Archive | September, 2011

TriMet to study OPAL’s Campaign for a Fair Transfer

The TriMet board today, before a packed house, considered a proposal from OPAL, the “Campaign for a Fair Transfer“, which would extend the validity of single-ride tickets to address equity issues in public transit. OPAL, an advocacy group which focuses on environmental and economic justice issues, claims that the reductions in service over the past few years have made certain trips on the TriMet system impossible on a single-ride ticket under current policies–and that as these extra-long trips are generally only undertaken by the transit-dependent, this has a disparate impact on the poor. OPAL also argues that the transfer policy is unfair to bus riders. Their proposal is to make MAX tickets and bus transfers alike valid for 3 hours from the time of purchase or validation, and to make tickets purchased or validated after 7PM valid until the end of the service day.

After several hours of passionate testimony, the TriMet board voted to formally study the matter. Board president Richard Van Beveren indicated that the proposal would be likely adopted outright under better economic circumstances–“If we were in a normal environment, man, we would be all over this.” OPAL was generally satisfied with the outcome, as co-director Joseph Santos-Lyons called it “definitely a step not only in our transfer issue, but in the board opening up to public communication.”
Revenue Impact

One issue of debate would be the revenue impact of such a transition. While the financial impact of permitting long trips to be made with a single fare would probably be minimal; a three-hour transfer window would also permit many round-trips to be made with a single ticket which presently require two. There have been various estimates floated about as to how much the proposal would cost–according to Opal, a preliminary analysis of the 3 hour transfer suggests lost revenue would be between $1-$2 million dollars, offset by new revenue from additional trips projected between $500,000 to $800,000. TriMet itself claims a net cost to the agency of $1.8 million to $3.2 million (for the 3 hour transfer plus the unlimited use after 7PM fare), down from an admittedly-flawed initial estimate of over $5 million. Portland Afoot has a good summary of the various arguments concerning revenue here.

Regardless of the financial impact, the proposal has proven popular, with diverse organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and AORTA endorsing it.

Better routes to take?

Speaking personally, I think the 3-hour transfer idea is a good one, at least for an all-zone ticket. (For a 1-2 zone ticket, two hours should be sufficient, barring a few hellacious suburb-to-suburb commutes I can think of). Single journeys on the system shouldn’t require more than a single ticket to complete. The Portland metro area is small enough that any trip which requires three hours represents a failure of planning; the added time riding (and waiting at transfer points) serpentine routes confers no benefit whatsoever on the passenger.

The unlimited-use-after-seven part I have a few more issues with–mainly, this strikes me as a way to subsidize casual users of transit who ride the system to and from their evening entertainment downtown (Blazers/Timbers games, nightclubs, concert halls, etc); there is no real reason to give this demographic a break on price. (Breaks should go to frequent users and the poor; not to club-hopping yuppies). There probably are some service employees at the same venues who would benefit from this proposal, needing one ticket rather than two to get to work and back; but even there this seems overly targeted towards a specific segment of the workforce.

An alternative I would consider is a five-hour ticket; which is good for unlimited use of the system in a five hour window (or until closing if bought after seven); this should cost more than a single-ride ticket but less than two single-ride tickets (say $3.75-$4 for all-zone). It would still provide benefit to riders using transit for non-work trips (as well as some part-time employees), and have the additional advantage of reducing long queues at ticket machines after events let out, without unduly subsidizing the restaurant crowd.

One thing that strikes me about OPAL’s proposal is that many of the intended beneficiaries are commuters–people using transit to get to and from jobs. In this case, these commuters often use TriMet for journeys where transit is highly inconvenient, because they have no other choice. Most commuters who use transit regularly, rather than purchasing single-ride tickets, choose instead to buy a pass: a monthly adult all-zone pass costs $92, about the price of 38 single-ride tickets–a nearly 40% discount over single-ride tickets, assuming two trips per day. (A year pass can save you even more, but requires you spend $1k up front). 14- and 7-day passes are also available; the discount for these is slightly less. However, many people in poverty may find the cash outlay for a TriMet pass to be difficult to justify, even for a $24 7-day pass; thus may end up choosing to use single-ride tickets instead (possibly paying more in the process). It’s often been noted that it’s expensive to be poor; and one big reason is that limited cash flow limits one’s ability to buy in bulk and enjoy volume discounts on purchases.

