This article is the fifth component of this series describing critical “missing pieces” of an operable public transit network (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-1-alternative-work-schedules/ https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-2-park-and-ride-lots/; https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-3-feeder-service/, and https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-4-system-design-and-networks/). This installment overviews another essential component of public transportation that, like the other components, has gone largely missing for decades: Ridesharing.
As I reminded National Bus Trader readers often, all these elements were not just ideas kicked around in the 1970s. Many were implemented, to a great degree, that decade – and to lesser and lesser degrees afterwards, as our cities swelled in population and workers, traffic levels exploded, and air quality declined to a point where skylines around the horizon of some cities (Los Angeles most noticeably) literally turned orange. Otherwise, the history of public transportation in America is largely the history of failure. But one can learn by watching promising ideas ignored, disrupted, corrupted and squandered.
The central goal of ridesharing and the other approaches noted was to decrease traffic levels. Back in the 1970s, air quality was a concern to scientists, and a niche concern to transportation planners. The need to change energy sources from fossil fuels to electric power was decades away – although a few nuclear plants had been opened. (Many of them closed, notably the Indian Point plant in Westchester County, about a decade ago, and a huge one in northern California in 2022. California is poised to shut down its last plant, in Diablo Canyon, in 2025). Some scientists have predicted that, without nuclear power, there will not be enough electrons in California, by 2035, to power the State’s electric vehicles — when the production of non-electric automobiles (and other vehicles) will become illegal. Since California’s mandate, numerous other states have considered copying it. One wonders where all those electrons are going to come from. But that is today. This article focuses on our squandering of solutions that began to emerge a half-century ago.
Too Little and Much Too Late
To summarize the highlights and lowlights of each element written about previously:
The Quick Rise and Faster Fall of Ridesharing
Knowing and caring little about public transportation, ridesharing – often referred to as “carpooling” — soon became the “rage” in the United States in the early 1970s. At least for a short time. But as noted, the other elements of a coherent public transportation system which made ridesharing meaningful did not last very long. Partly because it depended on other elements (noted above) that would render a public transportation system workable, ridesharing collapsed into an alternative to public transportation instead of becoming a complementary component of one.
As a part of a public transportation system, ridesharing never had a chance. To enhance the substitution of ridesharing for the use of public transportation, we began developing carpool lanes. In 1977, as a Project Director for Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology, Inc., I actually edited the first full-length summary of the growth of this now-declining phenomenon. PTI’s research, and this document, contained a valuable lesson about public transportation in the land of voting: At the outset, those carpool lanes that survived politically were those where an additional lane was added (via new construction) to an existing freeway. Where an existing lane was suddenly dedicated to “high occupancy vehicles” – a mandate harder and harder to enforce as law enforcement levels diminished — the political backlash was severe. And the HOV lanes quickly returned to their former status of hosting bumper-to-bumper traffic. Single-occupancy motorists did not enjoy being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic while a handful of fellow-citizens actually contributing to the solution whizzed by them. This dynamic was, of course, compounded by the lack of enforcement, whereby few of the cheaters who begin to increasingly use these HOV lanes were ever captured and penalized.
Ridesharing and HOV lanes were effectively “joined at the hip.” When one failed, the other followed. As noted, the notion of using ridesharing as a component of a hierarchy of public transportation modes – including ridesharing playing a major role as a feeder service to bus stops, train stations or, most importantly, park-and-ride lots – never reached the antennae of anyone actually in charge of transportation in this country. So, as with the other elements cited above, and written above previously in National Bus Trader installments, ridesharing shrunk. Particularly in a nation where only 20 percent of mothers are “stay-at-home Moms” (the percentage is 80 in China), one suspects that most shared rides in personal vehicles involve either both spouses, or one or two of the driver’s neighbors. This is really a shame in the era of the internet, much less social media, where seeking out a ride-sharing partner would not even require the involvement of any public sector, taxpayer-supported entity – as the initial ridesharing programs were launched and maintained by. Regrettably, by the time these media became commonplace, the notion of formalizing ridesharing beyond something practically accidental had long disappeared. I am not even speaking of ridesharing to rail stations or bus stops.
Gloom, Doom, Glum and Dumb
The next episode about Making Public Transportation Work will address High Occupancy Vehicle lanes – yet another piece of the traffic and transportation puzzle that exploded in the 1970s, yet diminished considerably in recent decades for political and economic reasons, as summarized above.
I will summarize the consequences of all these failures in the final episode of this saga: Making Public Transportation Work, Part 7: The Cost of Failure. Squandering promising ideas has a cost. So too does making money from their failure. So too does disrupting them – as is the principal goal of Today’s new technologies and approaches, replacing technology’s outdated, long-lost promise of “product improvement.”
As everyone should know, failure clearly has a cost. Of course, these costs are not shared equally. More and more, for a variety of reasons that most individuals have very different beliefs about, the most successful in our society increasingly continue to be the most corrupt. The least successful are increasingly the most snookered.
As the saying in Washington, D.C. has gone seeming forever, “In a democracy one deserves what one gets. And he or she gets what he deserves. The rapid decline of public transportation in America is merely a window into this dynamic. What a shame: With all the pieces of success lying in plain sight, we could have been a contender.