Transit and the Hierarchy of Needs, contd.

In a post last week I mentioned Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, a simple diagram suggesting that certain needs will only arise if more fundamental needs are met:


My post replied, in part, to Engineer Scotty’s effort to construct a similar hierarchy of transit needs.  Now, Cap’n Transit has laid out a simpler hierarchy, one that I think captures much of what motivates my own thinking about transit, and particularly about issues of glamour or fun.  To him, there are just four levels, which are, from the tip of the pyramid to its base:

4.  Glamour (to which I would add: ‘Fun’)

3.   Amenities

2.  Value

1.  Availability (for which I suggest a more precise term: ‘Usefulness’)

As the Cap’n defines it, ‘Availability’ includes a lot of factors that could probably be broken out further, but it basically boils down to “is there service when and where I need it, that can complete my trip in a reasonable time?”  Frequently, outside of the biggest cities, the answer is no.  I sometimes think that a better term for “availability” is “usefulness.”  Sometimes a transit system may offer some kind of service for a proposed trip, but if it’s so infrequent or slow or circuitous that it’s no faster than walking the whole way, the service simply isn’t useful.

Elsewhere I’ve questioned arguments such as that put forth by Darrin Nordahl in My Kind of Transit, claiming that the key to achieving a step-change in transit is to make riding transit more fun.  (Such an idea is also present, if sometimes beneath the surface, in the rhetoric of the American streetcar revival movement.)  As a transport planner, I have always assumed that the main problem with transit is that at most times, in most places, for most trips, the available transit service just isn’t useful.  So my career focuses on ways to increase transit’s usefulness: coverage, speed, reliability, frequency, and information.  Nordahl, by contrast, thinks that the main problem is that transit isn’t fun.  Where I would spend money to make transit more useful, he would spend it on making transit more endearing.

But I’m alert to the risk of creating too many endearing-but-useless services, especially if our purposes go beyond serving tourists and others who are travelling for pleasure.

250px-San_Francisco_12-28-04_6487 As an example of an endearing but often useless service, I lovingly nominate the San Francisco cable cars.  I lived for several years (1987-94) at Sacramento & Hyde streets, within blocks of two cable car lines, yet I almost never used them.  It was not just that they are slow (top speed: 9 mi/hr) and unreliable.  In the case of the Powell lines, it was also pointless to try to take them outbound most of the day, as they were packed with tourists who queue for half an hour to board them at Market Street.  To me, living in the city, needing to to get places on time, the cable cars usually weren’t useful.  (Only late at night, when the tourists were gone, would I sometimes ride them if one happened to appear.  But this intermittent usefulness was always an unexpected gift of providence, never something I could count on.)

The cable cars are massively fun, full of tourists who are having a wonderful time.  But for tourists, the priorities that the Cap’n outlines above are precisely reversed.  The tourist doesn’t want to go somewhere; she wants to have an experience.  So fun (and sometimes what the Cap’n calls Glamour) is the whole point, and she’ll ride a service that provides that regardless of where it goes.

This is why it’s dangerous to design your everyday transit system around the tourist’s experience, or even to be guided by your own tourism experiences as an inspiration.  In terms of the hierarchy of needs, the priorities of a pleasure-driven agenda will always be precisely opposite from the agenda of getting around in daily life.  Pleasure-driven travellers will go where the pleasure is, but in daily life, we need to go where we’re going.

Cable cars are fun.  Ferris wheels are fun too.  But that doesn’t mean I’d enjoy commuting on one.

26 Responses to Transit and the Hierarchy of Needs, contd.

  1. Art Busman June 1, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    The San Fran cable cars is one of the most frustrating transit experiences of my life due to excess demand and shortage of supply (frequency). The solution is simple. Charge more and increase service hours. Whenever you see a line, there is a guaranteed inefficiency, with some in line willing to pay more to wait less and some happy to wait more and pay less.
    However, this is a perfect example of transit service for sake of selling transit to the middle class and those in positions of influence and power (once you charge more). It will be an enjoyable experience, it will get people around without paying for a cab or paying exorbitant parking fees, and they will vote for transit on the next referendum or support politicians who support transit.

