Category Archives: public transport

Adventures on Transit in the Suburbs |

I had a meeting at MnDOT’s Metro Division at “Water’s Edge” in Roseville. This is a short distance (though by no means non-circuitous distance) from the Rosedale Transit Center.

To maximize irony (showing up at a suburban MnDOT office building by transit) and since it was a nice day, and because I have a 1 car household to begin with, and since I was not time strapped as this is summer, I took transit to get there.

The new 67 bus (not a new bus, a new bus route) picked me up a short distance from my home on-time, and took me to a transfer point at Minnehaha Avenue and Snelling Avenue in St. Paul where I transferred to the 84 heading northbound. I exited at the exit ramp from Snelling to County Road B2 and walked to the building.

I attended my meeting, and walked over to Rosedale to catch the return bus (and eat lunch).

This is a spiral shaped bus route. The 87 exiting Rosedale Center.
This is a spiral shaped bus route. The 87 exiting Rosedale Center.
This sidewalk at Water's Edge assumes you lose a lot of weight while walking, and get really skinny.
This sidewalk at Water’s Edge assumes you lose a lot of weight while walking, and get really skinny.
This sidewalk assumes you don't actually want to enter the building.
This sidewalk assumes you don’t actually want to enter the building.
This sidewalk along County Road B-2 is forlorn, but adequate.
This sidewalk along County Road B-2 is forlorn, but adequate.

On the return I took the 87 from Rosedale Transit Center to University Avenue and transferred there.

  1. Load Factor: Some of the buses were practically a personally limo. Though the first bus was at 8:30 in the morning, there was only 1 other passenger on-board. Because there were so few passengers, there were no delays. (Well there was a bit of a minor delay due to emergency vehicles attending to an emergency at the Days Inn on University (the eerily pre-named Tracks), but (a) it was less than 30 seconds, and (b) this seems unusual. We were so far ahead of schedule when I alighted the bus put on its flashers and waited at least one traffic light cycle to not get ahead of itself. The 84 had a modest number of folks northbound. On the 87 southbound there was also one other person for most of the trip. The 16 was not crowded. I realize this is off-peak direction in the off-peak time of day in the off-season, but maybe think about smaller buses?
  2. Ride Quality: The bus was designed with the bus-maker’s racing heritage in mind, I really got the feel of the road. This was of course compounded by the terrible local streets in Minneapolis and especially St. Paul, as well as the worn out suspension on the vehicle itself. You can measure this yourself with your smart phone.
  3. Transfers and Signage: How are people supposed to do transfers if they have never done transfers before if bus route information is not on the bus stops? The 84 was a hi-frequency route, so I could figure it out, as there was some additional signage, but the Metro Transit trip planner is not obvious about this, and other transit apps are equally bad. The reverse trip would not have been obvious. Getting real-time information on my smartphone is hit or miss, and not everyone has a smartphone. There need to be better bus top signs. The Metro Transit trip planner website which was consulted before I left in the morning said I should take the 67 on my return trip, and the bus stop indicated it stopped there (this was the bus stop nearest Raymond Avenue station, so it has recently been upgraded with a slightly more informative sign) but I didn’t know when it would arrive (sorry OMG transit did not tell me either, it must have been below the end of the screen, and getting OMG transit to update GPS seems problematic. Frankly, it’s still beta.) and a 16 bus showed up, which I was familiar with and took it to the nearest stop and had a 8 minute walk instead of 2 minutes. Figuring out transit information can take as long as the ride itself.
  4. Sidewalks: There were sidewalks on County Road B-2, but within the office complex itself, I was apparently expected to walk in the driveway. There should either be a formalized shared space (unlikely as this is a suburban office parking lot) or actual sidewalks along the driveways. Better, there would be diagonal sidewalks so that people can walk directly from Water’s Edge to Rosedale, both from the Water’s Edge building to County Road B2 just under Snelling, and from the other side of the underpass from County Road B2 to Rosedale. One imagines MnDOT employees drive out to lunch the less than 1/2 mile to Rosedale. Roseville has a program called “Living Smarter“, there is some work to do. While it might be impossible to make this city-like in its pedestrian orientation, it certainly can be better than it is.
  5. Circuity: The 87 bus exiting Rosedale seemed to take a very circuitous route within the shopping mall. It is literally a spiral (see figure). I am sure there is an internal traffic flow reason the shopping mall wants buses tearing up its pavement, but I couldn’t figure it out. There was a curb preventing the bus from crossing at other points, but surely there should be some way of allowing buses to get out quicker. This would save about a minute by my timing. The bus then went along B-2 and Fairview, and there were at least 3 stops before we left sight of the shopping mall.
  6. Contracting: The bus was operated by a contractor First Transit. Other than it was an older bus, a bit smaller, and hard to tell which bus it was unless you were in front or the right side of the bus (i.e. I almost missed it since I didn’t realize it was the bus I wanted since there was no sign on the left side of the bus where I was standing), it seemed similar in quality to the older Metro Transit fleet

