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The Perfect Commute

The Real Barriers to Abundant, All-Day Transit Service

The Real Barriers to Abundant, All-Day Transit Service
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How important is it that mass transit run all the time — midday, evenings, and weekends? In places like San Francisco or Manhattan, all-day service is obviously essential. In low-density suburbs 40 miles away, it's equally obvious that transit's main role is the rush-hour commute.

But as wealth moves into urban cores and lower-income people are pushed out to suburbs, the needs for transit are changing faster than our transit politics. All-day, all-week mass transit is becoming an urgent need not just in the core, where it supports diverse and sustainable low-car lifestyles, but also across a suburbia where travel needs are no longer strictly nine-to-five.

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In most cities, the case for abundant all-day, all-week transit goes like this:

1. Opportunity. Financially stressed people — especially students and service-sector workers — are rushing around all day, trying to get to jobs, training, and daycare. Their days are full of deadlines, and not just at rush hour. An all-day, all-week transit system gives these people opportunities, including access to a greater range of jobs, without burdening them with the cost of owning a car for every adult in the household.

2. The "guaranteed ride home." Peak-only services are risky. You can get trapped if you have to work late or leave early, so peak commuters value service at other times, too, even if they never use it. What's more, you won't use transit to get there unless you're sure you can get back, so the ridership at various times of day is interrelated. An empty evening bus is just a piece of an all-day offering whose availability throughout the day may be the real cause of its success.

3. Bang for buck. Peak-only service is expensive: it governs the size of an agency's fleet and maintenance facilities, and it creates awkwardly short driver shifts with high overhead costs. One-way express runs also require a driver to be paid to travel in the reverse-peak direction for every peak-direction trip, because work shifts must start where they end. That's why, for most regional agencies, the service with the lowest subsidy per passenger is frequent all-day service in busy areas, not peak-only service. Half-empty buses and trains at noon can be much more cost-effective than crowded buses at 5 p.m., especially if the latter are running long distances with passengers in only one direction.

4. Sustainability. Finally, of course, if a city wants to evolve into a more sustainable place with less reliance on cars, then quality transit must be running all the time. The high cost of life in places with excellent all-day transit is the clearest signal that such transit is a good investment that builds value.

With all those arguments behind all-day service, why does it often seem to be hanging by a thread? Why, when an agency must cut service, does it feel pressure to devastate midday and late-night service instead of cutting more evenly across the day? Why is the peak service often protected from cuts despite what is often a high subsidy per rider?

Nobody proposes abandoning peak commuters, but as cities grow, and grow more dense, all-day transit demand almost always rises faster than peak demand, so peak-only service declines as a share of the whole. At some point, this requires a conscious paradigm shift for a transit agency — from "we're a commute agency that runs some midday service" to "we're an all-day agency that runs extra service on the peak."

Commuter rail lines, whose business model is predicated on peak-first thinking, can be especially resistant. An interesting trend of the next decade will be the effort to reinvent the inner-urban portions of commuter rail lines as two-way, all-day frequent rapid-transit services. This will require new thinking from managements, unions, railway regulators, and policymakers who are all used to focusing only on the peak commuter. But as the London Overground and Crossrail are proving, it makes no sense for such valuable rails to be left underused where the all-day demand is so high.

But the most interesting barriers to all-day service arise through our transit decision-making process, especially transit agencies' eagerness to respond to public comments. It takes time to understand and comment on a transit issue, or to plug into an advocacy group, so it's almost a tautology that transit agencies hear disproportionately from time-rich people, such as seniors and the non-working disabled, rather than from busy people. All-day frequent transit can be very successful, but the people who benefit most rarely speak up to demand it. They're too busy.

The more challenging problem is false polarization. Frequent all-day service helps a diverse range of people who aren't necessarily used to agreeing with each other. Much of America's polarizing rhetoric around income, for example, is designed to make both wealthy and poor people believe that if the other side is gaining, their side must be losing. So it's hard to sell them things that benefit them both, as a robust all-day transit system does.


A commuter stands on a train platform waiting for a subway train. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

For example, busy low-income people can benefit either from lower fares or from increased service that saves time in their lives. A lower fare, though, is a targeted benefit for low-income people, while improved service benefits both them and others. So when a low-income advocacy group pushes for lower fares instead of more useful service, the group is insisting on something that benefits only them, rather than something that benefits them and others.

At the other end of the wealth spectrum, every transit agency hears from developers and their advocates who want special transit service for their development, often because they located in a place where cost-effective transit is impossible. They value only transit expenditures that are specifically for them, not caring what this does to the city or transit network as a whole.

All of these self-interested postures are at war with the most fundamental fact about transit: it thrives on diversity. Where transit is at its strongest, as in San Francisco or Manhattan, you see the diversity of the city on the bus or subway, including the diversity of incomes. Those networks transcend individual interests because they are so broadly useful.

For transit to succeed, transit managers must look beyond everyone's self-interested demands and find the patterns — like lattices of all-day high-frequency service — that make transit the most useful to the most people. In the end, the volume and diversity of all-day ridership show this to be the best way to forge permanently successful service, the kind of service you can build a city around.

But that kind of network doesn't look like what any one interest group would design for itself. Will anyone speak up for it?

Top image : Aaron Price/Shutterstock.com

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' an Atlantic Cities series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit planning and policy. He writes the blog Human Transit and is author of the book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. All posts »

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