The transit conundrum on Planetizen and planners in denial

Steve Polzin has a nice essay up on Planetizen about time wasted traveling on transit:

The Cost of Slow Travel | Planetizen

He points out that there is abundant handwringing about the “costs of congestion” when the Texas Transportation Institute’s report comes out every year. Polzin applies the same logic of the “costs of congestion” to transit, which doesn’t make him very popular with the commenters. But the quality of their logic and reasoning is remarkably poor. I would hope for better trained people than this, and I hope that the comments reflect those of planning groupies rather than professional planners.

Because Polzin is right. He may be wrong about the usefulness of productivity loss logic or some need to be “fair” about congestion tallies. In general, I don’t think productivity losses are an important issue in transport most of the time. We know what the answers are: if congestion on any service gets bad, we ration it with tolls and supply alternatives and then think about adding supply. People can be trusted to make good decisions about whether a trip is worth making based on their own preferences and resources.

Many of the comments boil down to: transit is better because it’s better and your metric is dumb and corporate bunkum, so nyah. Jerry Springer/Bill O’Reilly/Michael Moore/Glen Beck reasoning and argument: if I shout loud enough, act snotty enough, and demonize you, I must be right. Blither blither. My bike commute is wonderful. My walking commute is the best part of my day. It doesn’t matter what you enjoy. It doesn’t matter if walking or biking are fun. Those are separate modes, sometimes complementary, other times competing, with transit.

Polzin’s essay should remind us that the problem of excess travel time on transit translates to lower patronage, just like congestion on roadways does. Without riders–and we’ve spent billions on transit chasing passengers that have only somewhat materialized–we can’t fix cities with transit. We have to have patrons. And if transit commutes are too long or too unpleasant, we won’t get those passengers. We’ve tried all the “high-moral-ground” arguments in the world surrounding transit since the 1970s. We’ve whined that the cards are stacked against public transit; we’ve whined about auto subsidies; bootyhootyhootyhoo. And yet, the bottom line is that nobody in the real world cares if transit faces an unfair disadvantage in funding or anything else.

They just want to get places in a reasonable amount of time in a reasonable amount of comfort.

And we haven’t supplied that.

Our problem is that walking, biking, and autos generally outcompete transit in quality, including time. No amount of whining or wishful thinking fixes that. It’s a thorny, thorny problem, and it’s a problem we have everywhere in the world–not just the United States. Transit is a difficult service to supply well: it congests fast, and hanging on the strap crushed between passengers when you have a bum hip or arthritis can make 10 minutes feel like an hour. Transit companies promise us comfort and convenience and they can only deliver that under impossible conditions: we need more urban density planners cry. Sure. Bring those origins and destinations closer together. But the more passengers they get, the more you feel like you’re riding in a cattle car. As soon as the last butt takes the last seat in transit, we’re operating in conditions where service quality isn’t as high any more. Under those conditions, transit had better be dirt cheap and really fast compared to cars, walking, or taxis. And it’s not: it’s getting more and more expensive in terms of fares, and it’s always generally been slower save for exceptional places.

This is a much more daunting reality to face than the one where people just don’t take transit because they simply don’t know how wonderful it is, we just haven’t received enough billions to make it work, or people are just too selfish to want to save the planet like we planners. This line of argument goes straight in the operational challenges of transit, rather than simply viewing as projects we “win” or lines on a map.

One thought on “The transit conundrum on Planetizen and planners in denial

  1. I agree. In a similar vein, Ryan Avent recently posted a sanctimonious piece arguing that congestion pricing is good for drivers. ( Maybe some are better off, but the core argument against congestion is that it wastes time that could otherwise be used more productively falls apart as people shift modes to transit. People trade time spent alone in a car doing whatever they want with spending time on a crowded bus or train. This is a real challenge, and perhaps one of the reasons that actually doing something about congestion remains unpopular.

    In any event, it’s puzzling that longer travel times associated with transit cause such fuss. This is just something we have to deal with since we can’t just wish it away.

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