Still 30 minutes end-to-end (excluding schedule delay, but including transfer time and walk time) from Rosedale Transit Station to home is tolerable, longer than driving of course, but not onerous or painful, on a nice summer day.


Cross-posted at

Riverview Corridor – Some History

While I await my copy of  the 2000 Riverview Corridor major investment study : draft report, which I cannot find online, I will remind of the history I can scrape together from a quick web search:

The Star Tribune August 27, 2000, Sunday, Metro Edition  reported (via LexisNexis):

St. Paul asks: Light rail or busway?;
Public hearings in Ramsey County soon will be airing various transit options for a corridor linking the East Side, downtown and the airport.

Kevin Duchschere; Staff Writer


LENGTH: 1135 words

As plans for the Hiawatha light-rail line in Minneapolis move forward, officials and residents in St. Paul are getting ready to jump into a light-rail debate of their own.

     At issue is the best way to shuttle people between St. Paul and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

     A $1.15 million study released last week lists seven transit options for the area known as the Riverview Corridor, a 12-mile swath that runs from St. Paul’s East Side to downtown and along W. 7th Street to the airport area.

     The choices include three light-rail scenarios and two plans for a traffic-free busway. Several community hearings are planned in the next few weeks before the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority recommends one of the options to the Metropolitan Council in November.

     The study, conducted by private consultants, draws no conclusions. But its facts and figures indicate that a busway, while expected to draw fewer new riders than a light-rail line, also would cost far less than light rail and have less impact on homes, businesses and parks.

     Those findings may give Riverview an edge when Met Council officials decide this fall which metro transit route should receive $44 million in state funds for a busway, a lane set apart for speedy bus travel. While not the top route in terms of ridership potential, Riverview may get the nod from state officials eager to mollify St. Paul after awarding the first light-rail line to Minneapolis.

     Tony Bennett, chairman of the rail authority _ which consists of Ramsey County Board members _ said some may be surprised that the study considers options other than light rail, and that not all of the routes follow W. 7th Street.

     “A lot of people did not think we were looking at all the alternatives, but this report should put that issue to rest,” he said.

     The outcome for Riverview is important not just for St. Paul, but for regional transit needs.

          The Riverview Corridor is the second leg of an anticipated transit triangle that, along with the Hiawatha light-rail line and the Central Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, would link both cities with the airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington.

     The study, 80 percent funded with federal money, was done not only to aid local decisionmakers but also to help federal officials decide whether future spending on Riverview is justified. Federal funds will be used, with state and local money, for $1.75 million worth of bus shelter and lighting improvements next spring along 7th Street and in downtown St. Paul, said Kathryn DeSpiegelaere, director of the rail authority.


Bus vs. rail

     The Riverview study outlines proposed routes, station locations, costs and expected ridership for five options involving either light rail or a dedicated busway. It also includes a “no-build” option and a low-cost strategy to improve and increase regular bus service along W. 7th Street.

