Friday, February 25th, 2011

Replay: Transit Ridership Framework

You might have a hard time believing I’ve spent most of my career in consulting due to the lack of Power Point presentations on my blog. While I’ll admit to not being partial to the tool, I can create frameworks. Going forward, I’ll occasionally share some that are relevant to cities, starting today with public transit.

Last year I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. The goal was to devise a strategy for boosting regional transit ridership to one billion rides annually. If you’d like, you can read my winning entry, which won out over 125 others from around the world.

My plan includes over 50 potential actions that could be undertaken. You could think of them as being organized around the following framework.

In short, to boost ridership you need to create ridership demand, which you accomplish by increasing the number of transit addressable trips, then making transit the mode of choice for them. You then have to supply the capacity and pay for it, as well as creating an appropriate governance and operating model structure.

Generating transit addressable trips comes primarily by boosting CBD employment and land use policy changes. Making transit the mode of choice involves creating a transit service with the right mix of price, end-to-end journey time, and quality of experience versus other modes. Capacity is provided by more efficiently utilizing what you have and building new where appropriate. Financing – which includes capital and operating – typically comes from a mixture of federal assistance, sales taxes, and fares. I would favor a greater reliance on transit value capture, however.

To give some further perspective on this, I’ll share some considerations around various aspects of the framework.

Generating Transit Addressable Trips

Transit addressable trips are those that can reasonably be served by public transit. For example, a trip to Wal-Mart anchored shopping center or a suburban office park is generally fairly difficult to service by transit, at least for choice riders. We need to generate demand for more of the trips that are.

For work trips, the place to start is the Central Business District. CBD’s are generally fairly dense, constitute the largest single employment base in the region, were historically served by transit and thus are walkable, and are generally the focus of the transit that exists today, at least in the United States. The more jobs in the CBD, the better for transit.

Unfortunately, this is a challenging matter. Jobs have been decentralizing from downtowns for decades. Most cities have a fairly low percentage of their regional jobs in the CBD. This isn’t per se a problem as long as the CBD holds a significant job base, as it does in places like New York and Chicago.

The problem is that outside of the tier one cities, CBD employment has been experiencing absolute declines. Last year a Toledo Blade series documented how all of Ohio’s top seven downtowns were losing jobs. Even a great performing city like Columbus lost over 12,000 private sector downtown jobs between 2000 and 2005. This is not to pick on Ohio since I’d speculate most other places would show the same.

I have done a lot of thinking on this topic, but we’ll have to save that for another day. Suffice it to say that this will be a challenge outside of tier one cities. But as the key to the central city’s tax base, it’s an important matter to tackle even without the transit considerations.

Beyond that, land use policy is something I’m sure my readers already get. You need some level of density and walkability along transit lines and near rail stations.

Making Transit the Mode of Choice

Apart from a small hard core, I fundamentally do not believe people will choose to ride transit to save the planet or otherwise because it is the right thing to do. Rather, they are going to make the mode choice that seems best to them based on a combination of price, end-to-end journey time, and quality of experience.

Price again is where the CBD is poised to shine since that typically features expensive parking. This is the easy lever to win. Outside of CBD commuting though, the price equation can change dramatically. When you can park for free near a restaurant, for example, the price of round trip bus fare for two ($9 in Chicago) is a material amount of money. Heck, you can sometimes valet park for less than that. This off peak, non-commute price disincentive is one reason suggested that small cities should have fareless transit.

Price is also a consideration for automobile. Pricing roadway travel, especially congestion pricing to help ease peak of the peak travel, could potentially help transit even more. Also parking prices and taxes.

End to end journey time will almost always favor the automobile. It’s tough to address that. Most of the periods that feature express runs are during peak periods, targeting CBD commuters only, which is a group that already has reasons to take transit. Again, this is going to be tough for transit, but not necessarily a killer.

Quality of experience is an interesting one. Generally I think many people would prefer the private interior of their own car to a bus or train with other people. However, there’s a lot that can be done to make the experience better, as anyone who has used a first class overseas transit system can attest. And of course commuting in bad traffic is like a form of torture at times.

Also, the rise of wireless devices means transit time can be productive time. This might even favor longer commutes by transit since you can get some uninterrupted work time. Many people I know get lots of work done on Metra trains, for example.


