An eye-opening opinion on transportation

Read the first response to this post at The Road To Ruin. If you can, read the whole thing.

… new heavy rail systems appear much less energy-efficient than new bus services, when the energy needed to build roadways and track, the energy needed to manufacture and maintain vehicles, the energy used to heat and light stations, the energy required to drive to stations, and the directness of alternative modes of travel are taken into consideration.  …

The situation is even worse if high speed rail is considered because of the high quality dedicated track and grade separation that is required. Yet in spite of these obvious facts we still see pressure to increase rail service even when it would result in an overall system degradation of service.

Huh. Maybe my desire for light rail really is pie-in-the-sky thinking after all. ACCT are onto something, but my question/desire remains however: How can we effectively/efficiently plan for inter-county/city/region transportation without using rail?

Update 12/16/05: I reposted this to the top of the “fold,” so to speak, because the comments are outstanding.

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16 Comments

  1. Ray Hyde December 21, 2005 at 12:29

    Thank you for picking up on my post on the Road to Ruin.

    As for your question, “How can we effectively/efficiently plan for inter-county/city/region transportation without using rail?” the answer is not at all simple. As I see it, part of our problem is that people have a pre-determined idea as to what the answer must be. Every proposed answer seems to have a special interest group that advocates the idea that their answer is the only answer.

    In fact, the answer is probably a little bit of every answer, in the appropriate locations. However, because we are growing and expect to grow so rapidly, appropriate locations are changing all the time. In this regard, rail has a real disadvantage because it is not flexible as to location. What works today might not work in 10 to 20 years as population and job centers move about.

    Light rail doesn’t buy you much because it travels on the streets and competes with or interferes with auto traffic.

    The congressinal budget office study I quoted concluded that van pools are the most efficient mode of travel, given our existing infrastructure. In that regard we could easily promote the use of Jitneys. A jitney is a kind of a cross between a taxi and a vanpool. It offers on demand, door to door, service by deviating as required from a generalized route structure. At present Jitneys are against the law because of the efforts of taxi-cab lobbyists.

    Imagine, if instead of going to (possibly) several different web sites and trying to decipher the bus route and schedule that meets your needs, you could just post your location, destination, and desired arrival time to a central database. A computer would sort all the requests and routings and dispatch vans according to the most efficient solution. Your request for transport would be answered with a request to be ready for departure at X time.

    Other than the system to collect the requests and solve the algorithm, all the other infrastructure is available. We have plenty of vans and roads are available. Fully developed, this sytem is not very differnt from that used by freight forwarders and independent trucking companies. It could offer significant travel enhancement and commercial opportunites for independent, co-operating small businesses.

    Over the last few years the government has built a number of new air terminals around the state. None of them have local air service available. However, recent advances in very small commuters mean that aircraft are available that can carry 4 to 10 passengers at costs as low as $0.50 cents per mile. You can think of these as aerial jitneys, using a business model similar to that described above.

    None of this says that there is not a place for trains, but trains are nowhere near as efficient as they are claimed to be, so the demand for trains, subways, and trolleys is very specialized. We tend to think that 4 or 5 passenger cars running willy nilly with one person each are inefficient. But trains and buses frequently run nearly empty in one direction, so their starting point is 50% efficient. Trains that leave the most remote stations in the morning are not full until about half the run is complete, so the efficiency is even lower than 50%. And they have to be operated whether full or not.

    If you are still not convinced, consider what transportation would look like if we only had trains, and all our roads were replaced with rails. Every house would have a rail spur instead of a driveway. Everyone would get in a little railcar and taxi out to the feeder. At the feeder you could attach to a passing car until a litle train was built up. (notice how similar this is to the Jitney idea.) When the feeder joined the artery and later the trunk line the trains would link up and get longer get longer. (Notice how similar this is to the freeway problem.) But when you got downtown, all the trains would be feeding together and congestion would result.

