Here is an outtake from an early draft of my book, written at a time when I intended to confront technology choice issue more directly than I ended up doing. (There turned out to be a book's worth of stuff to explain that was even more important than that, so the next book will likely be about technology choice.)
Darrin Nordahl's My Kind of Transit argues the opposite of my view here. Since I am debating Darrin tomorrow in a webinar (for US Green Building Council members only, alas) I thought I'd post this in the spirit of cheerful provocation.
In Chapter 2 of Human Transit, I argue that useful transit can be understood as involving seven dimensions or elements.
1. “It takes me where I want to go.”
2. “It takes me when I want to go.”
3. “It’s a good use of my time.”
4. “It’s a good use of my money.”
5. “It respects me.”
6. “I can trust it.”
7. “It gives me freedom to change my plans.”
The dominant mode in a community is the one that best addresses the seven demands, compared to the available alternatives, in the perception of the majority of people. In a rural area, or a low density suburban one, the automobile meets all seven demands handsomely. You can drive to just about anywhere (demand 1). The car is in your garage when you need it (demand 2). It is the fastest way to get to most places (demand 3) and thanks to many government subsidies it is relatively cost-effective to own (demand 4). It is comparatively comfortable (demand 5). You maintain the car, so you have some control over its reliability (demand 6). Finally, it’s easy to change your travel plans mid-trip (demand 7).
In core areas of Paris, London, or New York, these same demands explain why the rapid transit system, not the automobile, is dominant. Rapid transit goes to every part of the city that many people want to go to (demand 1). It runs every 5-10 minutes for 18 hours a day or more, so there is always a train coming in a few minutes (demand 2). It can easily be faster than driving (demand 3), and is certainly cheaper given the high cost of big-city parking (demand 4). It is probably weakest in demand 5 — the comfort and sense of respect — but some systems do a good job at this, especially away from the crowded rush hour, and in any case the high speed means a fast trip where a period of discomfort is more tolerable. It’s reliable (demand 6) -– or at least, it’s big news when it fails, so you’re likely to be forgiven for being late. Finally, the rapid transit systems of these major cities offer a level of freedom (demand 7) that is hard to achieve in a car, which faces the constant problems of parking and congestion. You can spontaneously get off at any station, for example, knowing that when you’re ready, another train will be along soon to complete your journey.
The seven demands collectively define the dimensions of a transit service that most people in a society would rationally decide to use. If transit satisfies these seven demands, to the standards of the people that it is trying to serve, and compared to their alternatives, then the transit service is useful. useful service to denote service that is good enough in its seven dimensions that given the alternatives, many people would rationally choose to use it.
(Note that by useful (and later useless) I mean useful or useless as transportation, because that is transit's primary task, just as firefighting is the fire department's primary task.)
Now here’s a key point: “many people” may not mean “people like me.” An effective strategy for maximizing the use of transit can't serve everyone, because some people are just not cost-effective to serve, so success as a strategy may be different from usefulness to you or the people you know. If your friends will only ride streetcars rather than buses, but your town is too small to fill streetcars to the point that their capacity is needed, then your friends may just be too expensive, and too few, to be a good service investment for a transit agency focused on citywide demand. Likewise, if you live in a low-density area, and you wonder why transit isn’t useful to you, the answer may be that you form too sparse a market for transit to efficiently focus on. Chapter 10 is all about the challenge of hard-to-serve markets and how, or even whether, subsidized public transit should be trying to serve them.
Still, most public transit services aspire to attract a wide range of people, and breadth in the market is important for political support. Of course, most transit agencies cannot hope to capture a majority of the travel demand in their communities, or even to their downtowns, but they can provide services that many people will find useful — enough to get many cars off the road and dramatically improve mobility for everyone. A great deal of research has been done, and much remains to be done, about the seven dimensions of the useful and how good transit really needs to be at each of them to achieve a city’s goals.
The key idea, though, is that useful transit will appeal to a diverse range people with different origins, destinations, and purposes. The more diverse the market that can be rationally attracted onto one transit vehicle, the greater the potential for the service to grow and prosper, and to help the city achieve higher levels of economic activity with lower numbers of cars. Again, though, some people will be too expensive to serve, and if you’re one of them, you’ll need to distinguish between your private interest and the public good.
A vast range of public comments fall into the seven values that form useful transit. Did we leave anything out? Well, what about comments such as:
“I like the logo.”
“I like what it says about my community.”
“It’s on rails, and I just like rail.”
“Streetcars make the community more attractive.”
“They gave me this really cool coffee mug.”
“It’s lots of fun to ride.”
These comments may seem to overlap some of the vaguer demands that fall under the fifth element of useful transit (“It respects me.”) but there is a crucial difference. The concept of “respect” in the definition of useful transit includes demands that are subjective and perhaps unmeasurable, but there is wide agreement about these demands in a given culture.
