Mass Transit, The Way it Ought to Be

Mass transit systems have the capacity to reduce traffic, gasoline consumption, and pollution. All of these are laudable goals. But the design of our systems is essentially unchanged from what it was 100 years ago. We can do a much better job. This essay shows how.

Originally published 2002

A superb proposal was reecently covered in on the news. The idea was that we should stop requiring mass transit systems to “pay their own way”. The speaker pointed out that when you calculate the real costs of driving cars — traffic jams, lost productivity, frayed tempers, quality of life, and pollution — then mass transit can be seen as the bargain it is. On that basis, tax payers should be willing to offset mass transit losses, for the sake of the benefits they provide.

It’s a compelling line of reasoning. The real downsides to public transit are the long waits and crowded rides. A business trying to maximize its profit wants to find the longest wait the consumer will stand, because that minimizes the number of vehicles it runs. And it wants to pack in as many people as possible, to maximize revenue on each run. So a business is always striving to identify the “mini-max” — the point where costs are minimal, and profits are maximized.

But that very drive to minimize costs makes mass transit way less than appealing for anyone who already has a car. For example, I live in the San Francisco Peninsula. I could take a train up to the city. But when my event ends at 9:30, the next train I could take would be at 10 pm. It then takes an hour to get back to my town, after which I still have a short drive home!

In all, it would take me close to 2 hours to cover the same distance I can drive in 30 minutes, at that time of night. Taking the train may be environment friendly, but where is the incentive?

This is an example of profit-based thinking. Since there aren’t huge numbers of people returning from work, the train doesn’t have to run very frequently. Because it doesn’t, it becomes a very unappealing alternative. So when I go up to the city, I drive. That means spending a lot of time in traffic jams, and generating that much more pollution, but at least I can get home at a decent hour.

Considering A Practical Proposal

But let’s say we come at it the other way. If instead of trying to figure out how to operate the system at a profit, lets figure out the maximum delay the people are willing to tolerate (let’s say, 10 minutes) and the maximum amount of crowding they are comfortable with (let’s 2 or 3 people for a one-stop ride, and everyone else sitting). Then, do the math. Make runs every 10 minutes with sufficient vehicles to carry the expected traffic.

Such a system would have several very interesting results:

  • The system would be very affordable
    As a highly-subsidized operation, the cost of riding would be very low. There would have to be some charge, of course. Otherwise, sad to say, the system stands the very real possiblity of becoming a homeless shelter. (That might be nice, from a humanitarian standpoint, but it would reduce ridership as a consequence, which would defeat the goal of the system.)
  • The system would be online, 24-7
    It would be there, running day and night, around the clock, whether or not you use it — just like your car. And you would be paying for it with your tax dollars.
  • The system would be convenient
    You’d know that you would never have to wait more 10 minutes, and that you’d have a good seat.
  • Ridership would increase
    Such a system would become very appealing. It would be a system you could depend on, one you could actually use. If you went for a night out, you wouldn’t have to worry about what time you leave. You wouldn’t have to plan your schedule around the transit times, as is currently the case. Instead, the system would be there, ready to carry you whenever you want to go — just like your car.
  • Profitability becomes a possibility
    Under those conditions, ridership might even increase to the point that the system became profitable. Not that it matters. Just keeping cars off the road would more than justify the expense.

Such changes could be made with current systems. But to be truly useful, mass transit systems need major rethinking and redesign. We’ll look at those ideas next.

Identifying Requirements for the Ideal System

The systems we have today are effectively unchanged from 100 years ago. We have buses, trains, and trolleys. They are cleaner, faster, and more efficient, true. But the fundamental nature of the operatation has to change in two important ways to be both cost-effective and to maximize ridership.

We’ll need people with serious design skills to define appropriate mechanisms for achieving these goals. Sorry to say, yours truly is highly unqualified for the job. However, as an intelligent observer, I can point to the requirements for the design — the goals that must be satsified in order to judge the design an unqualified success. So that’s what we’ll do here.

In addition to satsifying the many requirements that have factored into the design of existing mass transit systems, a truly effective redesign must satsify two addional requirements:

  • On-demand operation
  • Accomodation for human-powered transport
  • Mass transit cards

On Demand Operation

This requirement is one that will need a lot of technology, but it is important for efficient operation. If a system runs all night, every 10 minutes, it will certainly be convenient. But it will also be inefficient.

For a train, a car needs to be ready to go every few stations, so it can it be put into operation when needed. The number of cars and the number of stations is, of course, determined by the necessity of keeping the wait-time down to 10 minutes or less. (In general, as long as the wait is predictable — up to some maximum — people will be satisfied .)

A tremendous amount of technology could conceivably be brought to bear on such a system, to further minimize costs. Cars capable of running automatically, for example, would minimize the need for salaried drivers. Such a design would further minimize costs, although it would require more up-front investment. (It may entail higher risk, as well, which require greater system redudancy and monitoring of operations).

For buses, of course, fully autmatic operation is not an option. So buses would need to sit at strategic points, and bus stops up and down the line would need a mechanism for signaling that a bus was needed — and which one.

To prevent mischief, a rider would have to pay for the ticket before signaling for the bus. Since that ticket would only allow a person to signal for one bus, they would have to be careful about getting the right one. But it would be a lot like dialing a long distance phone number. You don’t want to get that wrong, either. Otherwise, you pay the cost without achieving the result. (That was more important back when long distance connections were really costly, but the principle is the same.)

