Losing Sight of the Real Goal

Responding to the devastating decline in transit ridership, many interest groups are desperate to “save transit” from competitors and budget cuts. Transit agencies want to save transit. Transit unions want to save transit. Urban planners want to save transit. Transit advocacy groups want to save transit.

The only people who don’t want to save transit, it appears, are the travelers who for the past ninety years or so have increasingly found alternatives to transit that are faster, safer, cheaper, and more convenient. All of which suggests that those who want to save transit have lost sight of the real goal, which is–or ought to be–to provide cost-effective mobility for everyone.

The thing is, transit lost that battle decades ago. Though transit groups love to claim that transit saves people money, it is actually the most expensive form of travel in the United States by far. Moving a passenger one mile by transit cost (after all subsidies are counted) $1.17 in 2016. This was more than four times as much as driving, which cost just 24 cents per passenger mile.

Worse, instead of addressing this problem, the solutions offered by transit advocates would make transit even less cost effective. Take the TransitCenter, whose report on Chicago’s transit decline admits that ridership is falling due to ride-sharing competition, low fuel prices, and decreasing bus service. But the center’s solution focuses on just one issue: bus speeds (an issue previously raised by LA Metro). A chart on page 2 of the report shows what appears to be a precipitous decline in average bus speeds, but only looks large on the chart because they used a truncated chart that put the Y axis at 9 to show a decline from 9.8 to 9.0 miles per hour. Can anyone really think that buses would attract more riders by going 9.8 mph instead of 9.0 mph?

The 8 percent decline in bus speeds probably had far less influence on ridership than the 23 percent decline in CTA bus service (measured in vehicle revenue miles) over the same time period. Yet all of the TransitCenter’s expensive solutions focus on restoring bus speeds: giving buses their own dedicated lanes; resetting traffic signals to give buses priority over other traffic; and speeding bus boardings by having riders pay before they board. While the last idea at least has the virtue of not costing anyone but taxpayers, the first two put the needs of bus riders over auto users, which in the city of Chicago means putting the needs of 14 percent of commuters who take the bus over the 60 percent who drive or carpool to work (and the percentage differences would be even larger for non-commuter travel).

Unfortunately, too many urban planners don’t consider cost-effective mobility to be a primary goal. Instead, they are more interesting in using transportation to reshape urban areas to fit their preconceived notions of what a city should look like, which are generally 50 to 100 years out of date. Moreover, research indicates that transit doesn’t do much to reshape cities anyway, meaning both the goal and the means to the goal are wrong.

Mobility should be the primary goal of transportation agencies and policy makers because mobility produces economic value for everyone. Cost effectiveness should be part of the goal so that mobility is accessible to as many people as possible. Transit being slow and limited in its destinations offers little mobility at a high cost. Those who truly care about cities should stop trying to save transit and start trying to improve cost-effective mobility.

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8 thoughts on “Losing Sight of the Real Goal

  1. Sandy Teal

    Does anybody have friends without a car? I did in college. What they always wanted to do was go to places that was easy to drive to but not easy to get to by transit. Costco, restaurants, events…. they spend all their free time thinking of ways to get to where it is inconvenient by transit, especially if they are going to shop or carry anything.

  2. Maddog

    Sandy, you beclown yourself. I used transit when I was 13 and 14; I started driving at 14 because I had a job. I have always had a car or motorcycle since. I go where I want, I have no idea where transit goes, but I do understand that no matter where I go, it is likely to be difficult for anyone riding transit to get there quickly or easily because of the way transit is commonly planned.

    I am unwilling to plan my life around your or others quirky travel needs. I expect most people who drive are in a similar situation.

    Good luck out there.

    Mark Sherman

    PS have you ever heard of Uber or Lyft?

  3. JOHN1000

    “…transit doesn’t do much to reshape cities”…

    I think the correct phrase would have been that transit doesn’t do much to reshape cities for the better but it often reshapes cities for the worse..

    Train tracks and other transit requirements tend to separate or break up neighborhoods, block non-transit travelers from getting to where they want, make walking more difficult and unsafe in many cases because you have to get around the transit infrastructure.

