Lisa Margonelli's opinion piece in today's New York Times, "Thinking Outside the Bus," is a must-read, and not just for its important stories about small-town public transit development and the private van initiatives in New York. It's also useful as an illustration of how people often imagine false links between unrelated ideas, and the role of emotive words and images in making these falsehoods seem real.
Everyone does this, so it's important to understand how it works. Journalists especially must understand how this works, if they want to go beyond quick "good and evil" stories and actually explain an issue fairly.
The article begins with the story of Pam Boucher, a carless woman in the small town of Brunswick, Maine who was stranded until the advent of a small, intimate bus system:
Now in a wheelchair, Boucher calls me from a bus stop, where she’s waiting with a friend. The bus has changed her life, she says, giving her independence, control over her time and the ability to socialize. “I take it at least once a day. Sometimes three times.” She meets friends on the bus, takes herself to her medical appointments, and goes shopping for groceries afterwards. A few months ago the bus extended its hours into the evening to accommodate more commuters; she can now shop for groceries in the evening if her day has been spent at medical appointments.
And this bit is important:
“Doug’s the driver. He’s really good to me. He’s knows my condition and that I sometimes forget where I am.”
Brunswick's local buses, in short, are geared to people with special needs, as small-town transit systems often are. The emphasis is on ensuring access for these people and providing them basic mobility in their community.
These systems are absolutely laudable. I've helped design several of them myself. But they are intrinsically inefficient, in terms of passengers service per unit of public cost, because the effort Doug takes in making sure Pam's needs are met requires a lot of Doug's time. Suppose that on average, he spent six minutes taking care of each customer's needs, counting the time he's driving. That would mean he'll never be able to serve more than 12 people per pay hour, which is very, very low by urban transit standards. Serving special needs is a good thing to do, but it requires lots of staff time per passenger, so it will always have a very high cost per passenger. Unless:
Unless you pay the drivers less. Margonelli's next story is about the emerging minibuses of New York, an important private sector initiative that's generating high frequencies of service on some streets using vans on fixed routes, where the van companies can quickly invent new routes as demand seems to require. The genius of these buses is that they tolerate lower ridership (mandated in fact by their small size) but they can do this because the drivers make much less than unionized transit agency labor. These vans may be innovative for New York but they're actually the normal way of doing business across most of the developing world, where low prevailing wages allow for high volumes of small-bus transit. These systems are often not organized in the way that developed-world public transit is; often they feel more like taxis with multiple passengers. But their sheer abundance, made possible by low wages, makes up for that deficit.
(There are intermediate models, by the way. Vancouver's transit agency runs small buses, the Community Shuttle, at 50% of the cost of running big buses. That lets the small buses be more abundant, reaching deeper into low-density hills than big buses could afford to do. This didn't require the private sector, just a negotiation with the union based on the obvious fact that driving a small bus with few passengers is an easier job than driving a big bus with many.)
So is Margonelli really a ferocious right-wing union-busting capitalist? No, she's just unclear on transit's basic geometry and economics. Note this strange move:
America’s famously car-dependent culture strands the Pam Bouchers among us: those too old, too young, or too sick to drive cars. Overall, only 5 percent of Americans use public transit to get to work and that number is somewhat distorted by the huge numbers of people in cities who commute by subway, train or bus. Outside of metropolitan areas, the number of Americans taking public transit falls to just 1.2 percent. With so few people on the bus, schedules become infrequent and inconvenient, and ridership drops further.
The "huge numbers of people in cities" are distorting the national transit data? Margonelli is clearly interested only in small town and rural transit, where she would like to raise that 1.2 percent figure. Personally, I'm all for small town and rural transit, but only because of my own social-democratic beliefs about an inclusive society; unless you want developing-world wage rates, it's definitely not an efficient way to raise nationwide mode share. That goal will be served only by focusing on places that transit can serve cost-effectively, carrying many people with few drivers. That means cities, and a few other dense transit-oriented places like university towns.
