Who Benefits From Other Peoples’ Transit Use?

In the May 11 issue of Finance and Commerce, Matt Kramer, a local Chamber of Commerce representative lobbying for additional public transit and transportation spending (currently being debated at the Minnesota Legislature) is quoted as saying “Every person who is riding transit is one less person in the car in front of us.”

This is a fascinating quote. First is the use of “us.” So the Chamber of Commerce (probably correctly) identifies riding transit as something someone else does (since “we” are still in the car) and goes on to imply that it benefits us because there will be fewer cars. (Actually he says fewer people per car, but I think he meant fewer cars, not that it would reduce carpooling). And I suppose he could mean he rides the bus, and the car in front has fewer people (or there were fewer cars in front), but I don’t think that’s what he meant, since the arguments in the legislature are mostly about building and operating new facilities–such as LRT lines or freeway BRT, rather than supporting existing buses driving in traffic.

This evokes the famous Onion article: Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.

But it also suggests transit reduces auto travel. The converse is almost equally true, building roads reduces transit crowding. But that is not an argument road-builders make. [It is an argument urbanists make against roads.]

Of course, some transit users would have otherwise driven, but many would have been passengers in cars, walked, ridden bikes, or telecommuted. No one really knows what the alternative untaken mode would be. We have models, but the form of those models dictates the answer. Logit models, which are widely used by travel demand forecasters to predict mode choice (and whose development resulted in a Nobel Prize in Economics for University of Minnesota graduate Daniel McFadden), have the property called “IIA”, which is short for Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives. In short, if you take away a mode, IIA means people choose the other modes in proportion to their current use. So let’s say there are 3 modes: walk 25%, transit 25%, drive 50%, and there is a transit shutdown (like in 2004). IIA implies the 25% of former transit users would split 1/3 (25%/75%) for walk and 2/3 (50%/75%) for driving. We all know that is not true (and there are various techniques to try to fix the models and use more complicated functional forms), but the question of what is true is not at all clear.

While there are surveys that have answered those questions, they are all context specific. For instance, Googling turns up a Managed Lanes Case Study report:

95 Express bus riders were asked how long they have been traveling by bus and what was their previous mode of travel before using the bus service. 92 percent of respondents (307 out of 334) mentioned they have been traveling the 95 Express bus before the Express Lanes started. Only, 8 percent of respondents (27 out of 334) began using the bus after the Express Lanes opened. Among them, 50 percent (13 out of 27) had their previous mode as drive alone and none of them carpooled previously. Therefore, 95 Express bus ridership consisted primarily of those who have been using the service prior to Express Lanes implementation and the small mode shift from highway to transit was mostly from SOVs. Note that the number of respondents is too small to make any conclusions (Cain, 2009).

Undoubtedly other services would have different numbers, but transit lines are not generally a direct substitute for driving.

The line of reasoning in the opening quote suggests the primary purpose of transit is reducing auto travel, rather than serving people who want to or must use transit. In other words, building transit is good because it reduces traffic congestion (and almost no one argues building roads is good because it reduces transit crowding).

That is at best a secondary benefit, a benefit which could be achieved must more simply and less expensively through the use of prices as we do with almost all other scarce goods in society, even necessities like water.

Transit today is, in almost all US markets, slower than driving. People who depend on transit can reach fewer jobs than those who have automobiles available. Some people use transit by choice, for instance to save money (if they need to pay for parking), and the rest without choice. In my opinion, it is more important to spend scarce public dollars to improve options for those without choices than to improve the choices for those who already have alternatives. Perhaps ideally we could do both, in practice, one comes at the expense of other.

The idea that transit is for the other person is true for the 95.5% of people who don’t use transit regularly. But it warps thinking that the aim of public transit funding is to benefit those non-transit users.

12 thoughts on “Who Benefits From Other Peoples’ Transit Use?

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    The inability to think of transit as something other than car replacement is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to transit investment, especially rail.