     According to the study:

     - A light-rail line would cost $370 million to $405 million, depending on where it is built. The most expensive route would be along the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, followed by a route linking the tracks with Interstate Hwy. 35E. The least expensive would be the W. 7th Street option. Annual operating costs: $13 million to $14 million.

     - A traffic-free busway along the tracks would cost $120 million to $130 million to build; the other busway option, along W. 7th Street, would cost $75 million to $85 million. Eitherbusway option would cost $10 million annually to operate.

     - About 1,100 new riders each day would use the light-rail line, as opposed to 600 to 700 new riders daily on the busway. Daily transit trips would range from 67,000 on the busway to 70,500 on light rail, and travel time between Earl Street on the East Side and the airport would range from 33 minutes on the busway to 36 minutes on light rail.

     - The light-rail options include 13 planned stations and five to six optional stations, while the busway would include 11 planned stations and an additional six proposed stations.

    Bennett said he likes the idea of a busway route on the railroad right-of-way.

     “Human nature is to say, ‘I don’t like buses,’ but they’re talking about what’s on the street today and we’re talking about something on a dedicated busway, with new and different buses . . . stopping once every mile or two at key intersections,” he said.


Other lines

    Riverview is one of three transit corridors under consideration in the East Metro area. A study on transit choices for the Central Corridor will be ready in late 2001, DeSpiegelaere said.

     And early next year the rail authority plans to release early next year a transit study on the Red Rock Corridor, which stretches along the railroad tracks between St. Paul and Hastings, she said.

     State transportation officials and legislators agreed last year to earmark $69 million over a five-year period to develop the Riverview and Central corridors, in exchange for Ramsey County’s support for $100 million in funding for Minneapolis’ Hiawatha line.


The FTA summarized the case below …


Twin Cities – Transitway Corridors (Riverview Corridor)
St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) has selected a busway alternative as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the Riverview Corridor Major Investment Study. The corridor extends from downtown St. Paul along the west bank of the Mississippi River, and connects the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Hiawatha Corridor light rail line (currently under construction) and the Mall of America retail complex in Bloomington, Minnesota. The RCRRA has allowed the Metropolitan Council to undertake a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Riverview Corridor busway project. Although a DEIS was completed in 2001, a Final EIS has not been prepared. The Metropolitan Council (the local Metropolitan Planning Organization) adopted a local resolution that chose the busway alternative as the LPA for the Riverview Corridor. However, lack of state funding has rendered this project inactive. Through FY 2002, Congress has appropriated $4.61 million in Section 5309 New Starts funds for this effort.


In brief, it wasn’t even worth building a busway in the corridor 10 years ago, but now it is so valuable as a billion-dollar LRT possibility (10-15 years from now, maybe) that the ready-to-go arterial BRT B-Line in the corridor must be delayed indefinitely.


Good Transit – Transit as a Good

Due to a peculiar aspect of American exceptionalism, unlike most countries, we persist in governing transit as if it were a public good. This misleading and inaccurate model prevents consideration of policies that will lead to better transit.

Public services are often provided by the public sector. However, not all public services are public goods – following the economic definition of public goods as neither excludable nor rivalrous, and thus capable of only being provided by a government or government-like entity. Many public services which are provided by the public sector in one place and time, are privately or cooperatively provided at other points in time (college is an example).

Every time someone arrives at a station or boards a bus, they must pay or can be prohibited from riding (or fined after the fact in the case of proof-of-payment systems). To be clear there are free transit systems, but that is by choice, they are excludable if not excluding. Many such as the Campus Connector on my own University of Minnesota campus don’t charge, but are also not particularly useful to non-members of the university community. These are functionally excludable, in that they are only of value to people in a particular geography.

