Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The independent and dependent variables of transit....

If you understand the title, you too were subjected to the tyranny , ehm I mean rigors of a scientific education. For some reason all I remember of my biology education was the endless number of graphs and charts I made where we take samples with different values and see what we got. Yes, we do experiments, and that's what's happening all across the nation right now and in this Wall Street Journal article on individuals trying out mass transit. We have our own little experiment going on, how does mass transit usage change as gas prices go up. For the longest time, we had a pretty flat line, but all of a sudden there was a jump.

Joe White in the article covers the history of the Detroit Mass Transit system and what killed it, he even did a little of his own scientific research with this conclusion:

I experimented with commuting by bus last Friday, and I had the kind of mixed experience that explains why ridership on many public systems is only up by single-digit percentages despite all the gasoline angst. Overall, I had a pleasant, on-time ride and probably did better than break even on fares vs. fuel costs. On the down side, I missed being on my own schedule -- and I didn't really know how to work the system.

That last line really resonated with me, since I myself have been doing a little research about the mass transit system here in Silicon Valley. In the past, I've focused on the light rail system and generally been frustrated with it since it tends to go out of the way to get to places and takes a lot of time. I proved my point by taking an hour to get from work to a happy hour I was attending 20 miles away. Two hours out and back, a quarter of a work day. It wasn't a total waste since I did meet an interesting man with an Italian bicycle, and I would have never expected that.

The next week, I decided to give the bus a try in order to meet a friend for dinner. I cheated since I rode my bike to one end of the bus route, which allowed me safe portage of the freeway and the intersection of death. I hate this intersection in my car, I would not even consider it on my bike, and then hopped off about a mile from my destination. I have to say it worked out pretty well. Being stuck in rush hour traffic I did no worse than my car would have been, ok a little more. I was considering taking another bus home but was close enough, and there was enough light to safely make it home. However, the route I was considering on the El Camino Real is the busiest route in VTA, the 22 and runs every 15 minutes. I had to plan for my trip.

Some observations from my field studies in mass transit;

- Our transit system is really a class system (gasp, this is America there is no class system). Buses are generally taken by people who have no choice. Whereas Train systems are generally taken by people who either choose not to have a car and live an urban existence, or people who choose not to drive. The bus system in suburban areas are basically service of last resort. I think much of the uncomfortableness of riding the bus by many is shattering the illusion of a classless system and confronting our country's inequality.

- Route location matters. This is a no brainer, but where a route serves many constituencies and businesses the liveliness of the route contributes to it's attractiveness. Busy routes get more routes in a virtuous cycle. We are seeing this in our airline system as distant off the beaten track airports are losing their air service.

- Frequency matters, but only if the route location is well chosen. The Light Rail is a farce, often being unsed. The exception was close to downtown San Jose, where it picked up. Light rail is fairly frequent but the bad route placement makes it unusable. I'm not sure if Santa Clara country was trying after the Portland Model of build the rail system and development will follow, but Portland also took advantage of a more tradition hub and spoke feeder system. Regular trips to nowhere aren't helpful.

- The First and Last Mile matter. Much of our development takes us off the main arteries, this may be a consequence of zoning, land values or just plain luck. But mass transit works only if approximately end to end service is possible. A friend of mine who lived in Paris once told me that the Metro was designed to have a station no more than 10 minutes walk from any place in Paris. I've solved much of the end points problem with a bike, but the gas crisis is forcing more people with bikes onto mass transit taking up available bike space. Folding bikes may be a solution.

We use to live in denser cities with usable mass transit, the victory of the car changed the nature of our cities into suburbs. The question is with the apparent (and I say apparent, since electricity may prove viable alternative to powering cars) decline of the automobile change our communities again. The experiment goes on, who knows when the next jumping point is on the graph.


At 10:11 PM , Blogger arduous said...

Great post! I like what you say about end to end transit. I have to walk two miles to the subway and I've reconciled myself with this by telling myself that this is my commute and my work out. But it also means that my 20 minute car commute is an hour five minutes by public transit, and about 35 minutes of that is just the walking aspect.


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