    This is already happening to VRE and the Orange line.

    So here is the problem, you still have to drive to the station and park, so you haven’t eliminated car trips or parking. If the drive is out of the direct way to your destination and you have to wait for the train, then inefficiencies result. And the train is often slower than driving. In some corridors there is enough travel density to justify trains, but the problem is getting people to ride them. If enough people do ride them, it might make driving easier for those who remain on the road. On the other hand the result might be simply more induced traffic, when those who are not currently driving, using a different route, or less convenient time, suddenly discover that more road space is available.

    After thirty years of building and operating Metro, DC is still the second most congested area in the nation, so experience suggests that the second result is more likely. Also, we can see from current events that individual drivers seldom go on strike.

    This is not a matter of doing without rail, but one of using it only where it absolutely makes sense, and of recognizing the true expenses and subsidies involved. In this regard, we should consider very carefully any ill-advised moves to create short haul intermodal rail transport to divert freight from I-81.

    Surely we can improve the efficiency of auto transport and reduce the dis-amenities it causes. but in doing so we should not lose sight of the fact that that the reason automobiles are drowning in their own popularity is precisely because they represent the fastest, most convenient, most comfortable, and maybe the least expensive form of transport we have ever invented.

    It might just be that the solution to congestion caused by everyone trying to go to the same place at the same time is to provide more equivaqlent places for them to go. In other words, move the jobs to where people live, either physically or electronically.

  2. TrvlnMn December 21, 2005 at 16:27

    I think this first you need to consider where does the public transit go? Is it a local system or a commuter type system to someplace like D.C.? By not planning for public transit systems when development is in the planning stages one automatically loses out on some great possiblities. And anything you decided to implement afterward (Rail or Streetcar) would cost more in infrastructure improvements. The Bus is the cheap and easy alternative because it uses what’s already there but it’s not at all the best option.

    I lived in Boston for several years, and had the benefit of their public transit system. For 45 dollars a month I could go where ever train or bus went, and it usually took 30 minutes to go from start to destination. In Boston rail was the primary, and buses complemented the rail routes.

    Then I moved to Los Angeles. There things were entirely opposite. Buses were the primary and rail was the complement. Of course the rail only went to downtown L.A. where no one really wanted to go. But in L.A. with buses it took 3 hours to reach your destination. Charlottesville’s public transit more closely resembles Los Angeles’.

    In my opinion the difference between rail and bus is that a bus is competing with other auto traffic. When I think about making public transit a desirable alternative- part of that desirablity is being able to use a system that does not compete with cars on the road. If I’m going to be stuck in traffic during rush hour, I’d rather be stuck in traffic in my own car than on a bus with strangers where I might be sitting next to the fat lady with her packages digging into my side.

    I think the street car is an interesting idea. But I think it would need to be something that had it’s own lane, and got the right of way over standard auto traffic, so that it could move more quickly through the city. If it’s a quicker alternative to take public transit then you will see more people using it.

    I don’t think energy use should be an issue or consideration. So rail uses more energy.. it’s also offset by the fact that *Ideally* more people are using the rail. 12 people on rail system vs 12 cars on the road. Less energy used with the rail system.

    And that’s just my 2 cents.

  3. Jim December 22, 2005 at 11:46

    Thank you both for your replies.

    Now I’m stuck. I want some form of (light) rail (emotional argument), but feel now that buses using existing infrastructure may be the best implementation (logical argument).

    How to get around the problem with buses in that they share the existing infrastructure and thus, the existing congestion? I am with TrvlMn on this one – I would much rather be in my cocoon than sharing one with pushy strangers.

    This is the truism with which I am having the most issue:

    Every proposed answer seems to have a special interest group that advocates the idea that their answer is the only answer.

    Who/what entity is capable of pushing through these special interest groups, filtering the wheat from the chaff so to speak, and advocating for the best solution?

