Irreverent and Unsolicited Advice to Transit Advocates

Norm King
Norm King is a former city manager of three California cities and of the San Bernardino County transportation commission and has taught part-time at USC and Claremont McKenna College. He also served as past director of the Leonard Transportation Center at CSUSB

Part 1: Strategies Not Goals

The other day I attended an excellent seminar “Future of Public Transit” sponsored by the Lewis Center at UCLA, attended mostly by transportation practitioners and students who want so badly to believe that public transportation is the wave of the future. I was struck by the desire of some presenters and many of the attendees to advocate doing “more of the same” for the future of public transit in the face of transit performance data which is truly abysmal and trends which do not support such optimism.

Now retired from a career in local government management including being the executive director of a county-wide transportation commission I am compelled to offer the following unsolicited advice to transit professionals, urban planners and college students who wish to become one or the other.

As these thoughts came to me as I listened to the seminar presentations my observations are somewhat random but are organized in the following manner. The first installment begins with the idea that transit in not a goal in itself and presents two non-traditional transit innovations – priced lanes and transportation network companies, i.e. Uber and Lyft – which will enhance transit service.

The second piece discusses the declining performance of transit, in particular light rail investment, and raises concern that traditional assumptions about the virtue of transit over auto travel are no longer valid, if ever they were.

The third focuses on the fact that in most metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, an increasing proportion of funds are allocated to transit yet transit market share has declined. I also suggest that given past performance that seeking approval of another transportation sales tax at this time and spending these funds on “more of the same,” as proposed by Metro, is unlikely to result in any meaningful improvement.

The fourth installment deals with concerns about the practicality and futility of SB375 and the danger of wishful thinking and planning based on a hope and a prayer.

Finally, I suggest that if we are serious about improving our existing transportation system and our environment that imposing various “user fees” on driving must occur and that correcting “dishonest” prices (i.e. market prices which do not include negative externalities), which lead to consumer decisions which negatively affect others and the environment, will be far more effective than traditional planning approaches.

Don’t mix up strategies and goals. Understand that increasing transit ridership is a strategy and not the goal of transportation policy.

Clarify your goals for transportation policy before locking into public transit (and taxpayer’s money) as a solution. My view: the primary transportation goals should strive to provide mobility for everyone while reducing the transportation carbon and energy budget at the least cost to taxpayers and users.

No matter how you cut it our transit strategy has not made measureable progress on these goals. It is an irony that in the face of declining transit ridership during a time of unprecedented new transit investment, transit’s cost per passenger mile has increased and the amount of energy per passenger transit mile is now on average greater than the auto passenger mile.

Transit’s new best friend: Appreciate and support the construction of time-of-day toll roads.

Not only do priced lanes hold the beneficiary of the toll lane accountable for the cost of using the highway, free flow bus lanes remove the bus from normal freeway congestion. Priced lanes make the need to invest in far more expensive fixed line rail less desirable.

Where was the transit lobby when Rep Grace Napolitano and other California politicians pressured the federal to water down its HOT lane standards? The subsequent lack of enforcement to increase the HOV passenger requirement from 2 to 3 for a free ride under certain traffic flow conditions will virtually guarantee that California will not see new investment in new HOT lanes because the HOT lane will not produce time savings to either buses or autos.

Don’t look at Uber and Lyft as competitors but as partners and a part of the solution.

(This particular bit of advice is a response to one of the seminar presenters, a professor from New York City, who listed Uber and Lyft as one of the challenges to future transit.)

A revolution is about to occur. The idea of a roving van service, electronically routed to efficiently pick up shared-ride passengers for a point to point trip has been around a few years. The problem has been to create enough scale to make it work. Uber and Lyft are building the communication infrastructure that will create a scale of demand for such trips, dropping off and picking up passengers along the way, in a way not previously thought practical. The UberPOOL and Lyft Line programs will replace low-frequency bus service and offer the convenience of point to point travel in a way fixed line transit cannot. This in turn will eliminate the need for some families to own a second or third car.

This service is already beginning to assist with the challenge of first and last mile to transit stations by aggregating rides. It also offers the opportunity to shift to a much more efficient way to provide mobility to the poor via a transit voucher which would enable access to a far greater number of job opportunities than transit. Access to a car is key factor in being able to get off public assistance, especially for single mothers.

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