Margonelli wants to somehow tie the social-service imperative in small towns in rural areas to the national challenge of increasing ridership, but the "low hanging fruit" for huge ridership increases is in the cities. Our cities still have many places where the development pattern creates high potential demand for transit that isn't being well served. If we were engaged in a national struggle to increase the usage of transit overall, that's where the big wins are.
So let's come back to the issue of images and emotive words, and the way they help sustain confusion. One thing happening in this story is that the human interest in Pam Boucher makes the author think that solving Pam's problem is an efficient way to serve national ridership goals. This is just mathmatically false, becuase social service needs require lots of driver time per customer and the essence of efficient transit is minimizing driver time per customer. Neither objective is bad, but they're different objectives. If giving every customer five minutes of attention were the key to efficiency, corporations would still have human beings answering every customer's call.
But there are also three emotive words at work in this rhetoric. One is "bus" as used in the article's title, "Thinking outside the bus." The other two are in this passage:
Conventional wisdom says that the way to create or improve public transit is to invest billions to engineer rails, trains and buses. But the Brunswick Explorer [the new service that Pam Boucher uses] is one of many innovators that are seeing transit as more than an engineering problem and trying to build transit that meets the needs of its residents.
You see them: conventional wisdom and innovator. This tired good-and-evil frame is routinely stamped onto all kinds of journalism about sustainability issues. I wonder how many journalists could even write an article on these topics without using it.
Look at that word innovator or innovation. We hear it all the time. It means "having an idea that I personally haven't heard of before."
If don't know much about transit, many old and well-tried ideas will strike you as innovative. The Brunswick, Maine transit system is laudable, but this kind of problem-solving focused on senior-disabled needs has been going on for decades. It's a very localized, specialized process that's different in every town. It's beautiful to watch and be a part of. But the basic frame of the problem: the costs of service, the patterns of service that work in a small town, North American wage expectations, the opportunities for savings through communications and through merging existing operations — all this has been worked on for decades and solutions like Brunswick's have been created in many places. Brunswick has tread a well-researched path; locally it's an innovation, but it's not more innovative than hundreds of similar systems. Again, the word innovation reflects the writer's ignorance about the field.
If transit professionals seem cold to "innovative" proposals, it may because they're stuck in the mud. But it may be because they know their field, have heard this proposal twenty times already, and understand the ways it works and doesn't work. They may also understand that the "innovation" meme is really a way to evade a real, hard question, such as the appropriate levels of wage for transit workers. Nobody wants to talk about that; it's much more fun to praise private-sector models like the Flatbush vans. But if you call those vans innovative, what you're really saying is: "I've never used public transit in the developing world, where this idea is routine, so it's new to me." (You're also saying: "Drastically lower driver wages are a great idea.")
Remember, in North America, most of what looks "efficient" and "innovative" about "private sector" transit is simply liberation from the negotiated wage rates that bind virtually all public transit operators. Transit costs are driven by the cost of labor, so if you make labor cheaper, many things are possible. Calling these services "innovative" is taking your eye off the ball, and needlessly slandering transit experts as purveyors conventional wisdom just because they've heard the idea before.
As for "bus" as an image of constrained thinking (in the title, "Thinking outside the bus"), it's understandable, though increasingly archaic. The crowded, constraining, poorly ventilated bus does feel like a box and thus as a good metaphor for mental imprisonment or "conventional wisdom". (Remember the film Speed, or the pilot of Six Feet Under? Both used a bus that was older than most buses on the road at the time, intentionally playing to a stereotype of buses as primitive.) Yet all the solutions Margonelli proposes are also vehicles on tires. "Bus" is a large and diverse category, which makes it useless for talking about what matters in transit. The word says nothing about speed, duration, frequency, and reliability, nor does it address labor cost, which determines how much of these things you can afford. "Think outside the bus" if you must, but as Margonelli's examples show, you're still likely to end up with one.
UPDATE: For further entertainment, see Eric Jaffe today in the Atlantic on the "entirely new transit concept flexible bus services," which have been around for decades. I personally was designing them (and sometimes ripping them out) almost 20 years ago.