Transit and those dependent upon it

There’s been quite a bit in the national press this week about the subject. Amanda Hess, writing for Atlantic Cities, penned an article called Race, class, and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America. This article drew quite a bit of attention, including a somewhat scathing criticism from Jarrett Walker, who objected to the article’s focus on “white people” as a proxy for higher economic classes, particularly in a the context of a majority-minority city like Los Angeles (on which the Hess article focuses). Not to be outdone, the long-time transit and poverty advocates supporters at Reason (yes, that was sarcasm) penned an article called How Rail Screws the Poor, accusing LACMTA of building rail projects to wealthy communities while cutting bus service elsewhere. Zooming out, a new Brookings Institute report looks at employer access to labor via transit in major US cities. (Portland does quite well on this report, actually).

The issue of whether how well transit systems ought to be optimized to focus on the “transit-dependent”–those who generally don’t have reliable alternatives to public transit for journeys too long to walk or bike–is a major topic in local transit debates. OPAL got started as advocates for those in poverty (though they’ve expanded their focus to all transit riders), and service to the poor is still a major issue. TriMet, for its part, claims that “equity” is a big part of their mission, though many of the agency’s critics would likely dispute that (or argue they are failing to carry this mission out). Unfortunately, the subject is frequently a major source of heat rather than light.
On the transit dependent

Many transit advocates hate the term “transit-dependent”. Many of us dislike even more the term “captive rider”. Both terms, and especially the latter, frame transit as a bad thing–something to be avoided if possible. (This is one reason I like to talk about the auto-dependent; whether a car is liberating or limiting depends on where you live). The terms also promote the notion that there exists a class of rider whose needs not be considered when doing service planning–they will use the service no matter what, so a transit agency can safely go ahead and ignore (or screw) them. (The private sector gouges the poor enough already).

However, it is clear that there are some people who have greater dependency on public transit than others; and in virtually all of the country, land use and infrastructure investments favor motorists over transit riders. Pretending otherwise isn’t beneficial–it fails to reflect reality, and it can also lead to those who depend upon transit to have their needs neglected. Even if an organization cares deeply about the poor and makes equitable service part of its mission, the needs of the “transit-dependent” rider will often be different than the needs of the so-called “choice rider”; and failure to account for these difference will often look like gouging or neglect.

Transit elasticity of demand

One way to characterize a rider’s dependence upon something is via the economic concept of elasticity. Elasticity (assuming that it can be measured with some precision) is roughly defined as the marginal percent change in consumption divided by the marginal percent change in price (or some other parameter)–roughly speaking, it’s a normalized derivative of the demand curve. Price is the usual parameter for elasticity, but other parameters besides price drive consumer behavior. In the case of transit, patrons are also interested in things like coverage, service span, frequency, reliability, speed, comfort, safety, social status, and amenities. Many of these things are difficult to quantify, let alone subject to a rigorous elasticity analysis, but if transit is made more useful and/or pleasant to use, it will attract riders; conversely if it is made to suck more, than they will be driven away.

Overall, a commonly used “overall” price elasticity figure for transit is -0.3, which means that for a given percentage rise in price, one can expect a -0.3% change in ridership. (The -0.3 figure is somewhat disputed; here is a good reference). If one accepts -0.3 as a valid value, this means that raising prices will increase revenue–the additional fare revenue will only be partially offset by passengers leaving the service–an important point to remember when considering TriMet’s FY13 budget planning. (Interestingly enough, analysis of the Portland Streetcar indicates that raising prices does not raise revenue; implying an elasticity closer to -1.0. If this is correct, this would imply that either the Streetcar ridership is less dependent on transit in general; or many trips on the Streetcar are more easily substituted. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the latter; it is often used for short trips that could easily be made on foot).

Often times, elasticity measures are computed and reported for an entire population. In practice, different members of a given population will express different elasticities for something. In the case of transit, this manifests itself as a significant subset of the ridership whose personal elasticity is closer to 0–the transit dependent–and another subset whose elasticity is far greater (in the negative direction) than the mean.

What do the dependent need?

