With Few Funds Available, What are Transit Agencies to Do?

» The manifest lack of support for an increase in funding for transportation at the federal level means public transportation providers will have to adapt to survive.

This month’s federal budget negotiations have been incredibly disheartening for those of us who believe wholeheartedly in the advantages of popular social welfare provision in the broader sense; the ease with which members of both of America’s two major political parties have dispensed with the goal of widening the provision of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid suggests that the sense that government can do much to reduce inequalities in our society has been pushed far enough aside as to be ignored in the meeting rooms of even a president representing the so-called left.

The timing of these discussions — premised on GOP skepticism of government spending and Democratic fears of advocating raising taxes — comes not coincidentally just a week after House Republicans revealed their proposal for a six-year transportation budget. If it was not clear last week, it is now: The cuts being proposed would be devastating to the nation’s transit agencies, depriving them of much-needed funds for the purchase of new rolling stock and the maintenance and construction of necessary facilities. Even if this plan, which would diminish already too-limited transportation funds by a third, does not get implemented, the context of the debt negotiations suggests that something much better is unlikely to be had.

This leaves the nation’s transit agencies in a treacherous bind, since local and state transportation funds have seen significant declines as well. Do they hold back on capital spending, hoping for better days sometime a few years from now? Or do they attempt to divert operations funds to capital, potentially threatening their ridership and certainly reducing service quality?

There is no easy answer to this question, but one almost inevitable fact is that transit agencies have four basic choices: Reduce service, increase fares, ask for new revenues, or attempt some combination of the aforementioned three. These are all bad options: The first will make public transportation less convenient for everyone who relies on it; the second will increase its cost; and the third will demand sacrifice from either taxpayers or other public services. With a flustered economy and limited likelihood of quick growth in the near future, however, these are what is available.

Service reductions are the simplest, but potentially most devastating, form of budget-balancing at a transit agency. Since most bus or rail routes are money-loosing — they require subsidies to operate — reducing the number of runs can save everyone money. This could mean eliminating certain routes or decreasing frequencies along the line. Indeed, reducing the number of riders can save money too, if the number of routes that can be eliminated because of lower ridership offsets any marginal loss in fare revenues.*

The problem with this approach is that it sets into play transit’s “death spiral;” fewer and fewer riders are attracted to the service as less convenient options are offered. Then, as there are fewer riders use transit, there is less need for services, resulting in more cutbacks. This situation can only be remediated with the significant and costly re-introduction of good services at an even more subsidized cost; and by then, full-scale use of a city’s transit system is difficult to re-establish.

But if transit systems play an essential role in the urban ecosystem — allowing density, providing environmentally friendly travel alternatives, reducing congestion, offering mobility and access for all — simply cutting back until “you can afford it” is not really an option. The reason we subsidize transit in the first place, after all, is that its societal benefits are more significant than the sum of the amount people are willing to pay in fares to ride it. Thus service cuts — unless performed carefully and only on the least-effective routes — can only play a minor role in an attempt to balance the budget.

The second option, increasing fares, is perhaps the most toxic of the options made available to transit users. Too many riders already think they are being overcharged for less-than-excellent travel options,** so convincing them that they should pay more for the same can be a difficult argument to win; a decline in ridership is likely to occur with any increase in fares.

One alternative is raising the fare not just to the level necessary to make up for the loss of other revenue but rather to a higher bar to pay for service improvements. If the typical user of the system understood the resulting improved frequencies and better routes, they might come to see the fare increase as not a problem but instead as providing a benefit. Starbucks gained traction in the beverage market despite its relatively high prices because consumers appreciated the better (or at least perception of better) coffee they could buy there.

That said, the significant low-income segment of transit riders means that an increase in costs to ride must also mean less mobility for the poorest segments of the population. In the midst of high unemployment and increasing poverty rates, in whose interest would such a policy change be advanced? If combined with reductions for those with limited incomes, though, a fare increase could be both publicly beneficial and economically progressive.

Then there is the final option: Increasing local funding to pay for transportation, a politically dangerous game. Few politicians relish increasing property and sales taxes — the two revenue sources most frequently used to fund local public spending. In many cities around the country, voters have been asked to approve more funding for transit projects, so you can’t just tell them that they must pay more now because of lower-than-expected revenues; more taxes must come with more promises of improvements, which voters may or may not perceive as likely to be fulfilled.

Among service reductions, fare cuts, or local tax increases, there are no good options; no matter what any city chooses as its preferred means to relieve its funding crisis, the next few years are likely to be difficult ones, full of diminished expectations and few improvements in service at transit agencies. With a dominant political atmosphere that prioritizes spending cuts over social services, what else is to be expected?

Update, 19 July: Many of the comments on this article have raised questions about the possibility of increasing efficiency and productivity as an alternative to fare increases or service cuts. To this regard, Alon Levy has an interesting post on the difference between short-term and long-term approaches to deficits in funding; Levy’s article points out that many of the solutions noted by commenters would be difficult if not impossible to implement in the short term.

* The fact that transit services often lose money poses a financial problem even in well-performing, high-ridership systems, where attracting new riders may be a good idea from a social, environmental, or political perspective, but not from an economic perspective, as the new fare revenues they bring in are not large enough to compensate for the cost of providing higher-frequency service or more routes.

** Few mention the fact that transit fares in cities with excellent transit systems are very similar to those in places with miserable ones. Why does it cost a similar amount of money to ride the buses in Chicago, for example, where a high-frequency grid of lines and easy neighborhood access are provided, as in Springfield, Illinois, where few routes and long waiting times are the rule?

