Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lisa Schweitzer on time-service quality trade-offs for transit and autos

She writes:

..People tend to like to separate travel time and service quality based on the arguments, like Litman uses, that the time in transit or walking is more pleasurable and productive than being in a car. But they are only right for people whose preferences align with theirs. For other segments of the mobility market, they are wrong. Moreover, it’s wrong to assume that these are the only things being traded: yeah, you hate to drive and you’d be happier not driving, but the extra half an hour that transit takes you means a half an hour you’re not with your kids, cooking, drinking wine with your spouse at home, watching the game, or any number of things you can’t do on transit, either. So yeah, I’d prefer to get the exercise walking than driving, but I prefer to spend the time cooking so that my kids aren’t sitting around hungry after school more than I prefer the exercise.

As she wrote this yesterday, I couldn't help thinking about it yesterday during my transit trip home. I take transit in LA every now and then, in part because that it the sort of guilty liberal I am. But yesterday, when all the stars were aligned (I arrived at bus from USC to Union Station at exactly the time in left; I only had to wait a minute or two for the Gold Line connection from Union Station to Pasadena), it took me just less than one hour to get from my office door to my front door. When I drive to work in the morning (at a strategic time), it takes me 20 minutes. When I return home in the afternoon (using surface streets until Hill or Figueroa meets the Pasadena Freeway), it rarely takes more than 35, and never more than 45. So my worst days in the car free up about an hour relative to transit. In case you are wondering, it is 11 miles from home to campus.

But don't I find driving unpleasant? Not really, I can plug my i-pod into my car stereo, or listen to NPR or the BBC, or a CD...In the morning, when traffic is clear, I get pleasure from driving my car at freeway speeds. I do miss the walk that I get when I use transit.

To some extent, the problem is that the street system in Los Angeles, with lots of redundancy, works too well. In Washington DC, Metro was a viable alternative to driving--it would often get me to work faster than taking my car. The street lay-out in Washington, set as it was in the late 18th century, was not designed to keep auto traffic moving. Metro is also very good--when people in DC complain how how awful it is, I want to laugh.

At the same time, I don't think a transportation system whose principal mode is people driving alone is sustainable. We need to think about some system in between driving alone and fixed route transit. It seems eminently doable to me, but it will take some imagination to make it work.


Sid Burgess said...

I would be very curious to see how much of this would fix itself if there wasn't an imbalance in where transportation funds were spent. Perhaps fewer dollars were spent on roads or more on transit. Either way, I remain interested in what a "fair" system would look like in terms of 'ridership' both on transit and in cars. said...

I actually think the answer in LA is more land use diversity more than anything else. Modes that are far more like the car=walking and biking. The car has an advantage only for long trips vis-a-vis those, where you leave when you want, you don't make stops you don't want to, etc. Focus more on shifting people from cars to other point-to-point modes that take advantage of, rather than suffer by, LA's redundant and high coverage road network, by running parallel. Then leave transit as an occasional mode rather than an everyday mode--taking it to the symphony, the beach, etc.--where time trade-offs matter less. I think we'll be flinging money at transit for a very long time before we get even remotely close to closing service quality differences.

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Casey said...

Her trade-offs, kids vs. reading/walking aren't the only consideration by a long shot. Even in Kansas City where commutes are short downtown parking cheap, I save $1500 a year by taking the bus to work. Since money is always tight for people who have kids, the money may be worth the lost time. Richard said he looses an hour a week when he takes transit. What are the kids doing during that hour? Are they at basketball practice? School play rehearsal.

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