Some riders are completely dependent on the service–they have no access to a car (or other motorized transport) whatsoever. Others may have limited dependency–someone in a household with more adults than automobiles, or who uses a service like Zipcar may have part-time access to an automobile, but not have one available on demand. Others have a car in the garage, ready to run on a moment’s notice, and elects to use transit only to avoid a difficult commute (or for reasons such as reducing one’s personal carbon footprint). These groups of riders have very different needs.

The first group needs comprehensive service–that runs to all parts of the cities, at as many hours of the day as possible. Frequency and speed are important as well, but likely take a back seat to basic availability. If you have no option other than transit, and the bus or train doesn’t run to a place when you need it to, then you can’t go there.

Part-time transit users can often afford to give up comprehensive service, and are often more interested in transit service optimized for specific trips, most often the commute. Many in this camp will use transit when it’s convenient, and not use it otherwise–and may find themselves preferring transit solutions that optimize the most common trips over the less-utilized routes and corridors. To the extent that “choice riders” can easily abandon the bus or train, they may demand amenities and virtues beyond basic service parameters like span, coverage, frequency, speed, or reliability.

The problem? Reconciling these two goals can be difficult.

The paradox of rapid transit

A major source of objection to capital-intensive rapid transit projects is that rapid transit tends to correlate more with the needs of the choice rider. This is not to say that it isn’t usable by the transit-dependent–of course it is. All riders benefit from fast, frequent service. Many capital projects which have been maligned by demagogues (whether on the right, like the Reason editors, or on the left, like the LA Bus Riders Union) in fact provide a great deal of service to the poor. But rapid transit, by its nature, focuses on corridors–corridors which are then optimized for fast, efficient, and reliable service. This is great if you live/work in the corridor. It’s good if you can drive to a park and ride, or take good connecting transit to reach the corridor. It’s bad if you are carless, and the connecting transit is poor or nonexistent–then the corridor is of little benefit to you.

Another way to put it: Transit dependent riders frequently depend on so-called social-service transit; choice riders are more likely to make do with “ridership-focused” transit. (See here and here).

Doing it right

Does this mean that building rapid transit is a mistake? Certainly not. Many large cities, including virtually all of the largest metropolises on the planet, would not function without quality rapid transit. The key, however, is to build rapid transit on top of a an existing, thriving, and functional basic service network–which in the US is typically local bus.

The problem comes when a city builds rapid transit lines, but without a core network of comprehensive basic (typically bus) service–or cuts basic service to fund rapid transit. There are plenty of examples of boondoggle light-rail or streetcar projects being built in US cities with poor bus service. These lines tend only to serve the destinations within walking distance (or park-and-ride users), and generally have poor ridership as a result. The network effects which make transit transformative, simply are not there.

TriMet has avoided this problem, for the most part. The Blue, Red, and Yellow lines were laid on top of an existing, high quality bus network. Bus service leaves something to be desired out in Hillsboro or Gresham, but is good in the core. However, the recent opening of the Green Line was more problematic, While the proximate causes of Portland’s recent service cuts are factors other than MAX–TriMet didn’t plan the Green Line with the intent of sharply reducing the frequent bus network, the fact that its opening coincided with the recession and the subsequent service cuts, did not look good. There’s a significant danger that the opening of PMLR will have similar issues–TriMet isn’t planning on reducing bus service to fund Milwaukie MAX (other than redundant lines like the 33 and the 99), but if the financial picture doesn’t improve, PMLR may be an additional expense that will have repercussions elsewhere.

Additional complications arise.

  • Rapid transit lines (unlike freeways) are frequently regarded as a valuable amenity to live near, which can have the perverse long-term effect of pushing the poor away from the transit service they are dependent on. Much of greater Portland’s lower-income population lives outside the inner city. While Portland has built MAX lines into lower-income communities like Rockwood or south of Lents, the strongest concentration of service is in the “core” between the West Hills and I-205, Johnson Creek and Killingsworth–a region which contains some pockets of poverty (particularly in the eastern corners) but is mostly middle-class in nature.
  • In times of economic difficulty, the lines which are easiest to cut are the social service lines–as they are the ones which lose the most money. No matter how much an agency cares about equity, it has to balance its books at the end of the day.
  • Exacerbating the problem, many grant-funded capital projects include operational commitments as part of their funding conditions. Many proposed delaying the Green Line opening as a way of dealing with the recession, on the grounds that it was mostly redundant with the 72 bus and the existing Red and Blue lines into downtown. The trouble with that proposal was that TriMet had to run it. This is especially a problem when a capital project turns out to be a boondogggle.