61 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Here in NE Illinois our Transit Operators (Metra and CTA) are threatening fare increases and/or service cuts:

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-metra-service-cuts-20110715,0,6309914.story

    http://www.chicagonewsreport.com/2011/06/2012-cta-fare-hikes-service-cuts-loom.html

    They say they have “Exhausted every source of increasing revenue and reducing costs”.

    This is TOTALLY Untrue.

    Metra (and CTA and Pace) continuously waste millions by operating parallel and adjacent competing Transit Services all over the Chicago area – but especially on Chicago’s South Side.

    Metra Electric District’s in-city routes (South Chicago, Kensington, and Blue Island) compete directly with many CTA local and long-haul bus routes (like those that run on South Lake Shore Drive).

    CTA’s plans for the Red Line Extension would extend and increase this wasteful competition by further duplicating existing Metra Electric services, and thus further reducing Metra ridership.

    There have been community efforts for over a decade to coordinate these services to remove competition, and operate more Efficient and Beneficial Transit for the Communities along the lines, however the involved Agencies (Metra and CTA) are only interested in expanding their OWN Spheres-of-Influence and Fiefdoms – “It’s my ball and you can’t play with it” (stick-out-tongue like 2 yo now).

    This is a valid reason for Congress to question the need and justification for these Agencies seeking supposedly scarce Federal Capital Funds.

    Recently Illinois Congress Members Sen. Martin Sandoval and Rep. Cynthia Soto have proposed hearings to ask Metra and CTA to explain how they can justify such hikes and cuts: http://www.suntimes.com/news/politics/6550606-418/senate-transportation-leader-to-metra-not-so-fast-on-service-cuts-fare-hikes.html

    I will be there for sure to question Metra and CTA on their continuous and purposeful waste.

    • I was able to request an appointment with Ill. State Sen. Sandoval today to discuss my documentation of waste and inefficiency at Metra and CTA, both in their Operating Formats – and Capital Funding sought.

      They were very interested in what I had to contribute, and said they would expedite my appointment.

  • Danny

    You left out the best option…increase productivity. It shouldn’t be too hard, considering the bar to be raised is currently laying on the floor.

    • Tom West

      [citation needed]

      What exactly would you change to increase productivity?

      • Transit priority measures are an obvious place to start. Paint some bus lane to start with, add signal priority where it pays for itself.

        The problem of course is that this requires some political commitment.

        • Andre L.

          You can’t just start “paint[ing] some bus lane”. To make such schemes work, you need to study and redesign parking, maybe construct off-street parking facilities to accomodate lost parking etc. To try pushing bus lanes on that ad-hoc fashion is to invite nightmare.

      • Danny

        http://www.uctc.net/papers/159.pdf

        I would do the opposite of everything they have been doing to get productivity this low.

      • RailBus63

        How about overhauling the sick leave policies that result in absenteeism rates of 10 to 15 percent or higher at some big city transit systems and insidiously leads to overtime bonanzas for staff who have to fill those missing runs?

        • Adirondacker12800

          How about the rest of us, including bus drivers, get vacation/sick/personal leave policies like the rest of the OECD?

    • Wad

      Read the report you linked to, Danny. Even settling on an acceptable definition of productivity is controversial, because depending on what is measured, it can look favorable in one type of environment but poisonous for another.

      See the distinction on bus-miles and passenger-miles.

      Which productivity facet should transit measure: ridership, revenue, load factor, cost-effectiveness … ?

      Warning: All of them is the incorrect answer. That’s because some facets trade off. Raising fares (revenues) lowers ridership and load factor, and that in turn may neutralize cost-effectiveness. Addressing ridership through addition of service depresses revenue and cost-effectiveness. Orienting routes around a load factor may lead to a network that isn’t intuitive to direct routes and it in turn depresses ridership.

      • Danny

        I don’t post studies that I haven’t read. And I fully understand the complexities of productivity. I personally deal with about seven different definitions of productivity in the manufacturing plants that I work with. Yes, sometimes raising one metric will cause another to fall.

        But what conclusion do you draw when ALL the metrics are falling precipitously? Is your only conclusion here that since productivity is hard to measure that we shouldn’t measure it? If there is a legitimate reason for one metric to fall, should we know what that reason is? Or just be content with knowing that we can’t draw any definitive conclusion from it?

        Transit has experienced a decline in productivity unparalleled and without precedent…even in the public sphere. At what point do these disingenuous misdirections become excuses?

        • Wad

          My conclusion is not to measure productivity: It’s knowing what productivity measure to use when, and why that measurement is important.

          Danny, you wouldn’t go to a doctor who would weigh you by taking your body temperature.

          You must know what productivity benchmarks — passenger-mile costs, farebox revenues, bus miles, costs per boarding, etc. — are used for, when they are useful and when they are not.

          Also, each route that may fail on one measure may be justified on one or more other measures. There are many cases where it is warranted to keep a line even when it may be disproportionately expensive. This is too broad for me or anyone else to answer what is the correct answer. There are a lot of circumstances to factor in.

          I also know why transit experienced a precipitous decline in productivity — and I am of the opinion that the decline was a good thing. I am not as alarmed as you are, because the result turned out to be for the greater good.

          Public transportation usage experienced a universal, secular decline for much of the 20th century. Ridership was disappearing. Fares were never raised fast enough to cover costs. Costs, particularly in labor, kept rising — they did in the overall economy as well.

          The decline in productivity also gave decision makers the wrong feedback. A secular decline tells planners to structure service around its eventual elimination. Doubling down, or investing in a declining asset, is only throwing good money after bad.

