L.A.: Rail Transit Works, Cars Don’t

February 19, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

I recently spent a week visiting friends in Los Angeles, and I quickly learned a basic fact about that city: rail transit works, cars don’t.
Every time we tried to go somewhere by car on L.A.’s famous freeways, we ended up taking forever because of stalled traffic. The time of day did not matter, although weekends offered an improvement. We were able to use the HOV-2 lanes, which also helped. But even with those lanes, going anywhere on a weekday was a nightmare. My friend’s marina is about 40 miles from his house. One weekday, using the HOV lanes, the trip took us 90 minutes inbound and two-and -a half hours home. The latter would have been longer but with the freeway going nowhere we got off onto arterials. Those were lightly trafficked. Unlike us easterners, when the freeways jam up, the locals just sit there. Using arterial streets and roads does not seem to occur to them.
In contrast, whenever we used rail transit, the journeys were speedy and relaxing. It was my first time on Metrolink, and I was impressed. The trains were on time and fast, the equipment was in good shape and off-peak the ridership was strong.
Metrolink does something other commuter rail authorities might want to emulate, to the benefit of their riders. Each Metrolink ticket contains a chip that gives a one-day, unlimited-ride TAP card, the card for L.A.’s subway and light rail lines. It made riding Metrolink a great deal. We saved more on light rail fares than the Metrolink ticket cost. I was greatly surprised that our combined ticket/TAP card was good the whole time we were in the city; I thought it might be valid for an hour or two, like a transfer. Score one for Metrolink for offering great value.
In the city we took advantage of the light rail lines. Again, then trains were in good shape and well-patronized outside the peak hours. My earlier experience of disorder on the Blue Line, a problem the system’s leadership acknowledged, do not recur, although we rode only in the immediate downtown area.
The transit critics did everything they could to block the creation of rail transit in L.A., swearing before the gods that people they would never give up their cars. Well, many of them have, because on the freeways the cars don’t move. L.A.’s rail transit does move, and people ride it in large numbers. Over and over, the critics’ predictions of failure prove wrong. Why does anyone take them seriously?

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC

The “Sick Passenger” Problem

January 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

The November 24th New York Times carried a front-page story titled, “Hated Words Subway Riders Are Hearing More: ‘Sick Passenger.” It is not just in New York City that transit riders (mostly rail) are encountering this problem. It is everywhere, and it is growing. The Times reported that in New York,

Sick passengers have accounted or about 3,000 train delays each month this year . . . a figure that has grown drastically in recent years, from about 1,800 each month in 2012, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

I don’t have figures for other cities, but I suspect the trend is similar. The interesting fact is that say, 30 years ago, this problem was rare. I rode Washington’s Metro every day back then, and I rarely had a train delayed for this reason (or any other; Metro was reliable in those days). I suspect that if we went back to the 1930s or 1940s, we would find it never happened. Transit operators then had the common sense not to let one person delay thousands.

The delays can be substantial, over half an hour, and they affect not only the hundreds of riders on the train where a passenger has a problem, but many of the trains lined up behind that one. Absent a convenient crossover or third track, all those trains are also stopped. The delays can then ripple through the system for hours –  – all because of one person.

These delays are unacceptable, and also unnecessary. The problem is current procedure, which is to pull the train with the sick passenger into the next station and hold it there until medical personnel can arrive and attend to the individual. Just the arrival can take half an hour, and more time is usually lost before the EMTs can remove the person from the train.

There is a better way. Transit systems should adopt a policy whereby the trains continue on to the nearest stop where medical personnel can be waiting when it gets there. Time will still be lost as EMTs remove the individual from the train, but all the time spent waiting for them to arrive will be saved. More, because the train will continue on farther than at present, there will be more opportunities to put it in a pocket track. That would reduce the delays to follow-on trains, perhaps even eliminate them.

I can already hear the response of transit authorities. “Our lawyers won’t let us do that. It would increase the danger somebody could sue and collect, because some sleaze-bag lawyer will encourage them to charge that they suffered more than they would have if the train had stopped at the nearest station.” As is so often the case, we see here the desperate need for tort reform.

But again, I think there is an answer. If the city or cities the transit system serves were to pass this policy as legislation, the transit agency’s back would be covered. They could say, “We were just following the law.” Don’t like it. Get City Council to change the law.

I’m sure the mewling “advocates” for the bungled, the botched and the bewildered will howl if cities do their duty and pass legislation along the lines I’ve suggested. In their eyes, a “victim” has some right to whatever he wants; while the thousands of people trying to get to work or home from work have none (they’re not “disadvantaged”).

