Sunday, April 09, 2006

Some Thoughts on Transit

I'm not a fan of urban sprawl, but it's here to stay. People have valid reasons for wanting to live in new subdivisions: low traffic, nearby schools, no rooming houses, sense of community, finished basements, modern home design, double garages, less house maintenance, little noise, neighborhood swimming pools, less dangerous places close by. It's no conincidence that most people who live in subdivisions are families with kids.

How do we make our sprawling city work?

The solution that comes up always seems to be transit. If there isn't adequate transit, then we get big ugly roads, traffic jams and pollution. We keep trying to make transit work, but it seems that 90% of the time buses are practically empty and people complain that service is too infrequent.

Sometimes it seems hopeless that transit routes will ever be practical in subdivisions, leading to the downward spiral of less buses > less convenience > less riders. The solution that is always raised is to increase density in subdivisions to make transit routes more practical.

But is there any hope of decreasing the miles driven by subdivision dwellers even with higher density? Given the demographics of subdivisions, will enough people ever commute by transit to make smaller roads? I doubt it. New subdivision houses are very expensive, so people who live there can afford cars. If you maintain a car, then it's more expensive to take transit, as well as being slower, less convenient for running errands and less comfortable in inclement weather. This is doubly true for people who have kids.

A solution would be to move people who tend not to have cars out to subdivisions: students, eldery, low income housing. But that just inconveniences those people by taking them farther away from shopping, the library, government offices, etc. Subdivisions aren't the best place for people without cars. It will never be as convenient to live on the outskirts of town without a car as it will to live closer in.

Also, if we increase density then we might be taking away features of the subdivision that caused people to move there in the first place by making the subdivision more congested and more like downtown, while the people who live there are car drivers who don't want to use transit in the first place.

To a certain extent, the subdivision controversy is driven by ideology. For example, people who live in the country (either rural or small towns) do much more driving than people in subdivisions, but country living isn't targeted as problematic.

In terms of driving time, the people who are doing the most are those who commute from one city to another to work. We tend not to target them either, because it's a freedom of choice issue about where they live and where they work and whether they want to move when they change jobs, and I agree with that... but maybe we should lay off the subdivision dwellers too. (I'm questioning my own biases here.)

Of course, a healthy city needs a good transit system for other reasons: so people can still get around if they can't afford a car or are too old or young to drive, or who choose not to. In subdivisions, the demographic that uses transit is probably teenagers in a narrow age category: old enough to go out on their own but too young to drive. If a subdivision has a demand for transit, then by all means there should be transit to it, but if it doesn't, then maybe scarce transit dollars should be spent somewhere else.

There is a cost in terms of pollution, expense and gas usage to running huge buses on routes with low ridership. Over ten years ago Canadian environment minister David Anderson called for more small buses and vans in transit systems, and it still hasn't happened. I don't understand why... unless the driver's union is blocking it. It would be interesting to see some stats on how many riders are carried by a gallon of gas on average in our transit system, and compare that to the average "riders per gallon" for private cars. The numbers might not look that good for some routes. I have read about routes that carry an average of three people a day.

In terms of reducing the number of miles driven by subdivision dwellers, a better alternative than transit might be ensuring there are facilities in subdivisions within walking distance or a short drive. Density isn't always the answer in terms of shopping, because people like the convenience of large stores and retailers look for low real estate costs and big parking lots, so I think we're stuck with megamalls on the outskirts of town. But it would make a lot of sense if city planners forced developers to provide a shopping area in every subdivision (corner store, video store, pizza outlet?), just as they have to provide green space. However, the stores wouldn't stay open unless there was enough business, which is a matter both of density and traffic flow.

I don't know what the solution is, but I'm starting to talk myself around to the idea that we should change our thinking about transit to subdivisions, and have more emphasis on providing local shopping and other facilities, and less transit service---certainly smaller buses, but also less complete coverage, with better transit in areas where there's a chance people will use it.

What I haven't considered is planning for a future that might include much higher gas prices and even gas shortages. I have been waiting for that to happen all my adult life, and it hasn't. Gas prices have gone up a lot in the last 10 years, but it hasn't reduced consumption at all: that period saw the boom of the gas-guzzling SUV. Insofar as there has been evolution in car use, it seems to be towards the development of cars that use less gas (hybrids, Smart cars and the new Beetle being the preiminent ones)---but not towards reducing mileage. Anyway, if the gasoline situation ever changes enough to create demand in subdivisions for transit, then we can consider providing it then. For now it seems a waste of money, gas, and smog.



Anonymous said...

Very informative. Thanks.
come visit some time.

Yappa said...

Hi Jason,

Thanks! I just read your site and liked it very much... I bookmarked it. Excellent choice of design as well.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that the "megamalls on the outskirts of town" are so inevitable. Those are a consequence of policies--zoning, parking requirements, road building, etc.--not just of market forces.

Also we tend to think of car use as an all-or-nothing thing--do you buy a car or live without one?--when there's more of a continuum of choices.

For example, there's the decision of how many cars to have--most households have more than one these days. And there's the decision about exactly when to buy cars; sure, we expect most families with kids to have at least one car. But that doesn't necessarily mean people should have to buy a car the moment they graduate from college (or from high school...). And for younger people especially a car represents a significant financial burden, so the choice isn't obvious. Similarly when people get older there are decisions about when to downsize--sometimes people seem to hang on to their cars longer than really makes sense because they're afraid (quite understandably) of the freedom they'll lose.

So it'd be nice to find ways to give people more options. To that end I tend to agree that distribution of retail and such is probably more important than transit. Though that's also dependent on density--it takes a certain number of people to support a grocery store.

Yappa said...

Hi Bruce,

I believe completely that planning and regulation should control market forces. I guess my motivation for writing that entry was that we never seem to get anywhere in reducing things like subdivisions and megamalls, and maybe the reason is that they're what people want, including the planners and the majority of people they plan for, so we should accept that and work from there. So how can we create a city with a vibrant downtown and good transit system that takes into account that many people seem to want to live in subdivisions and so on?

I guess my main thought was that instead of imposing transit on places that don't want it, we should respond to demand a bit more. So if there's no demand for transit in some locations, then give up on it. In Waterloo there really are routes that carry an average of 3 people a day.

But I'm just kicking ideas around. I don't know what's best. I've grown up hating the way subdivisions destroyed places I loved, and now I'm questioning my outlook. By the way, I bought my first (and only) car when I was 40!


Hydra said...

Winston andShirley surveyed 228 bus systems and 30 rail systems, based on 1990 data.

The average operating cost per passenger mile for buses was 44 cents per passenger per mile, and the number of passenger miles per in service mile operated was 9. Nine passengers per bus mile operated, and that is only the inservice miles, not counting all the miles driven while not carrying passengers. The operating cost is only the operating cost, not the capital or roadway costs.

For trains the nembers we 37 cents per passenger mile and 21 passengers per operating mile.

In 1990 the operating costs per passenger mile for an auto was 21 cents. If you figure on four passenger cars and an average of 1.25 persons per car, the load factor is higher than carrying nine people on a 40 passenger bus.
Even if you add in expenses for all of the autos external costs, pollution, parking spaces, collisions, etc, the 1990 cost was still only around 50 cents per mile.

Transit is necessary, but we should support it only on the very best routes where it has some chance of being cost effective.

Granted, these are 1990 numbers, but the relative situation probably has not changed much since then, even though transit now caries more riders than previously.