In the last post, commenting briefly on how some San Franciscans were lamenting the deletion of the uncrowded and redundant bus line 26-Valencia, I compared the 26 to a restaurant ….
Yes, we all like to ride uncrowded buses. I really enjoy dining in uncrowded restaurants too. And yet the odd thing is, however much I patronize my favorite uncrowded restaurants, they seem to go out of
business sooner than the crowded ones do. I wonder why that is.
As always, the danger of fast posting is that you end up with comments that are much smarter than the post. Commenter Spyone, for example, explained some of the economics of the restaurant business.
In transit, the vehicle itself is the service provided to the customers, and (to a limit) additional customers do not increase cost. In a restaurant, a tiny fraction of the customer’s bill pays for his chair. Due to this fact, a restaurant actually operates best if it is rarely full. The extra chairs represent emergency capacity (for special events and the like), while it is the staffing that is adjusted to meet
Which oddly leads me to realize on of the major problems with creating a frequent network: in most transit systems, staffing is per-vehicle rather than per-passenger, so it is more cost effective to serve more passengers by using bigger vehicles rather than more vehicles. If frequency is your goal, the opposite is what you want: more vehicles (possibly smaller vehicles if that represents any kind of savings) running more often.
In both restaurants and buses, what matters is not the crowdedness of the space but the ratio of customers to employees, because at least in the high-wage developed world, the employees are the dominant element of cost. The attentive service good restaurants provide is the result of getting this ratio right. In most transit in the high-wage developed world, the right ratio of passengers to drivers is “as high as possible up to the limits of civilized comfort,” which is admittedly an elastic and culturally determined limit.
The dominance of labor in transit’s cost explains why there’s so little money to be saved by running smaller buses in areas of smaller demand. I’ve met many small-bus proponents who talk as though we could just chop all our big buses in half and have twice as many small ones, but alas, it doesn’t work that way. Small vehicles may be marginally more fuel-efficient and offer a more intimate look-and-feel, but these are small factors compared to the constant cost of labor.
Cap’n Transit added: