Monday, January 29, 2007

false choices and McAnalysis

Before I get into this I have to say I really like the PG's new feature "The Next Page" and as a disclaimer its progenitor John Allison has been more than fair to me in my oped'ishness over the years in his former vocation as the oped editor. but Sunday's edition with the cartoon edition of "how to save public transit" just about drove me bonkers. The idea that you can draw some cartoon and somehow address some serious issues says more about the dumbing down of public discourse than it does about public transit. What really drove me over the edge was this idea that we could just adopt this Brazilian strategy to somehow save public transit here. Coincidentally I was actually at a conference just a couple months ago with several urban scholars from San Paulo and the topic of Brazilian public transit came up. Their stark message, they themselves NEVER take public transit, it just does not work for them nor for most middle class commuters in Brazil. Buses there are amazingly crowded, unairconditioned, have minimal accessibility to the disabled, do not have extensive coverage in middle class areas and transit usage has had declining market share there. More and more Brazilians are being forced to use informal transit systems(think group jitneys). Most of the the system discussed is only feasible because in Brazil your average bus driver, let alone construction worker or mechanic, is making the equivalent of $1-2 per hour, a little fact the cartoon left out. So this idea that you can draw a funky cartoon and lead people into some false conclusion about how to address our problems here does not even rise to the level of McAnalysis. It confuses and confounds more than anything, but sure is fun to read. 1

If you accept the premise out there that there is some atypical inefficiency at PAT then you have lost the argument to save public transit even before you begin. Is public transit in the US inefficient. YES. Is PAT some poster child for that inefficiency as some want to believe? Lets look at that some. The most damning fact is that PAT collects only 22% of its revenue at the farebox, compared to 55% from the state and 10% from other local sources. Bad for sure but atypical? The average collection at the farebox for the top 50 transit systems is only 37%. So PAT may not be doing so well, but nobody should think most other systems are doing that much better. It is also crucial to account for the fact that Allegheny County is an old county. The elderly in the county get mostly free transportation with state lottery revenue coming in to offset the cost of all that free ridership. The state pays the full zone 1 base fare for each elderly rider-trip. That in itself adds up to ~$25mil per year. That pushes down the farebox percentage and pushes up the state contribution. I bet if you just adjust for the disproportionate elderly ridership in Allegheny County you get a pattern of farebox collections much closer to the average for the US.

Let's also address the idea propounded that implementing some hub and spoke public transit routing in Pittsburgh will address the problems at PAT. It's an idea worth discussing and from a simple analysis of area-covered per route-mile type of perspective, I am sure the hub and spoke system makes a lot of sense. Yet the cartoon says it would be 'fun' for people to take three bus trips (i.e. two transfers) in the place of one for most trips. I myself know lots of people who are marginal bus riders in that they sometimes drive to town and sometimes do not. The cost difference (including both gas and parking) vs. convenience tradeoff for them is near breakeven. If those people have to take 3 seperate buses in place of one to get to work everyday, they will clearly be driving themselves in the future. Yes, that may not seem to makes sense to many... in the same way that others routinely drive alone in a 2 ton SUV's across town does not seem to make sense, but they do it.. The policy question is how to give them incentives to do something else. Any effort that makes public transit less convenient to average middle class commuters will continue to push public transit into being viewed as an adjunct to the welfare system, which will cause public support to evaporate and destroy it in long run.

1
One urban transit advocate is a little more blunt saying: "Curitiba, to some extent, is serving as a fantasy-world decoy to divert some planners and decisionmakers from more implementable, workable, and effective transit solutions". A somewhat more even handed perspective is here.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you don't understand the difference between transferring between two busses with different schedules that have to be coordinated and tranferring between a scheduled bus and one that runs every 5 or so minutes.

The kids at the downtown charter school do.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

The kids at the downtown charter school have little choice. Most commuters who pay full fare do.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not talking about having a choice, I'm talking about understanding the difference beteween the two systems.

However, your comment smacks of self righteousness and arrogant wealth. Let me guess, you don't think using the convention center is a good idea because then all those toursts will see all of our poor people?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

huh? I'm talking about saving public transit. I have no idea where your comment on the convention center is coming from. In fact most of the commuters using public transit coming into town are not poor by most definitions. I would like to see a structure like what is used in the Port Authority in New York being built here. Probably wouldn't be the convention center only becasue that would be an expensive conversion. They are building a new bus terminal that would be much more appropriate for that use... but again, this all has little to do with what is going on in Brazil.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 11:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The comic suggested utilization of the tragically underused convention center as a terminal.

This has become a bit off-topic. My original post was to help you figure out the difference between the two ways of transferring, granted taking a cheap shot when I mentioned that the kids understood the difference. Did you ever figure that out?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

As I said, they are building a bus terminal downtown that would be better suited for the job. Port Authority in NY is both a center of intra and inter-metropolitan buses.

I may not know your meaning then. True story though. I am feeling old, but when I was in grade school, literally 3rd grade, they gave us PAT bus passes to get to school. Kind of a different era now I think, but back then nobody seemed to think twice about little kids commuting by themselves through the city.. with transfers even.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 10:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about the pro's and con's of Curitaba, but lighten up on the comic book thing, will ya?

I don't think its intent is to "dumb down" our discourse, or to hypnotize our weak minds with Curitaba woman's shapely figure. I think its just a way to A) get people to notice a new idea, and B) get people to understand the outline of a complex idea.

Besides, it breaks up the experience of reading a paper. You want your discourse dumbed down, read Jack Kelly.

Monday, February 05, 2007 10:09:00 PM  

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