When Does It Make Sense for Transit Planners to Change Existing Routes?

There’s been some talk recently in Seattle about reorganizing the city’s transit system to improve efficiency. But almost immediately, strong objections emerged to eliminating lesser-used routes that some people depend on.

Photo: ##http://seattletransitblog.com/2013/08/28/transit-efficiency-social-justice/##Seattle Transit Blog##

Frank Chiachiere at Seattle Transit Blog argues that maximizing the social benefits of limited transit resources is more complicated than preventing harm to existing transit riders:

Resistance often has less to do with the substance of the change and more to do with fear of loss. An economist might call this loss aversionwhere  fear of loss has a much stronger emotional power than an anticipation of gains. Translated into advocacy, such aversion can quickly become moralistic — “You are taking away X!” — giving excessive deference to present conditions and placing the burden of proof on change itself.

When restructures are proposed, we hear emotional appeals from those benefiting from existing but inefficient service, but fewer such stories from those hurt by buses that run too slow, too indirectly, and that don’t come often enough. But these ‘invisible’ riders are people, too, and their humanity and their mobility rights are equal to everyone else’s. If you believe mobility is a human right, then maximizing mobility maximizes the exercise of this right.

It is naive to assume that a transit system can hurt no one; any fixed-route system with less than infinite frequency necessarily creates winners and losers; this is a geometric fact that is foolish to deny. Even the world’s best-funded transit systems have constraints on whom they can serve. The core mission of public transit must be to benefit as many as possible and hurt as few as possible, which makes operational efficiency imperative.

We should absolutely use a social justice lens to help us evaluate and reshape our transit network (and Metro’s service guidelines do), but that is not equivalent to making a virtue of inefficiency. The quest for efficiency need not make us ruthless and inflexible, but efficiency should be the rule, with exceptions made in deliberate and transparent ways for clear and defensible reasons such as network comprehensibility or geographic coverage. But exceptions they must be, and the burden of proof should be on inefficient service, not the other way around.

Transit consultant and blogger Jarrett Walker at Human Transit has looked extensively at the tradeoffs transit systems make between ridership and coverage.

Elsewhere on the Network today: City Block considers the implications of how much real estate city streets consume. The California High Speed Rail Blog examines how the new rail system can be a force against sprawl, rather than promoting it. And Milwaukee Rising reports that, after a lengthy public involvement process, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is adding a big chunk of new road to the controversial I-94 highway expansion project.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As I’ve noted before:

    Under capitalism, you get what you earn, at least in theory. Those who believe that people need an incentive to work and innovate can agree with that. Under socialism, you get what you need, at least in theory. Those who believe that we are all part of one human family can agree with that. But over time, when you have the same group of people in power, both capitalism and socialism degenerate into feudalism, under which the privileged expect to continue to get what they have been getting, and perhaps a little more, whether they need it or not, deserve it or not. For those who have real needs, and who produce real earnings, it’s just tough luck.

    That was my complaint against the New York State Legislature when I ran for (actually against) it years ago. But neo-feudalism seems to have gone nationwide.

  • Ari

    They did this SF a few years ago (it’s still going on, actually). It was a well thought out plan.

    One thing I remember was that people living on streets that were losing service complained but people living on streets that were GETTING service also complained. As this article correctly points out, the complainers tend to be more passionate than the people who may benefit from a change, especially when the lose is concentrated and the benefit diffused.

    Hopefully Frank’s argument wins out most of the time.

  • Ian Turner

    IMHO it is appropriate to rationalize transit service at least once a decade. Too often things operate they way they do just for historical reasons; for example, most of the bus lines in New York follow the old trolley or elevated rail tracks. There is no justification for just blindly following the status quo in this way. And sometimes rationalizing service can yield significant benefits, as for example with the combination of the V and M lines.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It took a desperate need for service cuts to rationalize the NYC Bus lines, something NYC Transit wanted to do for decades.
    The question is, when service increases where it go where needed or where it used to be? The money is on where it used to be.

  • Bolwerk

    Feudalism did include obligations on the part of the lord to provide certain things to the serfs, which you can see analogs to in the union-management relationship, or the relationship of drivers and (to a much lesser extent) public housing residents to the state. The difference is the serf has learned to extract a living wage, while the lumpen are still excluded from the process.

    The innovation of creeping proto-capitalism was dispensing with those obligations, leaving the serf a free peasant receiving compensation for his labor or the fruits of his labor and being required to pay back rent.

  • chris

    Seattles transit network is an absolute mess. It’s about the furthest thing from a simple grid system as you can get. Instead it seems to be designed around one-seat rides to the FiDi, no matter how inefficient and winding the routes are. And if you want to go from one random point in the city to another, its likely you’ll have to go way out of your way, likely transferring downtown.

  • Anonymous

    On the other hand, when I’ve learned about old trolley/streetcar tracks it’s helped me to understand why things are arranged the way they are. City neighborhoods often cluster around those old lines, and it’s nice to have them connected. Going street grid-only risks doing to transit what interstate highways did to tear apart communities … but I agree with reassessing once a decade. Cautiously.

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