In most societies, at least in the developed world, most people will not choose to sit in a seat next to a pool of urine. Pools of urine in a seat indicate the failure of the service to respect the passenger, and thus a failure to be useful, because the revulsion that a pool of urine causes is nearly universal in the society.
Some cultures may react differently to a pool of urine, so clearly, the boundary of the useful is culturally relative, but it can still be defined for a given society. Useful service, in its subjective fifth dimension of “respect,” is determined by what the vast majority of people in the society, or at least the target market, consider acceptable.
But many subjective comments are not universal, such as the ones listed above. A beautiful free coffee mug may motivate some people to feel good about transit, or even to try riding it once, but most people do not make their routine mode choices based on such gifts. Even if a coffee mug lures you onto the bus or train, it is unlikely to make you more comfortable sitting next to a pool of urine. Clearly, the absence of a pool of urine is a fundamental requirement in a way that commemorative coffee mugs are not. The absence of urine, then, is part of the definition of service that “respects me,” and therefore part of the definition of useful service. The commemorative coffee mug is … something else.
For aspects of a service that do not fall within the culture’s requirements for useful transit, but are nevertheless perceived as fun, nice, good to have, attractive to tourists, etc., let me propose the term endearing transit. By this term, I mean any aspect of a service that engenders good feeling, but that do not seem to be essential for achieving ridership. The boundary between demand #5 of useful transit (“It respects me.”) and demands for endearing features such as a cute paint scheme is simply the boundary between values that are nearly universal in the culture and values that are not so universally shared, or that seem to be a lower priority in people’s actual decisions about how to travel.
Another way to think about the useful/endearing distinction is that useful features of transit encourage regular use, but endearing features encourage occasional use motivated by curiosity or pleasure, which is why endearing services are often justified by the economic rewards of tourism and recreation. Endearing transit is often about fun, or about the way that the service contributes to the community’s general “look and feel,” but it also includes obsessions with any transit technology that go beyond that technology’s usefulness.
“Endearing” may seem like a loaded word, but the other words commonly used for these values are simply too vague. We constantly hear about service needing to be more “convenient” or “attractive,” but if you press on these terms they usually come apart into some measurable element of usefulness, such as speed or frequency, plus some strong but obscure sentiment that isn’t really about the service at all. The endearing, then, includes all of the values people bring to transit that are not related to whether transit is useful, where useful is defined by the seven demands that we’ve summarized.
Endearing aspects of transit are important, because subjective perceptions unrelated to service do influence whether people choose to use transit. However, there remains a vast difference in importance between the endearing and the useful. The difference is this: Many people will use service that is useful, even if it is not especially endearing. Relatively few people will use service that is endearing but useless, with the major exception of tourists and others who are travelling for pleasure. Endearing transit may attract tourists and others for whom the ride itself is the purpose of traveling, but if the service is useless, it will not attract anyone who needs to get somewhere at a particular time, and it is these people – people who just need to get somewhere – who make up the vast majority of travel demand in all but the most tourist-centered communities.
Effective transit planning, then, must start with a diligent focus on the useful. It will make the service as endearing as possible, but it never sacrifices the useful for the sake of the endearing, unless a tourist or recreational market is its primary aim.
If tourism and recreation are the aim, the success of the service is not measured by whether it gets you where you’re going within acceptable bounds of time and cost, because there are enough people who will use the purpose solely for the purposes of fun. Endearing-but-useless services succeed or fail not on their value as transportation, but on their value as entertainment. If our goal is to add a new kind of attraction to our community, then they may meet that goal, but we must not mistake these services – essentially amusement-park rides with multiple access points — for a useful service that many people will logically choose to ride day after day. We may all enjoy riding a Ferris wheel, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy commuting on one.
(Many endearing-but-useless services can be understood as amusement rides with multiple points of access.)
Perhaps the world’s most famous endearing-but-relatively-useless transit services are the cable cars of San Francisco, particularly the lines running to Fisherman’s Wharf and particularly during the daytime. Developed in the late 19th century as a strategy for serving hills that were too steep for horses, these charming vehicles have been preserved on three lines as part of the city’s identity and tourist appeal. Until recently they were presented as essential parts of the city’s transit network, but their contribution to actual transportation within the city is minuscule.  Now, because they are so specialized around tourism, recent budget cuts have raised their fares dramatically to capture their high operating cost, further separating them from the vast and integrated transit network that most riders use.
Cable cars run on tracks, but unlike other rail services they have no means of propulsion within themselves. Instead, they have handles that reach through a slot in the middle of the trackway and grab onto a cable that slides continuously underneath the street at a speed of nine miles per hour. Cable car “gripmen” learn the delicate art of grabbing this cable in a gradual way that provides some sense of acceleration, while a second crewman, the “conductor”, operates brakes located at the opposite end of the vehicle. When no braking seems to be needed, conductors also collect fares. Because the grip apparatus and the brakes are at opposite ends of the car, cable cars require two transit employees, so they cost much more to run than typical buses or rail vehicles, even before we take into account the expense of maintaining a technology that is now unique in the world.