Tell ‘em to go to hell. Ever more frequently messing up transit systems’ operations, often during rush hours, for one “sick passenger” is absurd. There is a better way, one where the sick passenger gets professional assistance just as quickly as he does now. The only losers are the lawyers.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation


October 1, 2015 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

The Atlantic’s publication, CityLab, has published a number of sound, thought-provoking pieces. Perhaps man’s inherent fallibility dictated they would eventually get something spectacularly wrong. In any case, they did, specifically Eric Jaffe’s February 23rd article, “The Myth that Everyone Naturally Prefers Trains to Buses.”

The errors begin with the title. Anyone who knows transit knows that the transit-dependent often prefer buses to trains, not on an individual ride basis but on a system basis. Why? Because buses running on “free” city streets (paid for by the tooth fairy presumably) can offer a denser network of service in urban areas than can light rail or streetcars whose dedicated rights-of-way are expensive to build. At one time streetcars did offer a service network as dense as buses, but so long as we insist on paying more than necessary to build new streetcar lines, restoring that network is unaffordable.

People who are transit dependent want a dense service network because it reduces the distance they must walk from home to a transit stop and from a transit stop to wherever they are going. So buses usually serve them better than trains, and many of them know that. “Advocates” for the poor (many of them well-paid) now often oppose new rail transit lines and demand more money be spent on the bus system instead. They are reflecting the interests of their constituents.

The supposed ‘myth” Jaffe attempts to discredit is that middle-class transit riders from choice prefer rail to bus. Only it’s no myth: they do. Jaffe’s article provides yet more data, buttressing that from many ridership surveys, proving the point. He writes of a study that surveyed 1,370 people in six Australian capital cities.

For the study, [the authors] gave survey respondents the two images above (modern light rail and modern busway in identical settings), plus two others whose only difference was older-looking vehicle styles (one bus and one train), and asked them to rank the four images in terms of “which one would you like to travel in most.” They found that 55 percent chose the modern light rail image, and another 18 percent chose the older light rail. Only about 17 percent chose the modern BRT. Just 10 percent chose the classic old bus.

Jaffe goes on to argue, as a number of other articles and studies have done, that this preference is irrational. It is not. People are not idiots. They are correct that for riders from choice, rail transit is the superior product. The same is true from the standpoint of the transit system. Rail is superior both ways in serving riders from choice. Jaffe’s statement that “advanced bus systems can perform as well or better than streetcar or light rail systems for less money” is false.

If we compare modern light rail with the modern busway, we find that light rail vehicles offer better ride quality, less energy consumption (you can’t beat steel wheel on steel rail), and most important to riders from choice who have comfortable cars, more space per passenger. The latter advantage is one buses cannot match. Why? Because you can add capacity to a train by adding more cars, each added cars offering comfortable seating. Buses cannot run in trains. They have a fixed ratio of operators to passenger space. That leads bus systems to cram in both seats and standees, making the trip uncomfortable.

Ironically, the two illustrations Jaffe offers upfront in his article, showing bus on busway and light rail in identical settings, illustrate this difference clearly, though Jaffe misses it. I recommend you go to CityLab and take a look at them. What big difference will you see? The light rail train is longer, which means it can offer more space per passenger. Yet like the bus, that longer train has just one operator.

This is why light rail is preferable from the standpoint not only of the passenger but the transit system. The biggest item in any transit budget is labor. Rail can carry a much larger number of passengers, in greater comfort, than bus per operator. So while Jaffe claims bus on busway is cheaper than light rail, that is only marginally true for construction costs (the difference thus shrinks dramatically when fully grade separated construction costs are added in). Light rail’s operating costs are significantly less, primarily because it uses labor more efficiently.

The labor inefficiency of bus on busway is so great that busways put themselves out of business by succeeding. When their ridership reaches a certain level, both operating costs and capacity issues compel the busway’s conversion to light rail. Jaffe cites as a success Los Angeles’s Orange Line busway. In fact, it now faces conversion to light rail because it is too many riders. [Ed. note- see “California Lifts Ban on Light Rail Transit in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley: Implications for U.S. Transit”] Busways only work for a narrow spectrum of ridership levels. And no, busways in South America that carry large numbers of people do not disprove the point, because South American labor is cheap. North American labor is not. And most of the people on those South American busways are transit dependents, not riders from choice. They accept uncomfortable travel because they have to.

In the real world, bus systems best serve transit dependents and rail best serves riders from choice, who demand more than a qualitatively minimal product. Trying to bridge the difference with bus on busway falls flat, because the service quality is not equal to rail and the operating costs make it uneconomical beyond a certain ridership level. It turns out all those stupid people who prefer rail to bus aren’t so stupid.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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