Some transit-dependent riders also may have sufficiently irregular schedules that a buying a consecutive-days pass isn’t an economical idea. TriMet does permit ticket purchases in groups of ten, but (strangely) offers no financial discount for doing so: a book of 10 all-zone tickets costs $24, same as ten single-ride tickets. Other than the conveniences of not having to watch the MAX leave while you are waiting in line for the infernally slow ticket machines to spit out your ticket (or hoping the fare inspector buys the “sorry I forgot to validate it” line after you make journey after journey on the same unvalidated ticket), there’s presently no reason to buy MAX tickets in bulk. Given that, I think it would be a useful idea for TriMet to either a) provide discount pricing on single-ride tickets bought in bulk, such as 10 tickets for $18; or b) provided “separable” multi-day passes, good for a given number of days but not necessarily consecutive, and needing validation on the days used. Or both. A separable 5-day pass, for $18 or so, or even a 3-day pass for $12, seem like reasonable offerings.

And of course, all of this assumes the current system of paper tickets and passes is continued, along with the current zone system. Switching to a modern electronic fare-collection system would enable many other possibilities above and beyond the simplistic ideas contained herein.

But regardless of the specific mechanisms employed, it would be beneficial to all involved were the agency to find better ways to make the system accessible to and affordable by its most vulnerable and dependent customers. The poor have borne the brunt of the recent service cuts and price increases; the rest of us can more easily avoid the former and afford the latter. Demand for transit is generally highly elastic; it’s a common mistake to assume a fixed pool of trips and that lowering prices won’t produce an increase in demand. It’s easy for transit agencies to be caught up in the dreaded death spiral; but reversing such spirals and driving demand often requires investments to be made. TriMet is willing to make such investments for expansion of its rail system. It should be equally willing, and not so quick to plead poverty, to keep the core of its customer base happy–and to treat them like customers instead of like hostages.

Monomodal Fixation Disorder

All of us who have an interest in promoting transportation alternatives have encountered people afflicted with what I like to call “Monomodal Fixation Disorder.” Let’s just call it MFD for short. These poor souls not only prefer to use a single mode for all travel, but more importantly seek to impose their preferences on everyone else. They simply can’t understand why anyone would want to travel any other way!

The classic MFD case we usually encounter is that of the Motorist. Rather than simply being a person who sometimes drives, a Motorist drives absolutely everywhere and thinks that is a superior way to live, a lifestyle for everyone to replicate. They are most often found in suburban environments where the cul-de-sac street network and strip malls make any other mode naturally inconvenient. Motorists despise any attempt by government agencies to paint bike lanes, slow down traffic for pedestrian safety, or spend money on public transit. Not only does the Motorist not benefit from these improvements personally, he or she does not see how anyone else would benefit, since driving is the most superior form of transportation.

In a growing number of cities, but most notably Portland, we find another MFD type that is remarkably similar to the Motorist in attitude if not in appearance: the Cyclist! Usually young, fit, childless, and affluent, the Cyclist is willing to ride a bike for long distances all over the city, in any kind of weather, to any kind of destination, up hills and along dangerous roads. The Cyclist can’t conceive of why anyone in Portland would ever use another form of transportation. After all, cycling is faster than transit, bikes are easy to park, and you get exercise. Given the clear superiority of cycling, the Cyclist starts to wonder why government ever spends money on improving travel for cars or freight. Many Cyclists even wonder why the region is spending money on buses and streetcars, which often conflict with bikes on major roads and move so slowly. Since the Cyclist would never ride the bus, why should anybody else? Let Them Ride Bikes, they cry!

As a new student in the Portland State urban planning program, I encounter the Cyclist version of MFD all the time. When I say I generally prefer to take the bus to campus, many of my peers scoff at the idea of ever riding the bus. One student even wondered aloud whether TriMet’s inconvenient and infrequent bus system might be a good thing, since it could push more people onto bikes. This bizarre statement fails to recognize that for most people, cycling and transit are mutually supportive modes that work best in combination.

