Making Public Transportation Work, Part 1: Alternative Work Schedules

To be blunt, public transportation has become our nation’s worst industry. Worst than Big Pharma. Worst than Big Energy. Worse even than the U.S. Healthcare industry – although these bastions of corruption, incompetence, waste and reckless disregard share many characteristics in common with public transportation. The tragedy is that it was not always this way.
Even in “The Car Country,” public transportation had plenty of great moments and great thoughts. Regrettably, most of these occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. More tragically, many of these ideas are even more feasible – and far-more-needed — now.

On the positive side, internal combustion engines are exponentially cleaner (and we are slowly transitioning away from them altogether). But worsening traffic, increasing poverty and inflation are increasing the urgency to explore alternatives, while we fail to. And the corruption of certain transportation sectors – most notably AMTRAK, commercial airlines and transportation network companies (TNCs) have opened floodgates for new opportunities in more traditional modes. Unfortunately, precious little water is flowing through those gates.

On the negative side, TNCs have disrupted the logical (at least in theory) hierarchy of modes – decimating the taxi industry, and already penetrating and distorting the transit, schoolbus and motorcoach sectors – stealing ridership from them by thinning their densities. Among the worst examples, ridership on fixed route transit had dropped by roughly 10 percent per year during the two years before COVID struck. At the same time, and partly responsible for this decline, the transportation industry has basically lost interest in the promises of a half century ago.
This installment addresses the most promising of these forgotten or ignored approaches – alternative work schedules. Among these approaches, alternative work schedules present, by far, the greatest opportunity to thin traffic and increase public transportation ridership. Obviously, faster movement on the roadways would benefit public transportation just as much as it would benefit personal occupancy vehicles (POVs).

Peaks and Troughs
Traffic is unmistakably a significant bane to both productivity and the enjoyment of modern urban life. This problem is greatly exaggerated because most traffic tends to squeeze into two broad sets of days and times: The five-day workweek (focusing on the same five days every week) and, during those five days, between roughly 6 and 9 AM and 3:30 to 6:30 PM. (These “peak” or rush hours tend to begin and end a bit earlier in more rural parts of the country.)

In the past, the reasons for this concentration were understandable: Most workers had to be on the job in the same places at the same times. Even the most infantile efforts to change this (e.g., paying workers more for traveling outside these peak days and hours) have been so ignored that most readers probably never thought of them. Yet as technology has evolved from private telephone service (not “party lines”), answering machines, telex and fax machines, personal computers, the internet, cell-phones, social media and Zoom (and its brethren), remote access to computers, etc., the need for employees to work mostly the same hours at the same places has become increasingly less and less necessary.

As COVID so clearly demonstrated, a considerable segment of the population need not travel to work at all. Further, the systematic replacement of most stores with on-line purchasing and delivery services further decentralized the workforce. Yet these extraordinary changes did nothing to reduce traffic. In contrast, ever-increasing greed and corruption increased it. The decrease in transit ridership is only a small consequence.

The trough is the enormous increase in workspace density, as more and more huge buildings are increasingly erected closer and closer together, and taller and taller. This trend was compounded by other disruption—the openly-stated goal of Silicon Valley and other start-ups. As an example, as TNC’s flooded the urban market, the percentage of ride time compared to deadhead time for mostly exclusive-ride demand-responsive modes (TNCs, taxis and limousines) as well as all forms of paratransit service shrunk. More and more vehicles are increasingly needed to ferry the same number of passengers (and even more to ferry their increasing numbers) – adding to traffic, and slowing the movement of vehicles of all types.

Enormous Potential and Extraordinary Disinterest
It should not be hard to understand why alternative work schedules have so much more potential now than they did 50 years ago. A small sample of the factors include:

  • The flexibility of workers not needing to work at the same time at the same place has grown exponentially, as noted. Frankly, with Zoom, Facetime and similar technologies, workers in many industries may rarely if ever need to work physically face-to-face.
  • Even in factory environments – including industrial farming — the extraordinary increases in automation have thinned out the need for workers altogether.
  • Computers have also exponentially reduced the need for hard-copy storage space. So, for example, an otherwise traditional office could easily be occupied by two (or even three or four) shifts of workers, since none of them would require much storage space. File cabinets, in particular, have become relics.
  • The cost of parking, and decreasing space for it, also compound the need to use this same space simultaneously. With alternative work schedules, a parking garage could accommodate two shifts. Charging each motorist half as much would yield the same profits (even while this is not how American businesses operate).
  • With the thinning of traffic, public transportation travel speeds would increase, and their multiple stops would become less of a nuisance or consideration – lessening the incentives to travel by modes which make few or no intermediate stops.
  • Culturally and physiologically, many workers actually prefer more unconventional hours. This is especially true for families with children where both spouses work (another dynamic far more rare half a century ago).
  • Yet this caldron of urgency fails to alleviate a spoonful of traffic.

    Evolution and Effortlessness
    The notion that most people need a good eight hours’ sleep, or that one can easily adjust his or her sleep hours, is not accurate. Benjamin Franklin’s rubric “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise” is complete nonsense. Franklin knew less about sleep than the average tree, and far less about it than the average bear. As a physiological reality, most people’s sleep cycles tend to fall into two patterns:

  • Those with longer-than-24-hour sleep/wakefulness cycles – who tend to be late sleepers (known to sleep researchers as “owls”)
  • Those with shorter-than-24-hour sleep/wakefulness cycles – who tend to awaken early (these “early-risers” are known as “larks”).
  • Interestingly, what “sets” one’s biological clock (or sleep/wakefulness cycle) is the time one awakens – not the time he or she retires. Exhaustive studies of individuals’ sleep/wakefulness cycles have found that those of larks tend to occur about four hours earlier than those of owls. In primitive times – before clocks and electric lights – those at the extremes did not do well:

  • A late sleeper would likely be eaten by a “day-active” animal.
  • In contrast, someone arising in the dark could fall into a pit or off a cliff.
  • This example is, of course, already over-simplified since those not living at or near the equator experience considerable variation in the light-darkness patterns, throughout the year, to which their sleep/wakefulness cycles could not possibly adjust. (Areas barely above the Arctic Circle, and below the Antarctic Circle, have six weeks a year of total darkness, and six weeks a year of total light.) Even so, one’s ability to make moderate adjustments to these conditions – such as a small village or even a family letting a late sleeper retire late, and an early riser awaken early — could soften these risks somewhat by letting the extremists indulge their bodies’ tendencies and “stand guard” over the others. But the shortcomings of even these approaches help to explain why the average lifespan, until perhaps the last century or so, was about 20 years in most parts of the world. Thomas Edison changed a lot more things than most people acknowledge: Where electricity is scarce or non-existent, life spans are still much shorter than in highly-industrial parts of the World.

    These patterns also changed a bit in the last millennium – largely because of stimulants (most commonly the past few hundred years because of coffee, as it reached Europe in the 17th Century) that allow the larks to extend their cycles to match the 24-hour rotation of the Earth on its axis. In contrast, sleeping pills (without dangerous side effects ) are largely a modern phenomenon. (For those unaware, alcohol is a poor sleep-inducer, as it undermines the quality of sleep.) This dichotomy meant that the larks — whose natural sleep/wakefulness cycles might be 20 or slightly more hours long — could easily stretch out their cycles with a short nap and a few slugs of coffee. In contrast, those with longer cycles suffered immeasurably (and many still do): Their “solution” was, and is, mostly waking up prematurely, and being tired much of the day as a consequence (which helped some, but not all of them, at least fall asleep the following night). Worse still, because their natural sleep/wakefulness cycles are already longer than normal, most owls cannot nap.

    Regardless, as the preferences of most of these individuals’ sleep needs are forced to conform to the survival needs of a 24-hour rotation of the Earth on its access, most individuals’ cycles tend to sort them into two groups, whose hours are roughly four hours apart. But until recently, the need for most workers to coalesce at the same places at the same time only meant that the “owls” suffered more. The vivid distinctions between the sleep needs of owls versus larks was rarely if ever employed to lessen traffic – or accomplish anything else.

    All this is unfortunate. As the dumbest of the dumb can see immediately — even in a world where many workers must still overlap at the same place for much of the same time – having two “shifts” of workers traveling sloppily four hours apart would virtually eliminate the pattern of peak period travel (or “rush hours”). For example, the early birds (or larks) could travel to work from 5 to 9AM, with the second wave (late sleepers, or owls) traveling to work from 9AM to 1PM. Then, from 1 to 5PM, the larks could head home. At 5PM, with half of the workers (the larks) already off the road, the second wave (the owls) could return from 5 to 9PM. As a consequence, two heavily-concentrated peak periods from roughly 5 to 8PM and 3:30 to 6:30PM – a six-hour span — would be spread out into a 16-hour span of time. Traffic levels would essentially be cut into a third (in theory). Not working perfectly, with some obvious need for overlaps, traffic levels would more likely be cut in half.

    Bipartisan and Biblical
    To be fair, the busload of modern factors contributing to the extraordinary flexibility we enjoy today was unachievable, if not unthinkable, a mere 50 years ago. Our failure to slash traffic levels in half with a single, simple tool (to which are bodies are naturally attuned) is not a transportation failure. It is, frankly, a symptom of a failed state. It would be challenging to even conceive of any serious downsides to alternative work schedules, while the upsides would seem as effortless as they are obvious.

    To a transportation professional coming upon this notion for the first time, the almost complete failure to implement this solution must be deeply disappointing. Particularly as alternative work schedules were a hot topic 50 years ago in U.S. public transportation circles, its complete absence as a solution today illustrates that we are simply incapable of making society-wide changes. And it represents the failure of business as much as it represents the failure of politics. Frankly, a more bipartisan failure one could not find. Quite simply, it reflects a failure of leadership. Otherwise, the failure to employ this solution is hardly unique to America. It is sparsely if ever employed in any industrial nation (other than incidentally) — including those nations that are genuinely “industrial.”

    Unlike the rapidly-growing cause of so many other problems – mostly from corruption and a distribution of wealth that was inconceivable only a few decades ago – the root cause of our failure to endorse and employ solutions as simple and obvious as alternative work schedules is effectively the failure to bother. And if we cannot solve a major problem with such a simple, effortless solution devoid of a single downside, it is no wonder we are failing to solve more complex challenges.

    Most educated Judao-Christian Americans know that only two of the original Ten Commandments (murder and stealing) are actually illegal (a third – “bearing false witness,” or perjury — is technically illegal, but almost never punished – just as an interest in penalizing petty theft is waning.) Regardless, I do not recall anything related to sloth being among the Commandments. But that was largely because it was unneeded: Until recently, if you did not work, you died.

    If we could “amend” these Commandments, “Thou shalt not fail to bother” might top the list. Otherwise, among them, the only Commandment still illegal and zealously prohibited is murder. So we should be troubled that sloth is slowly choking us to death.

    1. As a curious footnote, the lower down on the evolutionary scale an organism is, the closer to an almost-perfect 24-hour sleep/wakefulness cycle it has. Along the way, there are some strange curiosities, including bears (who can “sleep” for months), horses (which sleep or nap 17 times a day – at least when not forced by humans to do otherwise) and cats (which seem to sleep whenever they have nothing better to do). The myth that cockroaches will be the “last to go” is not that far from the truth.

    Publications: National Bus Trader.