Regional transit in our future?

BoS David Slutzky in Sunday’s Daily Progress:

“It’s definitely time for the county and the city to put their heads together and develop a cohesive transportation system,” he said. “If you wait 20 years and start thinking about it, it will cost you a lot more than if you start thinking about it now.”

I have heard many of the reasons that regional transit does not work: it is not fiscally viable, using eminent domain to take all the necessary rights-of-ways is neither reasonable nor practical, no mass-transit is successful or profitable (they are all subsidized) … but how can we make this work? With fuel prices rising again and that Virginians are more susceptible to oil shocks, now is the time to consider our future.

We seem to have a burgeoning grassroots effort with the likes of ACCT, MPO and now with a fairly forward-thinking Supervisor on Board, this thing may have legs.

RCG had an excellent post last May that goes into great detail about whether mass transit increases property values. As with everything, (from the referenced report)

Of course, as with any infrastructure project – be it a transit system, a public park, a highway or a school – there may be negative impacts that reduce the location value for some people. Some people move away from highways to escape the noise and smog, and some people move away from playgrounds to escape the shrill voices of kids at play. But for the market overall, positive impacts tend to outweigh the negative impacts, increasing overall property values.

We should at least consider it.

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  1. Ray Hyde April 17, 2006 at 11:32

    Regional transit does not work. Period.

    Winston and Shirley did a study on transit systems (this is based on 1990 numbers but the facts are not very different today)

    According the study of 228 bus companies and 30 rail companies the operating cost per passenger mile for buses was 44 cents per pm for trains it was 37 cents per passenger mile. At that time the direct operating cost for autos was 21 cents per mile. If you take into account capital costs, external costs, parking space costs, accident costs, etc. etc. etc. cars turn out to be only slightly more expensive than trains or buses, but they offer better, more flexible, and more extensive service.

    Here is the real killer. For buses the number of passenger miles per mile of revenue operation is only 9. For trains it is only 21. And that doesn’t count all the miles operated when they are out of service. Clearly, there are a lot of buses and trains running around mostly empty and we would be better off to operate them only where they actually pay. That can happen on oly the best lines and only in the densest neighborhoods, therefore regional transit cannot work.

    What is the difference between 9 passengers on a 40 passenger bus and one passenger in a four passenger car? (Hint, the lumbering bus causes more noise, and more congestion.)

    When I was working on the Virginia short haul airline project we figured our costs for a small commuter plane at $0.28 seat mile and figured we could make a profit if we charged $0.50 per passenger mile, assuming we could sell enough seats. Selling enough seats is the problem. Just as with regional tranist most of the traffic is going in one direction, so the vehicles come back empty. Then in the afternoon the problem is reversed. So you wind up driving around an awful ot of empty seats, allegedly in the name of efficiency.

    Efficiency can be achieved. It costs Jet Blue only 7.5 cents per mile to move a passenger. but Jet blue is not a publicly operated business, and it carefully chooses only the bet routes and only those that it can operate full in both directions.

  2. Jim April 18, 2006 at 15:28

    Without resolve for change, we will continue to build further and further from the jobs and maintain the auto-centric development patterns we have seen.

    I may be an idealist, but I think that there is a viable solution out there that will move our society towards the tipping point where autos are not the only (which they really are in the Central VA region) form of transportation.

  3. Duane Gran April 18, 2006 at 14:32


    I couldn’t find the specific study you mention, but I did read a little bit of Clifford Winston’s writing at the Brookings Institute. From what I’ve read, AAA estimates the cost of per mile of auto at about 51 cents. The following site, which is admittedly from an advocacy group, cites various hidden costs to private transportation:

    Your point about moving empty buses is true — public transportation is no good if no one uses it, which leads us to the inevitable chicken and egg problem. No one will use the bus if its routes and operating times are inconvenient, and as a corollary if no one uses the service there is little motivation to upgrade it. I think we are served better to remember the past when public transportation was a vibrant option in America. Yes, I am arguing to “build it and they will come”, but we need resolve to do it well and to stay the course long enough for people to adopt new modalities of transportation.

  4. TrvlnMn April 18, 2006 at 23:50

    Jim wrote:

    Without resolve for change, we will continue to build further and further from the jobs and maintain the auto-centric development patterns we have seen.

    And based on everything I’ve read that Mr. Hyde has posted here that would be just fine.

    Perhaps better than anyone else I understand “cynicism” but instead of just knocking things down, how about a constructive suggestion every now and then?

  5. Ray Hyde April 19, 2006 at 00:03

    Dan, you are right. Those figures are 1990 dollars. You would not be far off if you multiplied each of them by 2.5, but the ratios of costs are still the same. I can tell you for a certainty my total costs for the last two cars I drove until I junked them was only around $0.30 cents per mile, but again, those are mid 1990’s numbers.