Transit is in the short run sometimes rivalrous (when congested, if I have a spot on the train, you might not), sometimes not rivalrous (when uncongested, we can both sit on the bus – though stopping for me adds time for you), and in the long-run anti-rivalrous: the more people who use transit, the better transit gets. The Mohring Effect observes that each additional bus per hour lowers waiting times and schedule delays for travelers. Further note that creative scheduling (express plus local, e.g.) can lower travel times as well. We might extend that observation spatially as more direct routes are implemented with higher demand, reducing travel distances and thus times. Transit is a great mode in relatively dense areas where “everybody” uses it.

These characteristics define transit as more club-like than public. If we talk about transit accurately as a club-like good we can consider different types of institutional structures beyond the government department or agency, such as the utility model. Its institutional organization should reflect that.

My earlier post: Club Transit, discusses some of the ways we might reframe transit as a club good, with members rather than users.

It’s “only” 5 minutes, or Green Line Delay Monetized

Jim Walsh reports in the Strib

“According to timetables released before the line opened, a trip from Union Depot to Target Field was expected to take about 48-49 minutes. Metro Transit officials said last week that the westbound Green Line is averaging about 54 minutes, end to end and that the eastbound train is averaging about 53 minutes.”

If we take these numbers at face value, the train is 5 minutes late on average. (It is probably worse than this from a user perspective, because the times when it is late is when more riders are on the train to experience its lateness, when few riders are on-board in off-peak periods, it probably runs much closer to on-time).

He also reports 30,000 rides per day using the line. I don’t know the average length of trip, but let’s assume it is 1/2 the distance of the line. (This may be too long, but it off-sets the fact that more people experience the delay than the on-time conditions). Thus the average passenger trip would be delayed about 2.5 minutes.

There would be 75,000 person minutes of delay per day. There are 1440 minutes in a day, so about 1250 hours per day, or 52 person lives are lost to excess time on the train.

At a Value of Time of $15 (just as a point of information MnDOT now uses $16 for auto-value of travel time savings per person hour, but maybe transit users have a lower VOT because they don’t mind being delayed so much because they can do other things on the train) per hour, this is $18,750 per day or $6.8 Million per year.

Over 30 years, this is $205M without discounting. With discounting at 2% this is about $152M.

In short, this is not a small miss that we can just ignore (saying that it’s only 5 minutes and no one goes end to end anyway), and everything that can be done should be done to make the line go as fast as possible with a minimum of delay.

This does not even consider the lower operating costs to MetroTransit from less delay.

The Green Line’s first month is in the books | Star Tribune

Jim Walsh over at the Strib writes  “The Green Line’s first month is in the books“. [quasi-paywall]  He quotes me:

Picking up the pace

One number that continues to vex Metro Transit, however, is a slower-than-advertised travel time.

According to timetables released before the line opened, a trip from Union Depot to Target Field was expected to take about 48-49 minutes. Metro Transit officials said last week that the westbound Green Line is averaging about 54 minutes, end to end and that the eastbound train is averaging about 53 minutes.

On a Tuesday morning last week, a westbound trip took 67 minutes while an eastbound trip took 57 minutes. The next morning, a westbound train took 61 minutes while an eastbound trip finished in an hour.

Traffic lights along the route — even at quieter cross streets — are clearly slowing travel times, said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in transportation. Officials decided not to give the Green Line what is called pre-emption — the ability to change a light to green when a train approaches. Doing so would speed the train, but probably slow car traffic.

Trips taken Tuesday and Wednesday included several minutes stopped at traffic lights.

“That is just seriously bad engineering,” Levinson said. “If you are serious about transit and encouraging people to take transit, you need to make it as efficient as possible. My guess is that politicians don’t understand the intricacies of traffic signal design.”

John Siqveland, a spokesman for Metro Transit, said officials continue to look at making improvements, including “the sequencing of Transit Signal Priority to allow light-rail trains to continue through these smaller cross streets continuously.”


Lisa Schweitzer Part 6: Local Funding

In what is promised to be the last part of her exegesis of my CityLab post, Lisa agrees with me about the problems with federal transit funding, but can’t admit to it, because of the slippery slope argument.

