On Public Transit

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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53 Responses

  1. Saul Degraw says:

    1. There are legitimate complaints about traffic and/or public transportation and then there are the complaints that people like to make because everyone likes complaining. How do you separate the the two? As far as I can tell almost no one likes their public transportation system and wishes it was better.

    2. Private mass transit is probably easier to do with buses and cars than trains. I don’t think anyone ever liked transporting people via train, we did it because it was the fastest mode for most of the 19th century. No one seemingly likes transporting people via air either but it is still done because it is fast.

    3. I’m guessing that the service in Lima, Peru was much much worse than any transit system in the U.S. and it also seemed to depend on density. It is interesting though that the private bus systems in the U.S. are more known for long-distance hauls like Greyhound and Peter Pan.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      1) I’ve liked most of the public transportation systems that I’ve used (as a resident, Victoria, Vancouver, and Ottawa; more briefly, Toronto, New York, and Paris). DC’s subway routes feel a little weirdly designed.

      There’s always ways I can think of for them to be improved, but I wouldn’t say any of them are bad.

      Recently Victoria has switched from full-size buses to mid-size vans/minibuses on some of the less-used neighbourhood routes, which I think is smart and economical.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to KatherineMW says:

        All due respect, but you’ve been in really, really nice places for public transit.
        You’d probably feel way differently if you were in Harrisburg, PA and relying on public transit for, well, anything.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to KatherineMW says:

        True, Kimmi. I’ve been living in places with governments who believe that 1) governments can do useful things; 2) public transit is one of those things; and 3) a service like public transit is worth funding and managing decently.

        There’s an amazing amount of overlap between politicians who think government is useless and politicians who deliver public services badly (or don’t deliver them at all).Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      everyone likes trains. Trains mean that you get from A to B quickly (quicker than a car) and reasonably reliably.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    Lima did not have a subway line until the mid-aughts. Like other cities in the developing world, it focused on bus based transit because it’s cheaper to build and maintain than rail based transit.

    Private rail transit is an interesting proposition. It’s certainly possible to have private rail transit. It existed in the past and continues to exist in some countries, notably Japan, today. The real issue is that you can’t have a lot of competition in the same way that you can have with buses, taxis, or even airplanes because of the infrastructure. You can only build so many rail lines to a particular location before you have a mess.Report

    • LWA in reply to LeeEsq says:

      The Pacific Electric Red Cars here in LA were interesting. They were privately constructed, but collapsed due to several factors, notably the inability to extend the rights of way for lack of eminent domain, and the love affair with cars.
      There are many myths around them- that they were beloved (they weren’t) and that the oil and tire companies killed them off (not true).Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LWA says:

        The Pacific Electric was built in the early 20th century so like many other tram and interurban systems, it was built and run by a private corporation. Incidentally, the main reason Samuel Huntington built the Pacific Electric was to further his real estate development business. Like the private Japanese rail companies of today, the main source of profits was never from getting people around but from real estate. A lot of other tram systems were run as subsidiaries of the local electric company. The local electric companies also built and ran amusement parks as a way to encourage people to ride their trams on weekends.

        During the mid-1940s, there was a plan to municipalize the Pacific Electric and use it as the basis of a mass transit system for LA county, This plan was scraped in favor of focusing on the nascent car culture. When LA county began to rebuild its rail system during the 1980s, I’m sure many of the officials involved were really angry that LA didn’t municipalize the Pacific Electric when it had a chance to. It would have saved LA a lot of money, time, and traffic jams.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to LeeEsq says:

      A 3 second google pulls a rail maintenance per mile of $2,000 ish, which is well under half the road maintenance of $5,000 ish.Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    Meanwhile, NYC needs trains. This is what NYC would look like without trains. Lots of extra bridges:


    I will note that the U.S. does have private mass transit on the East Coast. Many people are familiar with the Chinatown bus which does DC to NYC and back or NYC to Boston and back. There are buses that take people from Logan to New Hampshire and Vermont.Report

    • Taxis are another kind of private mass transit, although they’re very heavily regulated so maybe are not really all that private.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      New York is a special case as mass transit in the United States goes. The center of the New York City metropolitan area is an island, which is obviously not going to get bigger, and that island, for various reasons, managed to remain the economic center of that metropolitan area in the way that other downtowns did not. Subways and commuter trains remained essential to the transportation system for that reason.

      New York’s closest cousin is San Francisco but San Francisco lost many more jobs to the suburban counties and municipalities than Manhattan did. San Francisco could sprawl south in a way that Manhattan can not. Its why San Francisco has much more of a car culture than New York.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      The picture doesn’t speak enough. It explains how all the cars would get into Manhattan but it doesn’t explain where they would park.

