Transit Overload

When are there too many public transportation systems in one place?

Last week, Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr. announced that he was interested in merging the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT), which runs the city’s buses, and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which operates buses in the city’s suburbs. Merger has been under discussion since SMART was founded in 1967. The two services mostly don’t overlap – the former is entirely designed to serve in-city commuting, while the latter simply takes people living in the city to work in the suburbs, or vice-verse. But the fact that the two systems are divided is a reflection of the great disparity between inner-city Detroit and its suburbs, a difference that is larger than that of perhaps any other American city.

After all, the city of Detroit is 82% black, while the metropolitan area is almost entirely white. While the suburbs are among the most affluent in the United States, 22% of the city’s population is below the poverty line. In 1950, the city had 1.8 million people, but it has now shrunk to 900,000; meanwhile, the metro area as a whole has increased in size from 3.2 million to 4.5 million in the same period. Meanwhile, while DDOT serves 39 million passengers annually on a budget of $184 million, SMART serves only 12 million annually on a relatively much greater budget of $124 million. Should bus services be divided between a city so poor and its suburbs, doing so well?

The conflict over Detroit’s bus services raises a broader question relevant to every urban area: should public transportation services cover the entirety of a metropolitan area, or should they be divided up by jurisdiction, as in Detroit? In New Jersey and Maryland, the state government runs bus services, light rail lines, and commuter trains in cities and suburbs throughout. In California’s Bay Area, on the other hand, the transit situation is completely balkanized. As shown in the map below, not only are bus services in the metropolitan area divided up by county – and even sometimes city – but to make matters worse, rail services that extend past municipal and county borders are each run autonomously.

The Bay Area Transit Mess

The problem is complex. For instance, while Muni and VTA light rail services are run by the bus service providers in San Francisco and San Jose, respectively, BART heavy rail and Caltrain commuter rail, which pass through numerous jurisdictions, are run by independent operating boards. Even more complicated, perhaps, is the fact that two planned extensions of BART, south to San Jose and a DMU line east into East Contra Costa County (eBART), are being planned and paid for by the counties, not BART.

The whole region is under the jurisdiction of the 9-county Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which distributes federal formula funds. Its role is theoretically to coordinate planning between all of the region’s transit agencies, but in reality, it is weak and incapable of forcing agencies to coordinate services efficiently. For example, the MTC introduced the TransLink fare card in 2002, and subsequently encouraged all of the Bay Area’s transit agencies to allow users to accept the card as payment. In 2006, however, BART – seemingly oblivious to the roll-out of TransLink – introduced its own fare card, called EZ-Rider. As a result, it has repeatedly delayed the introduction of TransLink at its stations, and the card’s use, which was supposed to allow people to switch easily between different services, makes correspondingly less sense.

While the full implementation of TransLink would indeed make the region easier to navigation, the separation of transit operations by locality and agency ultimately makes using public transportation more difficult than it ought to be. A single operator would provide customers ease of use throughout the region, because once they’ve gotten use to the manner in which signs, fare cards, and stations work in one area, they would understand transit throughout the region; today’s system forces riders to re-learn getting around public transportation every time they switch operators. Meanwhile, the operators themselves ultimately spend more on operations than they would have to if they were merged: if San Francisco’s Muni and San Jose’s VTA bought light rail vehicles together, they could get a better deal; if the region’s bus operators worked together, getting from one service area to another wouldn’t require as many changes of vehicle as is common today.

The existence of so many different operators is usually the result of the nationalization of operators that occurred in the early and mid-20th century: different transit operations, formerly under the control of competitive private entities, were brought into government control. For the most part in the Bay Area, bus operations were taken over at the county level. When regional services such as BART and Caltrain were implemented, rather than considering how to bring transit operations throughout the area together, the governments simply decided to create another, independent authority. Local entities could maintain political control over their bus networks, only being willing to allow a regional board control over the regional network. A bus service problem in Union City, for instance, would be resolved by leaders only in Union City, not some far-off cost-cutter in San Francisco. Ultimately, that made planning and funding less politically controversial from the beginning, but the long-term result is confusion among customers and problematic connections between services.

