Trains are better than buses

There is a part of me that wishes that the sentence that makes up the subject line of this post wasn’t true, but in many ways it is objective reality.  Because people prefer to ride trains over buses, as an almost universally revealed sentiment.  Of course, people still ride buses, even when given a direct choice between the two modes, but that choice is usually driven by a confounding factor: the bus is cheaper, or closer, or cleaner, or accessible, or takes a more direct path, or runs more often.  But the person standing at the corner of Broad and Allegheny and going to jury duty at City Hall who chooses to take the 4 or 16 bus is a rare person indeed.

Trains are also good policy: 

  1. Trains can be powered by electricity, which can be generated from any number of sources and is priced stably, instead of diesel fuel which is increasingly expensive and subject to wild price swings based on world events.  (It worth noting that SEPTA, despite being located near the heart of the Northeastern US natural gas boom/glut, has studied adopting CNG as a bus fuel and has not found any savings to be had over diesel-electric hybrids.)
  2. Trains scale better than buses.  Each traincar can hold more people than a bus, and trains can be run at long lengths and at higher frequencies than buses.  The number of buses required to fully replace the capacity of a full subway line at rush hour frequencies exceeds one per minute.  Every bus requires a driver, and skilled human workers cost scarce money.  Six-car subway trains are operated by lone motormen on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, and Regional Rail trains only require an engineer and a conductor, although longer trains have assistant conductors for revenue collection purposes.
  3. Trains are not subject to traffic conditions, nor do they contribute to congestion, which is a critical advantage to anyone who has found themselves caught in Center City or on the Schuylkill at rush hour.
  4. Trains are physically durable objects.  The surviving Silverliner II Regional Rail cars were retired this year; they had been originally delivered in 1963.  Running a bus for 30 years, much less 49, is an act of insanity almost on the level of wearing a Tony Romo jersey to an Eagles game.

The main problems with trains are the lack of flexibility (once the tracks are in one location, they don’t move, ever, even when travel patterns change) and the high costs of startup capital required to build rail lines in the first place, orders of magnitude over running buses over pre-existing streets.  This is not to entirely dismiss other problems like accessibility, but those are the main reasons we don’t have more rail lines than we do.  But, as I laid out in my basic thesis, we get to reap the benefits of many generations of rail investment, and generally do not need to find the hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars to build new lines (although there are obvious candidates should SEPTA ever chance upon a stray billion).

What trips SEPTA up, as it tries to exercise effective stewardship over this legacy, is a lack of institutional flexibility.  It is not used to being anything other than an agency with an unstated mission of managed decline.  Its internal culture does not encourage experimentation and innovation.  As an example, bus routes make curious detours or stop just short of major destinations because that’s where the old streetcar lines that the buses replaced used to run, despite the buses being advertised as not being tied to the fixed routing of the street trackage.  SEPTA is a multimodal agency, and does better in its multimodality than many comparable agencies, but it must do even better.

The primary low hanging fruit for improving SEPTA is comprehensive fare reform.  SEPTA’s fare system is notoriously complex, but it creates many unhelpful incentives.  The most obvious is the very high ($1.00) cash transfer fare, which incentivizes people to take long bus rides to and from their destinations, instead of changing to a subway train and only using the bus as a feeder.  Other problems include the low service frequencies on Regional Rail, and the high fares to be found outside the traditional peak-hour-peak-direction service, a facet that has seen negative progress in the last decade.  The New Payment Technologies project under way at SEPTA is an excellent opportunity to try new approaches to fare policy, an opportunity SEPTA shows no signs of wanting to take advantage of.  This subject can (and will) be the focus of an entire series of posts.

