Improve Mass Transit? Or Should We Take the Bus First?

Someone wrote asking why pay more attention to gas mileage than to subsidizing mass transit.

With a change in culture — we give up the ability to accelerate from 0 to 80 in 2.1 seconds on our crowded freeways, and even in locations where it’s possible — some big mandates on car mileage, and well, more big changes in culture — are we really cramped in a Prius? could we rent a pickup truck or pay the delivery costs when we buy sheet rock? — we could come close to doubling car mileage in the time it takes to turn over car stock.

How much oil/carbon emissions could we save by changing our car behavior? How much by increasing our subsidies of mass transit? I suspect it makes more sense for us to increase gas mileage and for us to start taking mass transit, rather than to emphasize increasing subsidies.

Right now (2003 statistics), we in the US consume 20 million barrels of oil/day, about 850 million gallons/day. In two decades, this is expected to be close to 30 million barrels of oil/day. Today’s use is just under 3 gallons/day per person. Some of that goes to your car, some is for air transit. (Figure one gallon/34 passenger miles if you fly, so if you fly from one coast to the other and back, that’s about 180 gallons; one bicoastal trip adds 1/2 gallon/day to your total.)

Remember, the goal is to reduce carbon emissions 70% worldwide, more than 90% per person in the US, to the level the oceans can absorb, and then to cut back even further to protect the oceans.

Currently (2001), we drive more than 3.7 million million miles/year, cars and light trucks, close to 13,000 miles per person (if there are two of you in the car, credit yourself with only half the miles). We fly almost 600,000 million miles/year (domestic only), about 2,000 miles per person. We take the bus (city bus + intercity bus) and rail some 90,000 million miles per year.

Obviously, the two biggest numbers to tackle are cars and light trucks, and air.

How much does subsidizing mass transit shift away from car use? Probably not much. Buses are a net loss, carbonwise, unless they are used. Most municipalities provide them as subsidies for children and the elderly, poor, and disabled, rather than for energy purposes.

The SF Bay Area smart growth group, Transportation and Land Use Coalition, analyzes local bus subsidies in one of the five major mass transit centers in the US (also, NY, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago).

“More than 6.8 million people live in the San Francisco Bay Area, making nearly 20 million trips every day, more than 80 percent of them by private automobile. Public transportation also plays a critical role in the region’s travel patterns. While only two percent of all trips in the U.S. are taken on transit, in the Bay Area this share exceeds six percent. And for commute to work trips, transit’s share is even higher — 9.5% in 1990.”

See their Table 2.5 for capitol and operating cost/passenger mile, and the share of that coming from the passenger and subsidies. AC (Alameda County) Transit is the East Bay, Berkeley-Oakland and points north and south. Muni is SF, and I am surprised to see it more expensive per passenger mile than AC Transit, perhaps it’s the underground trains. Golden Gate transit services wealthy Marin. SamTrans services wealthy San Mateo County, south of SF, and connects to SF. Santa Clara VTA services the even wealthier Santa Clara County south of San Mateo.

The total cost/passenger trip ranges from $0.87 to $5.55. The passenger share ranges from $0.21 – $1.45 – apparently buses are used mostly by children, seniors, and disabled users, or/and those with monthly cards. The subsidy/passenger trip ranges from $0.66 to $5.19.

Note: if you live outside the five major mass transit areas, the subsidies you pay are probably closer to the Santa Clara numbers than to the Alameda County numbers.

I think that most car drivers would be willing to chip in fifty cents to each bus rider, as it reduces congestion. But more than $5?

Most transit districts and Amtrak could absorb a doubling or even greater increase in bus and train ridership without increasing their own costs (this is not true of long distances buses such as Greyhound, which would have to run more buses, though at a lower marginal cost). Doubling mass transit use in this country would dramatically affect mass transit finances. Doubling bus ridership would only require a small percentage of drivers to shift their habits.

