Thursday, March 27, 2008

Keep the Buses Running on TIme!

I don't ask much from my city government. Fix the potholes, maybe a good recycling program, police and fire services. The other thing I want is buses that run on time. Or lease run predictably.

One concern of every municipality is public transit, particularly ridership. Cities want people to take the bus: it's good for traffic's good for the environment and maybe even good for social capital.

However, keeping public transit running on time never seems to be a priority for local politicians. I remember not so fondly when Willie Brown became mayor of San Francisco. In almost an instant the buses were running late or running inconsistently. It wasn't a surprise to see two or three number 39 buses backed up one right after the other.


Yesterday I experienced the same frustration. On my way home from work I wanted to take the number 20 bus. I called the scheduling line and was told of the next number 20 bus was in 16 minutes. So I decided to take another route via the number 72 bus. As soon as I climbed aboard the number 72 and the bus pulled away, a number 20 pulled in behind us. Being on the 72 I call to see when the number 4 bus was coming (I needed to transfer to this bus). I was told 19 minutes. Five minutes I got to my stop just in time to watch the number 4 bus pull in and out of its stop as there was nobody there. Had I known the number 4 bus would be there, I would have gotten off at a different stop and taken a back alley to get to the number 4. Even with all my waving and running, the bus driver didn't wait.

In the end, the experienced convinced me that the buses here are screwed up as well.

I don't think municipalities really realize how important public transit is to people. Local politicians tend to focus on the problem of traffic without ever really pushing for an efficient solution. Instead of talking about improving existing bus service, they talk about the need for light-rail train services or subway systems to be built. Here are my suggestions for improving public transit and, hence, reducing traffic.

  1. Cut the price of the bus ticket from $2 and change to $1. One coin. One loonie. It's easy convenient and quick. Moreover, this price change should increase ridership. There are some estimates of fare elasticity (i.e., the extent to which a change in the price of a bus ticket affect ridership) and they all seem to fall around -.4. This means that a 50% decline in the price of a bus ticket will increase ridership by approximately 20%.
  2. You can make up for the lost revenue by jacking up the cost of parking downtown. This will also encourage people to use public transit.
  3. Gasoline taxes are also effective way to increase ridership. One study estimates the gas price elasticity of ridership to be 0.3, meaning that a 10% increase in the price of gasoline would result in a 3% increase in ridership.
  4. Finally, and above all else, keep the buses running on time. Or at least predictably.

The issue for local governments when they consider public transit is how to pay for it. While providing public transit is costly, I believe they often forget that individuals make all sorts of trade-offs in their daily decision-making, and that riding the bus or taking a car is one of these trade-offs. An understanding of some basic economic ideas (like elasticity, like opportunity cost) should be introduced into these considerations regarding “keeping the buses running on time”.

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