She writes:

Ok, so I’m torn here because I am usually the only urban scholar who says openly that walking, biking, and transit advocates have overstated their claims to global benefits in trying to make a case for their slice of federal dollars, and I applaud Levinson for even saying so. Being brilliant is easy for somebody like Levinson. Being brave enough to say something this politically unpopular with the vast majority of scholars in your field? That’s a lot harder, and I’m grateful for his not leaving me to be the only one critical of my field’s claims about our entitlement to crawl into the federal taxpayers’ pockets.

That said, I’m not sure I am on board. I seriously do not know what I think here.

The slippery slope argument is of course a slippery slope, since it justifies doing nothing any time, any where.

She writes in favor of demonstration grants:

The real pain comes in thinking about those places that don’t have deep pockets. Without difficult-to-justify federal capital subsidies, there is no Portland as it exists now, and while I die inside every time one of my starry-eyed students/philosopher-kings advocates for yet another slow light rail in Los Angeles “because Portland!”, federal subsidies have given the US truly important social experiments with transit, given how the feds shoveled out for BART, Portland, and DC’s metro. Nope it wasn’t particularly just or rational, but it sure has been interesting and transformative, and for the better. In concert with transit experiments in Europe, Asia, and South America, it’s mattered a lot to urban scholarship.

The problem is of course opportunity cost. Portland I believe could have done it themselves had they wanted to, if they truly believed in what they were doing. Not that I fault them for asking for federal money, I just fault the US for giving it to them. (Just as I don’t fault the person making the bribe – they’re just doing their job, just the one taking it – they’re not.) What did we not do because we gave money to Portland. If it’s fewer buses where that would have been valuable, or less food for the poor, or fewer large screen TVs for the taxpayer is an ethical question of what you do with the money, but by spending money on LRT in Portland, something else was not done. But, you want to fund 1 instance of 1 new technology for Science!, okay, but you only get 1. Science too has diminishing returns. (The Morgantown PRT for instance).

Even if there is a better way for cities to be, and certainly there is, there is no evidence that the Federal government knows this better than locals. I don’t have a problem with federal financing, as long as the loans are paid back, with interest, by the revenue from the project (or ancillary spillovers like adjacent development). But I fail to see any reason for the federal government to systematically fund capital intensive low return-on-investment, local benefitting investments.

Then there is the spatial equity question. Undoubtedly some places are poorer than others. But why should the jurisdiction be subsidized rather than the poor residents. It makes more sense to me to give grants to poor people in Mississippi than to jurisdictions in Mississippi that happen to have poor people. This would be demand-side rather than supply-side support, but that will lead to better transportation for the people as a whole, not just the lucky ones served by one expensive project, (and fewer ribbon-cuttings for their elect.).

Lisa Schweitzer Part 5: Asset values

Lisa writes:

I’m almost done with my responses to David Levinson’s important contribution via CityLab on How to Make Mass Transit Funding Sustainable Once and For All.

However, I’m going to say something that is going to make errrbody unhappy: transit’s assets are worth more as assets because we all know the taxpayer will buy them back if private sector managers allow things to go pear-shaped. If there is something that, over the course of its history, has been ‘too big to fail’, it is transit. From the municipal bail-outs of holding companies in the mid 20th century to the devastating strikes that occurred before then, disrupting transit service in the pre-auto world paid out well for both capital and labor. It was textbook Ralph Milliband. So we should think Uber-level values with a bail-out and buy-out guarantee–which is basically what just about all major infrastructure transfers to the private sector turn out to be given enough time, save for some examples in Asia.

So she is skeptical of private investment. I don’t blame her, I am not investing my retirement dollars in new rail infrastructure either. But there are many lessons here.

(1) An investment that produces a stable rate of return, even if low, is extremely valuable as a financial instrument for annuities and retirement plans. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan now owns a share of the Channel Tunnel among other infrastructure assets.

(2) Investing in new infrastructure is a lot riskier than investing in already built infrastructure (thus the early financiers of the Channel Tunnel got wiped out twice, similarly the Dulles Greenway and many other privately funded pieces of new infrastructure that were either more expensive than expected, or built too far in advance of demand – yet the physical thing remains, so the public risk is relatively low if the public sector is not already pwned by the private sector).

