You Don’t Really Want An Efficient Mass Transit System

This story about possible changes to D.C.’s MetroBus system is disturbing (boldface mine):

It’s an approach that has been taken around the country by other transit agencies facing similar declines in ridership — specifically Houston, which garnered headlines two years ago when it rolled out a completely reconstituted system over the course of one chaotic week.

And it’s a strategy that is being pushed by the Washington region’s leaders, eager to see Metro seize opportunities to save money and “right-size” service — essentially, to eliminate buses that consistently fail to run at capacity. A bus network overhaul was among the ideas recommended by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood in his recently released report on how to fix Metro’s structural and financial problems.

“The idea is not simply to curtail low performing bus routes. Something much more comprehensive is needed,” LaHood wrote. “By re-examining the entire system of bus routes, schedules and operating practices, we can find opportunities for things like more efficient routing that save money and improve service.”

Let’s look at two equally ridiculous scenarios. First, we have a bus route that’s used by fifty people a day, but runs buses along the route every five mintues. No one would claim that this is a good idea. Second, we have a bus that runs only every two hours, many people can’t get onto the bus, but it is packed every time. No one would argue the latter is actually efficient or useful, even it is cost effective.

The point is we really don’t want buses running at capacity. What we want and need are buses that run below capacity but that also aren’t empty most of the time. The goal is not to optimize the number of people we can cram onto buses, but to optimize the usefulness of the system (within financial constraints). Part of what usefulness means is the frequency of buses–and the more frequent buses are, the more likely people with other options are to use them. Another component is serving neighborhoods that don’t have other transportation options, which typically happen to be non-white.

But I suspect these considerations aren’t important to an advisory board that doesn’t use mass transit, either out of convenience* or necessity.

*And can we stop viewing buses solely as transportation for poor people. In cities, they’re not.

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1 Response to You Don’t Really Want An Efficient Mass Transit System

  1. Rugosa says:

    You used to live in Boston. You should understand that, to transit planners, any bus that has room for one more person is underutilized. Bus capacity is not determined by the number of seats but by the desperation of passengers to finally get on a bus. Buses that serve poor neighborhoods in off-peak hours are a waste of resources. Transit planners’ main theory of planning is that if they break the riders’ spirits, the riders will stop complaining.

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