When I have brought up the idea that the $190-per-quarter student TriMet pass should be made universal to bring costs down and boost transit use, my fellow students assure me that the Cyclists (and the Motorists, of course) would never support that idea. Why should they subsidize such a clearly inferior mode of travel? It is strange to go to a school with a campus at the center of public transit access in Portland, only to find that they are unwilling to make any serious effort to make transit more affordable to students (for the record, the universal U-Pass at the University of Washington is only $76 per quarter).

I would argue that Monomodal Fixation Disorder is the main reason for the pernicious and destructive tone of transportation debates in Portland, and ultimately keeps us from achieving a just and equitable transportation system. The essence of MFD is the attitude that “what works for me should work for everyone.” It sees transportation as a zero-sum game, in which any investment in one mode automatically reduces the value of another. It is essentially an egotistical position, with no sense of civic-mindedness or recognition that everyone has different needs and preferences. Transportation debates often end up as arguments between Motorists and Cyclists, using nasty rhetoric and ignoring the rest of us who might want a balanced system.

The opposite approach, and a key to a transportation system that is useful and equitable, is to focus on a multimodal network that gives everyone reasonable access to a variety of ways to travel. This is a system that recognizes the inherent differences between people and respects those differences. I personally find it very easy to ride my bike around the SE and NE, but when going to downtown or beyond, the distance and geographic barriers make me prefer transit. However, my neighbor on one side might prefer to take transit for all her trips beyond walking distance, while my neighbor on the other might ride his bike everywhere for casual trips within town but prefers to drive to work so he’s not sweaty and tired. We all have different levels of income, fitness, willingness to endure weather events, and ability to live close to our destinations. Our transportation system has to reflect that.

One important caveat is that the balance of modes certainly needs to change in response to each neighborhood. In a suburban built environment where transit is harder to access and cycling is inherently more dangerous, cars will probably always be the dominant way to get around and policy should recognize that. However, we need to resist Monomodal Fixation and ensure that even in the suburbs people have access to long-distance transit service, bike lanes and bike boulevards, and a better pedestrian environment.

In denser, urban environments like inner Portland, it makes sense to prioritize somewhat more on pedestrian, bicycle, and transit improvements since this is where those improvements will be most effective. Huge swaths of the Portland region fall in the gray area between these two environments. East Portland, for example, is currently an area where driving is often the only reasonable choice for getting to a destination in a reasonable amount of time. Some targeted improvements could give residents many more modes to choose from when planning different kinds of trips.

In my ideal world, everyone would have a set of choices for each trip. If I am going across town, I can ride my bike if it is nice out and I have the energy, but I would also like to be able to take transit if I want to relax and read a book, and I would also like to have a carshare service like Zipcar in case I need the storage capacity or plan on going out of town later that day. Currently many people in the Portland region lack these choices. Transit runs too infrequently or doesn’t run late enough or on weekends. Cycling is unsafe and the bike paths don’t link up to one another. Sidewalks are missing or the street grid doesn’t provide direct paths. Zipcar might not have cars nearby or is too expensive to use. These are the problems that need to be fixed, and to do that the Motorists and the Cyclists need to cure themselves of Monomodal Fixation Disorder and focus on Multimodal Choices instead.

Keeping Pace with the CRC

The lawyer phase of the Columbia River Crossing project has begun. The first hearing is at the Land Use Board of Appeals on Thursday.

These appeals (there are more than one) are based on the “Land Use Final Order” under state land use law. More and different legal action will occur once the Final Environmental Impact Statement progresses to “record of decision” status.

On another note, local historian and PSU prof Carl Abbott had a nice op-ed piece yesterday pointing out the questionable economic model that underlies the design of the Hayden Island interchanges for the project…

“Human Transit” by Jarrett Walker, nearing publication

Many of you are familiar with the excellent blog Human Transit, run by professional transit planner and native Portlander Jarrett Walker. Over the past several months, Jarrett has been working on a book by the same name, and it is nearing publication. It’s being published by Island Press, and is available for pre-order at various online booksellers, including amazon.com and Powell’s.

Unfortunately, Powell’s saw fit to file it under “Automotive-General”….

The table of contents and introduction are both available online at the Human Transit blog. Currently, the book is only order-able in print format (either hardcover or paperback), though Jarrett has stated that electronic versions will be available as well.

Congratulations to Jarrett!