Some advice

For TriMet: I would get the operational house in order prior to any more major capital expansions on rapid transit corridors. (I’m not talking about Portland-Milwaukie, which is already in progress, but things beyond that). There are plenty of ways that capital dollars can be spent (assuming local politicians will continue to have a goal of winning federal grants to goose the local economy) that don’t place all the eggs in one geographic basket.

For the USDOT/FTA/Congress: Funding of capital projects (both urban rapid transit and urban freeways) ought to be conditioned upon having a thriving and useful bus service in place–before laying track or pouring concrete, efficient use of existing infrastructure should be encouraged. Transit projects without good bus service lack the network effects to be successful. The best transit projects are those that are built to relieve overcrowding in an existing bus system, not ones dependent on speculative new riders, even if one suspect that there are large numbers of potential patrons who will ride trains but not bus. And likewise, freeway construction should be discouraged until more efficient utilization of existing streets is made. (Transit project is subject to unfair funding competition with freeways as it is; it would be undesirable for a proposal design to reduce boondoggle projects to have the effect of diverting funds to highways instead).


12 responses to “Transit and those dependent upon it”

  1. Great piece!

    One thing that I would like to add is that one thing which impacts both “choice” and “dependent” although in different ways is alternative services.

    For transit to be successful with choice riders, it needs to get people where they *want* to go in a relatively painless way.

    For transit to be successful with dependent riders it has to get people where they *need* to go in a reliable way.

    When a transit link fails for choice riders, they need a clear and simple alternative. Like if MAX hits a snag, having shuttle buses bridge the gap.

    When a transit link fails for dependent riders, they need an alternative to get them where they need to go – perhaps another bus line which runs close to their needs or perhaps a different connection to make.

    They are both related, but different. The transit dependent get hurt more usually because a lot of their destinations may be in a low density area (either housing or employment) so there are not any alternatives – OR because their transit time periods are so far off-peak that there are too few runs (one-an-hour bus lines cannot be reliable if something happens and you have to wait another whole hour for the next chance).

    For choice riders, any failure is simply poor marketing. It only takes one “red-line-doesn’t-ever-show-up-and-we-miss-our-flight” for the choice rider to never again use MAX to get to the airport.

    For dependent riders any failure is a crushing blow to their ability to function. Many lower income employment resources do not appreciate when the bus is an hour late, and a lost job means serious hardship for people already struggling.

    One unpopular yet important demographic is people just out of jail. No one really wants to discuss them, but they do make up a large number of our transit dependent and we do want them to re-assimilate into society and stop being burdens. But consider their “plight” and the impact that poor reliability has on them:

    They already have difficulty finding gainful employment, and often are not legally allowed to drive. A missed bus or a bus which doesn’t show up can cause them massive trouble. Additionally, most “half-way” houses or visits to parole officers or drug tests are incredibly strict as to timing. It can be very very hard for a person to meet the strict timelines and employment requirements using public transit. Yet – at the same time, we want these people to start doing better and get out of trouble – but we make it incredibly hard to do so, such that the easier alternative is to continue breaking the law.

    That is an unpopular demographic that gets little support from most people – yet is a real problem in our society.

    In any event, it all relates to reliability and alternatives.

    Why again is the red-line train the only way to get to the Portland airport? What happens when it goes down? What happens for flights or jobs which need to get to the airport before or after the red line schedule?

  2. Why again is the red-line train the only way to get to the Portland airport? What happens when it goes down? What happens for flights or jobs which need to get to the airport before or after the red line schedule?

    You mean like it did yesterday-for HOURS!

    This is a great essay Scott, I can’t see anything that I disagree with.

    Your essay tackles the transit dilemma from a logical, factual point of view, unfortunately those in charge of these decisions don’t use factual logic. They are ruled by special interest and money.

    And that’s the problem in a nutshell with transit in America, its focus is not transit rider issues.

    And from where I sit, I see it going downhill-FAST.

    A country ruled by money and those who have it and want it is not a country that looks at reality when it comes to public policy.

    But I am really impressed by your essay.

