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Peter Gordon

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The Case for Rapid Transit; Before and After the Fact

Martin Wohl
Professor Transportation System Planning
Carnegie-Mellon University

Allow me to part company with many avid transit buffs by saying that my homework and best judgements lead me to conclude that:

    (1) In modern-day urban America, no city not now having a rail rapid transit system will find one attractive, appealing, convenient, efficient, economic and useful - - all things considered;

    (2) Only a handful of cities have economic, demographic and social characteristics which warrant even study much less construction of a high-capacity bus or rail rapid transit system;

    (3) Myopia, ignorance, and lack of objectivity (and perhaps integrity) - - on the part of the transit industry, its consultants, legislators and members of the 4th estate - - have led to the widespread waste of resources in the transit field. Moreover, these shortcomings have led collectively, to gross over-use of rail technologies and to both under-use and improper use of bus and para-transit technologies; and

    (4) In many cities the best proposal for solving its urban transportation problem may well be no proposal. That is, many cities may be better off by simply living with and wallowing in congestion and pollution than by expending enormous resources to make only a small dent in them.

It seems to me that much of the above is obvious - - if only one wants to see it. For instance, if rail rapid transit was even a way - - much less the way - - to “cure” the traffic congestion and pollution problem, then why is congestion and pollution so bad in New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia? And why, if rail rapid transit is so attractive to people, are the five older U.S. rail rapid transit systems losing patrons - - even as both capital and operating subsidies are increasing and as new lines and stations are being added?

In reply, many would and do say that the problem with existing and pre-BART type rail transit was its image and its poor service. If only cleaner and more modern cars and stations were provided, and if only subways with speeds matching that of autos were built, they - - they say - - transit can and would become competitive, would attract high ridership, would reduce auto usage and, in turn, traffic congestion and pollution, would promote better urban development patterns, and would help the transit dependent. Also, it is argued that such transit to be effective must be grade-separated (e.g., rapid transit) and have high capacity, in fact enough to carry 30,000 to 40,000 people per hour per track.

On the surface, these arguments sound good - - particularly if one is trying to sell a system or an improvement to one. Or, as BART advertised in the early 1960's, “the main purpose of Rapid Transit is to eliminate the oppressive traffic congestion. To accomplish this, the BART System must be so appealing that commuters will choose, most willingly, to ride the trains to and from work each day, instead of struggling along crowded traffic arterials in their cars. The trains must be competitive with the private automobile in terms of comfort, speed, cost and convenience.”

BARTD sold its idea and got it funded. It was to be the modern-day version of yesterday’s rapid transit and the answer to traffic congestion. It was designed with high vehicle speeds, with massive capacity, with comfortable cars and seats and was accorded rave reviews.

However, despite high hopes and fancy predictions by BART consultants and analysts, almost none of the advertised and promised “successes” came to pass.

Quickly, what did happen?

    (1) BART’s high capacity system - - one which can carry 30,000 to 40,000 people per hour in each direction - - is actually carrying only 120,000 per day on all its lines, and its Transbay tube is actually handling only 26,000 per day in each direction. The “low capacity” Bay Bridge, by contrast, is still carrying 110,000 people each day in each direction (some 90,000 by car) despite the existence of BART. While some outlying BART stations have less than ample parking space, and a few of its trains have more standees than is desirable, it would be fair to say that low patronage for the most part has not resulted from low transit capacity.

    (2) Traffic congestion even on the Oakland Bay Bridge and its approaches did not go away. Or as a recent BART impact study report put it: “Traffic levels at the busiest hours showed only small reductions. This is evidenced by an increase in average speeds though the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza from about 15 mph at the busiest time of the morning peak (7:30 a.m.) ... to an average of about 18 mph ....”

    (3) In terms of being competitive with private auto vis-a-vis time and cost, full data is not available. But what there is shows that BART may be cheaper farewise, but certainly is not quicker. For instance, Transbay BART users who formerly used auto now lose about 13 minutes per trip but save $1.50. Also, others crossing the Bay by auto could save $1.70 by using BART but would lose about 23 minutes per trip if they chose to switch.

