Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood

WBEZ’s terrific Curious City series is out with a piece  and accompanying visualization about cost recovery  on the CTA bus system. CTA’s buses are a hot topic (so to speak) in the transit/urbanist online community; Daniel Hertz has covered the system’s woes extensively, and Yonah Freemark lent his voice to the Curious City piece. Though perhaps less than sexy, the question of how to build a better bus system for Chicago is an important one. Despite ridership declines and a trend of convergence, CTA buses still carry an overall majority of CTA ridership, and they provide crucial transit coverage to huge swaths of the city that lack rapid transit service.

For the graphic accompanying the story, Curious City pulled out CTA’s five “most productive” and five “least productive” (by average number of riders on an individual bus in an hour, with the ideal ranging from 35 to 55 riders) routes and mapped them. Much to my surprise (really), two of the top five most productive routes are the lines I consider my “home routes” in Chicago, the 155 Devon and the 49B North Western.

devon and western

Devon and Western–epicenter of bus productivity in Chicago?

I spent my high school years living two blocks (well, three, but one of them is really short) from the corner of Devon and Western, where the 49B and 155 meet. West Rogers Park (alternatively, West Ridge) is one of Chicago’s well-kept secrets, a wonderfully diverse (economically and ethnically), reasonably walkable and dense, green, and mostly quiet neighborhood. Though the density and vibrancy of the South Asian community along Devon fades into pretty boring single-family blocks the further north and west one progresses, Devon itself, especially the section between Western and California, is a riot of color, smell, and taste the likes of which almost sound cliched. (I’m going to stop before I get more homesick, I promise) All that being said, one of the reasons the area isn’t better known is what it lacks–namely, direct access to a rapid transit line.

Thus, while the neighborhood itself is moderately transit-supportive (much more so along Devon than along Western, which here as in most of its 24-mile existence is a wide asphalt auto sewer with terrible land use), the 49B and 155 play a role that wouldn’t seem to lend itself exceptionally well to high productivity, collecting riders and shuttling them to the L. The 155 drops riders off at Loyola and Morse on the Red Line, and the 49B connects to the Brown Line at its Western stop. Both loop on the opposite end on the very edge of the city, the 155 at Devon and Kedzie–it’s actually a very short route, geographically–and the 49B at Western and Birchwood (half a block short of an easy transfer to several lines running on Howard…but more on that later). Lacking significant anchors on the outer end, both lines are relatively sparsely used for the first section of their route–seemingly not a recipe for “productive” status.

That being said, I can attest from personal experience that both lines do get very crowded at times. The 155 in particular can be a very uncomfortable experience, to the point where I regularly receive texts from my father complaining about it when he winds up on the Red Line rather than the Brown Line on his way home. Neither runs especially frequently by major city standards, with both running usually around every 8-12 minutes during the day and 15-20 minutes at night. Ridership is moderate by Chicago standards, with the 49B fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 daily riders since 2001 (as far back as CTA data goes), and the 155 more consistently around 7,000. Still, that’s enough ridership to consistently fill–or overfill–the buses on at least the half of the routes closer to their L transfers. And while I joked about it in the caption above, the corner of Devon and Western is the key point for ridership demand on both routes.

49b southbound boardings

Southbound boardings on the 49B by stop, October 2012 (from CTA open data)

The 49B, in particular, experiences a huge ridership spike at Devon; the stop pulls in three times as many riders as the second most popular stop, the Birchwood terminus. Ridership on the 155 is more spread out, though reliable data isn’t available–Devon was under construction and closed to buses between Western and Ridge when the 2012 CTA counts happened, as a result of which a huge chunk of the route is missing–so I won’t present a chart here. Still, Devon/Western is a key stop; in my experience it’s typically the single largest on/off point, and on rush hour eastbound trips the buses typically run standing room only from Devon or a couple of stops east of there.

