Everything That’s Wrong with Small Town Transit

Ok, well, not everything, that may have been a bit hyperbolistic and yes, the title is a little click-baity, who do I look like? Dan Rather?

But seriously. Look at this image and you’ll see why I’m frustrated:

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 8.27.03 AM

Look at that. It’s a net loss for me to take public transportation to my job every day.

Oh, but that’s not accurate, gas is so insanely cheap right now, if we were in a different world with $5 gas, it would totally be worth it, right?
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This transit calculator was located after poking around Mankato’s website in the all-but-forgotten public transportation section.

The calculator itself actually comes off of publictransportation.org, a well-known, reputable source for information on public transportation.

And before anyone gets their undies in a bundle, I know it’s hard to create a calculator that works perfectly across all lines in all scenarios. I’m just using this as a catalyst for the article.

Big city transit is a tough thing to get right, but if you shrink it to a community that’s 1/10th or 1/100th of the size, you can almost guarantee you’ll get it wrong.

The question we have to ask is: “can you get it right?” Well, before I try and answer that, look at our bus system below:

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Seems like it’s an actually ok bus system, right? Well, yes and no. This is the bus system for Monday-Friday during the working day. None of it runs at night. The only busses we have running past 8-5 are focused on MSU, which in fairness, is pretty heavily used.

But what about us non-college people, or even college kids that just don’t live on campus? Our bus system is built around the working class and the working day, it doesn’t really provide true transportation.

For instance, here’s the Saturday bus route:

Saturday bus

See that red dot? That’s where I live, about 1.3 miles away from where the bus picks up. Fine and dandy in the summer, I’ll just bike over the bridge (about 5-7 minutes) and hop on the bus.

Why though? What would be the benefit to me doing that? It costs me money and my car is parked in the alley, so wouldn’t it just be way easier for me to hop in my car and go to say, the mall?

Well, yeah, it would, it would be way, way easier and that’s probably what I’m going to do.

See, I have to have a car for 90% of everything else I need to do: Run errands, go shopping, get groceries, go to church, go to friends’ houses, etc…so, what’s the point of the bus? Is it just to say that we have a bus?

I think the problem is a vicious cycle. Mankato has seen the bulk of it’s growth post-WWII and because of that, we saw a lot of auto-oriented development. Our city simply doesn’t have a core left for bus service, because of that relatively few people take the bus, if no one takes the bus, it’s hard to justify making it better and more frequent or even have development conducive to transit.

What is the real problem? Well, I think you could point to myriad culprits here, but in my opinion, zoning and land-use are key components. The fact that we slate so many areas for low density development means that we’re not going to get maximum use, or even moderate use, out of that land.

Even in commercial areas, we build to the standards of “auto-infatuation.” Large setbacks and parking in the front are the main symptoms. But the the thing that most people don’t realize is that you can build for both transit and cars. Parking can exist, just put it in back; setbacks can exist, just make them smaller. Images below show you what I’m talking about:

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Solid yellow is former footprint, buildings are now pulled up to sidewalk. Work for both cars and walking/transit.

Solid yellow is former footprint, buildings are now pulled up to sidewalk. Work for both cars and walking/transit.

Adding some better bike infrastructure would help as well. People might use a bus to get on top of the hill, but might not mind biking back.

Or are we simply not big enough? Should we just give up on full-on bus service? Would it be cheaper (outside of the University bus system) to just subsidize the cab company in town?

What’s a growing municipality to do? There’s no justification for say, a streetcar or lightrail, but there’s no will, money, or real reason to get a better bus system either.

The only “magic bullet” I can think of is a rail connection to the cities. That way people coming down are kind of stuck without a car, but even that is a long-shot.

We’re trapped and honestly, I don’t know if anyone has a great answer of how to get out of it.

