The previous six installments of this series identified and explored, in considerable detail, the elements needed to make a public transportation system work. Not a hodgepodge of disjointed and sometimes overlapping or duplicative services. But a collection of system elements which fit together to form a coherent system.
The goal of this series was not historical, although various installments note that every one of these elements was given serious consideration, often supported by a considerable number of articles and, often, substantial studies, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In some cases, these elements were actually implemented, often as “demonstration projects.” In some cases, a considerable number of actual, full-blown elements were created – following former President Johnson’s “rescue” of our nation’s fixed route services, in 1964, at a time when the remaining skeleton of our former bus system practically disappeared altogether because fares had continually failed to cover their capital and operating costs – with fixed route bus and passenger rail service the most critical component of our overall public transportation system.
As noted in the earliest of these installment, this radical expansion of high-speed roadways made many more motorcoach trips possible and fruitful. Many were not feasible before. So President Eisenhower’s mandate greatly expanded the opportunities for such businesses – in addition to enhancing our nation’s overall public transportation system and, of course, expanding opportunities for more trips by personal occupant automobiles (POVs). Plus, this newly-expanded core of “super-highways” triggered an explosion of state and county highways constructed to support and supplement them.
A few states with “pies in their eyes” grossly overbuild their highway systems in response to this expansion of the Federal highway system. But the dysfunctional consequences quickly began to appear: By 1975, the State of Illinois found itself unable to even maintain its highway network – built in response to a goal that no point in this sprawling largely-rural State should lie more than 30 miles from a major highway. As a result of this dynamic, and a few others — including the fact that passenger fares could not keep pace with rising costs (even while the Federal government paid for 80 percent of the buses, and much of the operating costs) – public transportation was headed for trouble: By 1977 – a mere decade after operating assistance was provided by USDOT – farebox revenue covered only 50 percent of operating costs. Today, the most productive system in the country, New York City’s transit system, was covering 35 percent of its operating costs from farebox revenue – up until two years before the emergency of COVID-19. During the two years prior to the emergency of COVID-19, ridership on public transit had decreased by 10 percent a year. By 2020, farebox revenue covered only nine percent of the operating costs of transit in Los Angeles, and only 13 percent of operating costs in densely-populated San Francisco – where a separate transit agency (AC Transit) served much of that City’s suburbs (including Oakland, and parts of counties in the East Bay, including the western portions of Alameida and Contra Costa Counties). Kansas City, recovering only seven percent of its costs from farebox revenues, recently eliminated fares altogether – presumably because it cost more to collect these fares than the percentage of operating costs they covered.
Many of the essential elements of a public transportation system that account for the majority of trips in many countries across the globe never fully materialized here. Among these elements were:
In truth, alternative work schedules are rare in any country – although Germany’s widespread introduction of the four-day workweek, several years ago, is clearly an example, even if reducing traffic was not the principal reason for it. At the same time, the act of actually designing transportation systems is endemic to almost every developed nation with the exception of ours. Plus, there is considerable design in many nations often perceived as third world countries – China being the most outstanding example, while Brazil developed certain modes (e.g., bus-on freeway systems) at least a decade before any Americans involved in transportation appear to have become aware of them.
Inclusions in Previous Installments
The first installment of this series actually examined an element which would not merely thin out traffic, but which would serve as a fallback option (the management of work hours – a temporal consideration) if some of the more traditional spatial elements proved insufficient. The fourth of them dealt, instead, with the failure to produce and coordinate the other elements – in addition to the failure to optimize even a single one of the elements needed to produce a coherent system.
This series did not deal, in much detail, with phenomena like “traffic cops,” which, after about a 50-year hiatus in this country, are re-emerging to help minimize the consequences of our decades-long failure to curtail traffic – largely because of our failures to make public transportation work. Nor did this series deal with new aberrations – like Lyft and Uber – which decimated certain traditional sectors within our public transportation system (i.e., the taxi and limousine industries), and thinned the density of other modes (transit and motorcoach service, in particular) which had contributed far more to alleviating traffic congestion – not to mention increasing taxpayers’ subsidies for the provision of these highly-underutilized services. The failure to contain or stoop the spread of Transportation Network Companies, like Uber and Lyft, were covered extensively by National Bus Trader years ago, when the mode split from taxis – and transit – was just beginning (see https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-1-introduction/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-2-the-rise-fall-and-transformation-of-supershuttle/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-3-invasion-of-the-tncs/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-4-judicial-heroism/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-5-executive-branch-responses/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-6-industry-and-association-responses/ and https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-7-conclusions/.
