Public transit 101: read a “how to start a business” book

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Not every place need look like New York City — which currently accounts for almost a third of the 10.2 billion public transit trips taken annually in the United States — for a system to be competitive with automobiles. Zurich, Switzerland alone, with just a metropolitan area of 1.9 million (about the same population as the Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area, if somewhat denser) — clocked some 542 million passenger trips in 2007 on its network. Within the city proper (population: 380,000), some two-thirds of all workers commute by public transit.  

The Zurich model relies on a system that combines very high frequency service in the city that is “timetable-free” for riders — meaning that it is unnecessary for riders to consult a schedule, as the next bus or tram is understood to be on its way soon — and a “pulse” schedule for suburban and rural routes. In the latter areas, where timetable-free service is not offered, there are easy-to-remember departure times (every twenty minutes, at seven, 27, and 47, minutes after the hour, for example) and near seamless transfers to other services in the network.


Isn’t that expensive?

“We require strong government subsidies to get to [the] appalling service levels we have now,” said Graham Currie of Monash University, but it turns out “that you actually get higher patronage per kilometer when you provide more kilometers.” The largest systems in the United States, for example, tend also to have the highest “fare box” recovery rates, a number dependent on the actual fare, but which suggests that systems become more sustainable when they provide better service in the long run.

With a high quality system in place, at least initially, it will have a high “burn rate.” “For the first couple of years you will need some temporary subsidies to pay for the fact that it will take a while for the fare revenues to grow, yes, that is true,” said Paul Mees of RMIT University. The payoff, however, will be a system that people actually want to use, providing “something equivalent to the convenience of the car.”

“I think a truth is we have a pretty good ideas about how we could increase ridership, but increasing it cost effectively within our existing political environment is a huge problem,” said Currie. “We get the outcomes” — low transit usage and high car ridership — “that result from that.”

Reducing “burn rate” and thinking about other subsidized transportation options

None of the planners or advocates Remapping Debate spoke with for this story believed that the gains in ridership that could be catalyzed by more substantial “jumpstarting” of public transit service would eliminate the need to publicly subsidize those systems. But, several people said, a dense and robust network that was more broadly adopted by the public could, over time, reduce a system’s “burn rate” from its initial level.

Paul Mees, of RMIT University, said that as a dense network attracted many more riders, the fare box recovery rate (a measure of the amount of operational costs paid for by a customer’s fare) would also rise closer to the levels achieved in some well-run European systems because the initial increase in service, though dramatic, would be smaller than the subsequent increase in the number of trips taken on the system.

Currently, the most dense public transit networks in the country are correlated with relatively high fare box recovery rates. For example, approximately 57.7 percent of New York City Transit and 36.4 percent of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) Philadelphia buses, trolleys, and subway costs are paid for by rider fares. By contrast, the very high rates of public transit usage in Zurich, Switzerland yields a recovery rate that approaches 65 percent.

Less complete public transit systems have recovery rates that are substantially lower. The Port Authority of Allegheny County, which runs public transit service in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, has a recovery rate of just 25.1 percent despite charging the same fare as New York City Transit.

(Such recovery rates are also dependent, of course, on the size of the fare. Los Angeles’ Metro charges $1 less per trip than does New York City Transit, and has a fare box recovery rate of only 27.6 percent.)

Public transit is not the only mode of transportation, though, that is subsidized: automobile infrastructure is also subsidized, though the subsidy “is more obvious for transit,” said Stephanie Pollack of Northeastern University.

Part of the reason why public transit’s subsidy is more visible and why public transit appears expensive is that the “cost of running…a bus system, includes the vehicles, the fuel, the stops, the stations, and everything. It is the total system,” Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute told Remapping Debate.

In contrast, Litman said, since users pay for cars and fuel; businesses build and maintain parking lots; and governments construct and rehabilitate roads, only the last infrastructure element is considered subsidized. “When you do a total cost accounting…[including] roads, parking facilities, and vehicles, public transit is often far cheaper” than automobile usage.

And that is “not even paying attention to the environmental benefits [of public transit],” Litman added.


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