Sunday, December 4, 2011

Enlarging TheBus Fleet and Making Rides Free Would Do Nothing To ‘Solve’ Congestion Problem

We’re using our new LTE Forum again today as a counter-point to another letter to the editor (LTE) that purports to have a non-rail “solution” to Oahu’s traffic congestion problem.

The Forum’s readership is only a tiny fraction of the exposure anti-rail letters receive in the paper, of course, but at least the Forum can be a more-or-less permanent counterweight on the Internet. Web searches with Google and other engines presumably will turn up both the letter and what we’re posting here at Yes2Rail.

Today’s LTE (subscription required) supports the free-bus-ride alternative to building Honolulu’s rail system:

Don’t wait for rail, make TheBus Free (Star-Advertiser, 12/4)
"…A free bus system will motivate folks to leave their cars at home. This will increase bus ridership, which in turn would justify increasing the number of buses and bus routes. More buses would lead to more bus availability and more timely bus schedules….This solution would serve the entire island, not just a narrow 20-mile corridor."

The Kaneohe resident’s letter says a “free bus system” would cost a fraction of the rail project’s tab, and: “Getting thousands of motorists to use the bus system would lead to immediate traffic relief.”

Taking TheBus instead of driving one’s own car certainly reduces commuting costs, even when bus rides are not free. The American Public Transit Association calculates the annual savings achieved by using public transit in cities all over the country. At current gas prices, Honolulu residents can save more than $11,000 annually by switching to TheBus and not using a car.

But beyond that important fact, the free-bus “solution” has numerous problems, and all of them were thoroughly examined in the rail planning process. Making transit rides free is no solution at all for the simple reason that congestion is a fact of modern life – here and everywhere.  There are no simple "solutions" to congestion – only alternative modes of transportation that avoid it.

When for whatever reason conditions produce a sudden surge in public transit usage (such as during the 1974 OPEC oil embargo) and “free up” street and highway lanes, new bus riders soon see car traffic moving faster than the bus they’re on and switch back to their own vehicles.

It’s a natural human response that’s been observed repeatedly. People value their own time more than the cost of a bus ride, so when they can save time by getting back in their cars, they do. The temporary congestion relief – if it happens at all – soon disappears.

Lingering Consequences
The writer recommends a big expansion of the bus fleet with free rides for all, but the cost of such a fleet certainly wouldn’t be free. In addition to the bus acquisition costs that property taxes would cover, every bus in the fleet would add to the city’s expenses, including labor costs for drivers and additional personnel to maintain the fleet. The enlarged fleet’s expenses would continue indefinitely.

With that many buses already purchased and O&M costs budgeted, the entire fleet would have to be used even as riders abandon TheBus to drive their own cars for the reason noted above. The inevitable result would be even more congestion due to a larger bus fleet that demanded to be fed.

The letter ends by asking, “What’s the harm in trying it?” We’ve briefly described some of the harm of building a much-expanded bus fleet without actually helping commuters reach their destinations faster.

Rail will do that by providing congestion-free fast, frequent, reliable and safe transit through the narrow urban core, which of course is where Oahu residents experience their biggest congestion headache – not in neighborhoods all over the island.

This post has been added to our "aggregation site" under the new heading LTE Forum.


Anonymous said...

Drivers aren't gonna give up driving. The ones that are already taking the bus will probably try it but not me. My bus is right down the street. Why would I take it only to transfer to another bus that takes me to the rail? Waste. Of. Time.

Doug Carlson said...

You are absolutely right, Anonymous. If I were you, I wouldn't give rail another thought; it's simply not worth wasting your time, since you're served so well by existing mass transit.

Now that we've resolved your situation, perhaps you'll agree that rail will be the perfect commuting solution for tens of thousands of other residents who don't have it as good as you do. Can you find it within your circumstances to recognize that others will benefit from rail even if you won't personally?

Good. Getting outside own's comfort zone to consider now and then what's good for other people is not such a bad thing.