Transit Needs both Quality and Quantity

February 29, 2012 by
Filed under: Car Stop 

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.


5 Responses to “Transit Needs both Quality and Quantity”

  1. A ticklish but often cited reason why suburbanites refuse to use public transportation is their aversion to traveling with inner city riders. I took public transit from Princeton to Trenton NJ for twenty years. Few other Princetonians did. I gave it up after, 1. Roach infestation of clothes via fellow passengers. 2. Several altercations with drugged-up inner city denizens. 3. Loud, disorderly behavior of fellow passengers.

    It seems to me that if we want public transportation to succeed, lines have to be created serving suburban to suburban destinations. Corporate HQ’s have moved to the suburbs, as have their employee base. Connecting them while avoiding urban pest-holes is the obvious but politically incorrect answer.

  2. scott says:

    Its difficult to use public transport in uncomfortable weather conditions, heat and humidity, rain or snow, etc. Do you need your car to get to the pick up point? If you do, than you need a large parking lot. If this is the case, then you need security at the lot to prevent vandalism and theft. Our whole country has been designed around the automobile and going back to 1920-30’s type of public transport will be extremely difficult if not impossible.

  3. Mark says:

    Great article. You guys need facebook “liking” ability so I can more easily pass this to my friends.

  4. I think mass transit will only become popular when the cost and inconvenience of automobile commuting reaches the unbearable level. That, and if routes are reconnected with where workers actually live and where they actually work; the suburbs. Corporate HQ’s and parks are located along highways. Monorails traveling the same routes might be popular but as the authors note, the inflated cost of such projects are a great barrier. The regulatory burden of such enterprises is immense.

    A New Jersey State Senator once suggested a monorail from the Pocano Mt’s to New York. Unfortunately, it was never built.

  5. This is a really good article with a lot of truth in it. Thanks for sharing this insightful and motivating advice. I am going to forward this post to a good friend of mine as I am sure he will love this excellent article together with it’s great advice and tips. Keep up the great work!

Leave a Reply