Nor did these installments cover the dabbling of other incursions threatening public transportation – like driverless vehicles — which, thankfully, experienced almost no penetration into the public transportation arena, or even replaced many privately-owned vehicles, although they threaten to do great harm to both in the future (see https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-1-what-is-to-come-and-what-is-already-here/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-2-invasion-by-mode-small-vehicles/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-3-extraordinary-developments-and-tough-choices/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-4-invasion-by-mode-large-vehicles/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-5-the-regulatory-environment-initial-thoughts/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-5-the-regulatory-environment-initial-thoughts/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-6-the-transition-to-complete-autonomy/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-inevitable-part-7-cameras-and-sensors/; https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-8-access-and-accountability/ and https://transalt.com/article/autonomous-and-inevitable-part-9-conclusion-the-best-of-both-worlds/.
This series of installments identified those broad elements of a public transportation system that would necessarily have to exist, in most places, to make a public transportation system succeed in meeting its principal goals: Eliminating traffic and providing alternatives to it that their passengers could afford, both monetarily and in terms of the time spent traveling on them.
Huge Mistakes in a Single City
History of full of examples where one mistake led to, and compounded the consequences of, previous mistakes. In New York City, a combination of corruption, politics and astonishing ignorance doomed its transportation system to failure, and led to a level of traffic that has become unmanageable – even as the current Mayor has begun to deploy traffic cops to cope with the desperation this failure has left in its wake.
One interesting aspect of this failure – a theme I have often voiced in installments of National Bus Trader – is that many things that affect public transportation lie beyond its control. The most obvious example that comes to mind is politics – although all or most articles in National Bus Trader, including most of my more than 250 installments, have tried their best to avoid references to politics, at least when it was possible to discuss the issue without reference to such things. As a former New Yorker who “put up with” what I knew would doom the City to irreversible gridlock, I watched as tall buildings were razed and replaced by yet taller ones. At one point about 10 years ago, there were roughly 2500 housing units below Wall Street (most of them in large buildings in Battery Park) while there were 7500 under construction! Had the City had an intelligible public transportation system, this exponential growth would have translated into higher transit ridership – until traffic levels began to erode its effectiveness and decrease ridership, by roughly 10 percent, nationwide, roughly two years before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, as noted.
Compounding this problem (less so in many or most cities throughout the country), in 2014, former Mayor De Blasio began letting unlimited numbers of Ubers and Lyfts enter the City’s “taxi sector” without paying for taxi medallions – which, in 2015, were valued at $1.1M apiece. (See https://transalt.com/article/uber-and-lyft-defendants-most-vulnerable-lawsuits-most-lucrative/ and https://transalt.com/article/transportation-network-companies-even-worse-than-expected/). This flood of unneeded vehicles that brought the City no revenue decimated its taxi system – effectively replacing what, if used properly, could have contributed to some semblance of a feeder system. (Instead, in the heart of COVID-19, 11,000 of the taxis still left were assigned to provide deliveries.)
Last year (2022), newly-elected Mayor Eric Adams finally “capped” the number of Ubers in NYC at 60,000. By then, of course, plenty of plain-old motorists with relatively-new vehicles were providing similar service – picking up New Yorkers and visitors who were hailing taxis – vehicles whose drivers held no licenses to do so, with minimal insurance, and none of the other trappings of taxicab service, such as management, monitoring and dispatching. But at least these vehicles’ employers (if companies engaging only 1099 workers could be deemed employers) did not steal and sell their riders’ personal information, and that of everyone else in their passengers’ social media networks, as Lyft and Uber do. So when I am in New York, and cannot hail one of the City’s remaining legitimate taxis, hailing one of these “bandits” is how I choose to travel – other than on overcrowded subways, from which nearly a hundred waiting passengers a year are shoved onto the tracks.