    I think that the cost of implementing rail is simply so cost-prohibitive for the reasons that Ray states that new rail is almost a non-starter.

    We are nearing the Tipping Point, in my opinion, where mass transit of some form is going to be more advantageous and more efficient than automobiles. I fear that we are going to wildly miss the opportunity and be looking back at lost opportunities.

    What system or plan, could we begin to implement now?

  4. TrvlinMn December 22, 2005 at 17:25

    My Solutions-

    1) Implement a “Metra” style (Chicago’s commuter rail system, not to be confused with the “EL” which is their subway) commuter rail system for travel between localities which people commute to work. For example: Charlottesville to Waynesboro, Charlottesville to Richmond, Charlottesville to D.C.

    2) Set up Bus “Hub” type stations around the rail drop off point where all of the city routes stop.

    3) Give buses “Bus Only” Priority lanes on the street during rush hours. In some areas that would mean eliminating on street parking for cars during rush hours so former parking spaces become a defacto 3rd lane for use by buses only, and would mean a dedicated bus only lanes on both sides of Rt 29 north during rush hour.

    4) Define Rush hour has 7am to 10am and 3:30pm to 6:30pm.

    5) Double up the number of buses on busy routes during rush hours to minimize the amount of time someone is waiting to catch a bus.

    6) Re-examine existing bus routes; A) to make adjustments that move bus routes to streets with less rush hour traffic or allow for bus only types of lanes (where appropriate), B) to minimize route overlaps (there’s no need 5 different bus routes to run to Barracks Road if transfer points are better implemented), and C) eliminate some extraneous bus stops (there is no reason to have 2 bus stops a half a block from one another when 1 will do).

    7) Correct existing transportation system service problems. In charlottesville buses do not run on time, some routes see inconsistant service (to the extent that on some lesser stops on more than one occaision a friend of mine who relies on the bus service is regularly stranded). In some cases these problems may be personnel issues.

    8) Attract better quality drivers. Make the job more financially attractive. Look to larger cities with successful public transit systems for possible solutions with this and other public transit issues.

    9) Have drivers participate in state and national “Bus Rodeo” type competitions (these types of competitions are designed to emphasize professional skills while a the same time providing a fun avenue to blow off steam and bragging rights for the winners).

    10) Accept and realize that public transportation will never be a profit making enterprise and will always lose money (and the best anyone can hope for is to try to “break even”).

    11) Put some 3rd party in charge of implementing these changes because the city and county governments if allowed to participate will only continue to mess things up or make them worse.

  5. Ray Hyde December 23, 2005 at 12:26

    TravLnMan makes good points. I too came from the Boston area and their sytem is good because it serves many locations in a small area. L.A. of course does not have that luxury.

    He is also right that one impediment of buses is that they have to compete with auto traffic, and on the same playing field. Giving rail its own separate playing field is what makes it so expensive. YOu can fly cheaper than you can build rail, in most cases.

    Light rail, on the other hand operates on the streets, and some systems are set up so the traffic lights are controlled by the rail system. On the other hand, buses have become so large and cumbersome that they are frequently a major impediment themselves. They are also ungodly noisy and smelly, but this could be fixed. I think buses should be not more than 30 passengers, similar to those used at the airport, where service frequncy and reliability is an issue.

    “When I think about making public transit a desirable alternative- part of that desirablity is being able to use a system that does not compete with cars on the road.” I agree completely. Where i have a problem is when people say we can’t afford to build and maintain the road system, and then propose an entirel new and separate system. If we can’t afford what we have, how can we afford two?

    The right way to think about it is not if rail or bus competes with cars, but how the total system can be made better if rail and buses complement cars. For this reason TravlnMans proposed solutions are all excellent, and even realistic if properly applied. It is not a question of whether rail reduces traffic congestion (apparently it does not). It is a question of whether rail provides the ability to move more people to a desired location than autos can support, and whether that additional capacity is worth the cost.