    (4) The so-called transit dependent seem to be ill-served by BART. With over 40% of BART’s riders coming from households with family incomes of $20,000 or more, and over 60% from those in the $15,000 and over category, less than an impressive argument can be mounted on that score. Moreover, with over 60% of all westbound Transbay BART users and 87% to 96% of those coming from the most heavily used home-end stations getting to BART by auto, one must wonder about how much BART in fact is helping the transit dependent.

In many respects, BART is no exception. For example, the new Dan Ryan and Kennedy Lines in high density Chicago have passenger loads of less thank 20,000 people per hour while the adjoining low-capacity highways carry many more people on a daily basis. For the Ryan, 160,000 per day by highway vs 110,000 per day by rail transit; for the Kennedy, 120,000 per day by highway vs only 60,000 per day by rail transit.

More blatant examples would include the Lindenwold Line from New Jersey to Philadelphia, the So. Shore Line in Boston and the Airport extension in Cleveland. The automated and high speed Lindenwold Line attracts only 20,000 passengers per day each way, the So. Shore line only 10,000 people daily each way, and the Cleveland extension only 5,000. Not only do these lines handle far, far less than high capacity passenger loads, but they also have not brought about the talked about and promised traffic relief. Again, as the BART impact study team put it, when examining the So.Shore and Lindenwold cases, “No perceptable (sic) changes in traffic congestion were recorded on [the parallel highway] facilities.”

One must wonder out loud: Why are we providing these facilities and what can we do to improve them?

One question at a time:

First, why are we providing such facilities if not to provide high-capacity, to reduce congestion and to help the transit dependent? The stock answer, of course, is to conserve resources and to provide the cheapest form of mass transport, because “we all know” how cheap rapid transit is, especially relative to the auto.

However, the story on this score is not dissimilar. In fact, the record is sordid, to be blunt about it, and it seems high time to blow the whistle on the high-priced PR experts and fancy analysts who estimate and bandy about the expected costs and revenues for these modern-day urban saviors.

Let us look squarely at the facts.

During the selling or pre-construction phase, Morgantown’s PRT facility was only going to cost $13 _ million; after the fact, it did cost $64 million. The Lindenwold Line was to be built for $54 million but did cost $92 million. The So. Shore Line increased from an estimated $74 million to $111 million. The most recent and blatant fiascos, though, are D.C.’s METRO and San Francisco’s BART.

After D.C.’s METRO was sold to congress and to the local and state governments involved, the estimated costs were revised, in 1969. The unsuspecting public was told that the capital costs - - including 30% for contingency and inflation - - would be only 2.5 billion and that, once running, the annual maintenance and operating costs would be $32 million. Then, only six years later, the costs were again revised. The $2.5 billion capital outlay figure zoomed upward to over $4.5 billion and the $32 million figure for annual maintenance and operating costs skyrocketed to $129 million. Very tidy! Only an 80% mistake on the capital outlay side in six years, and a 300% “slip” with respect to maintenance and operating costs.

What about BART? As you know, this 19th century system, which has been embellished with a few 20th century garnishments, was peddled to the public and legislature over 15 years ago; its bonds were first floated in late 1963 and its first line was opened in 1972. BART was to cost about $1.000 billion, a figure which included over $200 million or about 30% for contingency and inflation. Moreover, a year later, Adrien Falk, president of BARTD, was quoted as saying, “We are obligated to complete this system within the funds made available by the voters.” Bill Stokes, the BARTD general manager, only poured oil on the fire by saying, “We directed the engineers to be ultra-conservative in projections on the income and costs of the project. We added an inflation factor of $200 million though we know it would be easier to sell a $600 million bond issue than an $800 million issue.”

What did happen? Instead of costing $1.000 billion, BART actually cost $1.600 billion, and a $600 million or 60% cost over-run.

But the story does not end there, sadly enough. As you may know, BART was estimated - - again by high priced consultants and BARTD personnel - - to have rather substantial patronage and large operating surpluses. However, after 3 years operating experience we find that:

    (1) Annual patronage is only 36 million, a figure far below the projected 75 million number, a mere 50% goof.

