Cheaper to buy all the riders a Prius?

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Via Gerard Vanderleun, I found a provocative blog entry on the cost of light rail and other forms of fixed-route mass transit:

When Phoenix was building its light rail system, I made the following two-part bet:
  1. I could take all the money spent on construction and easily buy a Prius for every single daily rider, with money to spare
  2. I could take the operating deficits for light rail and buy everyone gas to run their Prius 10,000 miles per year and still have money left over.

This bet has been tested in a number of cities, including LA and Albuquerque, and I have not lost yet. Now the numbers are in for Phoenix initial ridership, and I am winning the first half of my bet in a landslide.

He says that buying a Prius for each of the line's 18,500 daily riders would cost $425 million; the light rail line cost $1.4 billion.

In the same entry the blogger challenges the idea that light rail serves the poor:

...light rail is simply not transit for the working poor. It is transit for yuppies that happens to be used by some working poor. They are built for white collar workers commuting to town who are too high and mighty to be caught dead in a "grubby" bus. But since light rail is orders of magnitude more expensive than buses, two things happen in every city that ever builds light rail.

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor even today in the Bay Area, is cut back to help pay for rail.

Light rail is the worst enemy of providing transit services to the working poor ever devised in this country.

A commenter says there's a worse enemy to affordable transportation for the working poor:

It seems to me that making transit services a city-imposed monopoly is a pretty ferocious enemy. If private companies were allowed to operate buses and jitneys under traffic rules comparable to those for delivery trucks now, and if people were free to advertise carpooling arrangements involving fees, would low-cost non-personal-auto transport be worse or better than it is now?

Also, it might be interesting to run a back-of-the-envelope calculation on the impact of limiting imports of relatively economical Japanese cars, too. How many marginal buyers became unable to afford their own car? I have no idea, but it might be large. Possibly the number compares to the number who ride buses every day?

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17 Comments

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Notwithstanding the enormous cost of mass transit, there are at least two, no three issues with the Prius scenario:

1. It does not solve one of the problems that that mass transit seeks to address: moving large numbers of people from one place to another efficiently (it does cost money sometimes to do something efficiently).

2. The costs to the infrastructure to put 18,500 extra cars on the road.

3. The additional energy costs of fueling, insurance, maintenance of said cars to the owners.

In order for mass transit to work well, the city it serves has to be DENSE. See post here .

Disclaimer: I haven't read the original post yet, so these may have been addressed.

Roy said:

You might mention one more idea, Jeff, to bolster your point: mass transit produces(is supposed to, anyway) less exhaust pollution. Might be interesting to compare that to the Prius alternative. (Intestingly enough, relatively trivial to recognize that, for most parts of the U.S., a Prius won't get anywhere near the advertised mileage. What keeps the car cool in hot weather? What warms it in cold weather? TANSTAAFL)

I think the dif between $1.4B and $450M takes care of your 2 and 3.

However, I don't think there is any way to argue, on an energy basis, that mass transit does not use less-provided that everyone uses mass transit. That's where the real issue lies (pun intended). It's not because they won't walk a quarter mile at each end of a trip that leads to people not choosing mass transit, nor even time lost, tho that is significant (some can be recovered by reading rather than merely staring out windows). THE reason people prefer personal rather than public transportation is freedom of choice, independence of schedule. Utility comes second, maybe even a widely spaced second.

Roy said:

Dividing my comment, this focuses on that "worse enemy" idea in the second part of the post.

Since (nearly obviously) allowing people to take risks to serve others results in the most efficient use of resources, how come that option is not allowed? I did not check out the link, which may have commented. But I'll hazard three guesses: 1) No political percentage in it. Can't get greenie points. Can't establish legacy. Can't build patronage. 2) Relinquishes control. 3) Violates foundational belief of large percentage of politicos: in order to work, gov't must provide solution.

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Feel free to call me careless.
Here is another try at something that should be very easy. I hope the link works this time.

http://boundrationality.blogspot.com/2009/05/going-car-less-in-tulsa-forget-it.html

fbc Author Profile Page said:

I have no truck with the alleged "Global Warming" BS. I think it's a colossal socialist fraud masquerading as a crisis.

That said, I would very much like to see a workable light-rail, mass-transit system in our city.

Why? Because it could provide for a denser urban pattern and more liveable neighborhoods and community.

I live in Midtown Tulsa, and my neighborhood is very nice, but it is entirely missing any sidewalks and thus discourages pedestrian traffic and the neighborliness that follows from it.

Tulsa's Roman Catholic Bishop Edward Slattery noted in an essay several years ago, that although automobiles and air-conditioning had obvious advantages, they also introduced less obvious disadvantages, namely that they eliminated the practice of people sitting on their front porches and sharing their lives with their neighbors.

In other words, it ain't all about the money. There are other reasons to support mass transit and walkable cities.

Here's a video from an urban planning proposal for Kansas City, that points out the benefit of doing something like this. http://vimeo.com/4360553

fbc Author Profile Page said:

PS: I'd like to ask Michael Bates (or anyone else who remembers) whether the railroad tracks that run down the middle of the BA Expressway pre-existed the expressway itself?

Anybody know?

See-Dubya said:

Heh. MY light rail commute doesn't cost that much. Because it's getting STIMULUS MONEY to keep the tracks up! Woohoo!

Paul Tay said:

The problem isn't really with transit itself. The REAL problem? Government ownership of transit. http://www.taxi-library.org/curb.htm

Maybe if the government would also quit subsidizing the private automobile too? Naaaaaaaah. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/blueprintamerica/reports/road-to-the-future/overview/549/

Motor vehicle emissions CRIMINALIZED:
17 TRO 703: NUISANCE
No person shall cause or allow the discharge, emission or release into the atmosphere from any source whatsoever of such quantities of air contaminant or other material as may cause injury, endanger health, damage property, or affect public health, well being or safety. Such quantities shall be deemed a public nuisance and subject to penalty as hereinafter provided.