  2. EngineerScotty June 1, 2010 at 10:46 am #

    Fares on the SF cable car are already much higher ($5 for a single ride ticket) then for non-touristy transit service in the area–and transfers from other services are not accepted. If you have a transit pass, you can ride the cable car for free; but FTMP the cable cars are already a premium service.
    Should fares go even higher? Possibly… if nothing else, doing so might raise money (from tourists) to fund other operations more useful to locals.

  3. francis June 1, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Let’s not forget though that transit’s main competitor, driving, focuses its marketing on glamour. Amenities are often high on the list as well.

  4. Joseph E June 1, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Fares on the cable cars currently do not cover the costs of operating and maintaining the service. Every ride by a tourist is subsidized by SF Muni, and therefore, by SF taxpayers. Perhaps this could be solved by fixing SF Muni’s dysfunctional employee compensation and benefit system, but fares might need to be raised as well, to break even or turn a profit.
    However, as a tourist attraction which brings people to the city, the Cable Cars may provide secondary economic benefits. All those people waiting in line probably spend tax dollars on coffee, food, t-shirts, and the like.

  5. M1EK June 1, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

    The theory that cars only win out for essentially every suburbanite and most urbanites in this country due to marketing is ludicrous – the marketing for cars is 99% geared at getting the viewer to buy YOUR car instead of THEIR car. The implicit assumption is that anybody who makes enough money to be worth advertising to is interested in buying a car.

  6. anonymouse June 1, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

    I pretty much agree with what Cap’n Transit says. You need to get the lower levels right before you work on making it “fun” or glamorous. Far too much transit in the US fails to even provide basic access, or if it does, it is far too slow to reasonably compete with cars. On the other hand, in places like NYC, where both access and value are pretty good, it wouldn’t hurt to focus on making the system a bit nicer.

  7. Agustin June 1, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    Good point on the distinction between tourist attraction and public transit service. Here in Vancouver there has been a fair amount of talk about the Olympic streetcar line [ ].
    I believe it could be useful for locals looking to get around the downtown area, but where it would really shine is in tourism. It would connect Stanley Park, the waterfront area, Gastown (where the cruise ships come in), Science World, False Creek, and Granville Island. Great spots to send the tourists!

  8. Eric June 1, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    Maslow’s pyramid represents to me what Richard Florida has to say about cities generally.
    What makes cities wonderful places for “self-actualization”? In that scheme, transit is at the bottom of the pyramid, in the support frame…When it brings value, it does lead to the other fluffy stuff on top. That’s a better way to apply the pyramid, I suspect.
    Your implied point, Jarrett, is that to create a center of actualization, don’t just design from the top of the pyramid down. OK…I’ll take that point.

  9. Steve Lax June 1, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    Somewhere near the bottom of the transit pyramid (perhaps between Cap’n Transits levels 1 and 2, there needs to be “safety” or “perception of safety”. While there are many reasons “choice” users will not use transit, “safety” (which often boils down to concern about riding with a wide range of socio-economic and ethnic populations) is often an underlying reason why people will not use transit.

  10. EngineerScotty June 1, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

    And its important to note that “safety” and “perception of safety” differ. There’s many places where people will readily tell you that the bus is unsafe, and the crime statistics will tell you otherwise.
    In quite a few places, of course, the local media tend to over-emphasize crimes that do occur on (or around) transit. Don’t know why this is…

  11. Cap'n Transit June 1, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Thanks, Jarrett! Here are a few points:
    1. I put fun under Amenities, rather than Glamour, but I could see it going under Glamour. Think about the Hudson Line. It’s exciting to ride along the beautiful river and look up at the Palisades, but I’ll bet that most people on the 7:56 out of Croton aren’t even looking at it. Fun gets real old after a couple weeks.
    2. Steve, if someone is being truthful about safety, I would put it under Value. The same way that a service may go where you want to go, but cost too much or be too crowded for you, it may also be too unsafe.

  12. Jarrett at June 1, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    @ Eric. That’s a very good way of putting the core point: Don’t design from the top of the pyramid down.