    (2) Annual maintenance and operating M & O costs were estimated to be only $13 million, but in fact are about $57 million, an error of “only” 340% in spite of lower patronage and car-mileage than anticipated.

Thus, the projected operating surpluses of $10 million a year vanished and were replaced by annual operating deficits of almost $40 million.

These estimation bungles, collectively, mean that it is costing the public at large some $5.40 for each BART trip and not $1.30 as estimated. Put differently, with an actual average fare running about 60¢ (not 30¢ as planned), each BART rider is subsidized to the tune of $4.80.

Put in these terms, rail rapid transit no longer looks so cheap - - relative to private auto, taxicab or what-have-you. Nor is there any reason to believe that the overall situation for BART will look better rather than worse in years to come.

What, you may ask, has all of this got to do with L.A. and its spate of rapid transit proposals. A lot.

All of these recently completed facilities and the L.A. starter line alternatives share four things in common, the first two of which are fatal deficiencies:

    (1) The markets being served are too small (in absolute numbers) and the densities at the two trip ends are too low to result in reasonable patronage levels. After all, the be all and end all for a high-capacity rail rapid transit facility is the patronage. If you fail there, then you are dead;

    (2) The stations are so widely spaced that coverage of both the residential and employment trip ends is poor, thus resulting in poor accessibility. As a result, access time, walking and transfers will be too high for most people and most especially for those not having a car for access. The problem in L.A. will be particularly acute if you undertake one of the proposed starter lines. Why? To date, no successful rapid transit facility or system has more than 1-mile spacing between stations, compared to 2 miles for BART and 1.4 miles or more for L.A.;

    (3) Rail technologies have been provided or proposed in the examples mentioned and in L.A. As a consequence, a separate access mode and excessive walking, waiting and transferring are required, thus making the facilities really unappealing to most travelers. Nor can you get to and from the transit stations without an auto, for the most part. Moreover, rail trains and tracks can not easily or cheaply be moved as living and working and shopping patterns change. Thus you find yourself tied to a fixed route pattern that stands in stark contrast to the changing travel and living patterns of today and tomorrow; and

    (4) In all these cases, the costs were seriously understated and the patronage projections were grossly inflated. While this error may or may not be fatal, I wonder what the voting public would say if you and the press, the analysts, the consultants, and the academicians alike were to tell it like it is.

Rest assured that the figures included in the present SCAG starter line reports are considerably off-the-mark. Not only are the capital maintenance and operating costs considerably understated, but the ridership estimates are ridiculously inflated. On the latter point a recent SCAG report provides cost and patronage information for a number of alternative starter lines, one of which (alternative 1) runs eastward and then south from North Hollywood. According to the study, alternative 1 (with only 29 stations and a station spacing of 1.8 miles) will garner some 125 million riders a year while alternative 5 (with 17 stations and a station spacing of 1.4 miles) will have annual ridership of 95 million. Surely those responsible for preparing these L.A. starter line patronage estimates are kidding! To appreciate how absurd these ridership projections really are, merely consider the following comparative data: Chicago’s entire rapid transit system (with over 150 stations) currently enjoys annual patronage of only 94 million; Boston’s system (with about 70 stations) has only 90 million riders; Philadelphia’s (with over 60 stations) has less than 60 million; and San Francisco’s (with 34 stations) has about 36 million.

All of the above - - and much more - - leads me to suggest the following course of action for SCAG, SCRTD and Los Angeles:

    (1) “Go back to the drawing board;”

    (2) Seriously consider bus rapid transit if you insist on a high-capacity rapid transit system (which you probably don’t “need” and can’t justify);

    (3) Do more experimentation with express buses, either on exclusive lanes or on grade- separated right-of-way; and

    (4) Experiment more with para-transit modes to include taxicabs, shared cab, jitney, subscription bus, and private van pooling. These alternatives, if coupled sensibly with proper de-regulation and pricing, hold considerable promise.

While I tried but was not successful in helping Boston, Washington and San Francisco avoid their recent disasters, let me hope that L.A. will be a different story. It is a city blessed with many advantages, all of which I hope you make good use of.

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