outtake: on endearing-but-useless transit

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 usefuluseful 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.

Endearing Transit

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-but-Useless Transit

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. [1]  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 car sfCable 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[2] 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.



[1]         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

[2]   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.

21 Responses to outtake: on endearing-but-useless transit

  1. david vartanoff December 13, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    A dissent about SF Cable Cars. Despite Muni’s tourist gouging fares, local pass holders can and do use them as regular transit. The Cal line is rarely jammed and using it to connect w/ the Powell lines works well. Reliability OTOH is the extreme end of Muni’s generally abysmal schedule adherence. Some of this is auto sabotage, some Muni staff non performance. As to the stats you cite a. the Cable Cars are notorious for sloppy fare collection/passenger counts, and b. a real transit user figure for SF would count BART intra city trips as well.

  2. jfruh December 13, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Is it fair to compare the ridership of the cable cars, which cover a relatively small portion of downtown SF, with the Muni system as a whole? Seems more useful to compare to bus lines that cover the same territory. For the amount of territory they cover, 24K passengers a day seemed surprisingly high to me.
    I have fond memories of the only time I took the cable car for real transit purposes when I lived in the Bay Area — I was going from my home in the East Bay to a friend’s party at California and Van Ness, in the evening in the winter. The conductor picked up on the fact that I was a local and refused to take my money.

  3. zefwagner December 13, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    The point about the unreliability of fixed-rail transit in mixed traffic is often forgotten. It is very frustrating to ride a streetcar and then end up stuck behind a parked car that has to be towed. A bus could just go around it. Even the MAX, which has exclusive lanes but runs at-grade on city streets, often has problems with cars on the tracks.

  4. Alexis December 13, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    Some years ago now I had an experience with the uselessness of SF cable cars.
    They were definitely useless to me that day, and in a way that was somewhat harmful: by existing, they were, in some way, purporting to be useful, so I thought I’d try taking one, instead of originally planning to take something else instead. This is one way that “endearing but useless” transit” can actually have negative utility, as well as giving people a bad perception about the usefulness of transit in a city/overall.

  5. Moaz Yusuf Ahmad December 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Endearing but useless…
    Google search Malacca Monorail … or just go here: http://transitmy.org/?s=Malacca+monorail
    Cheers, Moaz

  6. Jeffrey Bridgman December 13, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    The 1993 accident… was it a weekday or weekend. I think this could make some difference and I’m having trouble finding the information.

  7. Rob December 13, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    I really agree with the thrust of this – that transit wins when it competes to be the rational choice. I don’t think transit can win based on how committed its riders are to transit alone.
    In a way though an early statement in this piece lets transit off the hook – by restating the widely-held belief that government road subsidies stack the deck against transit. There’s a little truth to that, but the bigger challenges to becoming the rational choice are (1) the amount of personal investment people have made in their car, and (2) most people’s willingness, even pleasure, to drive the car themselves rather than to pay someone to drive them around. Both of those factors make the marginal cost of a car trip relatively low. It’s people’s personal investments in their car that matters in travel choice, not the government’s funding for the road infrastructure that makes the challenge of making a real dent in travel trends so hard. (And we would still need good streets for walking, bikes and trucks even if transit won that war.)
    I’m expecting some arguments about that, but I think it’s true. I think transit professionals and advocates need to look that in the face and stop making ideological excuses if they want to make real changes in travel behaviors. We need to look problems in the face for what they are if we hope to solve them. And I think that just strengthens your argument that our efforts need to go first to the things that change the calculation of what’s rational by providing the best product, not just the cutest one with the best advertising.

  8. Dexter Wong December 13, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    One thing I get from reading Darrin Nordahl’s book “My Kind Kind of Transit” is that he completely overlooks the historical context of how some forms of transit, like the cable car formed. He just sees them as unique and endearing. The cable car was invented to travel hills that horse cars could not. It also was the first successful form of mechanized urban transit, but it was made obsolete by the electric streetcar by the turn of the 20th Century. It only survived on the steepest hills until improved buses arrived in the 1940s. The surviving San Francisco lines were saved because a dedicated group of citizens banded together to alter the city charter. If San Franciscans were not so sentimental, cable cars would just be another memory.

