Real Money with Ali Velshi: Wednesday 6:30 6:00 pm

I am scheduled to be on Real Money with Ali Velshi @AJRealMoney on Al Jazeera America tonight (August 13) at 6:30 6:00 pm CDT / 7:30 7:00 pm EDT talking about the Green Line and Transit.

Second Class

Transportation analysts typically favor bus over streetcar investments, although everything is conditional. We are puzzled by the fascination the economic development community (particularly the downtown business lobby) has for projects like streetcars, which in practice (i.e. in mixed traffic) are worse in providing transportation service than existing and easily enhanced technologies like the bus.

These folks will claim streetcars provide economic development benefits while bus will not (an empirically testable and falsifiable claim). I am speculating as to why they and their crowd hate-on the bus so much, but I think it has to do with the bus eco-system making them feel like second-class citizens. They themselves would not ride the local bus, and cannot imagine others like them would either.

1. New vs. Old

Anything new (and shiny) has some appeal, especially compared to old and run-down. We invent words to make old things sound nicer than they are (historic, classic, vintage, legacy, patina). While once streetcars were old and buses were new, the opposite is now (or soon will be) true.

2. Fast vs. Slow

Transportation is about speed (and frequency and  reliability). While speed has historically risen overall, speed (and reliability) on any particular transportation facility tends to decline with age. That is, once deployed, that is the fastest the system will go, and over time it will go slower. While there are occasional improvements, as infrastructure ages, it goes slower. Roads get more congested and more access points, reducing speed. Transit wears out, is shut down for maintenance, or slowed down in work zones, has stops added (more than they are eliminated). New is usually faster, but more importantly, limited access is faster. We can (and of course did) build a new mode that is overall slower (though more frequent) than existing transportation modes it replaced, but that is harder to justify, so it is always pitched as faster, even if in contradiction to the facts.

3. Amenities vs. amenity-free

Please Check Schedules
Please Check Schedules

People like amenities, features, gadgets. Some of them are genuinely useful, like the LRT station variable message signs which say “please check schedules”, er, like the LRT station variable message signs which are supposed to tell you how many minutes until the next train. Shelters and heat are nice in bad weather. Pre-paying saves time. Working signs can provide useful information which relieve anxiety

4. People like us vs. people not like us

People like to live with people who are like them, or their economic “betters”, who raise their status by association. This process explains economic sorting in real-estate markets. It should be no surprise that people want to ride with people who are like them, or their economic “betters”, who also raise their status by association, and don’t want to ride with others.

This “people like us” phenomenon also leaks into the taxi vs. Uber/Lyft debate. Uber and Lyft drivers are more like “us” (if “us” is upper middle class folks and above) than your typical taxi driver.

System Dynamics

The decision of the “choice rider” (as opposed to what was once unfortunately called “captive riders” in the field, and then “transit dependent”, and now “transit reliant”) to ride the bus thus depends on whether other similar people ride the bus. Presumably they are making the same kind of decision. They are not considering the positive externality (virtuous circle) that their riding the bus increases the likelihood someone like them rides the bus (and their not riding the bus lowers the same likelihood (in a vicious circle)). Like any positive feedback system, this is both a cause and an effect.

The choice rider doesn’t ride because of 1, 2, 3, and 4, and their not riding makes 4 even worse. The lack of choice riders weakens the political constituency for improvements to 1, 2, 3.

So try to tell people at dinner party they should willingly ride on an old, slow, amenity-free service with people who they otherwise would not associate with, even though they don’t have to and can afford alternatives, and they will smile and turn to the next person. They don’t want to feel second-class, or to feel guilty about not wanting to feel second-class. All too-often, this mode is “bus”, especially in cities without historic, classic, and patina-ed rail systems.

Instead tell people who have a choice that they can ride on a mode that is new, fast, with amenities, and with people who are like themselves, and they might consider it from time to time, and more regularly if it is cost and time-effective. This mode need not be rail.

Unlike a new, fancy, and expensive rail system, existing buses are now the opposite, old, basic, and cheap. There is nothing technically preventing the bus and bus stop from being nice, (basically as nice as a brand new train and rail station, but usually a lot less expensive) but the lack of willingness on the part of the public from doing so.

Bus transit has more than an image problem. Its image problem results from the reality of services, which are in part due to relatively less investment than rail services get, because it has an image problem. It is a vicious circle.