Category Archives: public transport

Dogfooding: Why Transit Employees and Managers Should Use Transit

The term “dogfooding”, derived from “eating your own dog food”, is popular in the tech sector, and implies that a company should use its own products wherever it can. Thus, in general, Apple employees should have Macs on their desks rather than Windows machines, and Google employees should use Gmail. The advantages of this are several. Most importantly, bugs can be quickly identified by employees using the system on a daily basis, and feedback can be channeled quickly through the organization. Secondarily, missing features can be quickly identified similarly. Employees will get better empathy for the experience of paying customers.

There are of course limits to this process. You would not expect Boeing Defense employees to take a helicopter home with them, or even operate one on a regular basis. However, for most consumer products companies, this is a highly useful practice.

Applying this to the transportation sector implies employees (including senior management) of highway agencies should use roads to get to work (I am sure this is true for the vast majority of even “multi-modal” DOT or highway agency employees).

Similarly employees, and management, and directors or council-members of transit agencies should ride transit to work. Now of course, no-one can systematically use the entire system, everyone is spatially constrained in where they travel. Further, the bus drivers on the first ride of the morning (or the last in the evening) cannot practically ride transit to work in a system that does not operate 24/7, since there is no bus to get the bus driver there, or take her home.

Still, there are many opportunities for many employees, and more importantly, directors and Board members, of transit agencies to use transit, and I think increasing this number would improve service.

I have not seen a local survey in the Twin Cities, but this has been done in other cities.

In fact the travel passes (and especially travel passes for family members) are controversial.

  • New York City: From 2008 but with this gem “Why should I ride and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?”: MTA Revokes Travel Perks for Board Members
  • Washington DC: Washington Post survey of the WMATA Board found “Few ride the bus regularly.” (Though they do get a free pass).
  • San Francisco region:

    “In 1993, a grass-roots citizens group founded by Brown collected thousands of petition signatures and put a measure on the San Francisco ballot requiring the mayor, supervisors, and top city officials to ride Muni or other public transit to work at least twice every week.

    In the voter information pamphlet, Brown wrote: “Government is getting out of touch because too many officeholders and city workers act like potentates, not public servants. Send them a message! VOTE YES on AA to get them back to reality by riding the Muni twice a week.”

    San Francisco voters overwhelmingly agreed, with 65 percent voting to make this official city policy.

    So when was the last time you saw Mayor Ed Lee on your Muni bus?”

  • updated 2014-08-27: Houston, Texas, Metro execs to drive less, ride transit more

    About a dozen of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s senior managers will be required to ride public transit 40 times per month, and some will be giving up their staff cars or car allowances.

    “I know of no business where you can be successful without using your own product and believing in it,” George Greanias, Metro’s president and chief executive officer, said after announcing the changes during a public hearing today on the agency’s 2011 budget.

    Frequent use of buses or light rail will give Metro executives a better understanding of what the agency’s customers experience, Greanias said, while sending a message that Metro is committed to public transportation.

    David King notes that perhaps not coincidentally Houston is redesigning its network now.

  • New Zealand, Auckland Transport’s Staff Shuttle connects between offices, rather than having staff use public transport, which is a bit slower. The post from TransportBlog.co.nz quotes Radio NZ (source article no longer online):

    “Staff at the agency which runs public transport in Auckland are being offered a shuttle service for business trips between offices, because buses and trains are too slow.

    Auckland Transport (AT) is spending more than $122,000 over six months, trialling the shuttle between its downtown offices and its headquarters in Henderson.

    Public transport advocates say staff travelling between the Henderson and downtown locations should be using the bus and rail services at the door of both offices.

    AT wants to reduce its car fleet by 20 vehicles, and is encouraging staff to cut car use.

    “We’re providing options for staff, to have a tele-conference, to catch public transport using business AT HOP cards, and we’re also providing a shuttle between Henderson and Britomart,” AT community transport manager Matthew Rednall said.”