  3. These are good points, but you also have to consider a region’s long-term land use goals. New growth areas need to have new transit service to be oriented around, if it doesn’t already exist and if development opportunity sites aren’t sufficient around the existing transit system. This means that your last point could be counter-productive; the large numbers of potential patrons who will ride trains but not bus are critical to allowing regions to meet their greenhouse gas reduction goals. This is especially true when the new transit project allow transit oriented development to occur, which otherwise would be occurring as automobile oriented development.

    Also, feeder transit doesn’t necessarily have to be bus; before World War Two, nearly all feeder transit consisted of streetcar lines. As diesel buses are actually a major source of air pollution in a region (I’ve seen figures citing diesel buses as contributing in the double digits of percentages of total regional particulate matter emissions, for instance), any plan to phase out diesel buses and replace them with zero-emissions vehicles must be a part of the plan to improve the regional airshed — an improvement that benefits everybody in the region. Currently, electric streetcars are the most popular way to provide this in Portland, though Seattle and San Francisco show us that electric trolleybuses could also work (though you’d better look out for those errant trolley poles when they pop off the wires…)

    Overall, and as usual, good post with good attention to detail!


  4. One group that gets missed is the group that I am a part of–the “transit-by-choice” group. We may be small, but I believe we are growing as young people become less enamored of car ownership. I could buy a car if I wanted to, but that would reduce my quality of life because I would rather not deal with the cost or hassle and I don’t enjoy driving on a daily basis. In short, I choose to be transit-dependent!

    I think my group is closer in spirit to the transit-dependent, but we do have more elastic demand for transit since we have more choices to rent a car (or use carshare) or bike instead. We are more likely to demand high-quality services and rapid transit for commuting, so in that sense we are more like the “choice” riders. Anyway, I think the distinction will get more and more blurred as we see more high-income people embrace a car-free or car-light lifestyle (at least I hope so!).

  5. Zef: it isn’t just young people. I’m in my mid-50s. Mrs Dibbly & I drove our vehicle only 1,000 miles in the last 12 months. We’d sell it but Mrs Dibbly wants to have a vehicle available in case she has to rush a cat to the vet. The things we do for love….

    Otherwise I agree with everything you wrote. The “transit dependent by choice” group is growing, especially as more young people & “empty nesters*” move to the inner cities.

    (*Are you an empty nester if you never had kids to begin with?)

  6. I love your description of “car-dependent,” as living down in Woodburn that absolutely applies to me. While I work a ten minute walk from my house, we often head up to Portland on the weekends for leisure activities. There is zero bus service from Woodburn to Portland, and only two trips a day from Woodburn to Salem on the weekdays. This puts us in a position of being car dependent even though we despise driving.

  7. True, Jason, though the two options you’ve mentioned aren’t exactly useful to anyone.

    I could ride the Greyhound for an awesome price of $24 each direction.

    Then there’s the CAT. So I can take the CAT Orange line to Oregon City, then the bus to Clackamas Town Center then teh green line downtown at a time of 2 1/2 hours each way. Sounds effective :)

    ODOT is replacing the I-5 Woodburn interchange next spring, and part of that project is a transit center which will provide service to Wilsonville and WES, so that will be nice.

  8. Scotty–

    I’m not up to speed on the eastside routes as much as the westside, so that does make more sense. That said, thats still a long trip, as going through Camby and OC is a much, much longer way to Portland than the I-5 corridor.

    The city is hoping to have the SMART 1X stop in Woodburn on its way from Salem to Wilsonville once the new interchange and transit center is built, so that should take care of the problem, at least for commuters. Weekenders like me would still be SOL, though I acknowledge that transit isn’t really desnigned with us in mind at this time.

  9. going through Camby

    That would be a long journey indeed, seeing as how he’s going to be playing for the New York Knicks this year. :P

    (Sorry about that, but couldn’t resist. Any time I start to think the Trail Blazers are a train wreck, I just think of the Knicks and it’s all better…)

    In all seriousness, the 99E route isn’t that much longer distance-wise than going up I-5. Obviously there’s traffic in Canby, but you get a nice scenic view of Willamette Falls. Having SMART stop in Woodburn would be helpful, but you still would need to change twice–once in Wilsonville to get on the 2X (unless the 2X and 1X are interlined–I’m not familiar with the details of SMART scheduling), and once at Barbur TC to get on the 12 or 94 to downtown.

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