          What saved public transit to its turnaround (ridership bottomed in 1995 or so and has been on an uptrend since) is that productivity was disregarded for a long time. To maintain productivity as ridership is declining would mean to cut service 10% every time there’s a 10% decline in ridership. You do that and you have a death spiral.

          Labor costs grew because wages almost never went down; they kept going up even as ridership was deteriorating. You could see this as the doing of greedy unions. However, transit agency employees are not immune to economic forces around them. You cut their wages to match ridership, as is done in the private sector, and you won’t find people to drive, fix or clean your buses. The employees’ cost of living kept going up and there’s little to nothing they could do about that.

          Yet of all the money spent to maintain a moribund service, we at least have something to build up from now that productivity is working in transit’s favor.

          • Danny

            Now I’m starting to wonder if you read the study.

            According to your preferences, you would like to see transit service increase even when ridership decreases. Fine, you see it as an important-to-subsidize public good. What you seem to be missing, is that transit is failing even by your standards.

            Bus Hours per employee – down 17%
            Administrative expenses – doubled (share of total expenses)
            Cost per bus hour productivity – down 121%

            Even by your own standards this is NOT good. With cost increases that large, you need to more than double revenues to maintain the same service levels.

            Your comments about the inevitability of wage increases is about as naive as they come. Public sector wage growth has outpaced private sector wage growth for well over 30 years now, and for all the data that I have found, public transportation employee wage growth has exceeded even that. Costs of living rise, but that is why we have inflation adjustments. When wage growth outpaces the private sector, your assertion about inability to replace fired workers at lower wage levels is nullified.

            It isn’t even just wages. It is union rules that dominate costs. In some cases it comes in the form of contract-bounded staffing levels to keep unneeded employees working, and in other cases it comes in the form of suppressed hiring so that existing employees can maintain their ungodly overtime pay. It comes in the form of requiring full days, so that you need to hire a second round of drivers to handle the second peak. It comes in the form of fringe benefits such as defined benefit pensions that were defined using benefit level benchmarks that were set when life expectancy was nearly 20% lower, but with a retirement age that has stayed the same.

            And all of this comes before we discuss administrative costs and construction costs, which have seen near exponential increases, and neither of which are value-added in terms of service levels. At least with drivers, rising costs are mitigated by the fact that they add value in the form of output. With administrative and construction costs, it is almost a pure value loss.

            There isn’t a single dominating factor that has caused the complete fuckup of the transit system. I’m sure the fact that I’m a conservative makes you think that I’m placing the blame squarely on unions, but they are just part of the problem. The inability to even choose a metric to measure productivity makes the problem worse, because it means that there aren’t any standards to uphold, let alone improve.

            • Nathanael

              Union *rules* have indeed been painful, particularly to New York City and its environs. They haven’t been documented to be particularly damaging to most other cities, though.

            • Danny, over the time period studied, what happened to average working hours in the US? I know there was a decrease from the Gilded Age to the postwar period, followed by stagnation, but I don’t know how much hours decreased.

              • danny

                Good call…looks like the average workweek in 1950 was 42.7 and 1988 it was 39.2.

                http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/whaples.work.hours.us

                Down 8%

              • Adirondacker12800

                Back in the 70s there were splashy articles on heralded on the covers of Time and Newsweek about the coming leisure revolution..,. what we were going to do when the average work week fell below 30 hours a week… Sigh. Also way way back then with a little seniority you’d get more than two weeks of vacation. . . this whole supply side thing sucks..

              • Danny

                Well maybe the fact that you were believing long term predictions from Time or Newsweek is the true cause of your disappointment.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Perfectly reasonable prediction in 1973 or whenever it was. The work week was steadily shrinking and people were getting more vacation time. Wasn’t at all unusual for people to have 12 paid holidays back then. I got 14 at my job in 1976. When was the last time you heard of someone, who doesn’t work for the Archdiocese, getting Good Friday off?

              • Danny

                Umm…I got 14 at my first job out of college with zero seniority. But you are right, I don’t get good friday off…

            • Wad

              Danny wrote:

              According to your preferences, you would like to see transit service increase even when ridership decreases.

              I would like it, yes. No shame in saying that. Whether it is worth doing that in light of constraints and choices … it’s situational.

              Fine, you see it as an important-to-subsidize public good. What you seem to be missing, is that transit is failing even by your standards. … Even by your own standards this is NOT good. With cost increases that large, you need to more than double revenues to maintain the same service levels.

              No, Danny, we can agree that those cost figures are not good.

              You have to remember that the losses were compounded on the demand side. Increasing costs were spread across a dwindling ridership base. Unfortunately, the response by agencies has been to cut the supply relative to the dwindling demand.

              Your comments about the inevitability of wage increases is about as naive as they come. Public sector wage growth has outpaced private sector wage growth for well over 30 years now, and for all the data that I have found, public transportation employee wage growth has exceeded even that. Costs of living rise, but that is why we have inflation adjustments.

              If the wages are governed by CBA, the cost-of-living adjustment is a given. It’s cost-of-living PLUS a wage increase.

              Also, over time, the cost problem is primarily on the side of the front-line crews — drivers, mechanics and other employees that deal directly with service provision. For bus drivers, transit agencies have become the “best in class” for jobs.

              Mechanics are somewhere in between. Generally speaking, automotive mechanics public or private command high wages as a whole. However, heavy-motor mechanic opportunities are more scarce, so the high wages have to do with the specialization and thin talent pool. Again, the preference for public work may be because of hours, benefits or steady work.

