Rebutting the “Empty Bus” Argument Against Transit

From Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit comes some very useful ammunition in the battle of reasonable people against knee-jerk transit-bashers.

Walker begins his post by quoting from a story in Canada’s National Post headlined "Save the Environment: Don’t Take Transit." The article posits that because many buses run empty for much of the day, they are environmentally inferior to private automobiles. Anti-transit stalwarts Wendell Cox and Randal O’Toole are cited in support of this argument. (Ignored is the research that shows how dramatically even a 10 percent increase in US transit ridership could reduce CO2 emissions.)

Human Transit’s Walker says that transit advocates can’t afford to ignore this line of thinking, infuriating though that may be, and he offers his rebuttal. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s a sample:

346594696_364f16e0d6.jpgPhoto: lantzilla via Flickr

In
almost 20 years as a transit planning consultant, I’ve looked closely
the operations of at least 100 bus and bus+rail systems on three
continents, and I have never encountered one whose supreme and
overriding goal was to maximize its ridership.  All transit agencies
would like more people to ride, but they are required to run many, many
empty buses for reasons unrelated to ridership or environmental goals. To describe the resulting empty buses as a failure of transit, as Cox
does, is simply a false description of transit’s real objectives.…

[I]n the real world, transit agencies have
to balance contradictory demands to (a) maximize ridership and (b)
provide a little bit of service everywhere regardless of ridership,
both to meet demands for "equity" and to serve the needs of
transit-dependent persons.

One analysis that I’ve done for
several transit agencies is to sort the services according to whether
they serve a "ridership" related purpose or a "coverage" related
purpose.  Ridership services are justified by how many people ride them.  Coverage services
are justified by how badly people need them, or because certain suburbs
feel they deserve them, but not based on how many people ride.  I
encourage transit agencies to identify which are which.  Once a transit
agency can identify which of its services are trying to
maximize ridership, you can fairly judge how well those services are
doing in meeting that objective, including all the environmental
benefits that follow.  Until then, the Cox argument is smoke and
mirrors.

More from around the network: Bike Friendly Oak Cliff reports on misguided municipal efforts to stifle the Dallas neighborhood’s burgeoning street culture. Tucson Bike Lawyer says that city is gearing up for its own ciclovía. And The WashCycle has the scoop on the University of Maryland’s efforts to increase campus bike ridership.

  • Jason Roberts

    I don’t understand the “empty bus” philosophy, considering most 10 lane highways have extremely minimal traffic on off peak times as well. At rush hour, botyh are filled. If we’re going to hold public transit to this standard, we should do the same with the roads. From 9PM to 4AM, no highway justifies its existance.

  • Danny G

    Just run vans at night instead. Problem solved.

  • Hilary Kitasei

    Most people who take transit travel round trip. Fifty people may ride together in the morning but return over a wide range of day and night. It’s knowing they can return early afternoon, or after the meeting, the late show, the night of carousing, that figures into their transit calculation in the morning. If the option isn’t there, you basically have three choices: drive, pay for a taxi, or not go. So a survey of the full bus riders should ask: does your choice to take this bus depend on being able to return at some hour?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    No Danny, problem not solved. Your wayt has a double fleet to maintain. And labor cost is the largest expense in off peak service anyway.

  • Danny G

    Crap.

    – Can the “night fleet” be used as a Zipcar-esque car share during the day?

    – What are the Access-a-Ride vans doing between 9pm and 4am?

  • Omri

    A bus only needs 6 passengers to justify itself beyond dispute.

    And for every 6 passengers beyond 6, a bus can justify a subsequent empty run.

  • Lee Watkins

    Every “empty bus” is a single-occupant vehicle.
    Every single-occupant vehicle is an “empty bus”.

    This is a classic example of framing the argument.
    The solution to the problem changes depending on how the boundaries of the problem are defined.

    I could point to any signle-occupant car, SUV, even a motorcycle – and say that it’s an “empty bus”, because now we have framed the problem of single-occupant buses as part of a larger problem – millions of single-occupant vehicles . The problem of single-occupant vehicles becomes more broadly applied.