Then, of course, are the cost overruns. An early example was the expenditure of $4M to “upgrade” the World Trade Center PATH station (a passenger rail system traveling to northern NJ cities like Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken and Bayonne, as well as “transfer stations” like Secaucus Junction, where PATH trains could intersect with additional passenger rail lines of New Jersey Transit, most passengers of which are New Jersey residents employed by the New York Stock Exchange or related firms and vendors supporting it).
For purposes of comparison, for roughly $5.7B, China built several hundred miles of heavy rail, numerous light rail spurs, and all its stations, throughout six countries (known as “The Silk Road”). France recently expanded part of its heavy rail network at a fraction of our costs (in 2014, construction of high speed rail lines ranged from 5.5 to 19.7 million Euro per kilometer – or roughly $8M to $31.7M per mile [https://www.statista.com/statistics/764486/cost-construction-lines-lgv-by-kilometer-la-france/]; costs for the recent construction of NYC’s “Second Avenue Line” cost roughly $2B/mile).
Then, of course, was the recent expansion of the highway network on the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel – an $11.8B investment that did not add a single vehicle’s worth of capacity to the tunnel, but instead, simply enriched selected landowners and businesses on the New Jersey side of it (with much of the money, funneled through the New York/New Jersey Port Authority, much of which came from the City, State and Federal taxes of New Yorkers). In fact, currently residing in somewhat rural Warwick, NY – about 50 miles NE of Upper Manhattan – I continue to pay several hundred dollars a year of “MTA taxes” – as part of my State-of-New York taxes.
Rewards and Boomerangs
As her reward for helping to dismantle New York City’s public transportation system, the former mayor’s Director of Transportation was appointed, by President Biden, as the Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). The attorney who presided over the City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission from 2014 through 2019 – during the period when TNC’s destroyed the City’s taxi system – was appointed to head the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). the Administration within USDOT charged with regulating the trucking industry (as well as the motorcoach industry, as an asterisk) in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, of course, there are the brokers. Bad enough that administrators outnumber people involved in actual operations – just as they do, for example, in higher education, where administrators outweigh university professors. But particularly in the past 20 years, largely (and increasingly) in complementary paratransit service, and completely in the non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) sector (see https://transalt.com/article/nemt-brokers-motivecare-and-mtm-stealing-hundred-of-billions-from-our-healthcare-system/ and https://transalt.com/article/defending-contractors-part-3-the-whistleblowers-song/), these bureaucracies have been replaced by brokers. In one lawsuit in which I was recently engaged, that City’s NEMT broker received 93 percent of an annual $250M budget (for transporting only Medicaid recipients for medical trips) simply for submitting more than 100 mostly-unneeded documents to that City’s healthcare agency – many or most of which were never submitted at all. That transit ridership is collapsing from its brokerages should hardly be a surprise (see https://transalt.com/article/responses-to-declining-ridership-part-1-contracting-independent-contractors-and-brokers/).
And So it Goes
A literary shrug of Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions.) As National Bus Trader readers who know from past articles of mine, and references within them (see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/upshot/transit-battered-by-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage, while poverty (and its “transit dependents”) swelled since roughly 1980, transit ridership, as noted above, declined by roughly 10 percent, nationwide, during the two years prior to the emergence of COVID-19. It has still not yet recovered, although points of a system’s peak demand, during certain times of the day, have swollen selected segments of certain routes or lines, and subway passengers continue to be shoved onto the tracks.
As noted, the year before the emergence of COVID-19, Kansas City’s transit system (RideKC), eliminated fares altogether. Months ago, Washington, D.C. announced that it would begin doing so beginning this July, 2023. As we now know, this fare elimination was not implemented.