    My personal opinion is that it is not. I think it is fundamentally crazy to try to move 3.5 million people to the same place every day, and we should stop doing it. There are plenty of other places that need the work.

    That is why I like the I like the Metra idea, but when you get to Charlottesville or Culpeper, then what? They are too big to walk so you probably still need a car: zipcar or call on demand jitney might work.

    You can use idea 6 with buses, you can’t with rail.

    I would add one more to 7, 8 and 9. In some cities bus drivers get incentive pay according to the number of passengers they carry. That would help a lot. This is why I like the Jitney idea. Small companies could start up to operate Jitneys. They would pay a fee to a central call service for pick up info. The call service could be run and monitored by government, and the Jitney services would bid for pick-ups based on price and time.

    Number ten is the real problem. Autos are subsidized as well, and some people think we can solve all our auto problems by removing those subsidies. But the per person/mile subsidy is much smaller for autos than for transit. If we are supporting an entire transportation system, then we need to consider how to pay for it in such a way that the costs paid are proportional to the value provided. Unfortunately, that is a proposition we will probably never solve economically, only politically.

    Transit may also be a form of welfare, in that people who can’t afford a car use transit. If transit is provided primarily in the cities, it may be a reason cities are populated with a large percentage of poor people. Some economists have seriously suggested that we would be better off to provide poor people with cars: it is cheaper than providing transit, and it helps them out of poverty by offering more choices.

    Remember that word choices. You are going to hear a lot about it from people proposing that we pay still more money for “choices” in transportation. I’m cycical enough to believe that these people secretly hope someone else will make another choice that makes it easier for them to drive, and all the better if they can divert the cost to someone else.

    I’m am not an auto-centric idealist about our road system, although it sounds that way. I do think that we should consider very carefully the possibility that the road system is in fact the best one we have ever developed, and it should be supplemented only in those locations that make the very best economic and utilitarian sense: like Boston.

  6. TrvlnMn December 24, 2005 at 00:40

    I like Ray Hyde’s additional suggestions for public transit…. Except possibly the last paragraph of the above post. Which to me reads like “forget about public transit and lets just stick to cars.”

    I think Charlottesville with it’s growth is growing the way Los Angeles is growing. And thus I think our transit system is headed in that direction as well. And I think that is a bad thing.

    While it might be 10 or 20 years down the road (if the bottom doesn’t drop out of the Real Estate market and growth continues the way it’s been going) it’s not unreasonable to expect that places like Waynesboro and Staunton will be bedroom communities for Charlottesville, or employment destinations in their own right. To some extent they already are (bedroom communities). I know a few people for whom those commutes (from their to Charlottesville) are a part of their daily routine.

    For that reason I proposed the Metra idea. Not as something to be implemented right away, but to use it when the state finally started to consider expanding the lanes on the Interstate to allow for more traffic. When that becomes an option at that point a Metra should be implemented.

    Ray Hyde wrote:

    I think buses should be not more than 30 passengers, similar to those used at the airport, where service frequncy and reliability is an issue.

    Smaller, easier to handle… I think that’s a great idea. I’m not a bus rider in Charlottesville myself, but when I was younger I was, and back then (mid to late 1980’s) the buses were never standing room only (the way they can get in Boston). So smaller would be much better. I also like the idea proposed for incentive pay.

    And yes, light rail on some “targeted” routes with the traffic signals controlled by the rail system. Another good idea. My only reason for sticking primarily to a bus system is because I know how adverse people of this region are to any change. Even if it *is* really needed.

    The only idea that gives me significant pause is the “Jitney” idea. Perhaps I don’t understand enough of the details behind such a system, I imagine it would be something like a cross between Jaunt and a taxi service only a little bit more “on the fly.” And we already have both of those. And if it’s privatizing public transit.. I have to say “no” to that solely because of the disreputable business practices those types of companies engage in (primarily with regards to their employees).