So: despite the unbalanced route structure, we have a pair of routes running through a somewhat transit-deprived neighborhood that pair moderately high demand with relatively limited frequency. Additionally, both routes use standard 40-foot buses almost exclusively, although the 155 would clearly benefit from having articulateds on rush-hour runs. That combination leads to extremely high productivity results–an indication of the imperfection of the metric, since a simple increase in frequency would presumably result in a sharp decrease in “productivity.” Productivity, remember, is to some extent just a nicer word for “crowding.”

But let’s look beyond a simple increase in frequency–clearly, there is significant demand for transit in the West Rogers Park area, both expressed and latent. How can CTA build on the perhaps unlikely success of these routes and strengthen West Rogers Park’s connection to the transit system while maintaining a highly productive route structure?

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

It’s worth noting that the gap in ridership between the two routes, which is generally in the vicinity of 1,000-2,000 riders per day, is almost certainly attributable to the differences in land use along their respective arterials. Compare Devon, here looking west at Rockwell:

to Western, here looking south midblock between Rosemont and Granville, just a block and a half south of Devon:

Encouraging dense, transit-oriented development along the Western car sewer is a no-brainer, particularly north of Peterson, where both sides of the street are lined with dead and dying (literally) car-related businesses–dealerships, body shops, etc. Unfortunately, what new development has occurred has often been very much suburban-style:

In the shorter term, though, there are ways to make the existing bus network function better. The returning X49 Western Express (well, for peak hours) should be extended at least to Devon, if not all the way to Howard; its current terminal at Western and Berwyn is nowhere of significance, and an extension would turn numerous trips that are currently three-seat rides into much more tolerable two-seat rides. Even just at peak, an X49 stop at Devon would take significant pressure off the crowded 49B.

The 49B itself would benefit from a stronger anchor on the northern end. And there are useful things to do with it! Currently trips from Western to downtown Evanston, a significant employment and cultural draw, are three-seaters, requiring a transfer to an east-west bus on Howard, then to the Purple Line or an Evanston bus at Howard terminal. Turning the 49b right on Howard and running to Howard Terminal might provide unnecessary extra capacity on that particular stretch of Howard, but would provide a one-transfer ride to Evanston. Alternatively, continuing the route north to downtown Evanston–the route taken by its much less frequent (doesn’t run on Sundays!) counterpart on California, the 93, would make that a one-seat ride and provide regular service to a relatively dense part of southern Evanston that currently has only infrequent “circulator” service. I suspect that whatever losses in efficiency were to happen because of these extensions would be easily made up or even exceeded by increased, better balanced ridership.

Taking advantage of the demand for transit on Devon and taking pressure off the 155 is, if anything, even easier. There are two long North Side local routes, the 36 Broadway and 151 Sheridan, that use Devon for part of the 155 route, between Sheridan and Clark. Both, however, loop at Clark and Devon for reasons that, as best I can tell, are simply historical; that loop was long ago the location of the Chicago Surface Lines’ enormous Devon Carbarn, and it made sense to loop the routes outside where the equipment was maintained. The carbarn, however, has been gone since 1957, and the area west of it has become much denser as South Asian immigrants moved in. Neither route is especially frequent, but if looped at Kedzie–just two miles west–instead of Clark, their combined 6 or 7 extra trips per hour could significantly reduce crowding on the 155 and strengthen Devon’s character as a transit-oriented arterial. Both the 151 and 36 are long, slow routes–both run to the Loop, though not every 151 makes the whole trip–so while Devon can be painfully congested, neither should feel the pain too much. Neither offers as direct a transfer to the Red Line as does the 155, but both encounter it multiple times along their routes, and the 36 runs just a block away from the L from Devon to Wilson, offering numerous opportunities for a relatively east transfer.

In some ways, West Rogers Park is an ordinary Chicago neighborhood. What has become clear in this analysis, however, is that it–like so many Chicago neighborhoods–has excellent fundamentals for transit, and a very strong basis to build on. When thinking about transit in Chicago, the public eye focuses largely on the L, but this is an excellent example of a bus-reliant transit-oriented area. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the public mentality of L prioritization has taken hold in the CTA planning process as well, with the area’s routes largely reduced to glorified–but productive!–shuttles to the nearest L stops.  But here’s the thing: taking the area’s transit from “OK” to “excellent” may not need the kind of glorious capital investment an L or rapid transit extension at all (though, assuming some TOD, BRT on Western would be great). Re-thinking the local buses within a framework of making them useful as more than shuttles, a few strategic extensions and route modifications, and incremental improvements that prioritize buses within the traffic flow could provide high impact for little investment. It’s clear that the fundamentals are there. Let’s build.

