By Dom Nozzi
Should a City strongly focus its bus system on serving lower-income areas, even if doing so results in very low bus ridership?
Before Gainesville, Florida hired my friend Perry Maull (who no longer works for Gainesville) to be the city transit director, Gainesville only had a few buses, and they were always empty. Gainesville, he proclaimed, was suffering from the “empty bus” syndrome, where everyone in town could see all these empty buses running around town (and thinking about how wasteful that was).
It was only when Perry started going after the University of Florida market that things turned around in a big way. Most of Perry’s brilliant strategy was to convince students to pay an increased student fee in exchange for a bus pass. Students were more than happy to do this so that they could escape the burden of scarce, expensive parking on campus.
Sadly and predictably, Perry and the city were then attacked by advocates for the poor and disabled. Such advocates were appalled that the city bus system seemed to now be putting too much emphasis on serving “wealthy” students rather than poor people in East Gainesville. They demanded the city return to the inefficient days of excessive focus on serving poor people – even if that would mean returning to the bad old days of the Empty Bus Syndrome.
Putting too much emphasis on serving poor people in low density areas served by ample, free parkign predictably results low bus ridership levels. In effect, doing so is to make the bus system act like a social service agency rather than an effective transit system.
It is a recipe for transit failure.
Designing a transit system for poor people — people who are more likely to have no choice but to use transit (because they are less able to afford owning cars), is a design strategy where there is little need to care much how good the transit system is operating, since poor people are forced to use it regardless of how awful the service may be.
That may be fine for a social welfare office. But for a bus system, creating a mediocre transit service kills public support for transit. After all, who wants tax dollars to go toward empty buses that are only used by a handful of low-income people?
Such a floundering system requires millions of public dollars increasingly bankrupt communities don’t have, forces communities to serve areas that are extremely low in density (too low for healthy transit), and ultimately erodes the community’s ability to improve the system overall (because of sagging transit revenues and declining public support for transit).
By contrast, by adopting Perry’s successful strategy of going after the people who have a choice (in this case, college students living in high-density areas who are inconvenienced by scarce and expensive parking), transit is now seen by everyone to be relevant and a meaningful part of the community travel mix.
In other words, instead of an unbalanced focus on serving the poor and ignoring predictable declines in bus revenue and quality, opting for proven transit strategies for success (serving higher-density residential areas where parking is scarce and costly) improves the bus system overall. A healthier bus system, in other words, can provide better service for poor people than can a mediocre Empty Bus system that is overly focused on serving the poor.
It may be “politically incorrect” to design a bus system that targets the wealthier “choice” riders, but it is the political “price” a community often must pay if it truly wishes to improve its bus system.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
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