              On the administrative side, though, government jobs tend to be the same or somewhat worse than a similar position in the private sector. Professional jobs — law, financial analysis, real estate, etc. — are less rewarding in government than the private sector. Private-sector employees could receive incentive bonuses and profit-sharing options. In the case of a government job, a defined-benefit pension can be a liability because the long vesting requirements discourage turnover.

              When wage growth outpaces the private sector, your assertion about inability to replace fired workers at lower wage levels is nullified.

              With a mentality like that, you’re surprised that unions are militant?

              Yes, managers have limits on finding the rock-bottom wage. The foremost is the CBA. Management and unions negotiate the minimum pay, the top minimum pay (there is no maximum wage), the increase scale and the number of years between minimum and top minimum.

              Second, there are also market constraints. In the absence of a CBA, what do you suppose is the market wage of a bus driver? Is it fair to say that because the educational requirements are similar to any minimum wage job, a bus driver deserves the minimum wage? If that were the choice, the applicant would pick the less demanding job.

              The one that doesn’t demand the operation of a 27,000-pound machine and the responsibility of the dozens of lives aboard it.

              You also don’t want to run a transit agency that has a replaceable workforce. You want to place some higher demands on the applicant in exchange for a higher wage. Remember, your vehicles put you at a much higher insurance risk profile. You want to be able to weed out reckless drivers and workers with substance-abuse problems or anger management issues.

              Also, each applicant costs a transit agency thousands of dollars — even before they serve a single customer. The pre-screening involves a physical and background check, and training wages are required for the classroom and road training lessons. Here, you’ve lost money on people who you won’t even offer a job to.

              So you’ve got to set your standards — and wages — a little bit higher.

              Continued …

  • Andrew D. Smith

    “There is no easy answer to this question, but one almost inevitable fact is that transit agencies have four basic choices: Reduce service, increase fares, ask for new revenues, or attempt some combination of the aforementioned three.”

    Totally incorrect.

    Transit agencies can use current financial limitations to push for massive productivity increases AND total compensation cuts. Indeed, current financial limits make this politically feasible for the first time in generations. There’s not a transit agency in America that couldn’t get three times the worker output per total dollar spent, if so-called transit advocates like you would create the political incentive be demanding it loudly and endlessly. Instead you keep whining about money. You hurt the cause you pretend to support.

  • Unfortunately, Andrew’s comments are true to a certain extent, as transit systems that contract out operations tend to have a lower operating cost than those that keep operations in house. I’ve been studying a bit about this lately (but this page is a work in progress): http://publictransport.about.com/od/Transit_Employment/a/The-Privatization-Of-Public-Transit-Types-Of-And-Advantages-And-Disadvantages.htm

    Overall, though, a bus driver can only drive a bus so fast. Political pressures make it difficult to remove stops so that average operating speed can increase. I can’t imagine how Andrew thinks massive productivity increases can happen with buses stuck in traffic.

    I disagree with some of the rationale about not raising fares. Having higher cost recovery would leave transit systems less reliant on the whims of changing government subsidy. And in terms of service cuts, a decline in revenues offer the transit system the opportunity to eliminate a lot of deadweight that would be politically impossible to get rid of in better times. In fact, light research I discuss here http://publictransport.about.com/od/Transit_Planning/a/Service-Cut-Strategies.htm suggests that service reductions enacted by CTA and L.A. Metro resulted in minimal ridership loss. Cutting a “loser” line is kind of equivalent to a corporation laying off a slacker employee.

    All of this is not to say that severe service reductions have a significant negative effect on the community. However, if the public views the transit system as operating efficiently with good route productivity, reasonable overhead, and adequate fares then I believe they will be more likely to reward the agency with the necessary tax increases.

    • Nathanael

      I don’t consider contracting operations to be “privatization”. It’s no different than any other job the city hires someone to do. The city retains control.

  • Maintaining a high-frequency core is essential, in my mind. It doesn’t have to be very big, since a huge percentage of trips are only 1, 2, or 3 miles long. Buses on short routes can turn around much more frequently, so a small fleet—even just one bus—can provide very good service. It costs around $110 or $120 per hour to run a bus. Catering to short trips is essential, because you basically can’t fit enough people onto a vehicle at $1 or $2 per head (and you’re probably not going to get that much considering transfers, passes, and other discounts). You want lots of people to get on every hour—but people need to get off as quickly as possible as well.

    The University of Minnesota’s campus shuttle system is the second-largest transit system in the state by ridership, beating out all suburban Twin Cities and outstate providers. Its longest route is 5 miles long, and that’s with a non-stop gap of 2 miles in the middle. They managed 93 passengers per hour in 2008—better than the 76 per hour carried by the Hiawatha light-rail line. They also have higher frequency and lower subsidy per passenger, even though the shuttles are free.

    High-speed service is also critical. Put a bus on a freeway and it can cover two or three times the distance in the same amount of time, which is huge. Doing “freeway BRT” by stopping at the occasional diamond interchange can really help passengers leapfrog their way across town much more effectively. Multiply the value of time of your passengers (or the people you want as passengers), and faster routes quickly rack up enormous value.

    Any speed improvements are appreciated. Stop consolidation can improve travel times by 10% or so, drive a corresponding increase in ridership, allow buses to turn around on the same or different routes more quickly, and probably reduce wear-and-tear on vehicles. Limited-stop services skipping half or more of the stops on the same route while running roughly the same frequency are also beneficial.

    • Andre L.

      University-centered bus systems are not a good paradigm.

