Making Public Transportation Work, Part 2: Park and Ride Lots

Particularly regarding fixed route transit and paratransit, the abandonment of designing a system has cost these modes dearly. This is largely because software emerged in the early 1990s to configure routes, establish schedules select stops and dispatch – and we stopped bothering.

As all National Bus Trader readers know, transportation involves more than just the vehicles. There must be roads, bridges, tunnels, rest stops and parking lots – for starters. And this is only if the “system” comprises personal vehicles, trucks and taxis. For shared-ride vehicles, especially large ones (buses and motorcoaches), much more is needed for a “system” to exist, much less operate effectively and efficiently. These other elements became increasingly important as our roadways became clogged with automobiles.

In response the Interstate Defense Highway Act of 1956, and the urban sprawl that increased as other highways were expanded to supplement this network, traffic began to explode and transit use declined. Transit was only rescued by the creation of UMTA (with capital assistance) and USDOT (through which UMTA added operating assistance) in the 1960s.

This recognition of the need for transportation alternatives led, in the 1970s, to an explosion of ideas about the components needed to make a true system work. Installment #1 of this series described alternative work schedules as a means of spreading out the “peak nature” of traffic – still concentrated in AM and PM rush hours. Another element of the system much talked about, and which began to spread quickly, was the use of park-and-ride lots – effectively “collector points” to which groups of motorists could drive and park — and transfer to buses to reach the cities where their employment lay.

Lessons from La La Land
One of the rudimentary principles of transportation system design is that a system must reflect, and take advantage of, each city’s “urban form.” Regarding this principle, a thin rectangle with a tight grid of long, medium-speed avenues (“collectors” in traffic engineering jargon) intersected by hundreds of slower-speed cross-streets (“locals” in traffic engineering jargon), with a high density of passengers, is much easier to serve with buses than is a large, medium-density area with often curvilinear streets weaving all over the place. Particularly with a subway system now 119 years old, Manhattan was an ideal form into which integrated passenger rail (mostly underground) and buses could interface. To this day – even with four far-less-dense “boroughs” bogging down the statistics – New York City’s transit system covers a higher percentage of its costs (35 percent) from passenger fares than any other city in the country.

At the other extreme are clusters of cities and metropolitan areas like Los Angeles County – whose major transit system covers only nine percent of its costs from passenger fares. But this was no accident. In the early 1980s, former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley felt that he could not successfully run for governor if his city did not have a passenger rail system. So cost and convenience be damned, and absurdly counter to the City’s and County’s urban form, he initiated the design and construction of L.A. County’s first “subway” system (much of which ran above ground).

The first three lines of this wasteful skeleton plunged the County $7B in debt. And to provide the “local match” to Federal grants, the 4,753-square-mile County scavenged its bus system, removing thousands of from its vast street network. In response, in 1999, 25,000 former bus riders formed a union, and filed a class action lawsuit (Bus Riders Union v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) to restore bus service. As a resolution, the presiding court ordered the defendant to purchase an additional THIRTY TWO HUNDRED buses – one of the most astonishing class action rulings of all time.

This ruling did not fix the problem. And more and more wasteful subway lines were added. To lower the major system’s outrageous costs, roughly 30 “municipal” systems expanded or were created. These ranged from tight, obsessively-designed suburban systems (e.g., The Carson Circuit Transit System, which I helped design) to multicity systems (like Long Beach Transit, Big Blue Bus [Santa Monica], San Gabriel Transit and Los Angeles’ DASH system – spreading north south, east and west alongside LACMTA routes). The result is an inefficient, costly mess where, as noted, only nine percent of operating costs are covered by passenger fares. System elements like park-and-ride lots are sparse – perhaps a hundred or so, when, frankly, several thousand are needed.
New York City is not exactly park-and-ride heaven. But its 4,753 square miles, plus dense surrounding suburbs, does not need the magnitude of park and ride lots as does Los Angeles County – almost exactly 10 times the size. Regardless, these extreme examples illustrate the need for an extensive number of system elements obscenely underutilized, and which as a result, compound the poor match of a system’s design (or non-design) to a service area’s urban form. Our nation’s public transportation systems are failing largely because all or most cities have failed in both respects.