    I am confident that between the two of us Mr. Hyde and myself could reasonably solve some of the areas public transit problems. However I’m equally confident the local governments would find a way to mess it up.

    Anyway that’s my 2 cents. Happy Holidays.

  7. Jim December 27, 2005 at 08:35

    An offline commenter has pointed me to this study produced by TJPDC titled “Corridors Concepts for Light-Rail Transit in Charlottesville and Environs.”

    TJPDC has an awful lot of material on light rail. My education continues.

  8. Ray Hyde December 29, 2005 at 02:42

    Thank you TravLnMan.

    This has been a fun conversation. You are right, I probably overstated the last paragraph above, I actually think sailboats are the best form of transportation, but they won’t work well in Charlottesville.

    Happy New Year.

  9. Ray Hyde December 29, 2005 at 11:31

    A jitney is part bus, part taxi. It travels a regular route, but it is allowed to deviate from the route to make doorfront stops. You can call a dispatcher, who will divert the Jitney to pick you up. As I understand it they are largely prhibited, thanks to the taxi lobby.

    My concept is a little more advanced and depends on an active network of cooperating yet competing operators. To order a jitney you would place a request, either one time or repeating with a government agency. This is to keep private the times when you ar not at home. The Agency would collate the requests and using appropriate software, determine the most effective routes. These might change frequently. Operators would bid for the basic routes, the money going to support the disatch agency. Operators would collect a fee from riders based on distance traveled. The fees could be paid with a card system, also administered by the agency, to prevent gouging.

    Jitneys would be equipped with GPS so the dispatch software could select the most efficient and expeditious route diversions. It might be possible to order priority service for an extra fee. In some respects this concept is similar to services currently offered to hndicapped transit users.

    Like many systems, the key is that it has to be fast, ubiquitous, and reliable. That means some public investment will be required to get it started and its use to become second nature, like making a cell call. Probably it would start up with only the most densely traveled routes in operation, later as more experience and familiarity with the system is gained, use could spread out as far as financially feasible.

    This idea capitalizes on the fuel efficiency and nimbleness of 15 to 30 passenger vehicles, and the new emerging communications and traffic management technologies.

  10. Jim December 29, 2005 at 11:42

    Ray –

    That is an interesting concept, now that I understand it a bit more. How do you foresee implementation of this? Which agency would start and manage the initial phases? How would you prevent it from becoming Just Another Wasteful Government Program (JAWGP)? A sunset provision whereby the private sector would assume control?

    Regarding cost: A per trip fee? Monthly subscription fee?

  11. Ray Hyde December 29, 2005 at 18:38

    It’s just a harebrained concept idea. The devil, of course is in the details. My thought is that rides could be per mile. You’d get a card like a smart pass, good for X number of miles. When you get on you swipe the card and your location is picked up from the on board GPS and recorded on the card. When you get of you swipe the card and the GPS figures how far you rode and deducts the proper amount from the card. All this would be teleported to the agency which would periodically cut a check to the operator. The agency could also use the info to refine the routing.

    I don’t know how to implement it. How did slug lines get so popular and even supportd by government signage on I-95, yet they are non-existent on I-66? I think slug lines grew little by little and the safety aspects (always three to a car) got inured by accident.

    Part of the beauty of it is that all the operator has to do is agree to show up, and go where he is told. Guaranteed passengers and No money to count.

    I don’t know what Jaunt is, but I assume it is something like Georgetown University Transportation System (GUTS). I don’t know, maybe it takes guts to ride it? It circulates around the university and the nearby row houses where students live. Maybe you start with something like that, get the merchants to chip in, get the university to pick up non-students, maybe some state funding to ensure the thing stays operational long enough for riders to pick up the habit. Start in the busiest areas and then expand until you start losing money.