  9. Jonathan December 14, 2011 at 6:35 am #

    Superficially, another example is the traditional rear-boarding London bus. Certainly, discussion of that thing revolves around its nostalgia value vs. its failure as an effective form of transit. But I think this misses some important points, thus…
    The seven utility elements of the traditional London Bus:
    1, 2. We’ll ignore these, as they are the same as for any other bus against which it competes on the same routes.
    3. It’s a good use of my time. Better than other buses, as the conductor takes the fares whilst the driver drives.
    4. It’s a good use of my money. Worse. It has two staff, so its more expensive. On the other hand, conductors are (much) cheaper than drivers, because they aren’t covered by the same labour arrangements, and the simpler design means its cheaper to build and maintain (given equivalent economies of scale).
    5. It respects me. Broadly, its as comfortable as any other bus.
    6. I can trust it. Better. Because it has some redundancy with an extra staff member, it’s less likely to get held up boarding at a stop. Bunching is therefore less likely. Additionally, you can jump on board whilst the vehicle is moving, so you can catch a bus you would otherwise have missed, or if its just stopped in traffic rather than at a designated stop (without causing additional delay).
    7. Better, all the usual advantages of a bus, plus the ‘jump on and off’ feature.
    8. Bonus, it has Endearing qualities, which are useful not only for you but also in advocating for, e.g. exclusive bus lanes (i.e. they can be a wedge for improvements to 1 and 2 in this case).
    It feels like there’s some room for discussion here, because the ‘efficiency’ argument was quite strongly in favour of eliminating the old-style buses, but my analysis suggests otherwise.
    Naively, I guess that a concern for disabled access (doesn’t appear in the elements), safety (which I suppose falls under ‘respect’), and the dominating expense of labour costs pushed the buses out of service.

  10. Alex B. December 14, 2011 at 6:43 am #

    It’s people’s personal investments in their car that matters in travel choice, not the government’s funding for the road infrastructure that makes the challenge of making a real dent in travel trends so hard. (And we would still need good streets for walking, bikes and trucks even if transit won that war.)
    Here’s the thing: “Roads” and “streets” are not the same thing. The government’s big investment in roads is not money into local streets that serve multiple purposes (most of which, in urban contexts, predate the car by a great deal), but in highways and other rapid auto infrastructure.
    That kind of infrastructure for highways massively tilts the scales in favor of driving, in the same way that providing grade separation for a subway line will tilt the scale in favor of transit compared to, say, a streetcar in mixed traffic. Add in the disparity of investment in the US over the years, massively favoring highway projects over transit, and you can get the picture.
    Furthermore, places like Washington DC illustrate an alternate path. DC’s Metro is a relatively new subway system, and the funding for it primarily came from dollars allocated to planned highways that were never built for various reasons. Within the core of the DC region, the investment focus has been entirely different, and the behavior of residents, workers, and visitors responds accordingly.
    The other point I’d make is about self-reinforcement. High capacity rapid transit supports dense development. There’s a positive feedback loop that allows for the core to grow denser and denser. Conversely, auto-oriented systems, due to the need to provide massive amounts of space for the terminal capacity to handle all of those cars does not promote dense development. There are feedback loops with each of those broad investment tracks.

  11. Eric O December 14, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    Cities that have sentimental citizens perhaps demonstrate their advantage over less demanding (“less expensive”) populations. 🙂 But I really like the premise of using transit-endearment to diversify your user base. The implication of this (and this would not be a trivial point for me in the communities I work in) is that an agency should look to “endear” the service in corridors where the transit would be demonstrably competitive in the seven demands, that primarily serves a ridership base of transit dependent users currently, and where a parallel travel demand exists for car-owners.

  12. James Fujita December 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    Even in a world where public finances force us to concentrate on the practical and useful aspects of transit, there really ought to be room for the “endearing but useless” as well.
    Otherwise, we might as well tear down the Eiffel Tower and burn down the art museums for lacking a practical purpose.

  13. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org December 14, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    James.  The Eiffel Tower was a broadcasting tower.  Would never have been built without that function!  And obviously, it's tourist attraction.  I have nothing against endearing features in anything; I only question tradeoffs that involve sacrificing usefulness for their sake.

  14. Ed December 15, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    What kind of broadcasting was being done in 1889 when the Eiffel Tower was built?
    I am not sure how a car is a good use of money. I just had to spend $1100 to get the alternator fixed on my car. That would have purchased a transit pass for nearly the entire year.
    Remember also that cars are marketed, not so much on their virtues on points 1 to 7, but how they will make you feel good driving them and being seen in them. Cars are not sold purely as appliances (except maybe to the Consumer Reports crowd); why try to sell transit as an appliance without the endearing part?