      First, they all revolve around shifting people to/from key location on campus and some off-campus locations like housing complexes, the local shopping area etc.

      Second, they have unusually favorable demographics: with this sad increase in tuition prices, less families can afford cars outright to their students on freshman year.

      Third, some of those systems have captive market in the form of passes whose purchase is compulsory (they are bundled in the “service fees” charged to all students/employees).

      • I agree that they are unusual, but many of them have managed to maintain a much stronger pedestrian orientation than the cities they are in. They’ve been enclaves of urbanism, somewhat protected from the zoning rules and desire to tear things down that have transformed the landscape that surrounds them, though they’ve certainly also been damaged by car culture. Whenever smaller cities are cited as having large percentages of cycling commuters or transit riders, it’s because of a college or university.

        Campus areas also have challenges that cities at large don’t face. The summertime lull in traffic makes it hard to retain businesses nearby, and it also has implications for transit systems.

        They’re unusual places, but they’re often the best examples we have of pedestrian-, cyclist-, and transit-oriented development. There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from them.

        • Andre L.

          Most campus were and still are developed with a contained, self-reliant mentality that makes transit incidentally easier to provide. The lives of students are centered around campus in regard of living, eating and partying to a degree that is totally out of question for any other demographic. The closest that comes by are former company villages of the big factories-era, in which a company (university) would totally dominate the life of the community (campus), coordinating not only work (studying/research) but also social life, housing (room-and-board), health care (student health services) to the point that the employees (faculty/students) can rely on the central institution for most of their daily lives.

          There is also a whole league of town-gown tension in cities dominated by college campuses, like groups of students out-bidding families for off-campus residential rent, transit services that cause resentment because they serve only the campus-based demand etc.

  • Reduce staffing on commuter rail lines to rapid transit levels. Move NYC subways to OPTO. Deal with the inefficient labor contracts. Stop overspending on rolling stock. Stop overspending on new projects.

    (Fuck whatever comment system you use! I keep trying to add links, but it tells me you’re “not big on spam.” Go to pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com to read more about this – the US rail construction costs article in particular.)

  • Faith

    In the Twin Cities, the legislature’s budget would reduce Metro Transit’s budget by $109 million per year. Metro Transit’s plan for dealing with that: 25% service cut, (including all suburban express buses in some areas and all duplicative express buses to the University of Minnesota & downtown where a local route is nearby) and a fare increase of $.25 or $.50, bringing rush hour fare to $2.50 or $2.75 for a local bus, non-rush to $2.00 or $2.25.

    This is on top recent fare increases and service cuts in the last few years that has pruned a lot of the less successful routes. Add in federal cuts and there would be a half a transit system left.

    Granted, Minnesota does not have a functioning government right now and the cuts & service decreases could change depending on what shakes out. Unfortunately for some regions, “all of the above” might be the answer.

  • Andre L.

    Fare increases is the sacred cow of many transit pundits, including some that give thoughtful contributions on the blogosphere. Most of their common ground resound on the allegedly positive effects transit has on society, for what users are yet not willing to pay at the fare box.

    I think, however, that the current crisis presents an opportunity for transit agencies to massively increase fares and reorient their systems towards a more limited network that provides greater efficiency withint its reach.

    In other words, I think of a shift from stretched out systems operating on the brink of collapse (old rolling stock, filthy buses) to more robust systems that just assumes not all areas withing a city will be served by transit, with fares recovering a higher share of its costs.

    I bet there is a market for transit that is more expensive but delivers good service (high-frequency, reliable network etc). Instead of catering for all people living within a metro area, it would cater for a limit swath of it, but it would offer quality service there.

    Some transportation of last resort, like 3h-headway buses, could be then provided as a token for areas cut off from the network.

    • david vartanoff

      “Instead of catering for all people living within a metro area, it would cater for a limit swath of it, but it would offer quality service there.

      Some transportation of last resort, like 3h-headway buses, could be then provided as a token for areas cut off from the network.”

      Nice use of the word token. And if you Redline neighborhoods in terms of public transit, how about fire, police, garbage collection? Will you refund the taxes paid for service not delivered?

    • Dexter Wong

      No reasonable person would put up with bus service every three hours, they would drive instead or shell out for a taxi instead. It would be a very poor token indeed.

  • Allen

    “Starbucks gained traction in the beverage market despite its relatively high prices because consumers appreciated the better (or at least perception of better) coffee they could buy there.”

    It’s not just the quality of coffee Starbucks offered but the whole experience. It’s part of some people’s morning ritual and becomes part of their community.

    Just as important it quick and easy to use. Can you imagine buying that equipment and cleaning it just to have a frapachino a few times a week? Or if you’re out and about, do you drag along a thermos from home or just grab a cuppa Joe at Dunn Brothers?

    The problem with transit is even if it can put on a friendly face more often than not, it’s hard to see it ever becoming more convenient than other options most of the time. Sure, there are a few downtown routes where it can compete. But at the end of the day, people taking transit spend twice as much time commuting as cars. It’s gotta be faster, not slower.

  • Chris Simmons

    It’s not solely about privitization, or increased local revenues, or increased federal support, but about the design of an overall system that meets sometimes competing needs. Too often, our transit systems are designed around meeting the needs of equipment and operators, not around human scale needs that then have service designed to meet those needs. Looking at pieces from a human scale perspective, it might make sense to privatize (or PPP) additional service for the peak, maintain a core level of service for those without options, and increase bike/walk/rideshare coordination for other types of trips. But that assumes that you are planning to users and not equipment/operators/union contracts.