Thanks to the Twitter community for coming up with these examples of transit agency staff dogfooding (or being raked over the coals for free transit passes to encourage dogfooding). If you have other examples, leave them in the comments.

Infrastructure Spending: Are Buses The Answer? | Daily Caller

At The Daily Caller, a seemingly mutt-like mix of Maxim and The Weekly Standard aimed, as far as I can tell, at nattily-dressed, horny, male College Republicans, Matt Smith summarizes some of the recent discussion (including my previous post) about whether conservatives should support buses or trains in Infrastructure Spending: Are Buses The Answer?.

Praise for buses is a popular, if counterintuitive, sentiment among some leading conservative economists and commentators these days, including AEI’s Jim Pethokoukis. Interestingly, though, it is the very thing Levinson cites — the flexibility of buses — that some believe makes buses inferior to other alternatives.

He cites [Lind and Weyrich] basically saying rail is permanent, as if (a) rail hasn’t disappeared before, and (b) a corridor good enough to support rail would not be good enough to maintain bus service.

[Buses picking up low-income workers] may or may not be a valid idea to address a specific need. Still, any notion that buses are some sort of infrastructure panacea for the rest of us is probably misguided.

I’ll have more on this topic next week.

Here is exactly the sort of infrastructure spending Republicans should support | AEI Ideas

Jim Pethokoukis at AEI writes about what Republican transportation policy should look like. I am glad my ideas are being embraced by both AEI and the Obama administration.

 

University of Minnesota Transportation expert and must-follow blogger David Levinson was recently asked what he would do to help low-income residents if given $1 billion to spend. Now the context here is the opening of $1 billion light-rail line between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Levinson:

and then he cites the part of my blog post: Five questions about public transit, rail vs. bus, and gentrification. on spending for buses. He goes on to ask.

 

Why are buses treated as second-class transportation options? One reason, this Next City story suggests, is that middle-class (and above) citizens are kind of snooty about buses. They view them as transportation purely for poor people. “Only losers ride the bus.” Of course, this is a cultural and financial choice. Buses could be cooler and, more importantly, provide better service. And one group they could provide better services for is … lower-income people who have limited commuting options. …

Five questions about public transit, rail vs. bus, and gentrification

A producer for Real Money with Ali Velshi sent along five questions that Velshi might have asked during the interview about the Green Line. My talking points are below. Clearly this is too complicated for a three and a half minute interview.

1. So we often talk about investment in public transit as way to stimulate private development, make certain regions more attractive for businesses and residents. But is there a growing awareness that these projects don’t always improve life for all income classes? That they spur on gentrification can actually push out lower-income, working class residents?

Certainly gentrification is possible, however the case of the Green Line won’t see too much gentrification at first because there is so much vacant land in the corridor: parking lots and abandoned car dealerships, that can be redeveloped. Once the vacant land is consumed, this becomes a much more significant issue. The City and Metropolitan Council have a number of programs that have subsidized “affordable” housing in the corridor – most projects along the corridor in St. Paul have some public financial support.

It is important to remember that in Minnesota people don’t have a property right in low rents, and rent control is a bad idea that discourages investment.

 

2. As we just saw in the piece, the Twin Cities implemented a multi-faceted plan to help low-income residents and businesses along the Green Line. But there’s already been a hike in property taxes and 25% increase in median rental rates along the Green Line corridor. Did the city do enough?

Any accessibility increase will result in appreciations in property values. However, average prices have risen in the corridor in large part to the new housing (that is, new housing is more expensive (and nicer) on average than existing housing, pulling up average rents), along with improvements in the  economy in general.

New housing in the city will keep prices lower than they otherwise would have been in the absence of new housing, as it pushes out the supply curve. And if there were more housing supply added here, near rail stations, there is less elsewhere in the region than there would have been in the absence of the Green Line.

3. You worked before in transportation planning – if you had a billion dollars and were really setting out to help low-income residents, how would you have spent the money?

