Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Transit fails to hold ridership

San Francisco CA - While there was a great improvement in ridership numbers following the I-80/I-580 connector ramp disaster, transit systems are failing to hold onto the ridership surge. The Insidebayarea news site reports on the slip in ridership numbers even though the melted interchange has not been repaired.

Many are drifting back to their cars even though they are more likely to sit in traffic. This trend of commuters going back to their cars is dumbfounding the public transit advocates who are off in their own little world when it comes to reality.

The problems in keeping the new ridership are many and the main problem is that public transit is not designed to haul everyone. It never has been nor can it be made to.

This is not meant to be critical of the transit operations in the Bay area. They've done a commendable job in adapting to the influx of new riders however the simple fact that bus or rail service is not anywhere as flexible as the private car needs to be understood.

In such events where there is a sudden surge of ridership, the transit system will be very lucky it retains 10% of the initial flow of new riders after 6 months. The reason is that public transit is designed to flow into a central business core. With urban sprawl and businesses relocating outside of traditionally higher tax base areas, transit systems can no longer compete successfully.

"All you need to do is add more routes and the rider can transfer to get where they're going" say the transit advocates. Wrong. Each forced transfer to get a rider to their ultimate destination reduces the chance of them becoming a regular rider by more than 50% and greatly increases the cost of providing service. Riders that have to transfer more than once to reach their destination are 80% more likely to avoid public transit as long as they have alternatives open to them such as a car.

In general, most of the choice riders are willing to make some adjustments to their travel plans as long as they can get quickly from point A to point B. This usually works fine when dealing with suburbs to the downtown core but even then the system must make itself somewhat flexible by providing sufficient service for the rider to make choices. I used to live in an area where I had 1 bus a day. One trip in the morning and one in the afternoon. If I missed that single inbound or outbound trip, I was screwed.

Another big problem for public transit is the modern trends in the business industry. Many companies are no longer just 9 to 5 but have a 24 hour work force with staggered hours. This makes it far easier for a person to justify taking a car to work rather than transit.

As mentioned earlier, businesses that are relocating outside of the higher taxed urban core play into the transit problems also. Most transit systems, even those with rail, have very poor reverse commuting. In other words, a reverse rush hour.

Transit advocates need to understand that they are never going to get 100% of the people to ride. The automobile will always be a competitor that will win out when push comes to shove. The best transit systems can hope for is to retain as many choice riders as they can. That is done by the basics which is providing clean, safe, reliable and convenient service to as many riders as they can. This is something many systems are doing a poor job at.

The transit advocates need to stop their hand-wringing about the private automobile and concentrate on getting what is in place already for public transit in their area working. I doubt that will happen as most advocates are too busy trying to saddle transit systems with expensive and unneeded transit projects rather than dealing with the basics.

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