17 TRO 709(B)(1): General Prohibition.
No person owning, leasing or controlling the operation of any air contaminant source shall willfully, negligently or through failure to provide necessary equipment or facilities or through failure to take necessary precaution, permit the emission from the contaminant source of such quantities of air contamination as will cause a condition of air pollution.

17 TRO 720: PENALTIES
Any person who violates any provision of the Clean Air Code or any final order issued by the Director of Health pursuant to the provisions of this code and fails to permanently cease such violation of such order within ten (10) days after receipt of notice from the Department of Health specifying such violation shall be deemed to be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by imprisonment in the City Jail for not more than ninety (90) days and/or by a fine of not more than THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS ($300.00), excluding costs. Each day of violation shall be considered a separate offense.

W. said:

There are a number of flaws in the initial argument.

First off, Coyote Blog needs to get out more. Anyone who claims that light rail doesn't serve the poor apparently has never ridden the rails in Chicago and St. Louis. Indeed, light rail there enables the working poor to expand their employment opportunities. I've seen it firsthand.

Second, the "buy everyone a Prius" argument starts to break down once the cars do. You're going to get 15, maybe 20 years out of any car before it heads to the junkyard, while a light-rail system is going to go merrily along for many decades.

And the other arguments about light rail fostering a denser urban pattern are well-taken.

The Missouri, Kansas, & Texas railroad right-of-way through Tulsa predates statehood. By the time of this 1915 map, Tulsa's railway network was complete (with the exception of various spurs and sidings and the rail line to the Tulsa Port of Catoosa).

W., I wonder whether it's possible to make comparisons between Chicago and St. Louis, which developed around rail transit, and Phoenix and LA, which experienced most of their growth in the automobile era.

Roy said:

Further, W:
1) Coyote did not say "no working poor were aided", but "light rail transit does not best serve those folks" and, for that matter "it tends to hurt them more than help them"
2)remember the difference in costs: $.45 billion buys 'em all a Prius and pays the gas; $1.4B buys a light rail system. a) Nothing in those numbers reflect the other costs for the light rail mentioned, eg, traffic jams. Even neglecting "time is money", what about the carbon footprint involved? b) suppose one takes the $.95B difference and invests it at a measly 5%. In less than the time it takes those Prii (what's the plural, Latin scholars?) to die, one has enough saved to, well, buy the latest and greatest upgraded version. Prius and fuel forever (could even pass the bennies on to the kid's kids) vs a rail system that will, albeit maybe after thrice the life of the Prius, will change to eyesore.

W. said:

I'd sure like to know how light rail hurts the poor more than helps.

If you ride the rails to work, not only do you have to not worry about buying a car, but you don't have to pay for the car's gas, maintenance, fees and insurance. Those associated costs amount to thousands of dollars a year.

And I haven't even brought up the efficiency losses caused by traffic jams.

And, when you have short bus lines fanning out from the train stops (as St. Louis does), that makes mass transit even more efficient and accessible, not to mention speedier. (Anyone who's ridden a bus in a city that's on a 15- or 20-mile route will attest that you'll be on that sucker for a long time.)

It depends, I suppose, on whether the light rail line actually connects where the working poor live with where they need to go, or whether they will be served mainly by buses. In the latter case, providing operating subsidies to the light rail line could divert resources that would otherwise provide more frequent or longer hours of bus service where it's needed by those who can't afford a car.

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

I think you have to start by putting short lines in where the people are most likely going to use light rail. Building a light rail from BA to downtown might not be the best first step, especially since the concept of park and ride is so foreign to most of us.

I think another great light rail route would be the "Turkey Mountain Express" from Bixby, then Jenks then to downtown. You know, over the river and through the woods.

Eric Fredrick said:

The issue with light rail and other similar public transportation ideas is not the dollar cost. Roads are pretty expensive the last time I checked. Tulsa for instance would never be able to afford both. It would have to choose one at the expense of the other. It is the convenience. Autos offer loads of it while buses offer less and trains significantly less. I take a car to work because it affords me the most time with my family. No waiting at stops or for transfers. We take road trips because highways allow us to go nearly as fast as trains plus we don't have to take way out of the way routs while trains have to follow the tracks.

If light rail is going to work it is going to have to forced on us just like everything else the federal government is doing. In that light it may happen. As a small government conservative I believe this should not happen since it does not improve on the services already provided by our local government.

fbc Author Profile Page said:

On a somewhat regular basis, I will take the bus home from my office downtown. (My house is in midtown, and the bus drops me off less than 2 blocks from home.)

It's a fairly simple arrangement since it's easy to catch a bus from downtown.

However, the big drawback is the amount of time it takes to get from downtown to midtown. By car, it's 8 minutes from my office to my driveway or vice-versa. But by bus (thanks Tulsa Transit!) it's a 40 minute ride. I'd love to use mass-transit more, but I simply don't have that much time to waste.

The problem is that circuitous route that the bus lines take. Up and back and up and back, serpentine style through Tulsa. Why they don't just lay them out in grids, beats the hell outta me.

Another thing that rankles: by the time I leave the office (about 6 p.m.) I'm often the only person on the bus besides the driver. Huge 40 passenger bus hauling me, like some sort of public-transit limousine service. Why can't they use a combination of small 10 passenger buses?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 22, 2009 11:23 PM.

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