Mode Split
Because one bus can carry as many passengers as 40 cars, it is no surprise that every sane city in the country should have done all it could to create a coherent bus or bus-and-rail system. And no expense should have spared to design them coherently and imbue them with every supporting element needed. A major challenge is that a major element of such a system – thousands of park-and-ride lots – have become more and more costly, and more so as they approach city boundaries.

As suggested above, the goal of having the right number of park-and-ride lots, and locating them in the right spots – is to minimize the number of miles motorists would have to travel in their personal vehicles (most of the time, by themselves) and maximize the number of passengers who travel the rest of the way on a vehicle that can accommodate 40 to 60 of them (or 57 in Today’s 45-foot-long motorcoaches, with the same amenities as they enjoyed in their personal vehicles, but not needing to keep their eyes peeled at almost every moment, to constantly glance at three mirrors, or to even remain awake – much less in cushy, padded reclining seats with footrests).

In transportation jargon, the transfer from one mode to another is referred to as “mode split.” The goal of mode split is to transport the most passengers in the fewest number of vehicles and vehicle miles. Transferring a large percentage of motorists to buses (and, where available, passenger rail) is the most efficient and effective way to accomplish this goal – and the numerous benefits that come with it. Those benefits include:
• Lower costs (less fuel and maintenance per passenger)
• Cleaner air (and less global melting and burning that accompanies it)
• Less fuel/better energy efficiency
• Less traffic (and less productivity loss associated with it)
• Less stress and fatigue for motorists, and improved safety

Waste and Opportunity
While several additional elements of a complete transportation system will be summarized in future installments of this series, park-and-ride lots are critical components of any efficient system that fulfills the fundamental goals of any and every public transportation system.

Naturally, our failure to design an optimum system at a time when land for park-and-ride lots was more available and more affordable is increasingly irreversible. Only 49,500 miles of the original Interstate Defense Highway was ever completed. Yet even 40 or so years ago, transportation professionals calculated that it would cost as much to complete the last single percent of this system as it cost to build the first 99 percent of it. Similarly, the park-and-ride lots that were available and affordable 50 years ago are now largely unaffordable. But as the magnitude of waste in public transportation continues to grow, and as the public continues to be deceived by the promises of technology, in real life the true characteristics of public transportation are waste, indifference and squandered opportunity.

As a transportation professional who has been a bus and coach advocate for the past 45 years, as we collapse further from our disinterest and apathy, an old song seems more and more applicable and fair: “Don’t Blame Me.” But as it rarely does, blame-placing accomplishes nothing. We have largely squandered one of the most important elements of public transportation. No improvements in technology – electric vehicles, driverless vehicles, light rail service – will ever make up for this. And only when every vehicle on the roadway is driverless will traffic decline (on freeways) – since the distance between vehicles at various “service levels” will be able to safety decrease. Otherwise, unless someone invents an app that can rebuild or repair one’s plumbing, lighting, heating and air conditioning devices (and until every homeowner or renter owns and can operate a 3D printer), working remotely will only shave a slice of traffic from our midst.
Nor do we seem capable of reducing the number of hours we work – as Germany successfully did several years ago, when its workweek was cut to 32 hours. (Spread out evenly, this would reduce Germany’s commute-related traffic by 20.)

Without reducing work hours or employing alternative work schedules, we must try to optimize the remaining opportunities to employ every element of a public transportation system we can – including the creation of park-and-ride lots, and to reconfigure routes and schedules to take advantage of them. And we must do our best to not squander the remaining opportunities to maximize the use of those elements of a public transportation system that remain at our disposal.

“Spilt milk” is a convenient cliché employed to rationalize the cost of failure. But spilt milk is still spilt milk. We have other tools still at our disposal. As we fall further and further behind in employing them, the one that holds the most potential for reducing traffic is alternative work schedules. For that reason, I began this series of installments with a short overview of that technology, and its potential. But it would become highly problematic if and when we run out of other tools. Designating land for park-and-ride lots is a powerful tool to help transit systems increase ridership and make a dent in traffic. Otherwise, we’ll soon need teleportation to avoid grinding to a near-complete halt.

Publications: National Bus Trader.