One final note on the steel wheel vs. rubber tires issue: Philadelphia was once a city built around its streetcar lines.  For the most part, those lines are no longer with us, having been replaced by buses.  While that loss is a major tragedy (and an unpunished crime), it’s sadly the case that restoring those losses is not a wise use of scarce transit capital funding.  Even when the rails are mostly intact, as on Route 23, it is my position that streetcars compatible with Philadelphia loading gauge are not a superior enough option to warrant the spending.  Again, this will be a future focus on this blog, with particular attention given to the remaining trolley lines in West Philadelphia, on Girard Avenue, and in Delaware County, and to the particular problems of Route 23 as one of the longest and most heavily used lines in the system.

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  1. Where do trolleys fall into the organization scheme of Trains=Good, Buses=Bad? They seem to be higher-prestige and more user-friendly (and newcomer-friendly and tourist-friendly) than buses, and they run on electricity, but they’re tiny one-car things that still get stuck in traffic…

    I keep waiting for ubiquitous smartphone use to somehow drive a renaissance of bus use, now that we can actually use computers to figure out how those schedules interact instead of having to sit there with a pile of paper schedules trying to make sense of it all. However, the last new person I met in Philadelphia (she had in fact been here a little longer than I have, but possibly in different neighborhoods) was asking around for a ride from 23rd and Worth to Center City, because she still hadn’t figured out the buses. The 17 is right there! So anecdotally, my renaissance is not happening outside of my own transit patterns. And I have always been much more pro-bus than most of the people I know. (New Yorkers’ aversion to buses always surprises me.)

    What is the $1 cash transfer fare high in comparison to? Obviously it’s more expensive than “free”, but $2.55 for a token and a transfer is hardly more than $2.25 for a subway and transfer in New York. (Admittedly, that subway gets you a lot farther in New York.) And Philadelphians are ahead at $3.55 for a token and two transfers. But I’m not familiar with the fare structures of other cities.

    Having a fare price and a transfer price doesn’t seem like an unduly complicated level of fare structure — what are the other complications that are objectionable? Are we including Regional Rail trips that can be paid for with 3/4/5 tickets on weekends and 4/5 tickets on weekdays and 3 passes offpeak? Or just looking at the (relatively simple in comparison!) bus/subway structure?

    I’m skeptical that fare reform alone will get the city where it needs to be, especially if buses continue to route around transfer points rather than enabling transfers. And nobody really gets excited about fare reform outside of doomsday fare hike scenarios. But maybe it would be a start, if it caught on.

    1. So, the revealed preference issue I mention in the first paragraph basically boils down to “people with any attactive alternative don’t ride buses”, which implies that only in particular edge cases do a significant number of middle class people over ~30 ride the bus. (Given the geography and demographics of poverty in America, this sometimes gets elided to “white people don’t ride buses”; that’s a less complete explanation, but accurate to an ugly first approximation.) Trolleys do not have this problem; “Light Rail” is all but officially a Stuff White People Like list member.

      We still have what are essentially classic trolleys in Philadelphia. Quite literally with the Route 15 PCCs, more figuratively with the 1980s-vintage K-cars. They are short, run in single units, and carry on the order of twice as many people at capacity as a bus by being slightly wider and slightly longer. This does not scale up well like a subway or commuter rail does, but this is mostly a function of specific implementation choices by SEPTA, that are not fixed in steel. Much depends on the design of the next generation Philadelphia trolley, which is coming soon because the K-cars’ accessibility waiver is going to eventually time out.

      My focus on “good transit” here is one of pragmatism. As urban policy, people who live near a subway, trolley, or commuter rail line are less likely to defect to car ownership. Politically, a Bus Riders’ Union of only the poor with no alternatives is going to have a hard time getting results.

      $1.00 is expensive compared to free. My focus here is on the rider who has a choice between a long ride on a bus versus a short ride on a connecting bus to a subway (or commuter rail, for which there is no transfer fare); if we’re assuming a rider in the neighborhoods facing this choice without an unlimited pass, that is basically the definition of a typical working class rider. Asking them for at least $2.00 in transfers (at least) per day is economically unjust, and creates the wrong incentives for SEPTA itself, which would save money if the rider were choosing to transfer.

