San Francisco: Loss of Empty Buses Mourned

26-36Streetsblog San Francisco reports on the first day of the most substantial bus network changes in 30 years, including the first Monday without the 26-Valencia bus line, which was finally abolished after a century of semi-redundant operations.

As I explained here, the 26 ran infrequently along Valencia Street, just one block west of very frequent services on Mission Street, so it’s long been the case that if you don’t see a 26 coming, it’s usually faster to walk to Mission than wait for the next 26.

Streetsblog reports the changes went pretty smoothly.  But they also captured the wistfulness of the moment.

Other riders said they recognized the abundance of transit
alternatives, and the 26’s low frequency made it an understandable
candidate for cancellation. Still, some said they preferred it to the
Mission Street lines because of its less-crowded buses.

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.

12 Responses to San Francisco: Loss of Empty Buses Mourned

  1. spyone December 8, 2009 at 5:45 am #

    Okay, first a tip of the hat: your metaphor at the end made me smile.
    But almost immediately, my thoughts turned to how flawed it is.
    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 projected demand.
    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.
    A quick review of the budget for my local transit service (Hampton Roads Transit) shows that payroll is 40% of their expenses, and employee benefits another 19%, while 20% is for a broad category that includes fuel and maintenance for the buses (and ferry and train), but also includes paperclips and toner for the office copier.
    But the really interesting bit is this: the system maintains several different sizes of bus, allowing them to tailor their capacity to the projected ridership, but ALL of their buses cost $61.12 per hour to operate, plus an additional $13.72 per hour to administrate. Apparently, the smaller buses actually save them no money at all.
    It also tells us why frequency is basicly doomed (here, at least): if fares are 22% of revenue and fares are $1.50 per passenger, almost 50 people have to board each vehicle each hour just to break even, and a second vehicle each hour will only be added if there are going to be 50 people boarding [i]each bus each hour[/i].
    A vehicle that had no operator would cost almost 60% less to operate, though, and could therefore break even at just 21 boardings per hour,meaning that every bus route so replaced could run at least twice as often.

  2. Multimodal Man December 8, 2009 at 6:46 am #

    Spyone- I’m not a restaurant owne, but it seems to me that 1) restaurants pay for rent, which is more substantial than the one time cost of buying chairs, and 2) people often judge a restaurant’s food and service by how full it is. The popular restaurants always seem to cram people in to whatever size they operate in. I suspect it is an important element of the ambiance.

  3. rhywun December 8, 2009 at 8:29 am #

    Except a crowded restaurant doesn’t make you eat standing up.

  4. Pantheon December 8, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    From the point of view of a transit planner, I cannot argue with you. The 26 was an easy candidate for the chopping block. Yet your post touches on something else I find interesting. Following the links in the Streetsblog article, one comes across a page of tributes to the 26 which read like obituaries for a dearly departed loved one. Here’s a taste:
    “I’ve lived a half-block from Valencia for well more than six years now, yet I can count the number of times I’ve ridden the 26-Valencia on 1.5 hands. It’s almost always a foggy ride, not due to the weather, but more to how much liquor I’ve imbibed. Or sometimes, it was simply the amount of warm pizza in me, and with the wind-chill factor factored in, and the randomness of a 26-Valencia magically showing up to cart my friends and loved ones on down the avenue to the safety and warmth of our homes …”.
    I think this illustrates the deep emotional attachment people develop towards bus routes. Once established, they become part of the urban fabric. They are almost like a kind of mobile architecture. And if taken away, you miss them the way you would miss a grand old building that was destroyed to make way for a parking garage.
    People who live in the suburbs don’t seem to grasp the emotional bonds that urban dwellers have with their bus lines. I really sensed this in the Bus/Rail debate, where some people spoke of buses as if they were awful things. It is such a profound disconnect. For those of us who love living in cities, bus lines are a part of the magic of the urban experience, much like dive bars, ethnic eateries, and independent coffee shops with free wi-fi and 50cent refills.
    Here’s hoping the residents of Valencia can recover from their loss, perhaps heal their sorrows with some liquor and warm pizza, and enjoy the short walk home.

  5. observer December 8, 2009 at 7:41 pm #

    If I am lucky, I can catch the CTA’s 56 bus which runs a half a block from where I live and ends (before reversing direction) in the Loop. I also live a short block away from the CTA Blue Line subway station which follows a nearly identical path (Milwaukee Avenue and then east) downtown, the bus above ground, the subway, well, underground. I consider myself lucky to take the bus because from its windows, I can always find a seat and, important for me, watch the high rise city rise and blossom. I know that my personal pleasure should not dictate bus routes but I also know that it is an indulgent which I could easily live without. And so could the few riders I see on that bus route.
    I’m not sure how much money the CTA could save but the 56 Milwaukee Avenue bus should be a prime candidate for scrutiny.

  6. rhywun December 8, 2009 at 8:34 pm #

    I’m torn because it *does* seem like a good idea to “streamline” the routes. When I lived in SF, I did get the sense that the bus routes might be needlessly complicated–and the 26 was part of that feeling. On the other hand, there *are* often good reasons for such a situation. Maybe Valencia has a separate identity from Mission, and if the ridership justified it, the route should stay. On the other hand, this seems more like a “cut” than a “streamlining”. I know the point of the Transit Effectiveness Project (which is where these ideas came from) was “streamlining”, but the impetus for implementing the project was explicitly given as “cuts”.
    I live in Brooklyn now, and the R train goes down 4th Avenue while the B63 bus travels the length of 5th Avenue just one block away. Fortunately the B63 has reasonably high ridership (in the top quarter of routes citywide). I would hate to see it go away, because I often prefer the bus to the train for shorter trips (i.e. within Brooklyn). If one were to go merely by the map, though, the B63 could easily be eliminated and its ridership absorbed by the R.

  7. Joseph E December 8, 2009 at 9:34 pm #

    Rhywun, why do you prefer the B63 bus to the R train? Is the bus more frequent? Are there more seats available? Is it the surface vs subway issue? Are the stops closer spaced for less walking?
    A few test trips on Google Transit failed to show many routes that are faster by bus than the subway, except for some areas along 6th to 7th (a long walk from the R subway).

  8. spyone December 8, 2009 at 10:41 pm #

    Since I wound up giving some hard numbers for transit, I’ll share some hard numbers from a restaurant:
    When I worked in a restaurant, our weekly food delivery came to more than our monthly rent. On a busy week, it might come to twice the monthly rent. Our weekly payroll came to nearly the monthly rent, on a busy week more.
    Food and labor combined accounted for about 70% of the menu price.
    It is true that in “fashionable” restaurants, part of what is being sold is the experience of dining somewhere exclusive, so seating is intentionally kept low. Decades ago, the principle of “make the bar larger and the dining area smaller and make people wait in the bar for a table” was a formula for success. (Plus, there’s more profit in the bar in the first place, so its win-win.) But for a restaurant that survives based on its FOOD, being less than half full whenever you visit is not a sure sign of doom: it might mean that you are their only customer, or it might mean that they do a brisk business in people who want to eat somewhere where the next table is unoccupied.
    My real point is, though, that I doubt that route cost much to operate, really. Nearly empty buses or no, I bet it would still be running if there was some way to run it without that expensive driver.

  9. Cap'n Transit December 8, 2009 at 11:02 pm #

    I’ve seen plenty of uncrowded restaurants that have stuck around for years. To amplify what Spyone wrote, one difference between restaurants and buses is that a popular restaurant is able to raise its prices to both reduce crowding and compensate for the revenue lost. If your demand curve runs the right way, you can often make more money serving less customers.
    In fact, the express buses here in New York cost $5.50, more than double the regular $2.25 fare, and they rarely have anyone standing. It’s my understanding that they’re still subsidized, but less than they would be if they were $2.25. On one level it would be best for the agency if every route – or every itinerary, or even every trip – had a different fare based on the supply and demand. Of course, it would also be confusing and frustrating to the passengers, and probably wind up driving more business away.
    Whenever I hear about a route being eliminated, though, I always worry that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at least a vicious cycle. Who wants to bother waiting around for twenty minutes if you can walk a block east and get a bus in five? It makes me wonder: what if they ran that route every five minutes for a month? If people knew that the route was going to be frequent and dependable, would they start really using it?

  10. rhywun December 8, 2009 at 11:16 pm #

    “why do you prefer the B63 bus to the R train?”
    There are times when I value comfort or “scenery” more than speed. Especially on weekends, when the frequency of the bus is the same as the train (about every 12 minutes), and I’m not usually in a hurry.
    I suspect something similar might be at play along Valencia and Mission. But without the speed advantage on Mission (except for the Limiteds?).

  11. Adam December 9, 2009 at 11:18 am #

    Hey observer, I ride the 56 milwaukee ave. bus in Chicago too even though the blue line is right next to it. Since I have an unlimited cta pass it’s always for short trips and not for commuting. But I find myself walking down the street to local businesses and the library for more often than I would if I just took the elevated blue line. Makes me wonder how much of an impact it has on Milwaukee Ave. businesses and street life and if Valencia street life will be affected as well.

  12. Dan Wentzel December 9, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    There is an interesting microeconomics problem set in the making here on this issue.
    If I’m on Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles, and need to travel to Fairfax/Pico to transfer, sometimes I will take the BBB13 instead of the BBB7 or Rapid 7. While the local and rapid BBB7 are both straight lines, they are also standing room only, sometimes at sardine level. The BBB13 takes a detour into Cheviot Hills before returning to Pico Blvd., and takes 5-10 minutes longer because of that. However, I can get a seat. Since I do my reading on the bus, it is more important for me to have a higher ride quality than to get there 10 minutes quicker.
    I can see why some people would miss the 26 Valencia bus for that reason.