For those transit systems which may be forced to eliminate transit fares because their streets are frozen with bumper-to-bumper traffic during both peak service hours and often throughout the mid-day “base period,” one can only wonder where the funds to pay for such service are going to come from. With USDOT already paying for 80 percent of a transit system’s capital costs, and much of each one’s operating costs, where else can additional funding come from — to add the additional passenger rail “group bedrooms” (for their ever-increasing homeless populations), much less the additional buses needed to handle the capacity needed during peak periods of demand on selected route segments? Or will the FTA’s budget simply stretch and stretch? Perhaps such communities may experience a reenactment of a 1999 lawsuit named Bus Riders Union v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Commission (BRU v. LACMTA), in which the court ordered the defendant transit agency to purchase an additional thirty two hundred buses (and, with them, the costs of operating them for 12 years, as USDOT requires). Two years from now, when the debt ceiling recently extended for two more years this past early June, 2023 ends, one will have to wonder even harder where such funding is going to come from. My hunch is that eliminating free bus service will be a much higher priority than cutting social security or MediCare funds – the latter, as noted, swollen by the waste and corruption of NEMT brokers. This is hardly a fantasy: One occasionally tuning into the news knows that, during the debt ceiling discussions, social security and Medicare lay prominently on the chopping block, Next time around, where should we expect free transit to lie? Even with our ingenuity for eliminating jobs, making transit free will not come as easily as we made most music free; only a moderate number of U.S. and other nations’ citizens suffered from that clever trick. Every taxpayer will contribute to free transit – although perhaps not much more, since taxpayer dollars pay for most of its costs now.
Talk of free fares in New York City began a few months ago, with widespread support from many city council persons. But that talk did not go nearly as far as did efforts to reinvent congestion pricing fees – which is actually slated to begin in the Spring of 2024 – with the entry into mid- and Lower Manhattan to cost a projected $23/vehicle during rush hour, and $17/vehicle in between (and perhaps at night, when there is little or no traffic in even this heavily-traveled part of the City. One should applaud such an approach – even if much of the hardship will be borne by a large segment of the population, with few or limited reasonably public transportation choices as an alternative. Even so, this approach will produce a few drops in the MTM’s bucket (for which it is earmarked) – a hapless agency with few if any buses running on time throughout its entire system during the peak and base period hours, unable to recover the ridership base it enjoyed in 2018 – which at that time covered 35 percent of the system’s operating costs. That this “operating ratio” is the nation’s highest should be sobering. That this drop in the bucket will have an imperceptible impact on traffic reduction is a mere footnote. One should not forget the sum that would have accumulated if a moderate fraction of the City’s 60,000 Ubers had paid for taxi medallions (or, if not decimated by these “exceptions,” fewer billions materialized from the medallion fees paid by legitimate taxis otherwise put out of business by Uber and its TNC cousins). Nor should one forget the $11.8B paid to widen Routes 1 and 9 on the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel – a program that, as noted, did not add a single millimeter of vehicle capacity to the tunnel itself, although this expansion will clearly make the merging between the additional robot-controlled EZPass toll booths and the tunnel itself even more hazardous and terrorizing than it already is.
New York City is a poster child for the collapse of public transportation, and readers of National Bus Trader should keep a careful eye on it – especially those hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of motorcoach operators who serve the City – and continue to pay bridge and tunnel tolls as a price for each of their vehicles replacing roughly 50 personal vehicles. Because of the building boom – higher, higher and higher – vehicles account for only about 20 percent of the City’s energy expenditures. All the electric vehicles one can jam onto the roadways will not put a dent in most of this energy drain pool. One City employee told me that the number of wind tunnels needed to provide energy to accommodate the City’s tall buildings lies far beyond what is remotely achievable.
Most interesting (to me, at least), as noted earlier — as a sign of desperation — the City has actually resorted to assigning live traffic cops to numerous clogged intersections throughout the City – and not just in Manhattan. (This proves once again that a “switch” that can make judgments can significantly outperform a “hub,” which cannot). So this City’s traffic logjam has necessarily forced it to violate the decades-long trend of replacing live Earthlings with robots. Does one actually think that some form of artificial intelligence will emerge to replace these officers? What might such robots cost? How much mayhem will they cause during their “learning curve?” These questions are only starting points. At least the robots will not have to share tents with the Homeless. Otherwise, one can barely imagine the future of Los Angeles, whose transit fares cover only nine percent of the system’s operating costs, with a Countywide service area roughly 16 times larger than all five boroughs of New York city – with the LACMTA’s core of bus service supplemented by an uncoordinated crazy quilt of dozens of “municipal” bus systems, many of which operate in segments of the LACMTA’s service area.
Beginnings with No Middle and No End
Apart from the gradual disappearance (or near-disappearance) of element after element of a public transportation system, a major reason all these approaches failed stemmed from the failure to connect them. In an intelligible universe, the landscape would be filled with park-and-ride lots, motorists would carpool to or from them or travel to and from them via some sort of feeder service (including bicycles, shuttles, taxis and even TNCs), and buses operating at high frequencies would pass through these lots and transport their occupants to, mostly, each city’s “central business district,” where they could then transfer to a tight network of other buses or trains, also operating at high frequencies. Of course, for this coordination to occur, one would need a system to actually be designed. As noted, our nation rarely does things like this other than planning related to the hope of landing Federal funds for a heavy rail system, light rail system or bus-on-freeway system. Those few individuals who can actually design a transportation system rarely have any say in the matter. From those of them I know, they want no part of it.
One could write multiple volumes about the reasons for these failures. One of the thorns cited as an excuse for these failures is the principle of “latent demand” — a concept that reflects the fact that the moment one car’s space in the roadway disappears, another car is poised to jump into it. While this is clearly the case where the public transportation system is poor – and an unproven theory in those rare places where it is not — it hardly explains our failure to design a coherent public transportation system – one including all the elements noted above (and written about in the National Bus Trader articles cited above), much less elements thoughtfully connected to one another.
Another cause for this failure is the reality of traffic itself: Other than modes operating on exclusive guideways or “rights-of-way” (e.g., passenger rail, bus-on-freeway systems), buses and other vehicles must travel in the same traffic stream clogged with other personal occupancy vehicles (POVs) and more and more delivery trucks.
At some point in the future, some writer is going to blame the decrease in ridesharing on one’s need for privacy, which many feel their solo jaunt in their personal vehicle provides. In reality, of course, this is a complete illusion. Modern automobiles are verily loaded with devices to capture the driver’s personal information – a capability enhanced by every motorist’s cell-phone – with the exception of the select few who have figured out how to dismantle its tracking devices. One would have to be a top-tier automotive engineer to figure out how to dismantle the information-collecting devices in a modern automobile. As an irony, of course, a transit or taxi patron paying in cash would ride almost anonymously, the sole exception being the video cameras on board – cameras whose footage is almost never pulled for reasons other than for a lawsuit, and whose data is regularly overwritten at regular intervals. So as far as “private” automobile are concerned, if their drivers want privacy, all they need do is leave their phones at home or have their phones’ tracking devices dismantled, and hop on the nearest bus or taxi – if one is lucky enough to live in a community where drivers of such vehicles accept cash. As an important curiosity about the privacy of paying in cash, a criminologist cannot even lift a fingerprint from a bill unless, for example, it was saturated with still-wet Gorilla glue or perhaps thick grease.
Finally, one has to wonder how and why the two-digit percent of many or most urban populations who now work “remotely” do not appear to have contributed to traffic reduction – the City of San Francisco being the sole and dramatic exception. Otherwise, the challenges of now creating a coherent public transportation system resemble a snake regurgitating its last meal, and then trying to re-swallow most of the pieces after having scattered them about in all directions.
Personal Cars and Personal Lives
In a community fortunate enough to provide a coherent and intelligible public transportation system, the road to privacy is not one’s personal car. The road to privacy is the use of public transportation. As an added benefit, in a collision between a car and a bus, the impact to a bus passenger is roughly one percent that of the impact to the personal car’s occupant. Unless the total travel time by public transportation is significantly longer, the combination of safety, privacy and the freedom to do other things by not having to drive is a bonanza. But this bonanza is available only to those fortunate to reside in the Land of Reason, or at least in country that dabbles in it occasionally.
It is not difficult to be a fan of public transportation. What is difficult is getting one’s community to create a coherent form of it that enough people will use to make it affordable to many or most of them. Unfortunately, in Today’s America, as in many other parts of the world, accomplishing this is becoming more and more a magic trick. For many Americans still alive today, it is already a memory.