San Francisco’s example may be the worst in the United States, but all over the country, there are examples of problems resulting from the existence of multiple transit operators in the same areas. In New York City, customers can’t ride a train directly from New Jersey to Long Island because one operator (New Jersey Transit) covers the route from New Jersey to Manhattan and another from Long Island to Manhattan (Long Island Railroad). Meanwhile, people traveling in Manhattan from 34th Street and 6th Avenue to 14th Street and 6th Avenue have two separate underground travel choices: a $1.75 ride on PATH (run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) or a $2 ride on the 6th Avenue line of the New York Subway (run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority).

Thus, the existence of so many separate transit operators ultimately is an encumbrance to mass transit users and an inefficient way to manage and pay for operations. To merge operations – such as is being proposed in Detroit – would be convenient to riders and easier on the pocketbook of taxpayers. In these tight times, when transit agencies are cutting service and increasing fares, considering transit service consolidation makes a lot of sense, even if it means losing some local political control.

All that said, it could be worse. In Paris, the southern section of the RER B commuter rail line is run by the city’s transit system (RATP), while the northern portion is operated by the national rail company (SNCF). At the Gare du Nord station, in the middle of the journey, the train driver of one of the operators must get out and be replaced by another representing the other operator. Trains must sit in the station for a long period of time, every time while the change occurs before getting moving again. That’s what you call a mess.

22 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Norman Brown

    Please don’t look at my comments like a book review but…while I think you covered the “on the one hand…on the other hand” issues pretty thoroughly…I’m looking for more in terms of advocacy on the issue of Metropolitanization. And Detroit is the perfect place to start.

    Issues of disparity between city and suburb are not unique to the transportation (public and private) sector. In fact, disparity is why the suburbs are there from the get to. There has to be a larger political agenda of annexing suburbs and consolidating services and land use planning and this economic crisis is the perfect opportunity to do it. The suburb/city relationship can’t be taken as a given or treated as an immutable law like gravity or momentum.

    Most of the inner-ring suburbs have had the blood sucked out of them by the further edge cities in much the same way the inner-ring suburbs once drained the urban cores. Now is the time to address those issues. In the suburbs the issue is generally property tax reform. Pulling everyone together into larger urban political-economies is the only way to progress.

  • Kyle

    I have to say, the way public transportation works in Boston is really simple. The MBTA has oversight on all public transportation: subway, trolley, BRT, bus, water ferry and commuter rail. Although the commuter rail is run by the Mass. Bay Commuter Rail, it is part of the MBTA and every customer can use a charlie ticket/card on every single aspect of the trip, or buy a ticket on the commuter rail and ferry. Therefore, the entire system is really easy to use, as far as transferring etc…

    You do have to buy separate tickets for the commuter rail and ferry, unless you have a monthly or weekly ticket for those particular systems, but they also allow you to add on access to subway/bus etc…

    Although a few problems need to be sorted out with ticketing on the commuter rail, the entire system is pretty straight forward.

    All of the other regional transportation agencies across the state operate separately, but the transfer between systems are pretty rare (except for a small minority of commuters), because the MBTA system covers such a large area of eastern Mass.

  • andy

    If you guys want an excellent example of what transit infrastructure could look like check out Madrid

  • KansasNate

    For another view, take a look at Tokyo. Coverage is excellent, trains always run on time, and the system is owned and operated by a ton of different organizations, some public, some private. Just off the top of my head, there are:

    Tokyo Metro
    Toei (govt owned)
    JR East
    Keisei Electric Railway
    Seibu Railway
    Tokyo Kyuko Electric Railway

    And I know there is a lot more than that. Obviously there is a way to make different orgs work together to make a great transit system. Not sure if we could pull it off here in the US though.