  13. J June 1, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    “In the case of the Powell lines, it was also pointless to try to take them outbound most of the day, as they were packed with tourists who queue for half an hour to board them at Market Street. ”
    You lived there for 7 years and didnt notice that the staff keeps some spaces open for commuters that know to board a block later, and thus avoid the queue? Or perhaps this is just a more recent development.

  14. Ted King June 2, 2010 at 12:02 am #

    @ J – That’s an old pattern going back at least thirty years. And yes, the locals know to walk up Powell a block or two before boarding. Also, locals know that if they just want a ride on a cable car the California line often isn’t crowded and the Van Ness corridor buses can get you close to Aquatic Park and Ghirardelli Square. Plus, Grace Cathedral (on top of Nob Hill) is a great place to get off and wander around.
    Embarcadero Stn. (BART / SFMuni)
    Calif. + Market
    Calif. cable car line to Van Ness Ave.
    Transfer to #47 Van Ness (Fisherman’s Wharf) or
    Transfer to #49 Van Ness-Mission (North Point)

  15. Digby June 2, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    Good point by Cap’n Transit. “Fun” gets old when all you want is reliable, convenient, and safe service (and you can define any one of those factors anyway you want). Earlier in my career I worked at a small transit authority in the northeast that bought two replica trolley buses because they were “exciting”. Funny thing, though, the authority’s customers hated them because they seats were narrow and hard, the steps were steep, and the interiors were too noisy. They were the most uncomfortable buses in the system. People waiting at bus stops often groaned when they showed up on their routes.

  16. Susan Pantell June 2, 2010 at 8:37 am #

    Cap’n Transit lists comfort and fun together under Amenities, but I think those two are quite different. Comfort can be quite important as a factor in daily commute, and is often considered a defining difference between bus and rail. An “enjoyable or comfortable ride” one that doesn’t stop and start abruptly and give you motion sickness, and where you are not crammed in too tightly should be lower on the ranking than “fun.”

  17. Susan Pantell June 2, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    To clarify the above comment, I think Jarrett devalues “enjoyable” by equating it with fun, like a ferris wheel, instead of with comfort and amenities like Cap’n Transit does.
    And as Cap’n Transit says, for some people the “enjoyable” criterion would go under “Value” not “Amenities”.

  18. Sean McManus June 2, 2010 at 10:23 am #

    Jarrett, I think your hitting on some good points with the Maslow’s hierarchy, and it’s related to the thread you had on slow transit vs. fast transit. Both of these topics seem to address the question: what will make ordinary people take transit (vs. private auto? vs. walking, cycling? vs. no travel at all).
    I think one of the missing discussion elements is obvious. The discussion on, “what is appropriate use of a private auto?” I have yet to see this discussion on any of the so-called transit entusiast websites/blogs, yet it’s really one of the fundamental, if not THE fundamental questions.
    Usually the transit discussion assumes work and communting (e.g. single rider, single destination) and then branches into opportunistic travel, hop-on, hop-off, etc…all of which are assumed to be potentially well served by the right mode of transit, AND anyone presented with the right mode of transit would never take a car unless they were selfish, greedy or both.
    I’ll offer a few counter proposals where a private auto make perfect sense. Start with the obvious, e.g. shopping trips where the sheer quantity, size, or weight of goods exceeds a normal person’s ability to carry with them on transit (think big trip to Home Depot or RONA). Delivery may not be available or a reasonable option. Ok, one for the car.
    Big grocery shop for a large family, with many frozen items that would melt/thaw by the time you got home by transit (as long as the car was a faster option, which in many parts of Canadian cities it certianly is a faster option).
    Now think of a family of 6 or 7 people. It might make economic as well as practical sense to take a car vs. 6 or 7 individual transit fares. The part of Toronto I live in has many low income people and I can assure you they get very good use out of their 15 to 20 year old mini-van.
    These are obvious (to me anyways) potential examples of approriate private auto use. Move along to more controversial ones, like the fact that travel by car is point-to-point and can be very efficient (in terms of distance travels, times, etc..) if you need to goto 3 or 4 places.
    Would I be able to volunteer to coach soccer during the week of I had to take transit to/from work and then again to/from soccer? No, not even close, I could not possibly make it based on time. Plus how would I carry the equipment (nets, soccer balls, pylons, etc..)
    All I am trying to say is that I do not think we can have an honest discussion on transit without thinking about approiate travel by other modes inclkuding the car.
    Adjunct to that concept would be what would it take to get someone out of a car and onto good transit (which in my mind you have covered, e.g. speed and coverage).