    Humans have a tendancy to identify one small detail of a larger problem – say a single occupant bus in a sea of single occupant SUVs and cars, and ignore the larger problem in favor of the narrow detail they have identified.

    People become less responsive to a problem as we broaden the boundaries of it’s definition – thus are the limits of common reasoning.

  • Here is my comment about this article on Planetizen. At the end, I mention the fact that their are two tiers of ridership, (“coverage” vs “ridership”) and it makes no sense to claim that we average these two out and not expand “ridership services” because “coverage services” bring down the average. I think the other point I make is equally important: that transit generates transit-oriented development, and so reduces the distance that people travel and shifts many trips to walking.

    from http://www.planetizen.com/node/42064
    The right-wing consultants quoted in the newspaper story contradict each other:

    “Unfortunately, right now the state of the art is that you’re generally better off with private automobiles when you’re talking about energy utilization. About the only way that transit can be competitive for energy or for environmental quality is if the transit lines gets an incredible amount of use, far higher than is now normally the case,” says Tom Rubin,

    While Randall O’Toole’s study for Cato says:
    “All transit together does emit less CO2 than passenger cars carrying the same number of people the same distance (about 13% less) but even that gap is disappearing — fast.”

    Rubin’s claim is refuted by O’Toole’s study. O’Toole’s error is obvious: if you build transit, you can also build transit-oriented development, which means that people travel shorter distances and walk on many trips. The shorter distances travelled (= fewer passenger miles) provide the important environmental benefit. Energy consumed per passenger mile is a side issue.

    Wendell Cox makes the same obvious error:
    “At this point, a Toyota Prius is less greenhouse-intensive than New York City Transit,” Mr. Cox says.
    Look at the number of people on a New York subway train, and imagine the congestion if they were all driving Priuses on the surface street above. To shift from NY transit to Priuses would require much lower densities, much more VMT, and therefore much more energy consumption than transit. Cox should realize this, since he spends much of his time promoting low-density sprawl.

    The one grain of truth in all these distortions is that there are two tiers of transit service in American cities. There are major transit lines that are heavily used and are far more environmentally benign than automobiles. And there are some bus lines that provide life-line service for the transit dependent, that are little used, and that consume lots of energy per passenger mile.

    Of course, it makes no sense to average out these two tiers of transit use and to conclude that we should not build any more heavily used major transit lines, because the underused bus lines bring down the average.

  • I have spoken with small business owners about the value of keeping a restaurant open past the hours which are “profitable.” If a restaurant is open until 10 pm and the cost of labor and utilities outpaces revenue from 9 – 10 pm, the restaurant should close at 9 pm, right?

    Well, not quite. The fact that your restaurant is open until 10 pm puts the idea in your customers’ consciousnesses that your restaurant is generally there to serve them during most hours of the day. They may come in before 9 pm most of the time, but being open that extra hours allows them to use your restaurant as a reliable source of food.

    The same, of course, applies to transit. I am not going to let my life depend on a mode of transport which does not satisfy my needs during certain hours of the day. Even if those trains which run between midnight and 5 am are consistently under-utilized, the customer knows that the train is there, and can therefore depend on the transit system for all of his or her transit needs. If I were going to a dinner party, and the last train or bus home left at 11 pm, I would not take the train or bus to the dinner party. I do not want to have to worry about my transportation home turning into a pumpkin. Convincing people to not only take mass transit to the baseball game, but to depend on it for daily transportation needs, requires the system to be available and convenient during all hours of the day and night. This will, unfortunately, result in under-utilized trains and buses during off-peak hours, however will attract more people to the system during all hours of the day.

  • Eric B

    In addition to the points you all have raised, it is the off-peak service that makes car-free living possible. The greatest savings for individual users and society come from every car that is no longer needed. These “inefficient” off-peak busses ensure that I can get where I need to go without paying insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking on a car I’d rather not own anyway. My choice to not own a car benefits all the people who don’t have to avoid me on the streets or breathe my tailpipe emissions, which justifies a public subsidy.