I would improve the bus system. Buses are more adaptable and flexible than rail. This matters because land use patterns change over time, and this kind of flexibility allows the transportation services to follow their customers.  Buses also have the advantage that they can “free ride” on existing roads, and so have much lower infrastructure costs. In just about all US cities buses serve more riders than rail system do, yet rail attracts the bulk of funding.

There are a number of improvements that can be made to buses, arterial Bus Rapid Transit systems provide higher quality, higher frequency, more reliable, and faster service, and that network should be built out and extended.

To be clear, the Green Line is the best rail project in the Twin Cities region, connecting two existing downtowns and the University along a relatively high-density urban corridor. The remaining extensions are more problematic, serving primarily suburban commuters.

Certainly for transit users, some investment is better than no investment, but that doesn’t mean we should support any investment that comes down the pike, instead we should try to design systems that best serve existing good transit markets – usually areas built before 1930, where the existing land uses are conducive to transit, rather than hoping to transform suburban green fields subject to the vagaries of speculative development.

4. If expanding bus systems would provide the most benefit for less money, why are so many cities focusing on building light rail systems? We’ve seen in cities like Portland, which has spent some $4 billion on light rail, street car, or commuter rail lines, spending on bus systems has actually dropped some 10 percent…

The people making and lobbying for rail investment decisions are generally not transit riders. They live in the suburbs and work downtown in offices and their mental model is everyone else does as well.  Most trips are not work trips. Most people don’t work. Most people who work, don’t work downtown. Most people who work don’t work in conventional office buildings. The decision-makers can’t imagine themselves riding on local buses (for a variety of reasons) and so design services for people like themselves rather than people who already use transit.

5. Did the Twin Cities really need to build a light rail? And can it really have the dramatic economic effects across all income levels that city officials hope for?

“Need” is a strong word. Given the federal government pays for half of transit capital investments, it was locally rational to build the Green Line. It serves users on the corridor better than previous  buses because it has a higher frequency, but that is a property of the frequency, not a property of it being a train.  It is important to note that much of the local funding for the lines comes from local sales taxes (which are regressive, that is the poor pay a greater share of their income for this than the wealthy), as well as a motor vehicle sales tax.

Second Class

Transportation analysts typically favor bus over streetcar investments, although everything is conditional. We are puzzled by the fascination the economic development community (particularly the downtown business lobby) has for projects like streetcars, which in practice (i.e. in mixed traffic) are worse in providing transportation service than existing and easily enhanced technologies like the bus.

These folks will claim streetcars provide economic development benefits while bus will not (an empirically testable and falsifiable claim). I am speculating as to why they and their crowd hate-on the bus so much, but I think it has to do with the bus eco-system making them feel like second-class citizens. They themselves would not ride the local bus, and cannot imagine others like them would either.

1. New vs. Old

Anything new (and shiny) has some appeal, especially compared to old and run-down. We invent words to make old things sound nicer than they are (historic, classic, vintage, legacy, patina). While once streetcars were old and buses were new, the opposite is now (or soon will be) true.

2. Fast vs. Slow

Transportation is about speed (and frequency and  reliability). While speed has historically risen overall, speed (and reliability) on any particular transportation facility tends to decline with age. That is, once deployed, that is the fastest the system will go, and over time it will go slower. While there are occasional improvements, as infrastructure ages, it goes slower. Roads get more congested and more access points, reducing speed. Transit wears out, is shut down for maintenance, or slowed down in work zones, has stops added (more than they are eliminated). New is usually faster, but more importantly, limited access is faster. We can (and of course did) build a new mode that is overall slower (though more frequent) than existing transportation modes it replaced, but that is harder to justify, so it is always pitched as faster, even if in contradiction to the facts.

3. Amenities vs. amenity-free

Please Check Schedules
Please Check Schedules

People like amenities, features, gadgets. Some of them are genuinely useful, like the LRT station variable message signs which say “please check schedules”, er, like the LRT station variable message signs which are supposed to tell you how many minutes until the next train. Shelters and heat are nice in bad weather. Pre-paying saves time. Working signs can provide useful information which relieve anxiety

4. People like us vs. people not like us

People like to live with people who are like them, or their economic “betters”, who raise their status by association. This process explains economic sorting in real-estate markets. It should be no surprise that people want to ride with people who are like them, or their economic “betters”, who also raise their status by association, and don’t want to ride with others.

This “people like us” phenomenon also leaks into the taxi vs. Uber/Lyft debate. Uber and Lyft drivers are more like “us” (if “us” is upper middle class folks and above) than your typical taxi driver.

System Dynamics

The decision of the “choice rider” (as opposed to what was once unfortunately called “captive riders” in the field, and then “transit dependent”, and now “transit reliant”) to ride the bus thus depends on whether other similar people ride the bus. Presumably they are making the same kind of decision. They are not considering the positive externality (virtuous circle) that their riding the bus increases the likelihood someone like them rides the bus (and their not riding the bus lowers the same likelihood (in a vicious circle)). Like any positive feedback system, this is both a cause and an effect.

The choice rider doesn’t ride because of 1, 2, 3, and 4, and their not riding makes 4 even worse. The lack of choice riders weakens the political constituency for improvements to 1, 2, 3.

So try to tell people at dinner party they should willingly ride on an old, slow, amenity-free service with people who they otherwise would not associate with, even though they don’t have to and can afford alternatives, and they will smile and turn to the next person. They don’t want to feel second-class, or to feel guilty about not wanting to feel second-class. All too-often, this mode is “bus”, especially in cities without historic, classic, and patina-ed rail systems.

Instead tell people who have a choice that they can ride on a mode that is new, fast, with amenities, and with people who are like themselves, and they might consider it from time to time, and more regularly if it is cost and time-effective. This mode need not be rail.

Unlike a new, fancy, and expensive rail system, existing buses are now the opposite, old, basic, and cheap. There is nothing technically preventing the bus and bus stop from being nice, (basically as nice as a brand new train and rail station, but usually a lot less expensive) but the lack of willingness on the part of the public from doing so.

Bus transit has more than an image problem. Its image problem results from the reality of services, which are in part due to relatively less investment than rail services get, because it has an image problem. It is a vicious circle.

Buses and railroad crossings

Buses are required by law to stop at railroad crossings (except where exempted, such as the light rail tracks on University Avenue in the Twin Cities). This is for safety reasons, the law was implemented in Utah for school buses after a terrible accident. The Deseret News reports:

DeVon Andrus of Cedar City wrote, “I endorse everything said about the safety on school buses. However, there are a few of us who remember a day in December 1938 when the worst school bus accident in the history of the United States occurred in Sandy, Utah. As a result of this accident, laws were passed in every state regulating bus travel when crossing railroad tracks. … Bus drivers were required to stop and open the door, look both ways and listen before crossing the tracks. …”

I know “safety first” and laws like this help keep us all alive, but sometimes they are applied too much.

Railroad Crossing at Franklin Avenue SE
Railroad Crossing at Franklin Avenue SE

There is a railroad crossing on Franklin Avenue in SE Minneapolis which is part of a spur, which used to have very few trains, and now has approximately none since the building it served (Bemis Products) is being converted housing (Brickhouse Lofts). Yet the tracks have not been removed, since the railroad (I suppose) might want to use the spur as a siding to store railcars sometimes.

Dozens of times each day school buses and Metro Transit buses and Metro Mobility buses decelerate, stop, look for non-existent trains, and accelerate again. This wastes time and energy, increases the wear and tear on vehicles, and pollutes the environment (with associated public health effects that probably exceed the safety benefits in these cases).

Is there a way to either (a) get railroads to pull up their unused track and abandon the right-of-way in a more timely fashion, (b) exempt more low volume tracks from the stopping requirement? [Clearly "exempt" signs are allowed, they just don't seem to be implemented as widely as they might be.]