Transit Needs both Quality and Quantity
A recent column published by our friends at Reason Foundation, “Why More People Should Ride Mass Transit” by Tim Cavanaugh, starts with a question: “How many public transit expert/advocates actually ride on public transportation?” Well, from the time Washington’s Metro heavy rail system opened its King Street stop until Free Congress moved to Alexandria, more than twenty years, I took Metro to work almost every day. It was far more pleasant than driving in Washington’s notorious traffic. After Free Congress moved to a building about two miles from my house, I commuted on my bicycle. My colleague Glen Bottoms, a former employee of the Federal Transit Administration, took the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter rail service almost from its inception until his retirement in 2005.
Mr. Cavanaugh’s column goes on to establish a false dichotomy: do we need more transit or better transit? Employing the vernacular, he writes:
The reality of transit use . . . is that you don’t need smarter hubs or better coordination more efficient transfers . . . you need more sh[*]t running more frequently to more destinations.
He’s right. Good transit service is characterized by the old line of many a street railway company, “Always a car in sight.” The more routes, the fewer transfers required (though Cavanaugh is flat wrong when he says that “For every transfer in your itinerary, you need to double the time allotted for the trip.“) and the more frequent the service, the more people will take transit.
Unfortunately, Cavanaugh then goes on to attack the idea that transit also picks up more customers when it offers an enjoyable travel experience. We are all, it seems, Jeremy Benthems, caring only for efficiency. Specifically, he attacks Darrin Nordahl, who wrote in his 2008 book, My Kind of Transit, of New Orleans’ wonderful trolley line.,
Consistent features of wonderment aboard the St. Charles streetcar – – history, connection to the urban context, stimulation of the senses, and sociability through architectural detail – – offer important lessons about providing a memorable transportation experience.
I have ridden the St. Charles Avenue line, and Nordahl is correct. Just being aboard the historic trolley cars, built in the 1920’s, with wooden seats and windows that open wide, is a joy.
Those who worship reason tend irrationally to discount non-rational factors. The things that draw people to the St. Charles Avenue line are in part non-rational (not irrational). But they are still real. Therefore, any reasoned appraisal of the line (and streetcars elsewhere) should take those non-rational factors into account.
Libertarians refuse to do so. Why? Because they always start with the answer – – buses, not rail – – and who likes riding a bus? Even the best bus trip is regarded by most people as a necessary evil. No non-rational factors lead people to board, looking forward to the experience for its own sake – – the way they do board the St. Charles Avenue streetcars.
Now, it so happens that the St. Charles Avenue line also provides frequent service. There really is (almost) always a car in sight. And that is the point: good transit service, service people want to ride, offers both quantity and quality. It appeals to both our rational and non-rational sides.
St. Charles Avenue does it with equipment that will soon be a century old. Perhaps some genius among consultants will find a way we can manage to do it with modern technology. If so, it will truly be back to the future.