  • There is another way:

    http://www.germanwordsexplained.com/blog/index.php/abbreviations/der-rmv-rhein-main-verkehrsbund/

    Sorry I can’t find a better explanation. If anyone can read German, German Wikipedia has an entry, and Bob Cervero talks about the concept in his book The Transit Metropolis:

    http://www.google.com/books?id=bLs3H_IWr3wC&dq=transit+metropolis&printsec=frontcover&source=bn

    Basically, a verkehrsbund is a regional body which coordinates not just fares but schedules between multiple operators. They’re common not just in Germany, but in Switzerland … both places where transit seems to work pretty darned well.

  • Kyle

    The transit system was amazing in Vienna. I don’t remember if they had a verkehrsbund, but I’m pretty sure I remember seeing that quite often…or maybe it was verkehrsplan…I don’t remember.

    Considering the connections between Swiss, German and Austrian culture, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • ryan

    Don’t forget Portland. TriMet is a function of Metro, our regional elected government. As such, all the transit for three counties is run by a single entity, and is overseen by a single regional org.

  • rufustfyrfly

    The SF Bay area gets so much worse when you include buses and boats. And you really can’t go very far without switching between three or four different carriers (especially given that SMART hasn’t been built yet). It’s absurd.

    Back here in New York, it has never made sense to me that the northern New Jersey rail systems aren’t on the same maps and fare-cards as NYC. We already have the Metro North integrated with New Jersey and Connecticut commuter rail.

  • Zig

    i agree with the above that the issue in the Bay Area really isn’t having so many operators planning their own operations but with the transfer penalties.

    Its especially offense in the inner East Bay IMO where the transit dependent and those desiring a car free lifestyle by choice can’t use BART as the subway that it wants to be as we in San Francisco can (we have an integrated Muni pass with BART in the City).

    A single pass good for buses and BART within a defined East Bay zone should be available. No brainer systems management that would drive off peak ridership

    Unfortunately, BART is more interested in building commuter rail while complaining about their “peaking” problem and AC Transit is in a death spiral it seems and is very sensative

  • David

    The situation in Great Britain (outside London) is even worse with respect to co-ordination between public transport operators. There are multiple competing private bus and rail companies, and in general tickets (except full-price rail fares) are not interchangeable between operators. Local authority input is generally confined to subsidising “socially necessary” services to ensure that there is a minimum public transport service. Private companies compete for the tenders to provide these services. For example, Macclesfield, Cheshire (a town of 50,000 in a rural English county) has no fewer than 6 separate bus companies serving 18 relatively infrequent urban and inter-urban routes on weekdays; rail services to the town’s single station are provided by 3 separate companies. Public transport usage is declining outside London, with services gradually being reduced year-on-year.

  • A good survey of an ancient topic.

    I was a transit activist in the Bay Area in the early 1990s, and we were having this same conversation then. There are a lot of reasons why this kind of regional consolidation is difficult, and there are also some reasons why it’s maybe not always a good idea.

    The Bay Area is best understood by comparison to Los Angeles. California has always organised transit and transport funding mainly through county-level agencies, so Los Angeles, because it’s almost all in one enormous county, has had such a single agency for a long time. However, by the late 80s that agency was widely viewed as unresponsive and mediocre — partly because of its own inertia and partly because of its labor contracts — and this led to the dramatic and controversial Foothill Transit secession. You’ll want to study this case before forming a very strong opinion. And of course LA has always had a few city governments that operate and vigorously defend their own services no matter how awkward the boundary issues are. One of the most popular of these is the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, and while few who’ve ridden both services would advocate for merging Big Blue into MTA, its boundary issues are very awkward indeed. In fact there’s now a transit center at Pico & Rimpau that seems to exist only because this is where the two Pico Blvd. services (Santa Monica’s and MTA’s) meet end-to-end, a boundary that was marked almost a century ago and that nobody can really explain or justify today except in historical terms.

    The Bay Area is not much bigger than Los Angeles County, but it’s nine counties instead of one, so it was balkanized by default. There are still many good reasons to avoid headlong regionwide consolidation. Silicon Valley is just too far from San Francisco or Oakland to accept a transit system managed from there — unless it consisted only of the most regional services.

