How often have you heard that rush hour is when transit really excels? When you see all those crowded buses and trains, for just two hours or so, it seems like transit’s really proving its value.
Not so fast. Transit systems that run at a low level all day but then ramp up hugely during the peak can be very, very inefficient. That’s because putting out a bus or train to run just for 2-3 hours entails the following big marginal costs:
- You must get someone to report to work for a short shift. This usually means that you pay them for more hours than they work. Some agencies are also prohibited, in their labor contracts, from using part time drivers, which are really the only way to serve these short shifts efficiently.
- Peak demand that flows in only one direction, as in the classic American single-centred city, also generates the huge inefficiency of moving all those vehicles, entirely or mostly empty, back in the reverse-peak direction.
- The peak determines the number of vehicles that must be owned and maintained.
Sometimes, peak ridership is so much higher than midday that the fare revenue makes up for all these inefficiencies, but not always.
In fact, my experience with American bus operators is that few of them have really counted the cost of their peak-only services. Transit agencies should know and report the true marginal cost of a peak-only vehicle hour as distinct from an all day vehicle hour (including all-day buses that continue through the peak.) We know peak-only service is expensive, but we’d have much clearer conversations if we knew exactly how much.