    I think the Dispatch agency has to be Government. You are dealing with a lot of private information that would be a burglars dream come true. Also the Agency has to contract with the operators. It could be a government contractor or private enterprise, but that might lead to favoritism among operators and other problems. Also, you would want the agency tied into traffic monitoring systems so the routes could change as necessary to avoid or help manage congestion.

  12. Ray Hyde December 29, 2005 at 18:46

    I have visions that Dispatch is mostly just a computer program (an enormously complex one). for example through feedback from the GPS system the computer would know who is to be picked up next. It would be able to ring someones cell phone and order it to play “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. That would be your signal to saddle up and get out to the curb.

  13. TrvlnMn December 29, 2005 at 21:32

    Ray Hyde wrote:

    I don’t know what Jaunt is, but I assume it is something like Georgetown University Transportation System (GUTS). I don’t know, maybe it takes guts to ride it? It circulates around the university and the nearby row houses where students live. Maybe you start with something like that, get the merchants to chip in, get the university to pick up non-students, maybe some state funding to ensure the thing stays operational long enough for riders to pick up the habit. Start in the busiest areas and then expand until you start losing money.

    Jaunt is a paratransit service.

    Paratransit services are private companies run as public non-profits with full or partial government funding. In many cities they exist primarily to take high risk (high maintenance, lawsuit prone) riders out of the public transit pool of riders, thereby creating a smaller lawsuit target- the paratransit service. They initially provided transportation to handicapped and disabled persons who were could not use traditional public transit (Jaunt apparently has expanded services for residents in specific local counties).

    Many Paratransit Services started operating in the mid to late 1970’s and then kicked into really high gear after the American’s With Disablities Act flushed surplus government tax dollars into their operations.

    The way it works: The rider makes an appointment in advance (at least 1 day) for a ride (one way or round trip as needed). On the day of the trip the rider pays a reduced fee (close to the cost of a bus fee) to the driver. The driver and passenger are not allowed to deviate from the originally arranged details of the trip. Then for every qualified trip/rider (Qualified rider- a disabled or special needs rider who has filled out the appropriate qualifying application with the paratransit agency).. that is completed the paratransit company submits reports to an appropriate governmental agency for reimbursement (in the form of their monthly funding from the governmental agency).

    In Los Angeles their paratransit service was funded by the cities public transportation authority. They would pick up only application qualified riders who were eligible for reimbursement. The riders would pay 2 dollars. While the paratransit operated on a budget provided by the governmental agency, they tried to keep it so that the per trip statistics equated to a rate of around $75 dollars for an ambulatory person (someone who could walk) and as much as $175 for a wheelchair, per person per trip.

    Paratransit services exist largely on the periphery and as such many people are unaware of them. Due to my experience of their shady business practices, in my personal opinion, I think they could use a little more oversite.

    And for clarification my knowledge of paratransit services is from experiences in Los Angeles- not from Jaunt. Jaunt is however a paratransit service in the Charlottesville Albemarle area, and according to their website they offer services for non-disabled riders as well.

    Hope that clarifies things.

  14. Ray Hyde January 1, 2006 at 09:56

    OK, I wasn’t aware the Jaunt was a paratransit service. GUTS is a student jitney dervice, snd appaerntly well used. I don’t knw what the budget for it is or the comparable per trip costs.

  15. Jim January 2, 2006 at 20:49

    The perception that JAUNT is only for the disabled is one that, from my limited understanding, has limited it rider-ship and its reach. If more people used it, perhaps they would see the need and therefore expand their services.

    Part of me thinks that until there is a clear market, there will be less of an impetus for expansion and innovation on behalf of JAUNT or any other form of transit.

  16. TrvlnMn January 3, 2006 at 20:42

    Paratransit operations are traditionally for the disabled. However in some markets Paratransit’s can complement traditional public transit services. However, yes I can see why people would have the perception it’s only for the disabled.

    I think one of the positives about paratransits is their flexiblity to make adjustments in their pick ups and drop offs, unlike traditional public transit which maintains fixed routes.