    There is also an ongoing issue — which I hope you’ll cover more — of central cities having trouble getting their needs met through regionally-governed agencies. Seattle, for example, needs much more service per capita than the suburbs around it, but it’s served by a suburb-dominated transit agency (King County, which by 19th Century accident happens to be really big) and there’s an ongoing struggle about meeting Seattle’s needs. Under the regional funding formula it’s still the case that a service performing at X boardings per revenue hour would be considered a success in Bellevue, but could be cut as low-performing if it were in Seattle, because Seattle services are held to a higher bar.

    So you have to address the problem that if they were really pursuing the market, regional agencies would devote more service PER CAPITA to their core city than to their suburbs. Dense core cities need a higher level of per capita service to meet their own urbanist goals. It’s usually politically impossible for a regionwide agency to do this.

    I agree that the ideal is a regional agency that controls genuinely regional services (analogous to BART and Caltrain but maybe also Transbay and intercounty buses), while having more local agencies control the local services. But it’s tricky for the reasons I’ve suggested, and I’m not sure that I could even advocate it for a place as extended and centerless as th Bay Area.

    A very leftist San Francisco supervisor once asked me why San Francisco should give up any control of its transit to suburb-dominated boards who simply wouldn’t understand San Francisco’s density-driven need for a very high per-capita level of service. And he had a point.

  • Correction to Ryan’s comment: Portland’s Tri-Met, the transit agency, is separate from Metro, the regional government. Metro’s board is directly elected, while Tri-Met’s is appointed by the governor of Oregon. There are periodic debates about whether they should be merged, but the issue never gets much momentum because the two organizations seem to work pretty well together much of the time — at least by comparison to the Bay Area. There are also some strong arguments for separating operations from planning, because transit operators tend to be politically driven by operations news (accidents, service quality, rude drivers etc) and as a result it’s often hard to keep a political focus on the planning debate. Portland’s arrangement works pretty well in this regard, because the long-term planning debate (which LRT lines to build etc) happens mostly at Metro, under its elected board, while Tri-Met operates the service and handles its short-term planning.

  • What do you mean by “a long period of time” on the RER B? According to the current schedule, It takes eight minutes to get from Châtelet – Les Halles to La Plaine – Saint Denis. The RER A leaves Châtelet at the same time and covers a slightly shorter distance to Etoile in six minutes. That means that the personnel change takes all of two minutes.

    Yes, it’d be nice not to have to sit there for those two minutes, but it sure beats changing trains. I used to have a commute that involved taking a Long Island Rail Road train to Penn Station and transferring to a New Jersey Transit train. I could make the transfer in under five minutes if I had my ticket ahead of time, but I had to give it at least fifteen minutes just to be safe. Even then, there were times when the LIRR train was running so late that I missed the NJ Transit train – and of course there’s no guaranteed connection. Fortunately there was redundant bus service, so I didn’t have to wait an hour for the next train.

  • Also, thanks to Steve for the notion of verkersbund and the reference to The Transit Metropolis. That book actually uses the term verkehrsverbund instead, and if you search on it, Google will show you the relevant pages.

  • ian

    frnace still proves to be a good lesson, as does London’s TfL… though there may be many operators, the user experience is uniform… in Paris the metro and rer are consistent, and London has done an especially good job of pretending to be one entity through branding, while there are actually multiple operators of the underground lines alone.

    if we are too concerned with a giant transit merger in the bay area, which I think could be done with the proper oversight, what would be more practical and important would be MTA’s taking a larger role in mandating a more uniform user experience across all agencies… this would mostly mean a normalization of fare structures, which translink would help with, but more importantly, consistent information graphics and branding on par with the famous roundel of the london tube.

  • Adirondacker

    PATH runs at or near capacity during rush hours. I don’t know about the Sixth Ave IND but I’m sure it doesn’t have lots of capacity. … I don’t know if you could squeeze all the rush hour traffic on Sixth into a four track system, not to mention platform issues. . . assuming they were compatible. IND trains are too big for PATH tunnels, PATH trains are too narrow to reach BMT/IND platforms.