    I have seen studies calculating total costs for autos including all externalities like auto accidents, parking spaces, pollution, etc. Here is the propblem: they don’t evaluate the alternatives on the same basis. Trains get good mileage only because of massive grading to eliminate hills: if you include all the energy costs of construction then trains don’t look so economical. Train stations are enormously expensive, and the numbers I quoted are only operating costs, not capital. Cars already pay for part of accident costs through insurance, so charging accidents as an externality is counting double.

    You get the picture. We had rail oriented suburbs before the auto was developed, and they lost out for a reason. We may develop a better system some day but the objective facts are that cars win hands down, in spite of their problems.

    We don’t have to build further from the jobs: we can move the jobs once easier than we can the employees every day. But even if we do that, we still have soccer practice, church, etc.

    When was the last time you took the garbage to the dump via transit? We can resolve to change for the better, but let’s make sure it really is better.

  6. Jim April 19, 2006 at 09:58

    My question is this – what will the landscape look like in 25 years if we continue down the path of spread-out developments and looking to roads as the form of transport? If we don’t evaluate and implement alternatives now, when will we?

  7. Ray Hyde April 19, 2006 at 10:36

    We will first have to find, evaluate, and implement alternatives that work, and work economically. It might be possible to update trains and buses in such a way that they become economic alternatives, but they are not now, and show little likliehood of becoming so. They have aleady failed once.

    We probably are not going to have fire engines that run on rails, or garbage trucks. You would hate to have your ambulance attendants standing at the corner waiting for a bus, or arriving by bike. What you are talking about as alternatives are probably in reality in addition to roads, not instead of.

    Finally, if every person in the US had a quarter acre, so that every family had a full acre, we would not even use up all of Texas. It might be that in 25 years the landscape will look pretty much as it does now, but with appropriate adjustments for higher fuel costs. In 2 or 3 hundred years, it might look a lot different, but what we have already built is pretty durable: I don’t expect it to be abandoned.

  8. Duane Gran April 19, 2006 at 12:02


    I don’t think you mean anything disingenuous, but I think when you identify problems with a 100% rail or bus scenario you are creating a false dichotomy — public transportation advocates, like myself, want more choices. No one expects people to pick up lumber at Lowe’s on the bus. Automobiles are part of the range of choices.

    The question remains how we invest our public funds into the infrastructure we share. Do we spend it supporting private transportation or shared public transportation? I would say yes to both, and further state that our priorities are too skewed to the former. We spend 77% of our national transportation fund on highways, but only 4% on rail.

    I can accept that autos may be more efficient by certain calculations, but it defies my sense of reason to suggest that cars are more cost efficient in every scenario. I’m sure someone 75 years ago decried the uselessness of paving roads to “nowhere” which are today well travelled and useful for commerce and pleasure. Could not we conclude the same about investment today in public transportation?

  9. Ray Hyde April 20, 2006 at 17:39

    No, No, Duane, you are exactly right. No one expects a 100% rail or bus scenario. And cars are not more efficient under every scenario. They are not more cost efficient per se, but they offer a much higher level of service for what they cost. The question is whether rail or transit can be cost efficient under any scenario, and the overwhelming evidence is, no.

    What I am saying is that, contrary to popular opinion, if we really used transit where it is really efficient, and if at the same time we charged more for the use of cars to cover their external effects, and if we made the best use of the combiation of cars, rail, bus, bike, that made the most economic sense and provided the maximum social benefit to all at the minimum expense – then transit use would go down by half and auto use would go up by a couple of percent. The cost of using transit where it really works would go up by 100% and the cost of using cars where they really work would go up by 30 to 50%. Consequently we would use less of both, and use them more effectively, but the proportion of auto use would actually rise.

    That is not the expected answer and not one people want to hear. I don’t even like it. I’d like more choices too.

    But after studying the factual numbers and the arguments, I find I can’t refute it. Spending 4% on rail, it turns out, may already be 50% wasted.

    On the other hand, when I look at numbers provided by those that paint a rosy picture for transit, pedestrian oriented communities, etc., then what I find is assumptions and numbers that are pretty easy to poke holes in. for example, and argument against cost efficiency of cars adds the cost of accidents to the operating costs, but (some) of the cost of accidents is covered in the cost of insurance, which is in the operating costs. Trains and buses also have accidents, but you seldom see them added to the costs which are used to justify transit.

    But let’s say that we agree we should spend more money on transit. We should spend more on bike trails, too. But based on the probablility that anyone will use the money we spend effectively (what business analysts call the expected value), there is no possibility whatever that we can say divvy up the money 50/50 and get any kind of reasonable return.

    As I pointed out, probably more than half of the 4% we spend now is wasted, even if we agree we should increase spending on transit 6% would be a major league increase. After a few years we can evaluate and see if that increase really bought us anything, or if it just increased the waste by 100%.

    I’m all in favor of increasing funding for transit, but we should do it with clear cold eyes and be prepared to pull the plug if it doesn’t work. I don’t think it is likely to work.