    It’s lurking in the “why isn’t it faster” and “why don’t we just build it on the freeway” and “who is going to ride it end-to-end” criticisms.

    Invest in transit that connects stuff and it seems like it will sort itself out (obviously, major over-simplification).

    1. Evan RobertsEvan

      It’s also lurking in the hostility/indifference to letting people build much more stuff near transit, and particularly right near light rail stations.

  2. helsinki

    “The line of reasoning in the opening quote suggests the primary purpose of transit is reducing auto travel, rather than serving people who want to or must use transit.”

    100% agree. It’s a mentality that leads to far flung park & rides and dizzying varieties of limited commuter service instead of reliable and fast service for transit-supportive areas.

    1. Wayne

      And this is reason #1 why I’ll probably take my highly desired skillset to another part of the country in a few years. I can think of maybe two or three ‘walkable’ neighborhoods in the entire metro (and I’ve lived in them all), and even they are basically car sewers with slow and unreliable transit.

  3. ClaireB

    I use the argument “reducing car trips” all the time when I advocate for better bicycling infrastructure. Even though my city gives the impression they are big into environmental sustainability and justice, the staff, council, and commission members only care about not making driving and parking any more horrible than it already is. Using the argument that bicycling is more friendly towards all income distributions, or that it reduces air pollution and serves those who aren’t able to drive isn’t an argument that they really deep down care about. In fact it probably deters them as our police department complains on facebook about “transients coming in on the metro and causing trouble.” Isn’t that so sad? I wonder if it is like this in most towns- I assume it is, but am counting down the days until I can move.

  4. mplsjaromir

    The coolest thing to hear from anti-transit people is that transit is slow and unreliable, but also used a getaway vehicle for criminals.

  5. Monte Castleman

    It’s not surprising that people that don’t ride buses for the most part won’t ditch their cars to ride a slightly faster bus, there’s still the perception problem that faster buses don’t solve, which is reason #99 why the Red Line is a waste of money. No matter what you call it, it’s not “Light Rail on Wheels”, it’s a bus.

    Statistics from light rail riders would be interesting to contrast with new express bus riders.

    1. Wayne

      The red line was a huge waste and has been a massive failure. But that’s what we get for blowing transit money on places where it won’t work without massive redevelopment while ignoring places that can support, do support, and desperately need more transit.

    2. John Charles Wilson

      There just isn’t enough density in the Cedar Ave. corridor to support the Red Line.

      In addition, the Cedar Grove stop really takes the “Rapid” out of Bus Rapid Transit, though as I understand it, that will be fixed in a few years.

      Personally, I think what would have worked better for this corridor is a hybrid local/express bus line sponsored by both Metro Transit and MVTA that would start in downtown Minneapolis and go Hwy. 55 to Cedar, make all local stops on Cedar from 24th to Edgewater Blvd. (south end of Lake Nokomis), then use the Cedar Ave. freeway to Apple Valley Transit Center, making whatever stops are feasible on Cedar itself, but not deviating for MoA or Cedar Grove. (I support separate routes from each end to MoA.)

      This would be an all-day route up to at least 9 PM, 7 days a week, with a frequency similar to the current Red Line.

      1. Local, straight-line service on Cedar. Current Cedar Ave. service in Minneapolis is fragmented.
      2. Serves a new area between 46th and Edgewater on Cedar.
      3. Connects Apple Valley with Minneapolis on a direct route, even if not fully express. Running time must be better than the Red + Blue Lines.
      4. Provides access to South Minneapolis for Apple Valley people without backtracking, as they have to do when they take an express to downtown.
      5. Even though the route is mostly local in Minneapolis, the Franklin mess is avoided.

      1. Monte Castleman

        My own fantasy is extending the Blue Line to Cedar Grove, using a third Cedar Bridge span (that would also include a pair of reversible traffic lanes). But realistically commuter coaches from park and rides seem to be the best fit for the area. The speed and psychological differentiation from an “ordinary” bus provide incentives for commuters to use them that wouldn’t use ordinary buses.

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