(3) The case of London is instructive, and suggests some of the risks of what we in the US call Public Private Partnerships and the UK call Private Finance Initiatives, but are really just contracts. The London Underground set up was, to be frank, insane and could only have been designed by overpriced lawyers (I read somewhere legal costs of setting up the contract was £500 before even operating, and that still did not deal with the contingency that actually occurred) without a clue as to how transportation systems work. There, all construction had to occur between 11 pm and 5 am, including set-up and break-down, and the system had to be open and operational for the morning commute. So the concession-holder spent a couple of hours setting up, performed a couple of hours of construction work, and then took a couple of hours of cleaning up. It would be much better to temporarily close the line, do all the work you need, and do it in a relatively short amount of time (months instead of years). Convert the streets above the line to (temporary?) Super-BRT exclusive busway routes with tons of buses to serve the displaced demand. Of course one should do this to only one line at a time. Christian Wolmar in Down the Tube has a great discussion.

(4) Strikes are a lot less effective than before once you no longer have a monopoly provider and a monopsonistic labor union operating with a single systemwide contract.

(5) Obviously unproductive assets should be retired. I have a few in mind, but I suspect most fixed assets (aside from selected intercity rail, commuter rail and streetcar lines) in US transit are redeemable, and all the modern buses are as well, as they can be redeployed.

(6) I am not sure what public space is anymore, but New York’s Penn Station was of course privately built (and destroyed), while Grand Central was privately built (and preserved – due to public intervention), while exploiting air rights to get some additional revenue for an otherwise dying company. In fact Grand Central is still privately owned.

Lisa Schweitzer Part 4: Capital Cost Recovery

Lisa Schweitzer continues her hermeneutic investigation of my CityLab post: How to Make Public Transit Sustainable Once and For All, this time focusing on capital cost recovery and land use issues.

What Levinson is trying to get at here simply concerns the “eyes bigger than market” problem that plenty of cities get into over things like stadium deals. If you actually live in a world where land taxes aren’t distorted (which I don’t, so there’s that), letting utilities buy and develop around train stations makes abundant sense. Here’s the part of the equation that I think really matters: if you require local jurisdictions to provide a portion of the capital and operating subsidies for service, they then have every incentive (instead of the incentive they have now), to alter their local zoning and approvals process ahead of timeso that development around station areas can actually occur.

She thinks she has spotted an inconsistency (or mic drop), but I am not clear what it is. (I think she means my moving from voters have the right to subsidize stuff they want vs. jurisdictions should only do something that pencils out).

There is a qualitative difference between capital and operating, between rail and bus (though that’s not the important one), between stocks and flows, and between new and old.

Capital investments are new stocks while operating expenditures are continuing flows. From a public policy perspective, continuing with existing commitments (which may be an implied social contract) may be more important than making investments that bring about new commitments. Thus new commitments (such as new rail lines which have irreversibly embedded immobile capital) should only be undertaken if we believe at the outset (admittedly a forecast, which have problems) that they have cost recovery.

It is one thing to run a bus with some small subsidy for some indeterminate period of time.  That decision is reversible if it doesn’t work out. It is another to build a large capital investment with no prospect of cost recovery for a long period of time. The bus, being mobile capital, can always be rerouted, or reallocated to another service.

The large right-of-way (usually rail, but also a BRT right-of-way) cannot – and in a world with bond financing rather than pay-as-you-go infrastructure, imposes involuntary costs (capital repayment) obligations on future generations. This appeals to rail fans as a sign of “commitment” (ignoring the streetcars went away), but it is an inflexibility and unadaptability that means the “burden of proof” for making such a decision is higher.

I agree that requiring locals pay for their infrastructure might induce them to have socially better land use controls, since they may need the revenue that the higher accessibility may have created with more intense development to support the infrastructure that created the higher accessibility in the first place.