It’s obvious that we need to build the capacity to serve the market we want, but I’d like to highlight the idea of optimization of existing capacity. Public transit is to some extent like an airline. Once you decide how many vehicles and runs to put on the street, it is more or less a fixed cost business to operate. So you want to make sure that none of those seats go empty.

As with many things, adding capacity at the peak of the peak period is costly. For example, the CTA spent $550 million to lengthen platforms to enable eight car Ravenswood L trains that are only needed during rush periods. The rest of the time that capacity is useless.

To avoid having to add this type of very expensive but limited use capacity, we should look at how we can shift peak demand to shoulder periods or off peak. Variable pricing is one way to do this. I already wrote about this in my post “Transit Pricing Reconsidered.”

Of course, this is a nice problem to have. Many smaller cities would dearly love to have fully occupied buses.


How do we pay for this? Typically capital comes from a mixture of federal grants and bonds backed by sales taxes. Operating subsidies also come from things like sales and real estate transfer taxes. One problem with this is that it implies funding a more or less fixed cost system with variable/cyclical revenues. Without healthy reserves, this will lead to periodic “doomsdays”.

My preferred method of financing is transit value capture, where transit is funded through increases in the land values created by transit. I wrote about this previously as well.

Governance and Operating Models

This is not the sexy part of transit, but needs to be carefully considered. Often the current structures are more or less the result of legacy choices and aren’t appropriate to the current or desired environment. Changing them can be politically difficult, however. Part of this is recognizing that no system of government investment will be made purely on an ROI basis. Thus we need to find a way to strike the right balance among civic objectives in a way that enables real benefits to be delivered.

Obviously this only touches the surface of these items. I just wanted highlight some of the matters that must be considered when planning transit systems inside of an overall high-level framework for doing so.

This post originally ran on January 21, 2010.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Transportation

50 Responses to “Replay: Transit Ridership Framework”

  1. John Morris says:

    This seems pretty off in a lot of ways.

    Transit is mostly a fixed cost business, which means that just creating more CDB-in out, peak load during peak hours does not help economics.

    What you need is to create more adressable trips by increasing the variety and density of uses in all directions, all along a transit line. You seem to imply that, but don’t follow the logic. Spreading out demand helps, but so does running full in all directions.

    The other elephant in the room is why off peak costs are so high–perhaps union contracts are a factor?

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Union issues, and government regulations more broadly, are a huge problem for commuter rail. They’re not as big a deal for urban rail, which charges the same fare all-day for reasons of tradition (nobody’s thought of off-peak discounts) or politics (people get outraged at peak-hour surcharges).

  3. John Morris says:

    Union issues would strongly affect the cost of staffing during weekends and off hours, which are critical to breaking even and making the real transit oriented neighborhoods pay off.

    Union issues also hurt the ability to make any substantive changes in route structures, for busses for example.

  4. John Morris says:

    I strongly agree that some form of value capture is the best way to fund the main cost of mass transit.

    However, if one intends to basically tax landowners near the lines, it’s not right that these owners and developers don’t have the main decision making powers regarding how the systems are run and organised–and how they can develop their land.

  5. I hate forgetting to close tags….

  6. John Morris says:

    That’s the number one factor at work. Roads are communist forever and are not on the table to be talked about. Obviously, rational moves towards market oriented transit and development can not bear fruit till this changes.

    Even worse, the main highways are controlled by the state or federal governemet and beyond community control.

    In general we need to move to a world in which the folks putting up the cash have the primary say. That’s what ownership once meant. Owners in any TBD have to have primary say as to what’s going on.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    Urban transit tends not to be so severely overstaffed during the off-hours. NYCT has two employees per train, and the rest of the urban rail systems have one. In contrast, NY-area commuter rail has five or six employees per train, even on weekends, and the wages are higher than on rapid transit because the BLE is much more powerful than the TWU.

  8. John Morris says:

    Perhaps they should have more people working. All I’m saying is that bad or limited service in off hours is taken as a given in America and likely why real transit oriented neighborhoods can not be expected to develop.

    Why exactly is the service so limited even when demand like in NYC, is pretty strong? I have to guess, high off hour wages are one factor. (Of course, we know the need to catch up on maintanance is also a big factor)

  9. John Morris says:

    LIRR still punches tickets by hand?

  10. Aaron M. Renn says:

    I don’t know about LIRR, but Chicago’s Metro definitely still punches tickets by hand.

  11. John Morris says:

    Pretty sure it’s still like that on the LIRR.

    Of course I have to mention the LIRR disability scandal.

  12. Ed Sanderson says:

    If all the CTA got for the Brown Line upgrade was 8-car platforms then you’re right that it was hardly worth the $550 million. However, even a short trip on the line will reveal all-new as well as modernized stations (all of which dated to the early 20th century) which accomodate the longer trains but are now completely ADA compliant. No mean task considering their age and layout.

    I wonder how much of that money was spent on the reconstruction of the two transfer stations at Fullerton and Belmont which also had to remain in operation 24/7/52 during construction?

    Also of note, all CTA trains are operated by one person and, as far as I can tell, so are the stations. This leads to think that the rapid transit lines are profitable but that most bus lines are not.

  13. John Morris says:

    All I know is that having great, reliable service at all hours is critical to having real transit oriented neighborhoods. Honestly, I can’t explain why exactly service is always cut back so quickly there even on the rail systems where the incremental labor cost shouldn’t be the biggest factor.

    The main explanation is that many old systems have a massive backlog of maintanance and that union contracts must be bad.

    The other explanation is that since these are not private, for profit systems nobody has a real interest in thinking about their economics and wellbeing.

    With bad off hour service, one can’t expect people to live without cars and this effects all the other attempts to create non car orriented neighborhoods. I think that’s a big factor happening with gathering opposition to bike lanes and stuff in deep Brooklyn and Queens.

  14. Wad says:

    John Morris wrote:

    The other explanation is that since these are not private, for profit systems nobody has a real interest in thinking about their economics and wellbeing.

    What a shallow statement.

    The reason why the U.S. doesn’t have private, for-profit transportation because there isn’t profit to be had.

    If your monopoly, publicly run transit system has a 20% farebox recovery, do you really think the private sector is busting down the doors to lose money? What do you think is better? One transit system of 20% farebox recovery, or four competitive transit systems each making 5% farebox recovery?

  15. John Morris says:

    We do know for there are folks like MTR of Hong Kong making lots of money operating systems and related real estate. This is because every decision is grounded in business reality.

    Time and again one sees public transit systems do things that udermine their ridership and revenue base.Places like Cleveland now have huge fares and almost no riders at all.

    It’s a chicken and egg problem. We say systems can’t make money and thus we never allow private systems the freedom to develop or operate.

  16. John Morris says:

    A better link about the for profit transit operator, MTR Corporation, Limited.

  17. EngineerScotty says:

    Even in Hong Kong, where public/private cooperation occurs at levels that would raise eyebrows in the US, and where the bus companies are private, the bus lines are regulated by the government. Bus franchise operators have to conform to a uniform fare structure, and can’t simply cherrypick the best routes. And Hong Kong, due to its incredible residential density, is a place that transit companies can actually make money.

    There’s a line of thought, I’m aware, that holds that the <100% farebox recovery ratios are largely the result of "government inefficiency", and that private enterprise could make money where the public sector cannot–but I ain't buyin' it.

  18. Wad says:

    John, in the U.S. the problem with an MTR-type arrangement involving both transit and real estate operations is that investors will inevitably strip the components. And we’ll be back to public support for transit.

    This was a common arrangement in the U.S., where the transit services were an arm of land speculators. Other major players were public utilities.

    Don’t confuse private with profitable. Many of these lines were loss leaders that would have been covered by real estate sales or electric bills. In the case of utilities, transit service was a condition of the utility maintaining a public monopoly.

  19. Wad says:

    And John, figuring out the labor equation of cost control is the gordian knot of transit. Transportation is still one of the most rock-solid industries with union density, and that won’t change. Unions set the market price for labor.

    Independent of CBAs, you would then have to figure out what would be the management case for a market wage for a transit operator. The most prevalent is bus driver.

    Generally, a bus driver requires a high school diploma and typically a minimum age of 21 (in a few cases, 18). You would assume that labor is a commodity and the worker pool is unlimited. You would then settle on minimum wage.

    But wait!

    Keep in mind that as a manager, you’re investing at least $5,000 in an applicant — even before he or she is allowed to drive a bus for the public. There’s the background check, physical, testing and at least a month of classroom training. Even if you didn’t have a CBA, state and federal regulations treat candidates for employment as employees. So their time for training must be compensated, including a training wage.

    Then consider the operating conditions. Vehicle operation may not require a college education, but it is a physically demanding, high-stress job. There is both a customer service and a safety aspect to the career. You need to raise the pay to deter worker burnout.

    You also need to factor in the cost of living in the area. Transit performs best in the highest-cost areas, where the career opportunities for workers are more plentiful. People are more reliant upon public transit, so you need to set a wage to ensure that an operator can deliver a vehicle.

    Even if you didn’t have to deal with a CBA, you would still see issues where other factors push up the cost of labor — even for the lowest-cost providers.

  20. John Morris says:

    Engineer Scotty said.

    “There’s a line of thought, I’m aware, that holds that the <100% farebox recovery ratios are largely the result of "government inefficiency", and that private enterprise could make money where the public sector cannot–but I ain't buyin' it."

    The profitablity of a business is built by thinking about profits, revenues and costs at every level. In the case of transit, we likely have an issue with unions, but a deeper one that every aspect of the systems, routes etc, was not structured to make a profit–or to satisfy a customer base.

    Amtrak, which spends so much money keeping it's nationwide routes, while failing to concentrate on the high traffic ones is a perfect example.In Pittsburgh, the biggest problem is the inabilty to change antiquated routes with little traffic.

    This political problem that comes with subsidies is why I'm rarely in favor of plans to get input or money from regional counties or the state, since the money comes with pressure to keep or build unprofitable routes. (or other strings like more parking lots, low density zoning etc..)

    My personal guess is that transit in many cities will not be allowed to go private or change–and will slowly die. At some point, a few grass roots efforts to create new systems will slowly form.

  21. John Morris says:

    One other important issue–also connected to government ownership.

    Clearly a huge factor at work in cutting back service hours and the overall bad financial condition of many transit systems is years of deferred maintanance on tracks, tunnels and equipment. NY transit is doing lots of off hours track work.

    How and why did this happen? Obviously, one sees the same situation accross the public sector, Social Security and the like in which politicians spent the money on other projects, programs and compensation leaving huge budget holes in the future. Not saying this didn’t happen at private companies like U.S. Steel, GM, Chrysler and the like, but the governement slush fund method of operating combined with strong unions makes this almost inevitable.

  22. John Morris says:

    BTW Wad,

    Your statement about nobody being interested in operating mass transit evades the rather huge market of informal operators.

    “New York has many forms of semi-formal public transportation, including “dollar vans” and “Chinese vans.” Dollar vans serve major corridors in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx that lack adequate subway service. In 2006, the New York City Council began debate on greater industry regulation, including requiring all dollar vans to be painted in a specific color to make them easier to recognize, similar to the public light buses in Hong Kong.[1] The vans pick up and drop off anywhere along a route, and payment is made at the end of a trip. During periods when even limited public mass transit is unavailable, such as the January 2005 Green Bus Lines and Command Bus Company strike or the December 2005 New York City transit strike, dollar vans may become the only feasible method of transportation for many commuters.In such situations, city governments may pass legislation to deter price gouging.

    In New Jersey, 6,500 jitney buses are registered, and are required to have an “Omnibus” license plate, which denotes the vehicle’s federal registration. They are also required to undergo inspection by the state MVC mobile inspection team on the vehicles’ companies’ property twice a year, and be subject to surprise inspection. Drivers of jitneys are required to qualify for a Class B or Class C Commercial Drivers License (CDL), depending on whether the vehicle seats up to 15 or 30 passengers. Violations against a driver’s CDL must be resolved and result in payment of fines prior to resumption of driving on the driver’s part, with retesting required if the driver waits longer than three years to resolve the issues.”

    In places like Peru, these informal operators have emerged as the defacto transit system.

  23. John Morris says:

    Streetsblog has noticed the dollar van trend that’s filling the gaps in MTA’s failing bus service.

    We are not far away from a Peruvian situation.

  24. Anonymous says:

    You make it sound easy, I wonder why Indianapolis can’t figure it out! I heard someone say “There aren’t any yellow school busses in NYC” the other day, and it is true. I live down the street from a school bus parking lot where there are a couple hundred busses in and out every day, seems like there could be a merger there that is already a “transit addressable trip,” that is actually being addressed by transit, however, it is completely separate from the general mass transit system, and those drivers and busses sit idle a few months of the year, and all but a few hours each day. Same for the busses that circle and go through IUPUI on a daily basis that could be integrated into a more wholistic system.

    It is amazing to me the many private operators that are working around Indianapolis, in addition to over 50% of IndyGo’s operations I believe are subcontracted to 3rd party priave transit contractors, and I believe that doesn’t include the ICE busses that are privately operated.

  25. Tadd Miller says:

    You make it sound easy, I wonder why Indianapolis can’t figure it out! I heard someone say “There aren’t any yellow school busses in NYC” the other day, and it is true. I live down the street from a school bus parking lot where there are a couple hundred busses in and out every day, seems like there could be a merger there that is already a “transit addressable trip,” that is actually being addressed by transit, however, it is completely separate from the general mass transit system, and those drivers and busses sit idle a few months of the year, and all but a few hours each day. Same for the busses that circle and go through IUPUI on a daily basis that could be integrated into a more wholistic system.

    It is amazing to me the many private operators that are working around Indianapolis, in addition to over 50% of IndyGo’s operations I believe are subcontracted to 3rd party priave transit contractors, and I believe that doesn’t include the ICE busses that are privately operated.

  26. John Morris says:

    The zoning, land use, density and competing free road situations are the key to this problem. My strong guess is that above a certain level of density, some form of mass transit will start to develop on it’s own–if allowed.

    That’s why I think the NYC area will be the one to watch. Density levels are just far too high for cars in too much of the city for transit to die or fade away. Money for traditional mass transit may be cut back but new operators will emerge and evolve.

  27. EngineerScotty says:


    While some of your “government inefficient, private enterprise efficient” stuff is all libertarian mom-and-apple-pie that I’ve heard before, you do bring up some valid points:

    * One reason that government-supplied transit (and lots of other government-supplied services) frequently requires a subsidy is that unprofitable routes are offered to provide more comprehensive service (and revenue from profitable services is used to subsidize these unprofitable ones). Amtrak service to North Dakota is one example, another is your typical three-times-a-day suburban bus line (which is still empty). A third example would be mail service to remote locations. Now whether “uniform” levels of service should be provided is an interesting question (many urbanists object to things they consider subsidies to rural areas, ranging from remote intrastructure projects to the aforementioned 44c letters to Homer, AK), but if it is to be provided, either the government has to do the providing, or the market has to be regulated to prohibit cherrypicking. As noted previously, bus franchisees in Hong Kong are required to operate unprofitable routes as a condition of being able to operate the profitable ones. (HK bus operators pay for their franchise, and get to keep farebox revenues).

    One of the big concerns about NYC’s street vans is that they cherrypick the profitable routes only, and deprive MTA of revenue needed to provide service elsewhere. I have no objection in principle to privately-operated transit, if the private operator(s) can commit to providing similar levels of service. However, I do object to the notion that government has no business operating transit, and any service that can’t be provided by a moneymaking private operator, ought not be provided at all. That may not be what you are saying, but it’s a common cry from the libertarian crowd.

    * Deferred maintenance is not a problem limited to the public sector. There are many examples of private airlines and other transport operators neglecting maintenance, and in some cases leading to disasterous accidents. Private enterprise has the “advantage”, I suppose, that it can more easily go bankrupt than the public sector, leaving pensioners and other creditors holding the bag (whereas public agencies are expected to make good on their obligations), but the sorts of pressures which cause penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior are found in both public and private enterprise.

    * Addressing a separate point, the transportation needs of schoolchildren can cause problems for transit agencies. Jarrett Walker did a post on this a while back; but a big problem is that the morning school commute occurs at the same time as the morning work commute, therefore the peak load on the agency increases. Put another way, at the time the yellow busses are running, the city busses are already full. It can work, of course, but it requires cooperation between the transit agency and the school district, such as setting staggered bell times for the schools so the load is distributed somewhat. Districts that operate their own yellow bus service do this as a matter of course; districts which do not tend to forget about the consequences of all the schools opening and closing at exactly the same time.

  28. John Morris says:

    Very few private entities have the kind of deffered maintance issues we now see across all government assets, from roads, to mass transit or bridges.

    At least private accounting tries to measure “book value” and use accrual accounting methods. The concept doesn’t even exist for the government.

    Interestingly, the companies most likely to act like this often are those controlled by strong unions–or thought to have defacto monopolies.

    Yes, private operators tend towards profitable routes. It’s shocking that public entities leave such openings by providing poor service on their bread and butter routes. In fact bleeding the good routes to fund the bad is the way they tend to work.

  29. Wad says:

    John, right-wing think tanks look at informal transportation the same way as you do — and still completely miss the point.

    That entrepreneurship and innovation seen in the private, informal realm — typically in the Third World — is a symptom, not a cure.

    There’s an odd paradox in transportation: subsidy or subsistence. Wealthier nations subsidize public transportation; poorer nations depend upon entrepreneurship to have transportation in place.

    In the case of poorer nations, subsistence transportation is borne out of circumstance, not out of choice.

    Don’t mistake “private” for wealth-generating. Those private networks don’t allow the riders or the driver to parlay the surplus value of transportation into a better life. The drivers cannot set their fares because there’s no barrier to entry for competitors to undercut them, the riders themselves are of meager means and have very little to provide in money or barter, and have no incentive or perverse disincentives to tie money up in capital.

    Everybody’s an entrepreneur. Yet everbody remains poor.

    Conversely, how could North American, European and east Asian nations throw away money on subsidizing mobility yet not only maintain but also grow their wealth?

    For one thing, they had the wealth to put subsidies into mobility — be it cars, buses, trains, planes or watercraft. Once they did, they reduced the cost burden of mobility from the individual and in turn allowed the savings to be invested elsewhere in the economy. Wealth could thereby be multiplied.

    Also, these mobility subsidies did not produce a “crowding out” effect. The public consumption of these subsidies did not come at the expense of private economic activity. Oddly enough, the libertarian prescription of “each pays their own way” may produce a crowding out effect, as the loss of subsidies may require individuals to take away resources from one activity to pay for their mobility.

  30. Wad says:

    John Morris wrote:

    My personal guess is that transit in many cities will not be allowed to go private or change–and will slowly die. At some point, a few grass roots efforts to create new systems will slowly form.

    Imagine yourself in 1928, and you were living in the Westside of Los Angeles.

    You had reasonably good transit options. You had the Red and Yellow car streetcar systems, but the Westside was relatively lightly settled. There were also a couple of private bus companies that competed or complemented the streetcar systems.

    Now, in 1928, the cities of Culver City and Santa Monica dared to try something bold. These cities would enter the bus business themselves! They would charge the same fares as private counterparts and run along streets that did not have existing services.

    Municipal operation was quite vanguard at the time.

    Within one generation, municipal operation reached the tipping point. It became the norm and grew as the first private carriers to go out of business were the small bus carriers, which first consolidated and then cashed out to the munis when there were no more consolidations to be had.

    Within two generations, municipal operation became the only way to run a transit system. The private streetcars were planning for obsolescense. They had lost their ridership to automobiles, plus the public policy at the time was to invest in a highway network.

    The streetcars were falling into decrepitude, and the business case for public transit had now tipped into the secular decline phase. The private companies could not obtain capital to upgrade a moribund asset, so it shifted to a two-phase replacement of private streetcars with private buses, and then private buses with municipal buses.

    At first, the public would provide supporting aid to private companies in order to stabilize their finances. When it became obvious that the subsidies will be continuous, public authorities knew transit service was going to become a dependent of the state and just kept the payments in-house.

    Here’s the history of Big Blue Bus, the Santa Monica service, to see how the transition played out.

    Not only did Culver City and Santa Monica get a leg up in government-run transit operations, but they also consider their respective bus agencies a civic jewel.

    Big Blue Bus, in particular, is legendary for its excellent customer service. This is despite being a government agency, workers represented by the same union as the much-maligned LACMTA bus drivers, and … making it a point to have some of the best-compensated drivers in the U.S.

  31. Alon Levy says:

    First, I can confirm that the LIRR still punches tickets. So do Metro-North and NJT. Even the reform proposals are half-baked: the idea is to have conductors trot out smartcard readers – somehow the idea of POP on commuter rail has not occurred to anyone.

    Second, if you want to see the performance of a small city that does transit well, go to the Zurich Verkehrsverbund stats. As far as I can tell, total revenues are CHF595.9 million per year, and total expenditures are CHF865.1 million and include depreciation. That’s 69% farebox recovery, which is unheard of in the US. The comparable New York City Transit number is 40% – and New York is an order of magnitude bigger than Zurich, and more than twice as dense.

  32. Alon Levy says:

    On another note, anyone who thinks private companies do not defer maintenance has not heard of the history of the Milwaukee Road, or the latter-day Southern Pacific. The norm on those railroads was for executives to boost short-term profits by deferring maintenance, doing leaseback deals, and skimping on safety. I encourage you read this website to see how the Milwaukee behaved in its later years; Wikipedia can give you some general context.

  33. Wad says:

    Tadd, one of the reasons the U.S. sticks with separate school and transit bus fleets is that the yellow buses are more regulated for their “precious cargo”.

    Look at the interior of a school bus, for one thing. Notice how there’s a very narrow aisle and forward-facing seats that are about as tall as a child? That’s a safety measure.

    Transit buses have wide aisles, a mix of forward- and side-facing seats, and seats that only reach the lower two-thirds of the back. These buses are built for high passenger circulation, not for industrial-strength safety.

    There could conceivably be a design solution to incorporate the high-safety of a school bus with the passenger flow of a transit bus. The next big hurdle would be to get a fleet manager to get behind the design, and by profession, these are some of the most risk-averse people in the workforce. Heck, in many parts of the country, school bus properties hang on to Crowns!

  34. Tadd Miller says:

    Wad, don’t disagree that there may be safety issues combining school children and public, possibly even bigger safety issue would be the mix mixing of the two. However, it still seems like there are a lot of synergies that would make it make some sense. I know that I see school children on the subway and in busses in London and NYC, so it seems like some places have accepted that.

    However, what I like most about combining the two, specifically in Indianapolis, is the idea of getting people used to riding mass transit at a young age, and showing parents that it works. The biggest issue with ridership in the Midwestern towns seems to be perception and not being used to it. If we could get these kids comfortable with Mass Transit at a young age, and educate parents on how well it work, we would probably boost ridership in the future.

  35. John Morris says:


    I never said private companies haven’t done this, only that this seems to be a huge problem accross all public entities.The backlog of repairs and broken equipment is a big factor in poor off hours service.

    Also, these issues cannot be separated from the political and regulatory framework. For example we have had some bad examples in the airline industry like Air Florida- a company that almost certainly would have shut down earlier if not for chapter 11 protections.

    Given that the concept of accrual accounting and depreciation doesn’t even exist in the public sector tells you how things work.

  36. In Chicago, large numbers of public school students ride the CTA to school. I assume it is the same in New York and other cities with robust transit networks. In my neighborhood I see people at the middle school level waiting at bus stops all the time. They have a crossing guard to help them across the street, but then they get on the bus by themselves.

  37. John Morris says:

    Yes, in NYC, you have a pass which is now a swipe card, I think.

  38. John Morris says:


    If you ever have time and energy two subjects for posts would be a looks at non traditional/informal transit and also reverse commuting.

    The one strong area of disagreement I think is your emphasis on the CBD in transit health. For transit to work one needs a high level of transit addressable trips all along the lines in all directions.

    What this means in real life is many mixed use dense neighborhoods along the lines.

  39. John, the dense neighborhoods part is my “Land Use Policy” plank.

  40. John Morris says:


    My personal experience as a kid in NY is that things work well and logically, at least as long as local schools are good.

    A high percent of kids walk (sometimes a long 10 plus blocks) to their elementary school or are dropped off by parents. Trips get longer for Junior High and High School and that’s where transit comes in.

    School busses do exist in NYC and play some role.

  41. Tadd Miller says:

    Good to know! My only research is from a tourist/transient business person in NYC/London who hasn’t seen busses traveling in my trips. tm

  42. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, slow to the response here, but DC Metro rail charges differential fares by time of day; a good portion of its system would be considered “urban”.

    Of course, the DC Metro farecard system was “vanguard” back in the 70’s; the system has always had peak-pricing flexibility. It’s a testament to the unions power wherever older systems in larger cities haven’t been retrofitted in the intervening 35 years.

  43. Chris: Of course, the DC Metro farecard system was “vanguard” back in the 70’s; the system has always had peak-pricing flexibility. It’s a testament to the unions power wherever older systems in larger cities haven’t been retrofitted in the intervening 35 years.

    Implementing a new fare-collection system is a multi-million dollar project for a large transit agency, one that has the potential for significant service disruption if it doesn’t go well. Here in PDX we’ve been itching for one for years; as TriMet still uses non-electronic fare media. But our local transit union has utterly nothing to do with it–the bus drivers would LOVE to be relieved of fare collection duties. (TriMet’s ticket vending is automated, other than paying the driver as you board; so there’s no station agents or conductors to complain about being made redundant).

    The reason it hasn’t happened yet is lack of funding.

    Mileage in other cities, naturally, may vary.