  19. MU June 2, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    @Sean – I can’t speak for Jarrett or anyone else. But I think the reason you don’t see much discussion of car usage on the “so-called transit entusiast websites/blogs” is that it is generally considered the default form of transportation for ALL trips by most people, organizations, agencies, etc. Except for a few radicals, no one is really talking about removing cars as an option, just about how we provide a better range of options.
    Your examples point out some of the reasons why cars will probably continue to be a good choice for many trips. However, I would point out that many of your examples list justifications that actually tie in to the current debate about transit: comparative cost, speed, availability. There are a lot of reasons why cars are still often the cheapest, fastest, most convenient option. Many of them are due to a century of massive investment in infrastructure and subsidies to support automobile travel.
    You have a point that no transport system should be planned in a vacuum. It makes no sense to plan trains without accounting for how cars will interact/augment/compete with that system. But you seem to be saying that “THE fundamental question” is cars and I don’t quite understand what you mean.

  20. Alon Levy June 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    Sean, your comment has one excellent point and a few things that are just myths. The excellent point is about cars’ point-to-point nature. Transit is hub-and-spoke.
    The myths involve grocery shopping and soccer. In Canada, where cities sprawl and transit is mediocre, you need a car for both activities. In areas that bother to install good transit, you don’t. Dense and even middle-density cities usually have a full-service supermarket within walking range of every apartment. If you live in a city, you should not need mechanized transportation for your grocery shopping. Recreation like soccer is somewhat different, and many cities that are walkable on the supermarket level do not offer good transit to the soccer field. However, a comprehensive transit system, with family tickets, timed transfers, etc., would get you efficiently to where you want to go.
    Cap’n Transit made a point a few weeks ago, about how people tend to think that problems of driving are about poor planning or not enough road spending, but that problems of transit are inherent to transit. In reality, the lack of a discounted family fare, the slow speed, and the poor connections are no more inherent to transit than difficulty of finding parking is inherent to driving. It all depends on what the politicians cut as soon as the economy turns sour and what they consider essential to keep no matter what.

  21. Steve Lax June 2, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    @Cap’n Transit – I understand why you consider Safety/Perception of Safety a part of Value. However, my experience (retired Director of Bus Service Planning at a major US transit agency) suggests it is closer to the base of the pyramid than the other items you classified within value.
    The extreme example: My ex-agency had two major office buildings about 4 miles apart. Two bus routes, one on a 7.5 to 10 min. frequency all day and the other on a 20 min. frequency via a different routing all day connected the two buildings. Company policy called for the use of public transit (for which all employees had a pass) “whenever feasible”. Yet large numbers of my former colleagues insisted on signing out company cars for the trip.
    (Note that the bus took 30 min. + wait time while driving took 20 min. Note also that the bus routes traveled through some of the least affluent and highest minority population neighborhoods of the primary city we served.)
    So, why did these people use cars. Even though bus travel was safe, these former colleagues, most of whom were individuals who grew up not using buses in suburbia, came up with all sorts of reasons (my time is too valuable; I need to carry something bulky; the bus sometimes gets stuck in traffic). However, when I probed I often got “I don’t want to be the only caucasian on the bus”. This perception of safety is so fundamental and such a different “value” than the others you classified as values that I believe it should be separately classified.

  22. Ted King June 2, 2010 at 6:04 pm #

    @ Sean + Alon – Re : Soccer Fields
    Some of this varies from city to city. San Francisco is a city that has soccer fields and public pools scattered all over the city. Most people get blinded by Golden Gate Park’s array of facilities and don’t see other parks like Balboa Park (pool, stadium) and Crocker-Amazon (bocce, soccer) / McLaren (golf).
    Facility List :
    [There are other facilities controlled by the school district and the colleges that have some general use.]
    Also, consider a distributed model where the coach, captain, and vice-captain all carry some of the gear. Seeing an assortment of athletic gear on the bus can serve as a sort of seasonal reminder.