  • As everyone here knows, raising fares and/or cutting transit services would only make matters worse. Rather, we should see this as an opportunity to reconsider how we see the government’s role in transportation and land use.

    On the federal and state levels, we have departments of Transportation that serves as umbrellas for many different transportation modes, although non-motorized and public transportation may receive little more than lip service. But considering all modes together may not go far enough administratively. I’ll use the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison’s Transportation Services as an example, from my limited perspective. Maybe someone can help correct me. But what I see is that the department administers both transportation (in all its form) AND parking. They are in one budget. Actually, since University planners are putting buildings up on land that used to serve as surface parking lots, a case could be made to consider ALL land use and transportation together.

    Our city government does not do that. Yet we continually complain about the high cost of road projects outlined by Traffic Engineering and City Engineering. This makes me wonder about charging for what is now “free” parking, and funneling to transit both parking revenue and money diverted from adding yet another lane to some road used by out-of-city commuters. Ultimately, we may need to talk about more sustainably designed neighborhoods, but at least this could start us thinking beyond a “raising fares/cutting service” mentality.

    • Andre L.

      What if, for political and costumer preference reasons, the majority of inhabitants of a city entitled to vote just couldn’t care less about their neighborhoods being sustainable or anything like that? Universities can patronize the lives of students in a way cities can’t in relate of their citizens.

      The discussion about right parking price is warranted. I myself am a fan of large underground parking facilities in lieu of street parking on busy streets. But that doesn’t mean that we should see parked cars as a cash cow for money-losing transit.

  • John Royse

    Additional funding or a reduction in service can easily ignore options such as aggressively pursuing money saving measures already in use by other systems e.g sale of advertising inside the bus, reducing insurance costs by hiring only nonsmoking employees, enhancing service by providing on-bus passenger imput opportunities, etc. Admittedly not a total solution but a good beginning.

  • Mike

    I guess Yonah’s addendum is conceding that transit needs to get its cost structure under control and become more productive, efficient, and effective through, e.g., better management and more flexibility in labor. What’s he tees up instead is: how to keep transit reasonably afloat until such time as cost-structure improvements take hold. There’s obviously no fun answer to this question, but transit agencies all over the nation are doing it, and they’re doing it with a combination of delaying capital projects and flexing funds to operating support, reducing service, and increasing fares.

    It’s not a gloriously wonderful moment for transit, but it works and it’s already being done, so let’s move on to the next question, the REAL question: will transit REALLY get its cost structure under control? (I love Danny’s comment that “the bar to be raised is currently on the floor.” Too true)

  • Federico

    In Atlanta, MARTA is well into its death spiral: two fare increases since 2009 and a major service cut last year. And of the 30 largest bus agencies, it saw the largest ridership drop (14%) between Q1 2010 and Q1 2011. Yet the agency’s approach to modernizing its service offerings (especially with regard to sharing service information) remains remarkably slow and clumsy– it is the largest agency in the country not to share schedule data with app developers and only posts real-time train arrival information the fare gate. Much of the screen time on its newer real-time location monitors is given over to advertising anyway—would these not possibly attract extra riders if they were also located outside of stations (or at least right at the entrance)?

    It surprises me that in such an environment of fiscal constraint there is not more attention paid to utilizing existing capacity and letting private development use transit agency land assets to amenitize the service. Sure, the most attractive transit offers a reliable and frequent service, but can real time information not be used to allow potential riders to take advantage of the service without first having to increase service frequency (and operating costs)? This coupled with an aggressive strategy of maximizing complementary land uses and functions around (and in) stations seems to me to be the lowest-cost way of reaching out to choice riders. Sure, taking the train or bus can mean long waits on the platforms/at stops as opposed to the immediate access one would likely have to a car, but if the accomplishment of other errands can be folded into your wait time (and those can be accomplished right by the station), doesn’t that constitute more reliable transit service overall?

    • Andre L.

      Federico, a common issue that prevents maximization of land use (and thus development fees) as you proposed is that, especially after a transit infrastructure is already in place, it is politically difficult to suggest residents of a given area should accept new development so that its fees will pay for increased and busier services (meaning: more crowded trains).

      The moment in which it might be possible to garnish support for T.O.D. near new transit infrastructure is before its construction. For instance, once you build a subway stop and open it for traffic, it is much more difficult to pass a re-zoning of its immediate surroundings to allow more expensive development if the place is otherwise in good standing. If it is a residential area, residents will claim that the character and tranquil aspect of the are shall be preserved. If it is a low-density commercial space, it will be claimed that redevelopment plans mean will displace local business. If it is an open space, they will claim it must be converted to a park, not yet another tower.

      • Federico

        It depends on scale and context, of course. Busy stations in places that have a critical mass of riders probably don’t need to do much, but there exist small opportunities (such as retail space in and around stations to be rented by day-to-day service uses such as dry cleaners, shoe repair, newsstands, etc.). Stations currently surrounded by major parking facilities could add a few of these without creating a significant impact on surrounding neighborhoods or land uses; this coupled with better information on service (i.e. real-time wait times for vehicles) might allow people to choose transit knowing they have flexibility to get other things done through a long wait.

        I agree that TOD opportunities need to be identified and pursued before stations are constructed. However, most legacy rail systems today weren’t planned and built with such a concept in mind. To the extent that they have underutilized stations, there are undoubtedly amenities they could pursue to attract ridership by making transit use a more comprehensive experience that can allow them to take care of other basic needs.

        To me, increased ridership (and thus farebox recovery) without needing to add service is the most desirable outcome for a transit agency. In what other ways could they pursue such an outcome?

