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 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.