  4. prk166


    , the first two put the needs of bus riders over auto users, which in the city of Chicago means putting the needs of 14 percent of commuters who take the bus over the 60 percent who drive or carpool to work (and the percentage differences would be even larger for non-commuter travel).
    ” ~ Anti-planner

    While technically correct I’m not sure why it really matters. It doesn’t seem to be much different than an HOV lane. Is it really worth taking issue with it?

  5. Dave Brough

    An example of trying to save transit as opposed to trying to improve cost-effective mobility just started here in Las Vegas a couple of days ago when, instead of using a home-grown autonomous vehicle like Waymo or Uber, our progressive city imported a vehicle from France. Could it have anything to do with the fact that the French version is an expensive bus, while the others are adapted cars?
    Oh, right. Two hours after being introduced, the thing tangled with a semi. https://www.cnet.com/news/las-vegas-driverless-shuttle-involved-in-crash-on-first-day/
    Message in that throttle?

  6. CapitalistRoader

    Oh, right. Two hours after being introduced, the thing tangled with a semi.

    The AV was stopped and the truck backed into it:

    A spokesperson for AAA, which is a sponsor of the planned yearlong study, said the shuttle stopped as it sensed the truck ahead and remained stationary when the truck backed into the left-front side of the shuttle, which carried multiple passengers.

    “The shuttle came to a complete stop,” John Moreno, manager of AAA’s Northern California, Nevada, and Utah office, told Car and Driver. “Unfortunately, the truck did not, and it hit the shuttle. If only the truck had the autonomous technology, this would likely not have occurred.” Moreno said responding officers issued a citation to the driver of the truck.

  7. prk166


    instead of using a home-grown autonomous vehicle like Waymo or Uber, our progressive city imported a vehicle from France. Could it have anything to do with the fact that the French version is an expensive bus, while the others are adapted cars?
    ” ~ Dave Brough

    Navya has a facility outside of Ann Arbor, MI: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Navya+Inc./@42.1771087,-83.7577495,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x883ca4d1a17cd521:0x72a659f30c2824ec!8m2!3d42.1771047!4d-83.7555608.

    It’s not large so they may be doing what Talgo did in Milwaukee, putting as much as possible together elsewhere and doing the bare min assembly needed for federal funds to be available.

    As for minibuses, there’s quite a few companies playing around with them. Below is a bit on a company doing them along with 3D printing of the vehicle. If I’m picking things up correctly, the thought is that between the initially higher cost along with the ability to change routing on the fly, the minibus is the compromise to keep costs lower while providing individuals relatively directly point-to-point travel.

    https://www.curbed.com/2017/7/18/15990406/driverless-self-driving-bus-michigan-factory


    NAVYA’s new Michigan manufacturing plant, located in Saline, just south of Ann Arbor, will produce driverless ARMA shuttles. Since introducing these vehicles in October of 2015, NAVYA has already deployed 45 in cities across the globe, including a successful trial on the Las Vegas strip. To date, more than 170,000 passengers haven taken rides in these shuttles.

    https://www.3ders.org/articles/20170511-local-motors-knoxville%20facility-3d-prints-first-self-driving-olli-shuttle-bus.html

    Local Motors, the maker of the world’s first road-ready 3D printed car, has successfully 3D printed the first self-driving shuttle, called Olli, at its Knoxville, Tennessee micro-factory.

    In the world of self-driving cars, the mere mention of Arizona-based company Local Motors gets people listening, as the company has been at the forefront of developing not just autonomous vehicles, but 3D printed autonomous vehicles. The Olli self-driving shuttle, possibly the first 3D printed transit vehicle in existence, has been in the works for some time, and we’ve been following its development closely.

    In 2016, Local Motors debuted Olli at its facility in National Harbor, MD, and saw it hit the road in Washington, DC shortly thereafter. More recently, the innovative vehicle got the attention of German railway company Deutsche Bahn, which is planning on testing the self-driving shuttle throughout the year.

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