In high season, tourists may stand in line for half an hour or more to board these cars at the foot of Powell Street. Once they reach the front of the line, they scramble to fill a car to bursting. A cable car has a small enclosed cabin, but most of its riders sit on side-facing seats that face directly onto the street without any protective railing. Around the edges of the car is a narrow platform with vertical bars. The last or most adventurous passengers stand on this platform and cling to these supports. On a fully loaded cable car, about 30% of the exterior surface consists of customers’ bodies.
Finally, off we go. In the first three blocks of Powell Street, the cable car mixes with traffic, often in severe congestion. Through this segment, the car is rarely faster than the pedestrians walking alongside it. Finally, we begin the steep climb on Nob Hill. On the ascent, the cable car has its own reserved lane, which finally allows it to reach its maximum cable-driven speed of nine miles per hour. Passengers on the side platforms lean inward as cars and trucks fly past at three or four times that speed.
When we reach the top of the hill, we go back to sharing a lane with cars, and from there to Fisherman’s Wharf we stop constantly – not just for passengers, but for the obstructions of left-turning or double-parked automobiles, delivery trucks, and so on. Perhaps we even stop for 15 minutes while a tow-truck is called to remove a poorly-parked car that is blocking the rails. In theory, the cable cars run every few minutes. In fact, they encounter so many obstacles that it would be unwise to count on them to be on time.
I lived for seven years just a few blocks from the Powell-Hyde and California cable car lines, but I used them only late at night, when traffic was low and the crowds were gone, and even then, the parallel buses were usually more useful. Most of the time, the cable cars were useless to me. Many people who live in the neighborhoods served by the cable cars reach the same conclusion, so the riders packing the cable cars tend to be mainly tourists, who are riding for recreation rather than to reach a destination quickly. After a 1993 cable car accident, the San Francisco Examiner listed all of the occupants of the car. Only two lived in San Francisco: the conductor and the gripman.
Describing the cable cars as endearing-but-mostly-useless doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them. They are a crucial piece of recreational infrastructure in a very scenic and tourist-oriented part of San Francisco. Their very high operating cost per passenger is borne by the city as an investment that pays off in attracting tourism – fundamentally the same kind of investment decision that causes cities to buy distinctive streetlight fixtures or encourage horse-drawn buggies for hire. It’s an amenity, one that makes San Francisco obviously special in ways that tourists in particular will value. Those may be good investments, but they’re quite separate from the core purpose of transit, which is to help people get where they’re going.
Making Transit Useful
Again, by useful service I mean service that addresses all of the six basic demands of transit. Useful service takes you where you want to go, and when, in a way that is a good use of your time and money; it offers a decent level of comfort and courtesy, and gives you the freedom to change your plans. Nevertheless, the logo may not be to your liking, and the type of vehicle may not be what you prefer. The agency may even lack a commemorative coffee mug.
In many transit agencies, well-intentioned people are pouring their time into making useless services more endearing. Often, marketing specialists are charged with simply improving the “image” of the agency, regardless of whether the agency offers useful service. The effort isn’t totally futile, but it is often close. Although it’s harder to measure than the useful, the endearing is easier for many people to talk about. Endearment is about feelings after all, so on the surface, it’s a domain where any opinion is as valid as any other. In conversations about transit, many people focus on the endearing not because they accept transit’s uselessness, but because they aren’t sure how to talk about what makes transit useful.
To compound this problem, the features that constitute useful transit – features such as frequency, speed, and so on — are often described as “technical.” This term misleads us in two critical ways. First, it wrongly suggests that only experts can understand these features. Second, it suggests that these features can’t possibly be as important as things we all know how to talk about, like logos, slogans, color schemes, or the indisputable “romance of the rails.”
In fact, the seven values that comprise useful transit are easy to understand if we stop to think about them. By contrast, if we ignore them in our passion for the endearing, we risk creating services that are endearing-but-useless. If this book focuses heavily on the useful, it’s not because the endearing is unimportant, but because the idea of useful transit is so taken for granted that it’s actually quite poorly understood. Explaining useful transit is the core challenge of this book.
 In a city where total daily transit ridership is around 700,000, the three cable car lines combined carried about 24,000 daily trips, as measured by the SFMTA Transit Effectiveness Project in the summers of 2007 and 2008. http://www.sfmta.com/cms/rtep/tepdataindx.htm
 This unreliability is shared by all transit vehicles that must run in mixed traffic, but especially rail vehicles, as they cannot maneuver around a small disruption – such as a poorly parked car intruding slightly into its lane – as buses routinely do.