Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Getting real about public transport, using the rapid study method

My late grandmother used to have an embossed leather plaque on her wall with the inscribed message "Never put your wishbone where your backbone ought to be". That can be a hard call in the arena of social activism and politics. For anyone.

We all have our wishbone - our dreams and ideals, abstract values of the way we think the world should be (prescriptive) - it can take a lot of courage and much harder research and study to come up with an accurate picture of how effective these dreams are when applied in reality, when all factors including upstream needs and downstream effects are added into the equation (descriptive).** And there will always be a margin of perspective (where we stand) as to what is real, in any situation.

Even though my wishbone leans towards the "socialistic" - I'd rather pay more taxes and see everybody have equal access to protected wilderness, clean water, sealed streets, educational opportunity, accessible medical care etc etc etc - I am no fan of fluffing over reality or sloppiness about the truth or wasteful spending of public monies.

My experience of being employed by a range of public and private organisations, spanning multiple jobs over 40 years of working life, is that all larger corporates get flabby and wasteful, inefficient, grow too many staff and too big around the middle management sector, add silly add-ons [like meaningless training seminars or junket trips] that do very little to enhance productive function. Equally the arrogance of larger corporates is often appalling (the worst phone call system in New Zealand is Telecom!! It can often take 23 minutes ...[timed] ..on hold even to speak to a person!! - a truly pathetic level of service in the very product sector it is selling, for which the cheif executive is paid millions per year!). Flab and bullshit in my experience is not just a disease of the public service sector.

I hate waste most in the world of transport. Let us never, for one moment,  forget that our whole world is built on the incredible energy and activity made available by cheap oil (it has been compared to every individual having 100 slaves) and that this is a finite resource. Mindlessly driving our cars to the convenience store a block away is frittering away our grandchildren's inheritance and prosperity (and because democracy can rarely be sustained in poverty, their relative freedom as well). It is an unsustainable life where a few generations of life upon this earth (and about 20% of the world's population) is clearly being subsidized by future generations.

Also with only 8% of people in the world owning a car [although I imagine as much as a third have easy access to private vehicle] clearly it will not be possible for equality - the world's resource pools of rare metals and cheap oil will collapse long before car ownership is spread to even twice that number, a spread of car ownership that is of course is happening in China, India, Russia and emerging economies.

For this reason I am fan of a car-less world - literally less dependence on cars, less cars, more effective use of fewer cars. And effective public transport. But the world of public transport is also full of bullshit and flab. It makes my blood boil to see bus services so shoddily organised as on Papanui Road or Riccarton Road, where multiple services run nose to tail one monent and yet there can still be long gaps - upto 25 minutes at nights, just through poor resource management strategies.

Another thing I find almost laughable is the naievity [I presume it is not deliberate dishonesty] of people like rail advocates or Green Party members talking in silly generalisations such as "Passenger Rail is more environmentally beneficial than car (or bus transport)" or "Rail is more effective because it can carry more people".

Almost the figures used in these debates (for cars, for buses, for trains) are based on vehicle capacity, not actual or predictable usage; wishbone not backbone. Each situation needs to be analyzed here, but we can be fairly sure virtually no public transport system of any sort operates consistently at full capacity. Almost everywhere passenger flow in peak hours is tidal (concentrated more in one direction than another) meaning part empty buses or carriages in the opposite direction; and that many people will only use public transport if it that service operates across a wide spectrum of time - few people would chose not to own a car if public transport doesn't run at night or weekends. Equally many would not catch a train to work if the one and only service homewards ran at 5.15pm, without multiple departure-time choices, including later into the evening when logic suggests usage will be well below capacity.

Even without specific backbone research we can assume environmental evaluation starts for buses and trains, as for private cars, at perhaps average usage of between one quarter and one third capacity. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, if all the environmental factors or socio-ecomonic factors etc stack up right anyway. It costs very little extra in the lifetime of a bus, or private car, to carry around extra unused seats much of the time, whilst keeping open flexibility. The real measurements are in averaged out costs and uses - passengers per kilometre, costs per passenger etc. Or in side costs - adding the cost in gas/journey time/pollution/parking space of passengers driving to a station into the total train fuel/journey time/pollution equation. Many public transport systems seem far from environmental.

I was very impressed recently when I came across a study done of public transport "myths versus facts" in the medium size city of Grand Rapids in Michigan USA. The public transport system in this city, called "The Rapid" serves about 450,000 people and carries a bit under 9 million passengers a year. In response to the local tax needed to support a new Bus Rapid Transit corridor a local group opposed has produced a 17 page, footnoted, booklet "The Rapid; A Critical Analysis. Myths Vs Facts".

The United States has some very virulent critics of just about every form of public spending, as if a civilized society could somehow exist on nothing more than the competition of the free market, which in very short time inevitably means the capture of resources and seizure of power by the strongest (and often strength = corrupt and unethical practises) and debasement of the larger population. Public transport "transit" - especially bus services or very expensive rail projects - are a favourite target of the extreme right warriors, an easy target in the USA where public transport outside the very large centres is seems liitle more than a rather meagre "social service", with limited hours and frequency, offered as a sop to impoverished groups. Public transport is seen as a sort of charity rather than as in London, Paris or many other places, including NZ to a fair extent, as an attractive way of keeping cites and their centre's alive and vibrant, easily accessible by all.

The publishers of this document "Kent County families for fiscal responsibility" judging by all those key words I imagine come within this generally right-wing framework. But what impreses me in this study is the readiness of the authors (I suspect probably one key author, Jeff Steinport) to go beyond loose and sloppy statements and the usual tacky use of loaded and abusive propaganda style language "pork barrel" etc of other transit challenging groups***.
This is a study of genuine backbone, with a descriptive rather than a noxious, badgering style and extensive footnoting. It certainly asks some very good questions - questions that I believe should be asked of public transport everywhere. Questions that need to be asked by supporters as much as by anybody else.
The Grand Rapid's study asks (and analyzes) what are the actual costs and benefits of in terms of environment, effectiveness, overall patronage, growth strategies etc. The study measures these against the transit authority's own claims; against other options and against another comparable transit operation in a similar size city nearby. The study has an air of honesty and integrity but whether the found answers are open to challenge or not. from this distance I can not tell. Nor does it ultimately matter, it is the framework of of analysis and accountability that appeals. And if their are cost/benefits/social factors not added in, well they could be framed in the same style, not generalised statements.

I fight for good public transport - it is my wishbone but the long hours also take backbone.
I support and rely upon public transport as much as anyone in our country. This said I don't think anyone ever wins a war by self deception. Public transport is full of wishbone statements, part of the fanciful aura that public transport is something it is easy to do well. This study is a reminder that it is not, it is a very elusive technology despite appearances. And let us stop pretending public transport has some superior moral status (wishbone politics). or that sloppy poorly run systems can be justified or that exorbitantly expensive rail is sustainable in situations where it is not.  

Get real, get facts, do the hard miles, get feet on the ground and target resources. Effectively.

Related resources;

**Thanks to Jarret Walker for his conceptual discussion of expertise vs activism (and descriptive vs prescriptive) for  some of the inspiration here.

*** mostly ; last sentence about "bilking" let's it down abit !!

Grand Rapids - the transit authority's own website and documents here

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