8 thoughts on “Everything That’s Wrong with Small Town Transit

  1. Mike Hicks

    Unfortunately, when paid parking is so rare (along with things like tolled highways), it’s relatively rare to find scenarios where the bus would be cheaper when using this calculator. But fuel and parking are not the only running costs for cars. My biggest recurring cost has actually been insurance, which doesn’t scale all that well between people who barely drive at all versus others who are on the road all the time. (There is at least one company which allows you to plug a recording gadget into your car to get information about driving style, speed, and distance, but again I’m not sure if they really scale the cost any more directly.)

    Maintenance and repair are usually skipped when using these calculators, but it’s hard to divide up maintenance costs between things that fell apart due to a lot of use versus other things that just aged (and some car parts may fail prematurely if they don’t get used regularly).

    You can save money by taking transit, generally but only if you give up your car.

    I think the “car sharing” idea like Car2Go (really more of a subscription rental model) is one of the better escape routes for the typical suburban or small- to medium-town scenario. That regains the directness of cost, since you’re paying by the mile or by unit of time.

    Personally, I finally switched to riding the bus on a regular basis up here in St. Paul when I added in the cost/time of having a gym membership versus walking more when busing, and thinking about some of the other social costs (CO2 emissions, environmental impact of fracking/shale extraction, wars, etc.), but it’s still a net drag on my personal bottom line (until I finally decide to sell off my car).

    Thanks for mentioning the land-use issue, and giving an example of how easily it could be fixed. Those spread-out suburban-style lots really have a big impact on walkability and the dispersion of business centers really makes it hard for transit to reasonably compete.

    I’ll also point out the loops in those route maps — they make navigation pretty difficult and can have a very negative effect on travel times, though they may be a necessary evil in places with low density. Still, a more grid-like, higher-frequency network with straighter routes still seems like something worth considering in smaller towns.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      Disclaimer: the following comment is mostly about car insurance, not small town transit.

      My highest monthly cost is also insurance. This is probably the case for most city & inner-ring dwellers with commutes <10 miles. I buy approximately one tank of gas per month, unless I'm heading outstate to visit my parents.

      FWIW, I tried the Progressive Insurance "Snapshot" device that you plug into your vehicle to monitor your driving habits. I thought it might save me money since I drive so little. Long story short, I used the damn thing for 6 months and didn't get a discount. I don't believe daily/weekly/monthly miles traveled were a major factor. Perhaps my rate is already "low" (though it would be much lower if I lived in a "safe" neighborhood in a wealthier zip code), but Snapshot wasn't worth a damn to me. I wonder what would happen if you got one and like didn't drive at all? For those who drive very little but still desire to own a car, I think the most effective thing you could do to save money is switch to a cheaper/older car and only carry the bare minimum coverage instead of full collision coverage. That or find a way to convince the insurance company you live in Edina.

      But getting back on topic, pretty much this: "You can save money by taking transit, generally but only if you give up your car." Or if parking costs are really high, which is really only the case for certain DT Mpls or U of M employees.

        1. Rosa

          Yeah, that’s where the real savings comes from, since most people won’t be totally car-free (though of course we all get old, or hurt, or otherwise unable to drive at some point – better bus services are better kid/teen/elderly/disabled services in general).

          But cars cost real money, all by themselves. They cost repairs and insurance on top of the original cost of the car. So having one fewer cars than you otherwise would have had is a huge savings even if the daily cost of the car would be less than transit.

          Except that when the transit is slow, unreliable, or not useful, you have the time costs to consider as well as financial.

  2. Steve

    It’s the parking costs that help make transit viable. Plug in $10/day parking and all of a sudden transit saves you $2000/year. Probably means transit won’t sense until an area is dense enough to make parking costly.

  3. Nathanael

    The thing is, cars are pretty darn great for rural areas.

    The problem in places like Mankato is that the land use has induced unnecessary car use. Reconstruction like shown in the picture of the commercial area would be very helpful.

    For one thing, compact downtown development makes it possible for people in a household to carpool *even if they don’t work in the same building* — job sprawl makes it impossible.

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