      If the subway system got ripped up like the trams and interurbans than Manhattan would probably suffer the same fate as other rust belt cities.Report

    • j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Is there someone somewhere making an argument for abolishing subways?Report

  4. Stillwater says:

    Damn, I saw your references and noted them, so I’m glad you wrote this post since I didn’t wanna have to read the whole damn book to get what you were talking about.

    I’m off to read the post!Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

      Well, I read it and I agree. One thing that hit me during the reading is that if gummint initiates a social service because private folks won’t or haven’t, we get a different set of justifications than if gummint tries to control services that would happen in any event. I think lots of liberals tend to think that these and similar types of services wouldn’t exist without government impetus behind them, but I think commonsense as well as the quotations you supply show that those conclusions aren’t correct.

      Sensible regulation is one thing. Gummint control is another.

      Good post.Report

  5. Burt Likko says:

    Is it necessarily going to be the case that a governmental agency will be as dramatically ossified in its decision-making, and as captured by corruption, as we read described in Lima? It’s easy to imagine that private enterprise can usually be more supple in its thought and more responsive to user demand. If we’re talking about bus routes, the cost to change, augment, or add them is not prohibitive and a sufficiently well-run governmental agency could (in theory) respond to the city’s growth.

    Rail transit is a different animal, because you have to build stationary rail lines. Whether public or private, they don’t get moved easily once built. Especially if they’re underground. At that point, they become points of developmental efflorescence: ready access to a Tube station has a measurable and often dramatic impact on the price of a flat in London, for instance, attracting wealthier residents and higher-end retail businesses.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      And then you have New York where some times this is true and other times it is not.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Is there anywhere in the US that outlaws private buses? Where I live, buses became a government service only when the private sector abandoned them as unprofitable.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Yeah, the Chinatown buses are interesting. You can read more here:


        “Because of their low fares, the services became popular among non-Chinese customers as well. Between 1997 and 2007, Chinatown buses took 60% of Greyhound Lines’ market share in the northeast United States.”

        The “Shutdowns” header also lists a couple others that have run into trouble, usually for safety violations but they’ve also run into opposition by doing their pickups / drop offs curbside rather than at stations.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        “One business got shut down because its buses were unsafe, but a bunch of others just like it had already popped up and are operating just fine, therefore private buses are technically illegal” is an unconvincing argument.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I dunno, but after the disasterous “every single private line went out of business”… I could see the county outlawing private buses (under the theory that “this was a mistake and the taxpayer had to pay for it”)Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        One business got shut down because its buses were unsafe

        Not technically true.


        The argument is that the regulators misunderstood the regulations.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Eh, that’s not surprising, but still doesn’t make private buses technically illegal when they’re thriving.

        I’ve taken Megabus to Houston. It’s kinda weird just being dropped off at a mall. Though I remember taking Greyhound from Kentucky to Tennessee, or from Dallas to Austin, long ago, and the small town stops were just at gas stations and country stores.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        The Reasons headline says that the bus lines that was shut down “Is Set to Reopen”.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:


        I think that depends on whether we’re talking about inter-city buses or buses for in-city transit.

        If you’re talking about inter-city buses that cross state lines, that’s obviously in the federal government’s domain, and the answer is clearly that it’s legal (Greyhound, charter coach services, Chinatown bus).

        If you’re talking about inter-city buses that run just within a state, like the Green Tortoise between SF and LA, then presumably it’s a state-level issue, but since states don’t normally provide that kind of service themselves, I’d be surprised if any outlawed private firms doing it.

        The real question, l think, would be in urban transit. I can imagine cities banning it, but I don’t know if any/many actually have. The problematic aspect for a private firm would probably be how it manages stops and stays compliant. If it blocks traffic by stopping at particular street corners, it may create a backlash and run afoul of local traffic enforcement. If it tries using the public bus stops, it creates the kind of backlash Google bus runs into, and is probably illegal to do anyway. So a municipality might be able to effectively outlaw a private urban transit bus without officially outlawing it. But if they used minibuses and picked up/dropped off people in parking lots (and let’s say they worked out deals with the parking lot owners)? My off-the-cuff guess is that then they’d fall under the municipality’s taxicab/limo regulations, which vary from place to place.

        I’m sure they’d need some kind of permits. And in any city where the cabs and limos are cartelized I’m sure they’d push back politically.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        oh, actually, probably not. Every college seems to have shuttles to take kids home at night.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Right. I imagine that in most places, a full line of local buses run by a private company would simply have too many hurdles to jump over. City-run bus systems are able to get around things like taking up sidewalk space and even private property by utilizing existing laws related to public right of way that might be more difficult, or at least significantly more expensive, for a private company.