Accomodation for individual transport

The other change that must be made to make mass transit more viable is to make extremely friendly to small, individual transport vehicles (especially of the human-powered variety). The goal of this change is to increase ridership.

It is all well and good to have a mass transit stop several miles from my home, as it is now. I can drive the car over there and park, and drive back when I return. No big deal. But what about when I get to my final stop?

When I take a train up to the city, I generally walk to my destination. There is a radius of 10 blocks or so in which I am comfortable walking. That defines the limit in which mass transit makes sense. For anything outside that radius, I take the car.

But if it were really convenient to take a human-powered vehicle, or perhaps a small, highly efficient scooter of some sort, then the acceptable last-stop-to-destination distance is vastly increased. Coupled with short waits, low cost, and the advantage of being able to read or sleep on the train, such a system becomes highly appealing, indeed.

The trains in this area, bless their heart, have added cars with space for bicycles. That is a wonderful step in the right direction. The buses even have bicycle carriers, now. Of course, you still have to carry your bicycle up the stairs into the train, sometimes through crowds. And you have to lift your bicycle onto the bus rack.

Those problems pale in comparision, though, to the problem of access. The second person on the bus has their bicycle on the front of the rack. The means the person who got on first (and who is therefore most likely to get off first) has to get one or more other bicycles moved to get theirs. Simillarly, the bikes are stacked next to one another on the train. That can make it difficult to get a bicycle next to the wall, when 5 others are leaned up next to it.

What is needed are mass transit vehicles like the Greyhound bus, which has a capacious storage area under the seats. If that area were divided into compartments, and you could roll a in your individual transport at ground level, the system would be extremely convenient to use.

Such systems could accomodate small motorized bikes as easily and safely as bicycles, producing a highly-viable “transportation network”. What’s needed, of course, is something like “double-decker” buses and trains, with compartments underneath that a person can easily slide a vehicle into or out of.

Some mechanism would be needed to ensure that a person’s vehicle is not removed by someone else — inadvertently or otherwise. And the monitoring or accessing mechanism would have to be fast enough that you wouldn’t have to worry about getting your vehicle out before the carrier leaves the station. But I suspect that designers can solve those problems.

Mass Transit Cards

Finally, mass-transit credit cards would make sense. Taxpayers who ponied up the money for such systems in the first place should get deep, deep discounts on such cards. Taxpayers who help support the system should get discounts based on the number of years they have been paying taxes. In general, though, the cards should be so reasonably priced as to be a “no brainer” — something you want in your pocket all the times, on general principles.

That card would be good for every mass transit system in sight. You could use it on a trolley, a train, or a bus. It might cost you a certain amount to get the card, but you wouldn’t be charged every time you use the system.

The whole point of the arrangement is to move away from the “pay as you go” arrangement, and to encourage the use of mass transit as much as possible. Heck, you might even be rewarded with a minute tax credit every time you use the system. And giving the greatest reward for using the most efficient systems would help to motivate their use.

Changing Traffic Patterns

If a mass transit system was convenient and comfortable, if it cost very little, and if you had some form of individual transportation when you reached your destination, you would be a lot more inclined to use it. Perhaps more importantly, such a design would make a huge difference in the way that mass transit is used.

At the moment, mass transit systems are virtually confied to major population centers. It’s easy to see why. The building density means that a large number of people find their destination “within range” of their final stop. And since the population density supports a large number of cabs, you are likely to find localized transport when you need it.

But those very facts contribute to the accumulation of populations in high-density cities, which further promotes congestion on the transportation arteries that lead to it, as well as the transportation avenues within it. Perhaps more significantly, they encourage you to buy a car so you get to the other places you’d like to go.

Suppose, on the other hand, that it were as convenient to take a ride down to the shopping mall or the golf course as it is to drive there. And suppose you had the moral equivalent of a motorized shopping cart or golf cart when you got there (although much narrow, out of practicality). Then, remote” destinations would make as much sense as “central” destinations.

Again, like middle-of-the-night ridership, traffic volumes would be low — at least at first. But the requirement for convenience would remain high, to make the system useful, so “on-demand” transport would be a necessity, to keep operating costs to reasonable levels.

But if such a system existed — because we weren’t worring about operating them profitably — then they would be increasingly used. Instead of having all traffic going to and from some central destination, it would increasingly move at angles to that pattern. It would move across the “web” that led to the central spoke. It would move out to the country, too. It would go up to the ski areas, out to the parks and the countryside.


A truly effective mass transit system would reduce waiting times to acceptable levels and accomodate individual transport. It would be easy to use and cost very little to ride. Moving away from the concept that such a system has to “pay its own way” makes it possible to undertake the design and construction of a truly effective system.

Recognzing the true benefits of such a system makes it apparent that actually would pay for itself in a variety of ways. And the existence of such a system would raise the probability that, one day, ridership would increase to the point that ridership revenues actually do cover operating expenses.

Such a system would get people out of their cars. It would do so by providing a safe, reliable, convenient, comfortable, and low cost alternative that meets their needs. And isn’t that the whole point of a mass transportation system?

Copyright © 2002-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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  1. End the Carpool Madness – A Plea for Sanity | June 3, 2017 (4:58 pm)

    […] I applaud people on bicycles and those who use other forms of human-powered locomotion. Each of them represents on less car on the road, that much less pollution in the air. I appreciate the people with the patience to use mass transit systems, for the same reasons. Along those lines, see  Mass Transit: The Way it Ought to Be. […]

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