Lisa Schweitzer Part 3: Farecards

Lisa continues her deconstruction of my CityLab post in Part 3, discussing Farecards and technology.

She writes:

Most transit companies already do require smart card use, and I’m not sure what seasonal passes get anybody, even providers,that monthly or weekly passes don’t, except if you buy for longer periods of time, the transit company gets to use your money longer than if you buy week-by-week. The only thing I think might matter here are school-year passes that, if you purchase them in August, you can a better deal than if you buy month-by-month, and you don’t necessarily want a full yearly pass. It probably makes more sense, for example, for me to buy a pass like that than my yearly pass because I don’t commute much in the summer. Unless I am missing something, this is a minor point.

I dispute her point in the absence of evidence. Most transit agencies have smart cards, and some heavy rail systems require them (BART, DC Metro, MTA). My sense of most bus agencies is they don’t require them – Twin Cities MetroTransit certainly doesn’t, hence the time saving advantages of having them. Boarding times are reduced from 6 seconds to 2 seconds per customer with smart cards if I remember a recent term paper correctly.

I would go further and say we should have pre-payment via stop-based farecard reader, i.e. all significant bus stops should have arterial BRT like payment.  (This should be coupled with a reduction in the number of bus stops). Pre-payment is faster of course.

The advantage of seasonal or annual unlimited passes vs. unlimited weekly passes is seemingly minor (reduced transaction costs for the agency, but more importantly reduced mental transactions cost for customers). However, it is an important psychological difference. This gets back to my Club Transit post, where users should be thought of as members rather than one-off riders. Sure some riders (students, faculty) might save a little bit with seasonal vs. annual passes, but what you want (as an agency) is continuous automatic billing, not having to go through a weekly/monthly/annual process to sign up members.

I fully agree that there should be “one card to rule them all”, and further my membership in MetroTransit should be reciprocal at other agencies. But I suspect most people who use transit only use transit in one or two cities per year, so this would be relatively minor. The embarrassment of certain California metro areas not being able to standardize on fare cards across agencies is not widely replicated (fortunately), and obviously there should be intra-metropolitan inter-operability even if inter-metropolitan inter-operability is still a dream. Again this is a case where contracting out (to Visa or Mastercard, e.g.) might be valuable.



Lisa Schweitzer Part 2: Competitive tendering

Lisa continues discussing my CityLab post How to Make Mass Transit Sustainable Once and For All.

In “Part 2. David Levinson’s CityLab discussion on transit: Competitive tendering,” she takes issue with whether Competitive Tendering was causal in increasing London transit ridership. Well, as we all know, nothing is provable (though many things are falsifiable), so we cannot prove causality. We can infer causality if we have a plausible causal mechanism and an appropriate time sequence. Clearly there is a time sequence. What is the causal mechanism? Competitive firms provide better quality of service than did the previous arrangement because they are rewarded for providing better service. Competitive firms have lower costs than long-entrenched public sector agencies.

Does this explain everything? Of course not (population increases, the congestion charge, increased total bus service, fuel prices, construction on the Underground also play a part).

Does it explain something? Probably. Can I show this statistically? Not right now since London is only one city and I don’t have route-by-route breakdowns of ridership and service quality before and after competitive tendering.

However London, even under “Red Ken” did not seriously consider undoing bus competition. They did undo the poorly conceived rail competition, so undoing policy was on the table. So I infer that it is working and one of the causes of ridership increases.

To be clear, the evidence is that differently structured (more monopolistic) franchises awarded in other UK cities did not see similar ridership increases, so the answer is quite complicated about how to configure to maximize consumer welfare, and experimentation is probably required. Just giving the system away is certainly not the answer. Having the franchises be of a limited duration (5-7 years, e.g.) is better than a 20-30 year franchise. This is feasible for buses where the capital is the ultimate in mobile capital. It would be much harder for a traditional utility where the infrastructure is expensive, embedded in the ground, and long-lived.


Some even more wonky papers on London Buses: