What is comparing apples to oranges in public transit analysis?

I’ve been reading away on various websites about the problems with transit investment as an environmental planning tool and–this should really annoy us–the way in which HSR ridership estimates have fallen and their projected per-ride fares have risen post bond measure. Here is a rather spicy editorial from San Diego on the HSR question. Now, in fairness, projecting ridership on these types of new systems is difficult, but…the fact that these assumptions are shifting around like a pig on ice should bother us a bit. Then I happened upon a “Save the Environment: Don’t take public transit” article from The Vancouver Sun, featuring quotes from the usual suspects, Randy O’Toole and Wendell Cox.

In both sets of comments, inevitably somebody argues (in one case, a commenter used the word “methinks”–ew. Way to help contribute to the idea that transit advocates are sanctimonious elites, dude) that Cox (or whoever) is comparing “apples with oranges” and thus wrong.

What does this statement mean empirically? Rhetorically, it means that the analogy one is making is unsound: the cases are similar (both fruit) but sufficiently different that conclusions based on one case can not be applied to the other. I think what these commentators are trying to say is that you can’t compare across systems? I don’t understand this argument because transit advocates often generalize from San Francisco or Portland.

There are standard measures of performance in transit evaluation: ridership, passenger-miles, cost per mile, etc. These are not apples and oranges, even metaphorically. I guess you could argue that rail passenger miles are special, but we already have measures for energy-cost per mile or per passenger, and we also have emissions per passenger or per passenger-mile.

I sometimes wonder: who are the real enemies of transit in this debate? The people who unquestioningly push transit investment–no matter where it is placed or how it is timed or how much it costs or the opportunity costs–or the people who demand prudential investment, as in the very best every time we put a proposal out the door? In some respects, I rather think the first instance has us where we are now: some congested urban systems that need greater levels of investments on the one hand (so service quality is suffering) and a bunch of low-performing, scattershot investments in places where transit is doomed to underperform (so service quality is actually overprovided—i.e., I can almost always get a seat on the Gold Line—but there aren’t enough riders to convince anybody who can add that the service is saving the planet) and that provide critics with a lot of evidence that transit is a waste of money.

Though John Kain and Don Pickerill are often pilloried among planners for “picking on” rail investment, at some point you have to ask: why have transit agencies–like Dallas’s–made themselves into such easy targets given the discrepancies between what they promise (forecasts) and what they deliver (passenger miles and passenger hours).

In transit, the battleground for dollars generally occurs among voters and politicians, not its customers, which is why newspaper articles like those I highlighted above are so threatening for advocates and why comments get so heated and preachy so fast. In places where transit works well, it has a constituency. If transit were unquestionably a quality public service, we wouldn’t have to be ragging on people to use it and we wouldn’t have to shout ourselves hoarse in the public realm trying to convince people it’s worth the investment. But right now, there is a much better payback in convincing nonriders (because statistically most voters are nonriders) to love transit than actually getting the riders to love the service.

Take a look at the transit agency near you. Chances are in its promotional materials, it stresses what it is has built lately, not how many passenger miles it has delivered.

And there comes the catch-22. You need money to invest to serve patrons, you need patrons to justify investment. And there is a lot of underutilized transit capacity in the US outside of the very largest systems. It’s discouraging.

*As a side note: on the comments from the San Diego Op-Ed, one person says that it costs $300 per fare to get from LA to San Francisco. You have to wonder about somebody who says this in public when the last three times I did this it cost $89, $90, and $140.