 

Note 1: Notice haven’t talked about Metra at all here. Metra’s UP-North line runs on the Rogers Park-West Rogers Park boundary, with a “Rogers Park” station at Lunt; there used to be a stop at Kenmore, just south of Devon. The line really should be turned into a rapid transit operation, and should that happen, a stop at Devon is essential.

Note 2: One of the other top 5 most productive routes is the 54 Cicero, which gives me some hope that the proposed Lime Line could be successful.

 

 

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How Reborn Chicago Express Buses Could Point the Way Forward

The big news in the transit world recently has been the long-planned, quickly-executed rollout of Houston’s revised bus network, planned along frequent grid principles. Meanwhile in Chicago, the big transit news of the day is that CTA’s mourned X9 and X49 Ashland and Western express buses, victims of 2010 budget cuts, will make a limited return, operating during rush hours. Like they used to, the express buses will stop only at arterials and rail transfers–roughly every half-mile, instead of Chicago’s standard 1/8th mile spacing. However, this old dog comes back with a new trick: a rollout of transit signal priority, or TSP, along the Ashland and Western corridors that will benefit both the local and express buses.

The news about the return of the X buses has, naturally, brought on a lot of hand-wringing about the fate of the more ambitious Ashland BRT project, which would have been probably the nation’s best BRT corridor if implemented as originally designed. Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Sun-Times that Ashland BRT is “way in the future,” and that the city’s priority is to “First and foremost, get the BRT on Washington and Madison built and open, and make these investments here (in the Ashland and Western express buses) regardless, because we need to do this to be more effective with 50,000 people every weekday relying on these two routes.”

To which I say: sure! Houston’s bus revamp is getting a lot of attention because it reorients the system around a gridded network of frequent bus services designed on utilitarian principles, with the purpose of serving as many riders and trips as possible at the expense of some geographic coverage (and because basically everybody loves Jarrett Walker, one of the chief designers). Chicago, on the other hand, already has arguably the best damn bus grid in the country. The regularity of Chicago’s street grid makes the layout of its bus system a no-brainer.

1938 Chicago streetcar map; the bus system still largely resembles this network.

1938 Chicago streetcar map; the bus system still largely resembles this network. Source

At the same time, though, Chicago’s bus have been suffering in recent years, with ridership on a distinct downturn despite growing rail ridership. As Daniel Hertz writes in the piece linked to immediately above, the downturns in bus ridership seem to correlate with service cuts such as the elimination of the X routes, which have been ongoing for quite a while now. Daniel writes that ” To be competitive, buses need to run frequently and reliably, and make decent time along their routes. They are absolutely capable of doing that, given relatively modest investments in operations funds, technology, and space. But we’re not making nearly enough of those investments.” And he’s right. It’s the improvements around the edge–not necessarily the sexy projects like Ashland BRT, though that would be huge too–that are missing right now.

And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful about the reintroduction of the X routes on Ashland and Western. The initial rollout is obviously insufficient; rush hour-only service seems unlikely to be very popular (both routes have significant ridership throughout the day). There’s also the challenge of avoiding the problem that the old X routes fell into, namely that the wait for the less-frequent express buses tended to eliminate the time savings from actually riding them. The temptation to run a few token rush-hour expresses will be great, since employing drivers on a peaky schedule is expensive.

But. But! As Streetsblog Chicago reports,  “TSP should be implemented by spring 2016 on Ashland from Cermak Road to 95th Street by spring 2016, on Western from Howard Street to 79th Street by the end of the year, and on Ashland from Cermak to Irving Park Road by the end of 2017.” This is enormous, in large part because it benefits not only the express but also the local riders–30,000 or more per day on both corridors. It’s not the first crack at TSP on these corridors–a study undertaken on Western just as the X routes were being eliminated showed mixed results–but if fully carried out it could represent a major improvement in the life of all bus riders in the Ashland and Western corridors.

The 2010 TSP study also implied that queue jumps could be just as effective at many intersections as TSP. As I’ve written here before, I think that while dedicated lanes for buses would be great on major arterials, Chicago’s congestion isn’t necessarily of the type that requires them on all routes. On Western in particular, much of the bus delay is of the “hurry up and wait” variety, with buses making good time (especially if they don’t have to stop) for a 1/2 mile or more at a time but then getting caught up in huge jams and having to wait several light cycles to get through a busy arterial intersection. TSP will help with that situation, but only to some extent; the real solution is dedicated lanes of some sort. At most points, a block or two worth of repurposed parking spots on the approach side of the intersection will probably suffice.

Of course, I’d prefer to see the Ashland BRT project happen, followed by a citywide rollout along the lines of MPC’s plans.

MPC's map of a potential Chicago BRT network

MPC’s map of a potential Chicago BRT network

But let’s not forget that the Ashland BRT, as currently conceived, was basically a five-mile demonstration project (and a good one! For me, it makes the most sense of any segment in the city for such a demonstration). But Ashland is also highly politicized, and has (today like other days) taken a lot of attention away from the crying needs of the city’s other bus routes. I’d love to have both. But for now, let’s see where the X route restorations go. Let’s make sure the buses run frequently enough to make them a real time saver for riders. Let’s keep pushing for all-day service. Let’s make sure the TSP doesn’t get watered down to favor drivers, and fight for short segments of dedicated lanes around congested major intersections. Let’s implement off-board fare payment and all-door boarding on express buses and the Loop Link BRT.

In other words, let’s dream about full-featured BRT, and fight for it, but let’s also fight to make the everyday realities of Chicago bus riders better. The X route restorations, and especially the infrastructure improvements they come with, start that process, but they’ll need help from planners and advocates. Getting rush-hour express buses may feel like a comedown compared to true BRT, but it doesn’t have to feel that way. We know the problem. We know the solutions. Let’s go to work on plans both short and long term.

Bus Bunching, Political Choices, and the Allocation of Road Space

Though I don’t live in Chicago anymore, I still prize WBEZ’s Curious City, a series of in-depth research segments on questions submitted by listeners about Chicago and what goes on it. Generally, they do a pretty good job for non-specialists. That’s why it was particularly disappointing to read the segment from last week about bus bunching that essentially treated bunching phenomenon as inevitable, and somehow completely failed to consider the possibility of dedicating lanes to transit!

What was really disappointing about the Curious City piece is that everyone interviewed–from bus riders to academics to CTA drivers and officials–seemed to take the the fatalistic attitude that bus bunching is completely inevitable and very little can be done to prevent it. And in the current, auto-centric paradigm, that may very well be true. But it ignores the fundamental truth that, as with many elements of our transportation system, Chicago’s operation of a transit system prone to bus bunching is fundamentally a political choice. There is, in fact, one policy lever that can help the CTA (and other agencies) avoid bus bunching, but it is politically unpalatable to most actors, especially the city’s auto-oriented elite: dedicating lanes to public transit. And I have to say, unlikely as it is that the populace of Chicago will suddenly have a massive change of heart and decide that it’s worth dedicating lanes to transit across much of the city, it was irresponsible of Curious City not to even include the possibility of dedicated lanes in their report on bus bunching. True, no dedicated right-of-way can truly eliminate bunching, but buses having a clear path removes most of the obstacles that can lead to bad spacing.

The heart of the matter is that the choice not to give transit dedicated lanes isn’t inevitable, and isn’t an obvious choice when one considers the allocation of street space from anything other than what urbanists like to call the “windshield perspective.” Matt Yglesias articulated the way American cities divide street space for a non-specialist audience on Slate a couple of years ago, labeling it a “systematic over-allocation of public space in urban areas to cars.” His explanation is worth quoting at length:

A majority of the space on the public thoroughfare is set aside for the use of cars. And even though particular interventions—a bike lane here, a storage rack there—are certainly debated, nobody even begins to address this issue from a standpoint of first principles. Why would a city like Washington (or New York), most of whose residents don’t commute to work in a car on a daily basis, want to allocate its space in that manner?