    NJ Transit uses catenary, LIRR uses third rail. So you’d either have to extend catenary out onto the Island or third rail into New Jersey. Both railroads, the LIRR past Jamaica and NJ Transit past Newark, branch out.
    Lets say NJT and the MTA decide to run trains between New Brunswick and Mineola. That’s great if you want to get from Queens Village to Rahway. Not so great if you want to get from Lynbrook to Maplewood.

    You can get from select Metro North stations to select NJ Transit stations – on Amtrak. I doubt many people do it because it’s expensive. . . any way to dig up numbers on that?

  • ian

    for the PATH/LIRR/MTA issues above

    i think it doesn’t really matter to riders whether or not the trains are compatible with each other’s tracks — yes, this would provide better flexibility in routes and operations, but the more important thing is that their “user experience” is consistent the whole way.

    BART made a bad decision by going with wide-gauge 5′ 6″ rails, instead of the standard, which comes with cheaper equipment and higher flexibility with other tracks around the bay area. i would propose that in the future, BART lines be built with standard gauge rails, and could even have different trainsets. as long as you still call it BART and have the same fare structure, no one will care.

  • Nathanael

    For PATH/LIRR/NJT/Metro-North/NYC Subway, the biggest issue is fare integration.

    The second biggest is the failure to do run-through services at Penn Station, which unnecessarily limits the capacity of the station. This is an *old* failure; they didn’t do run-through services back when the whole mess was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Now, trains which run on both third rail DC and overhead AC are used fairly regularly in London, so it’s not like they couldn’t buy them.

  • Woody

    Second Avenue Sagas reported that
    “When the MTA Board approved the 2010-2014 capital plan last week, they killed the MetroCard. … If all goes according to plan, Jay Walder will oversee the debut of a contact-less fare system sans the MetroCard by 2014.”

    A more sophisticated payment system would seem to have the potential to make fare integration more feasible. We’ll see.

  • Ocean Railroader

    The city of Richmond and it’s vast suburbs are run by GRTC which is a public bus venture between the City of Richmond and Chesterfield with buses going into most of the counties around it. The story behind GRTC is that Chesterfield county owns half of it but dosen’t use it that much while Richmond runs the bulk of it. Strangely though now Chesterfield is wanting to add more bus stops in their counties and other suburbs next to Richmond are thinking about adding routes and might even want Light rail routes along the former streetcar routes one day going out into their suburbs.

  • Max Wyss

    I got to this article only today, and I am glad to see a confirmation that the term “Verkehrsverbund” is kind of known in English speaking areas… I had in the past quite some problems to describe it; I ended up with things like “consolidated transit system”…

    Anyway, It is very important to point out that a Verkehrsverbund is a political construct, and that a Verkehrsverbund requires the political will to create a viable transit system, independent of the kind and number of operators.

    One Verkehrsverbund I know pretty well (ZVV; Zürich, Switzerladn) comprises around 40 operators, including the Swiss Federal Railways, the Verkehrsbetriebe Zürich (transit of the city of Zürich), but also cableways and the car ferry across Lake Zürich.

    Schedules are coordinated under the umbrella of the Verkehrsverbund; the operators don’t have that much freedom over their schedules. The base is an hourly interval on weekdays and mainly saturdays; less on sundays, but the core lines have 30 minutes or 15 minutes intervals, coordinated at nodes, allowing a fast transfer between different operators and transportation modes.

    Ticketing is based on zone fares; a ticket gives you the permission to use any mean of transportation within the specified zones for the specified time… a rather simple concept.

    The Verkehrsverbund collects the fares, and, together with the payments from the towns, distributes it to the operators. This ensures a fair distribution of the fares.

    As said, building up such a system requires the political will, and it might be an advantage of the Swiss political structures that it allows for long-term projects.

    Not knowing much about the political structures around the Bay area, it might be rather difficult to build up a Verkehrsverbund. However, from the above descriptions, it appears as if it were rather useful to implement such a system.

  • Nicholas

    The SF bay area is not a mess! I love that their is like 5 different ways to get to my house from sanfrancisco. Tgeir is B.A.R.T, Cal Train, Muni Metro, Taxi, and busses preferebly Sam Trans or Muni.

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