      In addition to the NY MTA example you cite, MBTA (which has more intelligent fare collection software) has a transfer policy of only charging the fare for the most expensive transit mode. So a CharlieCard user who taps into the subway for $2.00 can transfer to a local bus (fare: $1.50) for free, or to a Inner Express bus (fare: $3.50) for a marginal $1.50. Of course, MBTA failed to properly integrate Commuter Rail into the CharlieCard system, so it’s not a perfect example of what can be accomplished with SEPTA NPT, but it is demonstrative.

      While the transit side may be relatively simple (you forgot suburban zone fares), Regional Rail is full of pitfalls, including on-board vs. advance purchase tickets (that assess a non-constant penalty for on-board sales), weekday vs. evenings-and-weekends (which is a distinction just fine enough to be complex and not fine enough to accomplish actual policy goals like flattening out the rush hour peaks), and several flavors of poorly advertised pass rules. (Can you recite the condition that allows use of a Zone 3 pass for reverse-commuting to Delaware? And you use that every day…)

      1. I think it’s that you can use a Zone 3 pass for commuting on any train that doesn’t pass through any Center City station inbound before 9 AM. I think outbound it has to be before 4 pm? This comes up when I take the Trenton line to NJT to New York City. The rule is (or was recently, at any rate) actually written wrong on the website and right in the massive document that has all the rules on it — this did come up at some point when I tried to use it on a sort-of-peak train, in a situation where it fit the letter of the website and the conductor disagreed with me.

        Also, weekly and monthly passes (any zone, I think, but you need at least Zone 3 or some kind of cross-county pass to get to places where it’s relevant) are good on DART, but daily Independence Passes are not.

        Not that my ability to recite that with whatever amount of accuracy I managed (any?) indicates that the rules are simple, logical, or straightforward. SEPTA’s fare structure is clearly an ugly, ugly kludge.

        I like the MBTA system you describe — hadn’t realized it was that elegant. Does that only work for 1 transfer?

        1. That was actually very close. Zone 3 passes are good anywhere except inbound before 9:30a and outbound between 4:00p and 7:00p, and the reference points are 30th Street through Market East Stations (and not, notably, University City or Temple University). And the part about DART was spot-on. But you, personally, O Friend Of The Blog, are at or approaching expert-level SEPTA knowledge, and also are well-positioned to know that particular rule. The rule made more sense when SEPTA fares distinguished Peak (as defined above) from Off-Peak, which is an economically useful distinction on SEPTA (Peak trains run full, Off-Peak trains don’t), instead of Weekday versus Evenings and Weekends, which is not. Washington Metro recently tried a three-tiered time-of-day fare structre, with off-peak, peak, and peak-of-the-peak fares; it was a good thought, but it didn’t work.

          And the Zone 3 rule is something of an afterthought. Between that and the similarly-structured rule for Zone 1 passes (good to points inside the city limits; a rare moment of geographic inequality), there are no other provisions for discounts for reverse-commuters. If you’re a reverse-commuter bound for a Zone 3 station that isn’t Torresdale, you’re out of luck. And there are plenty of reverse-commute destinations in that category: Media, Conshohocken, Fort Washington, Jenkintown, Bryn Mawr. and transit connections out of Norristown and Chester, if not so much in those beleaguered cities themselves. A more equitable rule might be to add one zone to Zone 1 and Zone 2 passes, instead of laboriously listing out which stations are and aren’t in the City of Philadelphia. (This also deals with edge cases like Cheltenham and Somerton, as well as literal edge cases like Bala and Overbrook.)

          As far as I know, MBTA only does one transfer; SEPTA is very unusual in allowing two (and, in practice, more). Most other systems that do, don’t actually do transfers per se. Instead, they have a proof-of-payment system, that allows a fixed time (like two hours) to complete your journey by however many vehicles you see fit. POP is a method with many attractions, although difficult to retrofit onto SEPTA even with the NPT overhaul.

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