Responding to Cascade Policy Institute on the role of transit (and other issues)

Last week, John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute penned his latest missive against Milwaukie MAX. While I share concerns about the cost of the project, I view a comprehensive rapid transit network throughout the metro region as something which is vitally important–and which will become moreso as gas prices and environmental pressures in the future make driving an increasingly-expensive proposition.

The role of transit

Charles’ article starts off with an attempt to burnish his environmentalist credentials (which he seems to have recently rediscovered in his now-moot attempt to save trees on Lincoln Street, even though CPI usually sides with the chainsaws in such matters), recalling his days traveling by bus as a young activist, but then says this:

Times have certainly changed. Cars have become more efficient, and chronic urban smog has permanently disappeared due to improved auto technology. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that many transit agencies are no longer content to merely provide a service to those unable or unwilling to drive in a private vehicle.

There’s a lot of baggage in that paragraph. Specifically:

  • The suggestion that modern auto technology has somehow solved the problem of both fossil-fuel dependence and air pollution. I’ll agree that it has helped on both fronts, but despite the fact that cars are generally more efficient than the hunks of Detroit steel that plied the roads during the 1960s, before the oil shocks hit, we still have both a significant oil-supply problem and a significant air pollution problem; one with potentially more serious side effects than smog. (Nor does Charles mention that Cascade routinely opposes attempts to beef up environmental laws).
  • The notion that because the auto-pollution problem is now “solved”, the only sensible mission for transit agencies is social-service transit. Charles then goes on to excoriate TriMet for having more expansive service plans than the role which he thinks is appropriate.

The first bullet item is such obvious nonsense that I don’t think very many are fooled by it. The same efficiencies in design that have benefitted cars also benefit transit vehicles; and fixed-route transit can additionally benefit from externally-supplied electric power, which has zero emissions at the vehicle site (and even if the electricity is generated from burning fossil fuels, fixed powerplants are far better for the environment on a per-kilowatt-hour basis than are thousands and thousands of mobile combustion engines).

The second bullet item, though, sounds seductive and reasonable to many. (A few local advocates whom I respect and shall not name :), seem to respond positively to Charles’ piece). Appeals to social equity are laudable, and indeed so-called social service transit is, and should be, a fundamental part of TriMet’s mission. I wholeheartedly support OPAL and their efforts to create a more equitable fare structure (my alternate suggestions on how to do so in this post shouldn’t be construed as objection to the CFT proposal). There is a significant part of the population dependent on transit, and we should not fail them.

But switching to an entirely social-service model; wherein the primary purpose of an agency is to serve the poor, contains a trap. When agencies switch to a primary social-service role, and stop trying to serve the public at large by offering services which are competitive with the automobile–it isn’t long before the service is branded as welfare. (And you can guess what CPI thinks of the other parts of the social safety net). When this happens, political support can vanish, funding will disappear, services will be cut, and the service will become even less attractive–meaning that even more, it becomes the domain of the destitute. There are plenty of examples of transit systems in US cities which only offer subsistence transit–hourly runs at best, no seven-day service, overcrowded busses; and the notion that such systems ought to expand and provide reasonable service is considered laughable in the political cultures of these places.

While the one of the biggest factors in determining the quality and mode share for of transit is land use (New York is #1 for a reason, and it’s not because the MTA is known for efficient management), a big factor is civic engagement and popular support. Portland has excellent transit (for a US city of its size) in no small part because the populace supports it, and it enjoys popular support because the system is usable (and is used) by more than just the poor. The moral of the story: if you want good transit for the poor, you must provide good transit for the middle class. Otherwise, it will be cut to the bone.

One other reason to avoid social-service-only transit: It is often environmentally-unfriendly. While Charles didn’t include this particular canard in his article, other anti-transit activists have been known to repeat claims that driving is more fuel-efficient than taking transit. Jarrett Walker does a fine job of debunking this theory, but social service-focused systems (which often have little patronage outside of peak hours and lines) frequently run nearly-empty busses, and a car with one passenger is more fuel-efficient than a bus with one passenger. Well-patronized transit systems in large cities, on the other hand, easily outperform private autos on energy efficiency.

Light rail vs express bus

The other key claim in Charles’ article is that light rail, allegedly, offers a worse customer experience than bus. The basis for this claim seems to be the observation that MLR will provide a slower ride from Portland to Milwaukie than the express 99 bus, which makes the trip in about 15 minutes according to the schedule. The local-service 33, on the other hand, requires 25-30 minutes to make the trip. MLR is expected to make the journey in 25 minutes. On the surface, this seems like a bad deal for commuters, however there are two important factors to consider:

  • Express service is only offered during peak hours. This isn’t an immutable property of the line–TriMet could run the 99 all day and on weekends if it chose, but the agency currently does not do so.
  • Express service is only useful if you are in Milwaukie (or beyond) and are trying to get downtown. If you want to visit OMSI, or if you live in Westmoreland, the 99 is useless to you. Likewise if you want to travel in the reverse direction–if you live in the Pearl and commute to a job at Dark Horse Comics, you can’t use the 99.
  • And most importantly, both local and express bus service, when running in mixed traffic, are unreliable. The schedule says you’ll get downtown in 15 minutes. It could easily be double that or worse; anyone who travels McLoughlin during rush hour knows that it is frequently a parking lot. Rapid transit in an exclusive right-of-way (which does not necessarily have to be rail) doesn’t get stuck in traffic jams, and thus can deliver far better on-time performance. This is not just an advantage that rapid transit has over local bus, but it’s an advantage that it has over the automobile–even if on most days the commute is smooth, people on a fixed schedule often need to budget additional time for those days when the highway is jammed.

Most of the rest of the article consists of broad accusations of incompetence against TriMet (and against government-run transit in general), and the usual assortment of free-market platitudes (a “a market-driven transit concept”) that one might expect from a Libertarian think tank. Charles seemingly pines for the halcyon days of Rose City Transit–and while the old private bus operators were treated shabbily by the law back in the 1960s, what really killed off Rose City Transit and the numerous other private transit companies that existed during the first half of the 20th century, was the massive adoption of the automobile and the buildout of auto infrastructure. RCT no longer had a viable business model (even if the fare increase it wanted in 1968 were granted, it was toast as a private concern), and private transit still does not, and won’t as long as driving as subsidized and cheap. I’ve no particular objection to privately-operated transit when and where it can make money, but calls for transit to be privatized and unsubsidized in this day and age are essentially calls for it to not exist at all. Given that we don’t expect the roads to make money (they’re viewed as a public good, and not as a profit center), the suggestion that transit ought to be held to a higher standard is patently unreasonable.

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