It’s not impossible to come up with an answer. Perhaps the view is that automobile driving is associated with positive social externalities such that at the margin we want to encourage people to drive more and walk less. Or perhaps the view is that the goal of urban policy is not to maximize the welfare of city dwellers but instead to maximize the wealth of downtown landowners by facilitating suburbanites’ commutes. But there’s no explicit articulation of this view.

Though an overall majority of Chicagoans drive to work, there’s a strong transit-riding minority, and there are many neighborhoods where most commuters use transit. The choice to dedicate road space across the city nearly 100% to automobiles (the J14 has a few stretches of dedicated lanes on Jeffery Boulevard, and bus lanes should make their modern debut in the Loop sometime in the next year, with Ashland hopefully following at some point) is just that–a political and economic choice. As Yglesias says, the choice to advantage drivers (who tend to be wealthier and more politically vocal) as a class over transit riders is not explicitly articulated, and perhaps not always consciously made; but it is a policy choice that Chicagoans have made, and it is therefore (potentially) reversible. Remember, transit is far, far more efficient at using road space than cars:

Street Space For 60 People: Car, Bus, Bicycle

Is a network of bus-only lanes (whether it goes by the appellation “Bus Rapid Transit” or not) feasible in Chicago? Certainly, in the right corridors giving street space to buses can mean better flow of people, even if cars end up moving more slowly, and reallocation of street space is way more cost-effective than, say, subways. Chicago might be a challenging case, however. Chicago’s arterial roads are actually fairly narrow, at four to six lanes (including parking), meaning that dedicating lanes to transit for long stretches means either removal of all parking or taking away half of the lanes available to drivers–something that I might not be opposed to, but that might mean taking more road space than existing transit services can justify.

But there are places where dedicating more road space to transit is feasible and arguably the only moral choice. Take North Lake Shore Drive. With plans for the future of that roadway currently being made, its eight lanes carry 161,000 cars and 69,000 bus riders on the various express routes that use it every weekday. That means just about 30% of travelers on the Drive (or a little lower if we adjust for some cars carrying more than one person) ride transit. Surely the new Drive could spare one lane in each direction (25% of road space) to accommodate these users?

When the issue of bus bunching came up a couple of years ago Shaun Jacobsen wrote a useful post on the issue from a Chicago perspective. He suggests that while dedicated lanes may not be feasible across the network, there are particular choke points that delay buses where they might work. As a former rider of the 49 Western, I know I could suggest a few intersections where banning parking in the side lanes for a block or two on each side and allowing buses to “jump the queue” with signal prioritization would help reliability along the whole line: Lawrence, Irving Park, Armitage/Milwaukee, etc. I’m sure every Chicago bus rider has several such suggestions.

My point is: when someone who has taken the auto-centric world we live in for granted says something like “traffic IS unavoidable” (as was literally said in the Curious City piece), we should know better. 56% of all Chicago transit rides (in 2013) take place on buses. It’s time for Chicagoans and other citizens of American cities to get over our attitude that we can never do anything that might mildly inconvenience drivers and remember that there are things we can do to improve the lot of the city’s bus service. Chicago’s plans for Bus Rapid Transit in the Loop and on Ashland are a start towards a goal of fair reallocation of finite available street space, but it’s the unsexy tweaks around the edges that will really juice the city’s transit network. It’s time to realize the choices we’ve made and continue to make, and to make better ones.

New Haven Should Follow Houston’s Lead on Transit. Wait, What?

Note: A slightly different version of this piece this ran in the New Haven Independent on 5/27/14, under the title “Houston Could Point the Way for City’s Buses.” 

(Opinion) Yes, New Haven’s bus system is broken. Hope can be found in, of all places, the Lone Star State.

