box chat with someone who actually deals with these problems in their day job. E.g. How would professional transit route planners architect ideal transit for a spread out area like the SF South Bay (i.e. VTA territory)? What factors prevent them from implementing such a system?