The Case Against the “Empty Bus” Argument

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit provides useful ammunition in the battle of reasonable people against knee-jerk transit-bashers.

Walker begins his post by quoting from a story in Canada’s National Post headlined "Save the Environment: Don’t Take Transit."
The article posits that because many buses run empty for much of the
day, they are environmentally inferior to private automobiles.
Anti-transit stalwarts Wendell Cox and Randal O’Toole are cited in support of this argument. (Ignored is the research that shows how dramatically even a 10 percent increase in US transit ridership could reduce CO2 emissions.)

Human
Transit’s Walker says that transit advocates can’t afford to ignore
this line of thinking, infuriating though that may be, and he offers
his rebuttal. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s a sample:

346594696_364f16e0d6.jpgPhoto: lantzilla via Flickr

In
almost
20 years as a transit planning consultant, I’ve looked closely
the operations of at least 100 bus and bus+rail systems on three
continents, and I have never encountered one whose supreme and
overriding goal was to maximize its ridership.  All transit agencies
would like more people to ride, but they are required to run many, many
empty buses for reasons unrelated to ridership or environmental goals.
To describe the resulting empty buses as a failure of transit, as Cox
does, is simply a false description of transit’s real objectives.…

[I]n the real world, transit agencies have
to balance contradictory demands to (a) maximize ridership and (b)
provide a little bit of service everywhere regardless of ridership,
both to meet demands for "equity" and to serve the needs of
transit-dependent persons.

One analysis that I’ve done for
several transit agencies is to sort the services according to whether
they serve a "ridership" related purpose or a "coverage" related
purpose.  Ridership services are justified by how many people ride them.  Coverage services
are justified by how badly people need them, or because certain suburbs
feel they deserve them, but not based on how many people ride.  I
encourage transit agencies to identify which are which.  Once a transit
agency can identify which of its services are trying to
maximize ridership, you can fairly judge how well those services are
doing in meeting that objective, including all the environmental
benefits that follow.  Until then, the Cox argument is smoke and
mirrors.

More from around the network: Bike Friendly Oak Cliff reports on misguided municipal efforts to stifle the Dallas neighborhood’s burgeoning street culture. Tucson Bike Lawyer says that city is gearing up for its own ciclovía. And The WashCycle has the scoop on the University of Maryland’s efforts to increase campus bike ridership.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Jarrett Walker: New Geary BRT Option Could Provide Faster Service

|
When it comes to providing the fastest, most reliable bus rapid transit service on Geary Boulevard, cutting out bus passing lanes and “consolidating” local and express services might sound like a downgrade. But according to transit consultant Jarrett Walker, such a configuration could actually provide a superior level of service. It’s all about using the right […]
SFMTA painting the bus 'Red Carpet' lanes on Mission in the Mission a couple of years back. Photo: SFMTA.

Open Thread: Room for Private Vehicles in Red Carpet Lanes?

|
The SFMTA Board of Directors approved the next step in the $35 million Geary Rapid project on Tuesday, which includes segments of red carpet, bus-only lanes between Stanyan and downtown. The rub: the SFMTA decided to allow privately run transit, including tour buses, tech-buses, and Chariot, to also use the lane (in reality, non-Muni vehicles of […]

Mission Transit Lane Removal Nudged Closer to Reality

|
Last April, businesses on Mission Street started to gain some traction in pushing against SFMTA’s “red carpet” bus-only lanes, which they claim—contrary to the available evidence, it should be noted—are hurting their bottom line. The result: Supervisor David Campos asked the SFMTA to “make a radical shift in the program,” as he put it in […]

SFMTA Readies Limited Roll Back on Mission Transit Project

|
SFMTA staff has released its recommendations for compromises to its recently completed Mission Street transit upgrades. In addition to plans to relocate the outbound Cortland stop to the nearside of the intersection, the staff wants to move forward with (from the agency’s FAQ): Removing two of the required right turns on Mission at 26th and 22nd. This will […]