The critiques of some CT Transit riders—made in this Independent article—are pretty standard fare for transit riders in all but the most transit-rich cities: The buses don’t come reliably on time, off-peak frequency is terrible (and weekend service essentially nonexistent), buses don’t always go to where the jobs are, and the route structure, relying on transfers at a central point (the Green) is incredibly inconvenient for many riders. These are all very valid, and accurate, criticisms.

Meanwhile, state transportation Commissioner James Redeker insisted (in an Independent interview; click on the video to watch it) that “a bus service is scheduled based on demand” and that New Haven’s bus system runs on a fine balance of resource allocation and response to demand, and that sparse off-peak service and the Green-centric route structure are both results of that calculation.

Is New Haven’s transit system actually the best it can be, demand considering? I’d argue no.

Assuming that Commissioner Redeker’s contention that resources for urban transit are severely limited is accurate—and considering CT Transit’s recent fare hike, which seems to have been the result of a legislative raid on dedicated transit funds, I see no reason to dispute the argument that statewide political will for increasing transit bus funding is sparse—New Haven has to find a way to improve its bus operations more or less within the bounds of current operational funding. Luckily, last week also provided a high-profile example of a city which is doing exactly that—and in an unexpected place.

Houston, of all places (yes, the city with no zoning code and massive urban sprawl) is currently playing host to a much-anticipated (among the transit and urbanist world) revamp of its bus system. The regional transit agency hired consultant Jarrett Walker, a favorite of transit purists everywhere, to redesign its system around goals of increasing transit reach and ridership. As with many of his projects, Walker’s plan for Houston is built around the concept of a frequent network, a system of buses and light rail which are assured to come every 15 minutes or less, every day of the week, at all hours during which the system operates. The new plan will place 111 percent more riders within a 1/2 mile of frequent buses, and 55 percent more jobs. You can see a mesmerizing .gif of the transformation below:

AnimatedFrequentNetwork

  http://transitsystemreimagining.com/web/the-frequent-network/

The magical part? Houston is doing it with no new operating funds. Operational funding for the system will stay at exactly the same level that it had before. That shouldn’t seem possible, but, as Walker explains on his blog:

• That’s how much waste there was in the existing system.  Waste in the form of duplicative routes, and due to slow meandering routes created due to a few people’s demands.

• Hard choices are proposed about expensive service to very small numbers of people.  The plan devotes 80 percent of Metro’s resources to maximizing ridership, which all of these frequent lines do, and only 20 percent to providing access to people living in expensive to serve places. Currently only about 50-60 percent of resources are devoted to services where high ridership is a likely outcome.

This shift in focus will have negative impacts on small numbers of riders who rely on those services, but these were small numbers indeed. (About 0.5 percent of existing riders end up over 1/4 mile of service, and most of them are just over that threshold.  Often, their longer walk is to a better service, a tradeoff that most people are willing to make in practice.)

In other words, Houston was able to make some easy decisions (to cut inefficient or wandering routes), but also had to make some hard ones (retrenching service from areas that aren’t densely inhabited and/or are difficult to serve on a logical route).

The numbers of people negatively affected are small, if Walker is to be believed, but any city following this model of resource allocation will clearly irritate some people. The key is to make sure that the burden of cuts doesn’t fall on lower-income communities, and to carefully consider whether the demands of certain vocal segments of the population make sense in a regional context.

In addition, some riders might find that their former one-seat ride now requires a transfer, since the system is less core-centric and more gridded, but in theory even they should end up saving time. And again, this transformation is planned with no new operational funding.

It’s not clear to me how exactly the financials of the Houston revamp are to be worked out such that it does not require new funding, but given Walker’s recommendations in his book, I imagine that it consists of:

• The aforementioned pruning of costly, low-ridership routes.

• Projecting that higher ridership means better farebox recovery ratios (the percentage of operating costs paid directly by rider fares, which according to Redeker is around 25 percent in New Haven—not far off from the average in a city this size).