If we change our behavior, driving less, driving smaller, more fuel efficient, less powerful cars, if we check the tires and drive at more reasonable speeds, if we fly less, we will cut back on oil consumption. If we shift away from cars and plane towards the train and bus, then the subsidies become reasonable and justifiable to the taxpayer and we can ask for more funds for mass transit. But it does much less good to talk about subsidizing mass transit while continuing to drive.

I prefer to live more cheaply sans car, more restfully sans car. This can lead to longer trips, but I prefer reading to fighting traffic, and usually find reading less stressful than a shorter commute by car. Often the trips really aren’t any longer if I consider the time to pay for the car. On the other hand, commutes to San Francisco by BART are often considerably faster — by a factor of 2 or more — than commutes by car. (Yet people drive, and occasionally tell me that it’s faster to drive!!)

More on Smart Growth

The population of greater SF is expected to continue to grow rapidly, from 6.9 million in 2000 to 8 million in 2020. It isn’t practical to add new lanes (tear down houses to expand the freeways?) Some people are going to need to get out of their cars.

Locally, people are trying to find solutions. For example, mixed commercial (first floor) and residential buildings very close to mass transit, particularly BART (the local metro), have attracted people willing to pay more in order to live without a car. Some BART stations apparently are putting a second story parking lot and then apartments on top of the BART parking.

The population of greater SF is expected to continue growing rapidly for the next two decades and more. Thank goodness Transportation and Land Use Coalition and other smart growth groups, and local governments, are addressing the rapid changes. But we could make their job more doable if we consider the financial, time, and environmental costs of our transportation systems, and begin shifting to a reduced dependence on the car.

The details above are local, but the concept applies elsewhere – solutions must involve a willingness to change our behavior, and must involve structural changes that will encourage others to change theirs.

2 Responses to “Improve Mass Transit? Or Should We Take the Bus First?”

  1. Bob Seeley says:

    The central question, for me, is how to encourage people to drive less, and make it both feasible and enjoyable for them to do so. This is not just a question of personal sacrifice and commitment. It is also a question of design. People are not going to leave their cars at home unless they have real, practical alternatives. We can’t provide such alternatives without rethinking some fundamental assumptions about how people move, where we should encourage them to live, and how we should encourage them to travel.
    For want of a better term, I call what I am talking about “Social Design.” What I have in mind is not just archictecture, though that is part of it. It is not just transportation, though that, too, is part of it. It is a whole set of assumptions and incentives that shape the society we have created. For me, the term design is neutral: somebody actually designed a lot of the bad, ugly buildings and systems that we put up with daily, and somebody also designed the good ones.
    Our current land use and transportation in the United States is the result of social design–but not, I would argue, of GOOD social design. If we were to set out to design a society that used too much fuel, discriminated against its poor by making them immobile, generated a lot of greenhouse gases, made us vulnerable to loss of foreign oil, and covered the countryside with ugly parking lots and shopping mall eyesores, we would probably have ended up with what we have now. But nobody consciously designed what we have. It was designed by default because there was no broad agreement on what kind of environment is the best and most sustainable.
    The problems that any good social design must tackle are in essence pretty straightforward, although the politics of tackling them are not. An example, which is under discussion here, is transportation. In every society I know about, people have to eat, which means they have to work, and most people in modern society can’t work from home. They have to be able to get to work, to the shops, and to films, baseball games, and restaurants. If they can only do this by car, they will choose their cars. We need to think about real alternatives for ordinary folks who don’t want to cycle and haven’t time to walk five miles to get to the office. That probably includes a lot of people reading this. It includes me, at least as regards cycling, which I dislike, although I don’t get upset at the prospect of a five mile walk. Or a bus ride.
    What all of us need to do, as a start, is to rethink our land use priorities. I don’t have a proposal for a mechanism, although it is fairly clear that the ones we have been using haven’t worked very well.
    I do have an idea what better design might look like because we have examples of it that are working well. One would be the green state office building in Norristown, PA, that I toured a couple of years ago. Norristown is surrounded by supremely ugly sprawl, and it is not the most beautiful town anybody ever saw. But the designers of this building made sure that it didn’t make the situation worse. They rescued a brownland site that might otherwise have become a parking lot. Instead of creating a huge lot surrounding the building, they worked with local transit authorities to locate a major transit junction within easy walking distance and to encourage employees to use public transit by incentives and transit vouchers. The building has an underground parking garage, but most employees take the train or bus to work.
    This is an ideal example, of course, but in the long run, we are going to have to adapt to a situation of expensive and probably scarce fuel. We can’t keep building stand-alone buildings surrounded by parking lots. The environment won’t stand it, not just because of greenhouse gases but because of water runoff and perhaps other factors. Our social fabric also isn’t helped by the practice of building houses so far from their neighbors that most tract house developments barely qualify as neighborhoods.
    Even talking about transportation I find myself edging over into land use and social fabric, because all of these factors interact. Our model of residential development has become the sprawling suburb, which is a very bad design for a situation of scarce and expensive fuel (not to mention the environment). It is also a bad design for the social fabric because people live in isolated units, know even less about their neighbors than in many city blocks like mine, and drive miles to the mall for shopping rather than walking to a local shopping street where the merchants know them. (This is not, by the way, a myth, even in supermarkets: In the urban supermarket where I shop, I know most of the staff by sight, and they know my usual shopping habits and hours. It’s the same with many of the other people in the checkout lines.)
    It’s not hard to come up with a better design, in part because humanity has evolved one over time–cities and small towns surrounded by countryside that is really countryside and not a series of suburbs and roadside sprawl. Getting from what we have now to a better balance, however, is likely to be difficult because of the combination of politics and powerful corporations and people who have a vested interest in the status quo.
    I don’t have a program for improving our social design. I do think it is imperative that we do so. And I think none of this will happen in a top-down manner. Most of the effective smart-growth movements that I know about in the U,S. are based in communities, cities, and very occasionally, states. The federal government could be a player but will probably be the last on board because of the influence of traditional energy and automobile companies.