  15. Dan W. in Los Angeles, California, USA December 15, 2011 at 10:03 am #

    An example of endearing, but useful transit might be the Angel’s Flight funicular in Los Angeles. It is a quick and inexpensive way of getting to/from Bunker Hill from Grand Plaza.

  16. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org December 15, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    Dan.  Is it really worth waiting for downhill, compared to walking? 

  17. Dan W. in Los Angeles, California, USA December 15, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    Well, I do, because it is a FUN-icular 🙂

  18. Rob December 15, 2011 at 11:52 pm #

    @Ed, sure, cars aren’t advertised based on their ability to satisfy the 7 measures Jarrett has proposed, but that’s in part because the design of cars and the road system provides instant and ubiquitous access, so they’re free to try to find other ways to differentiate themselves. It’s sort of like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – once you’ve satisfied the basics then you can move on to worry about self-actualization (or branding in this case).
    @Alex B, I don’t disagree that the social investments in roads have given cars an advantage. I’m being picky at the word “subsidy.” We hear a lot about how roads are subsidized, and that’s why transit is at a disadvantage – but in real life transit is subsidized to a far greater extent if by subsidy one means funding is provided by non-users to cover the part of the cost that users don’t pay for directly.
    I’m not arguing that cars are best – our car-centric culture has resulted in an unsustainably resource dependent, unhealthy and unsociable way of life. My suggestion is that transit proponents and planners need to take a clear-eyed look at the competition rather than make excuses about subsidies that really don’t hold up. Cars have taken hold because of their utility and, in the longer run, because land patterns have developed that rely on them. For transit to make a real dent, its planners and supporters need to focus on meeting customers travel requirements, and I think Jarrett’s done a good job laying out what they are.

  19. David Oleesky December 17, 2011 at 9:44 am #

    The SF cable streetcars are not quite “a technology that is now unique in the world”. There are also cable tramways in Llandudno (Cymru) and Lisbon, but they differ from the SF system in that the cars are fixed to the cable. Information on the Llandudno system (which is essentially for tourists and does not operate in the winter) is available at http://www.greatorme.org.uk/tramway.html and http://www.greatormetramway.co.uk/
    or (yn Gymraeg) at
    On a more serious note, I do concur with your views on “endearing but useless transport”. One UK example of the conflict between useful and endearing transport is the Blackpool tram system, originally opened in 1885 as one of the first electric tramlines in the world. Latterly it had become more of a tourist facility with service suspended in the winter. The pre-WWII cars were ahead of their time when originally built, but were veritable antiques by 6th November 2011, the last day of the traditional service. This essentially reserved track line is now being modernised and will re-open in Spring 2012 with 16 new Bombardier trams to provide a proper 21st century public transport facility.

  20. Andrew December 24, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    This kind of reminds me of York Region Transit, in the northern suburbs of Toronto. They have spent large amounts of money basically on making their “VIVA” express bus pretty. They have fare vending machines at stops, fancy buses, and are spending a huge amount of money building dedicated bus lanes. However, the service is really not very useful because it hardly connects to anything else, the regular local York Region Transit bus service being very infrequent in most cases. It has not been a big success (not to mention the fact that it has been on strike for 2 months now). Meanwhile Brampton (northwestern suburbs) and Mississsauga (western suburbs) have launched fairly no-frills express bus services. No costly bus lanes, no fare vending machines, and in the case of Mississauga it has been rolled out very gradually with most express routes being rush hour only. Nevertheless these services are far more useful because the connecting transit service is much more frequent, and these suburban cities have far more real destinations to go to, while York Region has no real centre to speak of. Also Mississauga Transit and Brampton Transit have been able to avoid labour disruptions for a while now.

  21. Nathanael October 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Interesting point about cable cars: although electric railways can handle very steep hills, and electric trolleybuses can handle even steeper hills, San Francisco’s surviving cable cars are on extremely steep hills. That’s why they lasted long enough to become nostalgia items.
    The “inclines” in Pittsburgh remain useful transit, due to the very steep hills they traverse.
    At some point as the route gets steeper you just go with an elevator, which is actually a vertical cable car, if you think about it.