• Eliminating costly “split shifts” for drivers, where drivers get a premium for driving during the busier morning and afternoon peak hours, and not in between.  By employing drivers on standard eight-hour shifts and giving them something to do during the day, the transit agency can actually save money even if it is paying for more hours overall. (This, of course, assumes that labor agreements allow such an arrangement.)  Renegotiating labor agreements, of course, is often a very, very politicized question, which brings me to my final point about how to go about bringing a Houston-style approach to New Haven.

Implementing a frequent network in New Haven would require two things above all: political will and changing the mindset of transit operations from trying to serve demand to trying to induce it. The political question is notably tricky in a situation where the city does not control its own transit system. New Haveners from top to bottom can and have shown support for a revamped, improved transit system, but the city lacks the financial capacity to fund improvements itself, and is in any case dependent on the willingness of  state-run CT Transit to commit to following the city’s lead.

That dependency on CT Transit also means that shifting the agency’s conservative mindset (and I assign no blame there—transit agencies are captive to, and have their tone set by, a political system that values transit little) will require sustained political pressure from both the Harp administration and New Haven’s state and potentially even federal lawmakers.

Capital-intensive, sexy transit projects like improving Metro-North’s New Haven Line,  building out the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail, or even the New Britain-Hartford CT Fastrak busway offer concrete rewards both to transit riders and to politicians who can point to newly poured concrete and newly laid rails and show off what they have accomplished. Doing something as simple as reworking the way a city’s already-existent local bus system works, and making the buses come more frequently, offers no such flashy rewards. It just requires a lot of hard work, and focus on the issues from both the grassroots and the leadership. And that’s hard.

At the same time, though, New Haven’s transit is stuck in a downward spiral where there is only an attempt to match service to demonstrated demand, no attempt to build ridership or move people from cars to transit. If Houston, of all places, can bring together a transformatively cheap and simple transit plan, why can’t a city that was built around horsecars and still longs for its lost trolleys?

Cash Fares and the Urban Poor

Cash fares are the bane of transit agencies everywhere. People who have to fumble for the exact right combination of coins or bills simply take far, far longer to board a transit vehicle than their peers who pay with some kind of electronic fare media. I’m having trouble finding quantitative evidence for the delay, but I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that most bus riders who pay with cash take 2-3 times longer than people who simply swipe. A single rider paying with cash can hold up a bus long enough to miss a light cycle; rinse, lather and repeat every couple of blocks and you get significant delays over the course of a route. Thus, reducing or even eliminating cash-fare payment (and/or out-of-date swipe cards like the MetroCard) has become a kind of Holy Grail for transit agencies. Transport for London, which manages that city’s public transit services and is at the forefront of innovation in many ways, is actually on track to eliminate the cash fare by this summer. Other agencies are investing in a wide range of new fare technologies, from RFID-based “open payment” systems that allow payment with any of the increasing number of credit cards equipped with RFID chips to smartphone apps that allow payment without a card involved. Many of these technologies seem very promising, especially the idea of open payment with any credit card–why mandate a proprietary transit card like the MetroCard when you could allow people to pay with any old credit card? Open payment and other such innovations, however, still face one major social and political challenge in this country: the fact that most people who pay cash fares are among those who can’t afford to pay for a monthly or weekly pass, much less own things like credit cards and smartphones; many are unbanked.

I try to use my daily bus rides to and from school to observe the other riders and things going on on the bus. I pay particular attention to two things: the number of people who use the front door to exit for no good reason (#$#$&^%#$ selfish idiots!) and the people who pay with cash fare.  I’d estimate that at least 80% of those who pay cash fares on the CDTA buses I regularly ride here in Albany appear (to my admittedly imperfect mind) to fall into one of two categories: poor and of color, or elderly. There’s one group of people who I’ve seen get on several times together that appears to be a family group, four or five African-American people of different ages riding together; all pay cash (and yes, it takes them forever to board). A survey of Chicago transit riders taken before that city’s (disastrous) transition to the Ventra open-payment fare system (to be clear, Ventra also includes a “closed-loop” card option that can be purchased with cash, and you can still pay cash fares on buses) found that 21% have no debit or credit cards, and that they (shockingly) tend to be poor and of color. So while a move to a fully open system fare system may be inevitable–and necessary if we wish to reduce bus delays–taking the needs of lower-income and unbanked populations into account is paramount. How can transit agencies eliminate the noxious cash fare without impacting the ability of poorer people to ride transit?