  2. Steve Birdlebough says:

    Would your answer about transit subsidies have been different if the question had been, “should we stop giving drivers so much free parking?”

    A recent estimate of the value of free parking suggests that most commuters in this country receive about $4 worth of free parking for each gallon of gas they purchase. [See, Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (American Planning Association 2005) p. 213]

    The fact that San Francisco has very little free off-street parking probably accounts for its high use of public transit..
    San Francisco has no requirement forcing a business to give its employees or customers a place to park.

    By contrast, most cities demand off-street parking, usually in proportion to the floor area of each business.
    A Berkeley office building in the city center was required to donate 1.5 parking spaces for every thousand square feet in 1996. [Shoup, p. 239]
    And Berkeley was below the national average of 2.8 parking spaces per thousand in 1996.

    Many of these businesses, especially supermarkets and retail outlets give the parking to their customers at no charge, because there has been a long-standing expectation on the part of drivers that they should get to park for nothing. Most employers also donate parking spaces to their employees.
    And a person in the driver’s seat is encouraged to drive, because it is so convenient, and seems so cheap.

    Probably the quickest way to remedy this situation in Berkeley would be to extend your parking tax to all parking spaces. Currently these taxes are collected only from businesses that charge drivers directly for parking spaces, and this places merchants in the city center at a disadvantage.

    However, there is no real reason to so restrict the levy, because any business must impose a charge to offset its parking expenses, whether it is through higher prices, lower salaries, or some combination thereof. Each business could be enabled to pass the tax on to the customer, and it would be easy for stores to lower their prices and to pass on the cost of the parking as well. Thus, when shopping at the supermarket, one might find that the groceries cost $10, and the parking $1, including tax. Drivers would soon get to know how much parking is costing them.

    Gradually, property owners would start paying more attention to the value of the land they devote to parking; they might even find it more profitable to put it to different use. If so, we would all find neighborhoods becoming more compact, and easier to get around without a car.