  44. John Morris says:


    I’ll admit to not having read the full plank, but most people think increasing density just means more residential.

    What’s needed is a full mix up with much more office and retail in dense residential areas and more residential in and near business districts. NYC, is the city I know best, and it generally doesn’t need much more office strength in the traditional CBD’s. The peak load rush hour is close to maxed out(or was before the recession). What’s needed is a rapid move to balance the load, by mixing more of Manhattan’s land uses up (which is pretty far along) and create the multiple downtowns along the Brooklyn waterfront, Long Island City, Jersey waterfront etc with the end result of running mostly full trains and busses in all directions.

    Moving further out, one needs to build many mini downtowns all along the major commuter rail stops-Jamacia,Yonkers, Newark, Jersey City, New Rochelle, Stamford and so on.

  45. Wad says:

    John Morris wrote:

    Moving further out, one needs to build many mini downtowns all along the major commuter rail stops

    Building downtowns of any kind, central business district or secondary, will still lead to the peaking effect.

    Any city can optimize ridership by looking at the “ecosystem” of its transit service.

    If you already use transit, you do this all the time without even knowing it. Riders and operators know the line ecosystem the best.

    Another approach is to imagine yourself at the top of a tall building, looking down and watching the buses and trains go by. You’ll notice how the vehicles stop, how many people get on or off, and see where people are going once they are leaving the vehicle.

    You’ll start to see patterns and distributions emerge.

    You start by observing what people are doing at a stop. Transit riders can be classified into three groups: people starting a trip, people ending a trip, or people transferring between vehicles.

    Each stop will have a dynamic of (start + finish + transfer = 100%). This in turn reveals the characteristics of the neighborhood around the stop.

    A central business district will have the a pattern of Finish and Transfer trips in the morning, and Start and Transfer trips in the afternoon and evening. During the off-peak period (middays and weekends), the CBD transforms into a transfer point.

    Not everyone uses transit solely to go to work. You then would see characteristics of other land uses.

    A K-12 school exhibits the same peaking effect of a CBD, with the campus being an AM Finish and a PM Start.

    A college, meanwhile, has Start and Finish trips throughout the operating hours of the campus. Colleges also produce three kinds of riders: producers (faculty and other employees), consumers (students) and guests (people who go for a sporting or fine arts event).

    The guests produce a “wild card” effect. The pattern of a normal school day can be easily observed, but there can also be peak demand if there is a sporting event, concert, art show or special activity.

    Medical and retail activities produce low-level but consistent Start and Finish trips throughout their days of operation. These help balance out the peak/off-peak imbalance by providing riders throughout the off-peak period.

  46. Wad says:

    To continue my post above, any bus or rail line sees better performance when stops are serving destinations rather than origins (where people live).

    Postwar suburban areas, which segregate land uses as well as arterial roads from collector roads, will have a problem with ridership no matter what. They will have to walk more to their origin stop as well as destination stop if the land use orientation is drawn away from the street.

    Generally, though, it may seem counterintuitive to not run a line where people live, but think about this:

    The equivalent square-footage of a destination produces more ridership than a residential origin.

    People leave their homes to go somewhere, but they don’t allow others to occupy their homes while they are gone.

    Meanwhile, a destination (CBD, retail, etc.) has better user potential. A stop near a 50,000 square-foot supermarket will be busier than a neighborhood with 50,000 square feet of residential space.

    The residents will use the service to leave, and then come back. The supermarket, on the other hand, would draw the resident, as well as employees, and do this repeatedly throughout the day.

  47. John Morris says:

    Wad, obviously the downtowns along suburban rail lines will be partly served by trains returning from their peak Manhattan trips. The trains are running anyway and should if possible be more full in all directions.

  48. John Morris says:

    The very traditional way we think about land use has to be changed. Areas around train stations cannot just be a sea of park and ride lots.

    This should be an obvious beneficial relationship since the hollowed out downtowns and tax structures of many of the towns and cities need to build up these areas too.

  49. John Morris says:

    Just found this recent report looking into possibilities for development along Chicago’s transit lines–including sites for industrial use.

    Haven’t really looked at closely. In general, the health of transit systems is helped by creating a more dense and varied fabric all along the lines. The donut hole situation many cities have is a big problem for sustaining transit.

    I have a general problem with some of the thinking here since, some of the heavy industry no longer is very labor intensive. Still using these sites well is likely very important.

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