It’s worth noting that in many cities, you can’t ride some portions of the system on cash alone. In most major urban areas, only local buses accept cash fares, with subway or light rail using faregates or proof-of-payment systems (Boston’s Green and Silver Lines are an exception). Of course, it’s easy to install, protect, and maintain ticket-vending machines in subway or light-rail stations; placing one at every bus stop would be prohibitively expensive, even if it would allow for the elimination of not just cash fares, but pay-at-the-front boarding entirely. In places like Albany, though, with no fixed-guideway systems, every transit vehicle accepts cash payment, with its accompanying delays, so the challenge is to get swipe cards or other forms of payment into the hands of those who are currently using cash. A variety of options exist for this purpose, but it seems to me we could be doing more. London, of course, is simply mandating that everyone use an electronic fare medium; this is the easiest approach to implement, but the least sympathetic to the needs of lower-income people.

A far more promising approach is the idea of integrating fare media with other, more basic forms of ID or other cards that people generally carry. Keith Barry notes in The Atlantic Cities that “Across Europe and Asia, transit fare cards often double as an access card for an office or apartment building, or a payment card for restaurants and shops, or even personal identification.” In other words, fare cards can be not just fare cards; they can be integrated with other forms of identification or payment that people have to carry anyhow. As a SUNY Albany student, my university ID allows me to swipe onto CDTA buses like anyone else (though my rides are free to me). The City of New Haven recently introduced the concept of a city-specific gift and parking card, with the goal of eventually integrating it with New Haven’s first-in-the-nation city-issued ID card. It ought to be (though probably isn’t, because New Haven’s transit is run by CTTransit, a state agency) a simple step to further integrate said card with the transit system. Anyone–in New Haven’s case, even those without legal immigration status–could apply for a city card, which would provide discounts on in-city retailers as well as pay for parking and transit. The card could be refilled in specific places (at government offices, major transfer stations, certain retailers, etc), but the city could also guarantee a ride home by allowing the card to be used without a balance on it, but refusing renewal of the card if the total balance wasn’t paid off at the end of the year. Alternatively, with welfare benefits increasingly coming in the form of debit cards, we could provide additional benefits to the urban poor by integrating transit fares with SNAP or EBT cards. That, though, would require federal legislation, and as much as I think it makes sense is probably therefore an extreme long shot.

The most effective way to eliminate cash fares, though, might be the simplest: spreading the sale of of transit cards to more locations. With the implementation of Ventra, Chicago’s CTA promised to extend sale of the cards to more local retailers in the city’s neighborhoods; such an approach should be quite beneficial. CDTA here in Albany sells their transit cards online (which requires a credit card) and “at local Hannaford Supermarkets, Bank of America, Key Bank, Saratoga Springs Train Station, Proctor’s Theater Box Office and Price Chopper Supermarkets.” Hmm…supermarkets and banks…which local institutions are less likely to be located in the same poor areas where cash-fare riders cluster?  In essence, with transit cards sold primarily through supermarkets, the availability of transit cards mimics the food desert effect: they’re not available where they’re needed the most. Here in Albany, there are essentially no supermarkets in the South End, Arbor Hill, or West Hill, the city’s poorest areas, which of course means that neither produce nor transit cards are available in those areas (the Price Chopper in our neighborhood, which is solidly middle class, is known colloquially as “Ghetto Chopper” because it’s where people from those neighborhoods shop). No wonder people from the area’s poorest neighborhoods are also the most likely to pay cash on the bus. I’ve been told CDTA wants to improve its 60-65% on-time performance (yes, that’s depressingly low), and they’re on the verge of bringing in a next-gen payment system. Here’s one easy step to ending cash fares: along with the new payment system, bring fare cards into local retailers–pharmacies, bodegas, whatever–in the region’s most depressed areas. The more the local stores sell fare cards where it’s most needed, the fewer people will delay buses by paying with cash.