  • Transit Benefits Everyone

    “Why does it cost a similar amount of money to ride the buses in Chicago, for example, where a high-frequency grid of lines and easy neighborhood access are provided, as in Springfield, Illinois, where few routes and long waiting times are the rule?”

    While accurate, the same could be said of Chicago and its near-west suburbs. Sitting on Chicago’s west edge/city limit, it takes about 20 minutes to travel about 8.5 miles to the heart of the CBD by transit. Heading 8.5 miles southwwest from thart exact same point into the near sw suburbs may take as much as 2.5 hours and involve two, three, or four busses depending on route taken, with the last one or two busses running only once per hour.

    Despite the absence of a genuine transit network that would enable far more people to choose transit, we keep investing in urban add-a-lanes to solve congestion.

  • Nathanael

    Seattle Transit Blog has been “fighting the good fight” on this one: fighting for increased funding, fighting to make sure high-frequency routes get preserved, fighting to eliminate delay-inducing “wiggles” in bus routes, fighting to eliminate duplicative routes, fighting in favor of cutting the most marginal routes and against across-the-board cuts.

    It turns out there’s a large number of tiny groups which lobby for inefficient bus service. What can you do? In Los Angeles, the ultimate example was the BRU.

    • Andre L.

      Buses are more affected, but all transit forms are subject to piecemeal adovacacy, before and after its implementation.

      For me, the long-term solution is for transportation agencies to operate under general, technical guidelines at expense of accommodating local concerns. For instance, when deciding which services to cut, or how to re-design a network, they should stick to criteria like population living within [i]y[/i] distance of stops, average travel time etc. Then, if the agency can, for instance, demonstrate a set of changes will reduce travel times while requiring extensiv streamlining of routes, so be it.

  • John Royse

    It’s shortsighted to limit the options to more government funds or cutting service when untried alternatives exist to increase income such as advertising on bus interiors or hiring only nonsmokers to save on insurance as some other transit systems and communities do. These won’t fill the gap entirely but it’s a good start. Look outside the box.

  • Advertising sounds good, but the revenue it brings in is a very small amount of the overall budget. I believe I read a MUNI plan under consideration to have totally wrapped buses for the first time was expected to bring in $500,000 out of a total budget of $180 million. The nonsmokers idea is interesting, I have no idea how that would affect the cost of providing health care to transit employees.

    Overall, I find service reductions are being planned much better than they used to be. Perhaps one reason is that we now have much better ridership data than was available twenty years ago.

    Although capital funding is not really the problem, I would like to see the historical pattern of replacing buses every 12 years go by the wayside. Sydney, Australia replaces their buses every 23 years and they are fine, and even a cold climate like Toronto can keep their buses in running condition upwards of 20 years.

    • Danny

      While buses probably could go a bit longer than they currently do, they would have to do so on roads that are much better maintained than ours currently are. And that would require funding, which in turn requires offending free riders.

      That being said, I think our buses would still last a bit longer if it weren’t for the whole emissions regulation situation, in addition to the transition from high sulfur to low sulfur diesel. Trucks in the US have seen the same problem.

    • Dexter Wong

      Wrapping buses may bring in some money, but that is offset by the need to repair the paint job when the bus is unwrapped. That would take time and money, or you have buses with holes in their paint (that can lead to premature rusting).

      • Danny

        This isn’t true. With wrapping materials, you can specify if you want Long Term Removable or not.

        • Dexter Wong

          I have had correspondence with a number of bus drivers who pointed several San Francisco Muni and Golden Gate Transit buses with damaged paint jobs after the wrapping was removed. Also a San Francisco television station carried a story about the City suing CBS Outdoor Advertising over damage to buses as a result of advertising wraps.

          • Danny

            They are doing it wrong. They either used the wrong materials or they didn’t follow removal instructions. I have personally pulled a wrap off of a truck after having it on for 6 years, and the paint looked like it just came out of the factory.

            Avery MPI1005 EZ RS Long Term Removable…there really isn’t any reason to use anything else.

      • John W

        Wrapping buses is also offset by how horrible an experience it is for the passenger. I’ve been sorely tempted to peel it off the window so I can see out. Not that we can monetise passenger satisfaction or anything…

        • Andre L.

          There is crap and modern wrapping. Modern ones allow you to see outside just with a dimmed view, they are as much as 60% translucent.

          • John W

            Those modern ones are the ones I was referring to – you are looking out at the world through a pixellated image. The other way to think of it is a minimum 40% vision loss. I’m sure ad agencies can find creative ways to wrap a bus without covering over the windows

  • Chris, advertising inside buses is NOT the same as wrapping buses in advertisement. And as you say, it is often not financially “worth it” compared to other initiatives. Also, while there may be a modest potential for income from advertising, it is important to have a clear idea of public vs. private space. Advertise in the wrong way, and you are raising fares, whether you call it that in so many words or not.

    And yes, smoking is a serious health issue and should be addressed. Operators can also suffer from back issues. Finally, I’ve heard the suggestion that asking staff to engage in a simple exercise program could have significant impact on both morale and the cost of health insurance.

  • Ted King

    How much money would fiber conduits bring in for transit agencies with exclusive ROW’s ?

    To me the absence of spare conduit capacity in subway networks of ANY size (from SF’s MSS* to New York’s triplicate cat’s cradle) is a double whammy. First, any upgrades don’t have an empty pipe and some junction boxes waiting for the next generation of controls. And second, spare pipes could be filled with fiber optic cables that take advantage of an easy route to major buildings and campuses.

