The Pleasure of Riding Failing Transit

The New York Times has a great parable about the largely empty ferries plying the Hudson River, and the massively crowded trains that the money could have been spent on.  I was reminded of Leap, the failed elite bus in San Francisco, whose marketing images always emphasized how you have room to spread out.  Here was one of their videos:

Note that the bus in this video is never more than half full.

Images that sell you a transit service by emphasizing how empty it is are advertising either (a) an failing service or (b) a service targeted at elites, one that should have very high fares.  The few passengers on the bus must pay for transporting the empty seats all around them.

And not many people are actually willing to pay that.  So instead they are subsidized, either by taxpayers (US $95 per customer round trip in the case of the ferry) or by venture capital, which sooner or later runs out.

But the goal of this marketing, as always, is to encourage elites to mistake what is nice for them with what works for the city.  Because when public transit is really working effective to foster a functional city, you can’t expect to be surrounded by empty seats.

8 Responses to The Pleasure of Riding Failing Transit

  1. RJ July 7, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    It’s too bad there’s no in-between. NYC transit these days is an exercise in contortion to squeeze onto the train and then hang on to the ceiling or door or pole by your fingernails. It’s one thing to do that for a couple of stops, but when your ride is over 30 minutes, the constant crush is mentally and physically exhausting. People get more agitated and short-tempered as the ride drags on. There really should be something between these extremes.

    • Stuart July 7, 2017 at 3:10 pm #

      RJ – There is something between these extremes – it’s called “not starving transit for political purposes”

      NYC trains aren’t packed because transit=packed, they are packed because politicizing transport = inequitable funding.

      • Dave July 7, 2017 at 8:11 pm #

        Exactly what Stuart said. If transit was abundant and kept up with population growth – meaning more cars were bought and more lines were built as the city grows – then trains wouldn’t be jam packed all the time. They would just be well utilized – meaning you might not expect a seat on every trip but you also wouldn’t have to be pressed up against strangers on every trip either. That’s the middle ground: making sure transit funding keeps up with urban growth. Alas, transit funding usually stays flat or declines for decades.

      • david vartanoff July 11, 2017 at 8:03 am #

        I would add that NYC subways run fewer trains per hour at slower speeds than the previous era of equivalent ridership. Part of this is money–not owning, maintaining enough cars; part is dumbing down operation with overly strict speed restrictions which artificially reduce overall capacity.

  2. asdf2 July 7, 2017 at 9:47 pm #

    Over the years, I’ve ridden many bus routes that I like to call the “hidden express”. I’m talking about bus routes that, on paper, are local routes that stop everywhere, but in practice, tend to behave more like expresses because they blow by most of their stops without anybody getting off or on, a direct result of too few people knowing about it or riding it (“hidden”). (Of course, a hidden express route must also travel in a straight line; if it constantly meanders to the point where it’s still glacially slow, even if nobody rides it, it’s useless as a hidden express route).

    Often, the hidden expresses take the form of a bus that runs every 30 minutes a block or two away from a parallel route that runs every 15 minutes. While the stated purpose of the hidden express may be to provide a lifeline for people that can’t walk two blocks, a savvy, able-bodied, rider with a flexible schedule can walk from the more frequent route to the less frequent route specifically to get a bus that runs faster (by stopping less) and is less crowded.

    I’ve done this multiple times for airport trips carrying suitcases, and it’s wonderful to be able to rest my suitcase on the seat next to me without causing others to stand as a result.

    Of course, the appeal of the “hidden express” lies in its under-utilization, and as soon as people start discovering it, it’s advantage over the parallel, more frequent, route, evaporates. “Hidden express” routes are also frequent causalities of service restructures, since, by nature, they have poor numbers on all the standard performance metrics (e.g. cost per rider, passengers per trip, passengers per platform hour, etc.).

    As tempting as it to complain about “hidden express” being eliminated to boost frequency in the more popular (and, thereby slower) route, I recognize that such an objection is ultimately selfish and that such restructures are usually better for the greater good.

    • Marc July 9, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

      Ha, great observation! I think I just got off one of those “hidden expresses”: LocalLink 94 on Howard/MLK through midtown Baltimore. Was going to Fort McHenry, but instead of taking one of the overlapping frequent-but-crowded trunk routes on Charles/St. Paul, I decided to walk over to MLK to take advantage of LocalLink 94’s new one-seat (but infrequent) ride to Fort McHenry.

      Very light passenger volume – I was the only one who rode through to the end of the line – but due to the consolidated stops under BaltimoreLink, LL94 made it to Fort McHenry in about 20 minutes, which is very impressive coming from midtown Baltimore. Had I chosen a crowded stop-and-lurch service on Charles/St. Paul, then transferred downtown to the free Banner Route to continue to Fort McHenry, the trip would certainly have taken longer.

      As you observed, my willingness to try the “hidden express” was due to my flexible schedule on Sundays. Will continue to try LL94 over the coming weekends, as a one-way trip on Uber to the same destination would probably have taken about the same time, but cost about $10.

  3. ajedrez July 8, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

    To be fair, if the service from the “hidden express” is used to provide some limited-stop or express service on the slower route, it has the advantage of providing more frequency on that corridor, while still trying to keep the quick trip times.

  4. JJJJ July 10, 2017 at 11:02 am #

    I think it is unfair to point to empty seats and say the service is “failing service or targeted at elites.”

    The first and last trips of the day will always have excess capacity. But they are indeed a critical lifeline for people working jobs that start at 5am or end at 2am. It is important to remember that every transit customer is completing a round trip, and the folks in the half empty bus at 4am are also riding a bus at noon. Eliminate the 50% full bus, and now your 90% full bus has a few less customers because transit isnt an option anymore.

    asdf2 speaks of “hidden express” routes. Many times these 1am trips are express because people all board at one stop and get off at 2 or 3 stops along the way.