  23. Sean McManus June 3, 2010 at 6:14 am #

    re: MU, what did I mean by “THE fundamental question is cars”. Sorry, in retrospect it was an incomplete thought, sentence, or both. I should have re-phrased in the context of the thread, in that cars (at least in most Canadian and American cities) seem to offer good results to all levels of the heirarchy concept, and therefore, should really be considered when planning transit. Perhaps another way of saying what I was thinking is that considering our target addressable market (e.g. general car driving poplutaion), what is it that who make them switch “products” given how all of their needs appear to be met very well (because of centuries of investment, etc…)
    re: Alon Levy, myths about grocery shopping and cars. I agree with you 100%, we should not need cars for everyday grocery shopping if all of the stores were distributed close by, transit made hop-on, hop-off practical, familay passes, etc… I am just saying that for myself and probably lots of other people (particularily families with big grocery needs), those good ideas are not fully realized even in cities like Toronto. Yes I can walk to a single grocery store, and I do, but it’s small and often $$$ so if I want to save my family some money I may need to goto a lower-priced option and that means a car, at least for me.
    re: Ted King, taking transit to soccer/sports fields. Thanks for the link (I get to San Fran about 2x per year ion business; favourite US city!) I like your ideas on distributing equipment but for coaching young kids the coach is really the one-stop shop for all thing related to the team. I work hard to encourage parents to join in poractice and contribute to the team effort, which they do, but volunteerism is not like it was 20 or 30 years ago. In general people pay money for kids to play sports and can’t understand why they need to give more than their registration fee. Many team fold because no one steps up to coach, let alone be used to store/transport the equipment.

  24. Beige June 3, 2010 at 7:22 am #

    One could also imagine a society that thought that a soccer field needed a secure storage facility for the soccer gear (duh! Can’t live without it!) but maybe not a storage facility for cars (too expensive, and it’s an athletic facility, won’t most people arrive by bicycle anyway?), rather than regarding car storage as a mandatory need and gear storage as too expensive to contemplate. We don’t live in a place like that, of course, but it doesn’t sound so illogical when you think about it.

  25. Rob Fellows June 3, 2010 at 8:48 pm #

    I have some trouble with this basic concept. Whose needs are we talking about here? Has the person who wants a cupholder on their streetcar been able to appreciate the amenity because they’ve achieved basic accessibility? I think the market for these touristy services is simply a different group of customers, not the same customers who are looking for actualization through nicer stations.
    Or are we talking about decision-makers, who want to expand their market to new customers, having achieved the basic access needs of their existing customers? (Or perhaps they have moved beyond the basic transportation needs to the higher-order needs to enhance property values in already-tony new urban developments?)
    I guess I think this just simplifies things too much to be a useful construct. We can talk about whether streetcars and trains are better inherently, or spend more time on the conditions that make them the best solution – which in my mind usually involves meeting the lower-level functions more effectively, not just in adding higher level amenities.

  26. Ted King June 3, 2010 at 11:37 pm #

    @Sean – More on soccer …
    My perspective is a little tilted. I played on my high school’s soccer team as a substitute (no fixed position – no letter). The high school was a couple of blocks from where I lived and our practice field was a few blocks away in the opposite direction. Most games were an easy walk for a teenager.
    I’ve grown used to seeing sports equipment and cased musical instruments on public transit. A pair of soccer shoes (peg cleats) is nothing compared to either a bundle of football gear (pads, jersey, helmet) or the large (but not long) oars used by dragon boat rowers.
    P.S. I think the pinnacle of strangeness is not on regular buses. Instead, it can be found on the ballpark expresses run by SFMuni out to Candlestick Park during football season. Definitely grist for an anthropologist’s mill.
    P.P.S. This comment was initially rejected by the posting logic. Previous visible comment was by “Rob Fellows” on 4 June 2010 at 13:48.