    The first absence makes any upgrades more expensive in time and money. The second absence eliminates a way for governments to save money on comm. costs and a steady trickle of rent money from commercial fiber services.
    – – – – – – – – – –
    *MSS = Market St. Subway (Embarcadero to Castro)
    Spurs –
    [a] SFMuni continues to West Portal via the Twin Peaks Tunnel
    [b] BART’s section (Embarcadero to Civic Center) is the western centerpiece of their regional network
    – – – – – – – – – –
    Pts. of interest : Libraries – West Portal Br., Main (Civic Center), Mission Br. (24th St.), Glen Park Br., Mechanics Institute [private] (Montgomery St.); City, state, and federal offices – multiple bldgs. (Civic Center and Van Ness stns.), EDD [state job center] (just south of Cesar Chavez and Mission); Hospitals – Laguna Honda (Forest Hills), St. Lukes (near CC + Mission); Colleges – Downtown campuses for SF State and CCSF (Powell), UC’s Hastings [Law] (Civic Center), CCSF’s Mission campus (24th St.), CCSF’s main campus (near Balboa Park), asstd. private near Market St. (see link below).

    P.S. SF State’s main campus is on the M Ocean View line SW of West Portal Stn. The ROW was refurbished some years ago and conduit could have been put in at that time. That conduit leg could also serve the Merced Branch Library which is across the street from the Stonestown Galleria. UCSF has campuses on surface sections of the N Judah and T Third lines.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_colleges_and_universities_in_San_Francisco
    – – – – – – – – – –
    P.P.S. It looks to me like some transit planners are not considering the FULL meaning of the term “network effect”.

    • Ted King

      Missed a couple : Federal offices – Federal Reserve Bank [S.F.] (Embarcadero), U.S.Mint (Duboce Portal near Church St.).

  • Wad

    Continued …

    It isn’t even just wages. It is union rules that dominate costs. In some cases it comes in the form of contract-bounded staffing levels to keep unneeded employees working, and in other cases it comes in the form of suppressed hiring so that existing employees can maintain their ungodly overtime pay.

    First, unions do not control hiring, firing and budgetary-decision making. Executive level jobs are non-eligible for CBA, and CBAs also spell out management rights.

    Hiring is suppressed because a CBA calls for all workers to be full-time, with a guarantee of at least 40 hours of work per week. The marginal cost of an added FTE becomes huge, because by contract you’ve agreed to provide the worker with 40 hours of work, not the hours needed.

    Or, part-time workers are allowed but there’s no flexibility on the compensation packages. There are some agencies that will allow 20-30 hour drivers, but they have to be given the same benefits as full-timers. They then become less productive than full-timers, so their numbers are limited.

    It comes in the form of requiring full days, so that you need to hire a second round of drivers to handle the second peak.

    You also need a second round of drivers because federal and state laws limit the amount of driving time per day and per week.

    If you’re talking about a system that has a peak/offpeak service imbalance and wonder how the added peak-only service is handled when full-time hours are guaranteed, it’s called the split shift. You’re still paying the driver for a full day, but the driver’s 9-to-5 is actually 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. The driver checks in, drives the morning peak, goes back to the garage, clocks out, is idle during the midday, clocks in, drives the afternoon peak, goes back to the garage, and then goes home. The driver is still paid a full day’s wage, but agrees to commit most of his or her day to the agency. (Policies on what the drivers can do during the midday idle time vary by agency; some require drivers to stay ready for duty, while others will allow drivers to go home or take college classes.)

    It comes in the form of fringe benefits such as defined benefit pensions that were defined using benefit level benchmarks that were set when life expectancy was nearly 20% lower, but with a retirement age that has stayed the same.

    No disagreement here. Pensions and commitments to former employees are the biggest fiscal crises for governments. Circumstances beyond the unions’ and governments’ control require a drastic change. The system will shift to a defined contribution plan, and the parties must plan for it, because if they don’t, the bankruptcy process will.

    And all of this comes before we discuss administrative costs and construction costs, which have seen near exponential increases, and neither of which are value-added in terms of service levels.

    Construction costs are high because (1) Americans suck at it and (2) funding mandates tie the hands of cost-effective projects.

    The U.S. doesn’t have the knowledge or tools available to it for construction or for anything procurement-related. Best practices in the U.S. are defined as looking carefully at the last fiasco and not repeating them.

    Alon Levy has made a good point about best practices in Europe. For MIS-level construction, European transit agencies maintain an experienced in-house design and engineering department. (In the U.S., highway departments have this as well.) They tailor the specifications and tender the construction and sometimes operations and maintenance privately.

    In the U.S., transit agencies must almost always buy expensive private knowledge. Public transit engineering and construction is limited to a cartel of about 6 firms.

    The inability to even choose a metric to measure productivity makes the problem worse, because it means that there aren’t any standards to uphold, let alone improve.

    Transit agencies are measuring productivity, but there isn’t a universal benchmark that could apply to transit agencies of various sizes and across areas and get correct results for all.

    A small, 75-bus system wouldn’t try to hold itself up to New York City, and if it tried to evaluate its system like MTA’s, it would be badly mismanaged because the managers are looking for the wrong things.

    Know what you’re measuring and why it’s relevant.

  • Ariela

    Leave it to republicans to find anyway to punish the working poor and when we can’t get to our jobs and schools, then what? Republicans are already trying to take away any kind of welfare aid.

    Why anyone is dumb enough to vote for these thieves I’ll never understand. Voting republican is like standing in the middle of the street just waiting for the car to come roam you down.

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