        Of course, city transit services can only survive in most places because they are heavily subsidized by city, state, and federal dollars. In order to make transit profitable, you’d probably have to charge enough to eliminate most current transit customers.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Of course, city transit services can only survive in most places because they are heavily subsidized by city, state, and federal dollars. In order to make transit profitable, you’d probably have to charge enough to eliminate most current transit customers.

        It’s like you didn’t even read the OP, or read it, but don’t think you actually have to explain why it’s different here.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        You ignored “most places.” Dude, you read people who disagree with you so uncharitably that I’m not sure it’s possible to have a conversation with you until three cycles in, when you settle into actually discussing what was said. Just calm down, man, and assume your interlocutors are not idiots or demons.

        Lima is awesome. South America has, in the last decade or so, produced some of the best transit stories in the world, in part because things are really cheap down there, so building and operating costs are significantly less than they are in the U.S. or most of Europe, say. Curitiba may have the best bus system in the world, and that bus system has radically altered the city itself (it’s publicly funded for the most part, I believe), and most people have never even heard of Curitiba unless they’re into transit issues. I doubt there’s a city in this country that could build a bus system as good as Curitiba’s, because building costs alone would likely be well into the billions with all the infrastructure building that would have to be built out of whole cloth. Eugene may be the closest we have in the U.S., and its system is so great because it can be so limited and still be highly functional for people who live and work in Eugene.

        In the U.S., however, at least in the smaller cities (like, say, Austin, or Minneapolis, or Omaha, or Columbus, and so on), the operating costs — whether a system is publicly or privately run — are high for buses, and much higher for trains, particularly if they have to cross bridges. And that’s just the operating costs. The system-building costs, in the U.S., are even higher, and again, a private company will have to either make deals with a municipality or spend a lot of time and money building its infrastructure. Not going to be worth it, for local service.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        you’re ignoring other (cheaper!) options:

      • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        You ignored “most places.”

        No, Chris, I didn’t. I said you had to explain why [edit: as you did this time], not just assert it.

        Dude, you read people who disagree with you so uncharitably

        I love irony.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Austin flirted with the idea of gondolas very briefly, then realized how utterly absurd they were for a larger urban area that’s not in the Alps.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        And that also lacks an intricate canal system.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        The only reason Austin’s not as flooded as Venice is a series of fairly extensive flood control measures. We could just tear those down, and next thing you know we’re the hottest tourist destination for couples looking for a romantic boat ride piloted by a guy with a funny accent and a giant stick on this side of the Atlantic.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        see link above, they’re aerial transport.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Eugene may be the closest we have in the U.S.,

        Eugene? Oregon? Then it must have been dramatically transformed in the last 14 years, because as of 2000, when I was riding it, the only thing it was close to was the bus system of Fort Wayne, Indiana.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        James, yeah, they have one of two or three true Bus Rapid Transit systems in the U.S. I believe it opened in ’07 or ’08. It’s a great, great bus, with its own lanes and wonderful covered stops. I dream about it every time I save 2-3 minutes on one of Austin’s “rapid” buses after baking in direct afternoon sunlight at one of the “covered” stops. It’s only one line, I think, but one, maybe two more and Eugene will pretty much be set.

        Seattle has a great BRT system as well, I hear, though I haven’t ridden it.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        To tell you how bad Austin’s “rapid” system is, it’s not uncommon on the main route (the 801, for those who might be visiting soon) for the “local” bus, that is the non-rapid bus, to pass the “rapid” bus in traffic. I have a friend who frequently boasts about her ability to make it from Austin’s midtown (the Triangle) to campus on her bike faster than the “rapid” bus can make the same trip.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Eugene makes everything look good…
        Our busways simply aren’t good at connecting where folks really want to go.
        (e.g. East end to downtown, where folks would rather go East End to Oakland).Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Burt Likko says:

      It’s relatively cheap to string wires from place to place, and send gondolas on them, assuming you’ve got the hills to do it.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Is it necessarily going to be the case that a governmental agency will be as dramatically ossified in its decision-making, and as captured by corruption, as we read described in Lima?

      Good lord, I hope not, and I think the evidence suggests not…unless we’re talking about San Francisco municipal government.Report

  6. Jim Heffman says:

    I don’t think anyone ever argued that private services could not act as a transit network. The question is whether those private services are able to provide that service in a manner that benefits both riders *and* drivers.

    It is clear that the existence of multiple independent suppliers is critical to a market that operates in a manner that best serves both supplier and customer interests. If there’s only one supplier–either the government or Uber–then what you get ends up focused on the supplier’s wants at the expense of the customers’.Report

    • Roger in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      To rephrase you are arguing against the exploitative potential of monopolies and cartels?

      If so I agree. Uber certainly would not be a monopoly as anyone can legally compete with that idea or create another way to skin that cat.Report