  • Streetsman

    That’s right Jeff – the reason you run empty buses is because if you don’t, then the people on those bus routes will have to buy cars to make sure they can get around late at night. Once they have a car, they will stop taking the bus in the daytime too.

  • librarian

    “The fact that your restaurant is open until 10 pm puts the idea in your customers’ consciousnesses that your restaurant is generally there to serve them during most hours of the day. They may come in before 9 pm most of the time, but being open that extra hours allows them to use your restaurant as a reliable source of food.”

    Recently our library extended its hours from 9pm to 11pm and I can vouch for seeing this principle in action. While the time from 9pm – 11pm is nowhere near as busy as it is during the day, the old “dead times” of 7pm – 9pm are now quite crowded and busy. It seems the 11pm close time creates something of cushion in peoples’ minds making the earlier hours more attractive and convenient.

  • librarian

    “The fact that your restaurant is open until 10 pm puts the idea in your customers’ consciousnesses that your restaurant is generally there to serve them during most hours of the day. They may come in before 9 pm most of the time, but being open that extra hours allows them to use your restaurant as a reliable source of food.”

    Recently our library extended its hours from 9pm to 11pm and I can vouch for seeing this in action. While the time from 9pm – 11pm is nowhere near as busy as it is during the day, the old “dead times” of 7pm – 9pm are now quite crowded and busy. It seems the 11pm close time creates something of cushion in peoples’ minds making the earlier hours more attractive and convenient.

  • As of 2006, the average fuel efficiency of a bus was 4.6mpg (http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_04_24.html — that’s the best stat I could find). So an empty bus is indeed worse than a single-passenger SUV. Especially since the SUV is actually getting *one* person somewhere, whereas the driver isn’t going anywhere really, so there’s really zero people in an empty bus.

    The highway metaphor is apt, as roads are also built for political reasons, and aren’t necessarily ideal for transportation. There are really quite a lot of highways and roads that are very underutilized. Of course, when you look at car-related costs, these politically motivated roads appear there too, just like politically motivated bus lines show up.

  • anon

    Counterarguments:

    1. Most of the time outside of rush hour, most highway lanes aren’t used. Is that an argument that every road in America should be 2 lanes? And what’s with this whole passing lane thing? By definition, most of the time it’s supposed to be EMPTY! Why are we building all these lanes that spent 90% of their time not being used?

    2. Buses are 40′ long. That is the length of 2 Lincoln Town Cars, of 2 full sized SUVs/Minivans, and the length of 3 Honda Civics. Nobody gets upset if a car has only one person in it. So, if there are 2 or 3 people in this bus, it is full according to the standard we use for cars. Frankly, most of the time, they are WAY more full than that.

    3. There are worse things in the world than having a bus line that people only occasionally use–transit is supposed to be USEFUL to people. Part of transit being useful means that there are lines only a few people ever use, which connect to the lines that LOTS of people use. Kind of like rural roads connect to highways?

  • anon

    “As of 2006, the average fuel efficiency of a bus was 4.6mpg”

    Average SUV mileage is, like, 18mpg. So, if you have 3 passengers on the bus, you’re about breaking even on fuel efficiency. Even if everyone in the world drove a Prius all the time (no pickup trucks, no vans, no sportscars, no compact cars), you just have to get 9 people on the bus to beat the Priuses in straight-up fuel efficiency.

    And that doesn’t take into account other things created by simple economies of scale, right? Like converting part of the fleet to CNG, which burns cleaner and more efficiently than any gas engine. Like more efficient cleaning of buses than private cars, (NYC recycles its graywayter, for instance) which means less waste. Better maintenance, which helps efficiency. Bazillions fewer garages, which means more space for other things (parks, housing, whatever). Even more parking spaces.

  • zach

    It’s not just about fuel and money efficiency, it’s about daytime commute traffic problems, and about drunk driving.

    BART, the train across San Francisco Bay, closes after midnight. Mountains of people who are coming from the East Bay for the day or for dinner, but plan to maybe stay in SF past midnight, bring their cars, even though they’d prefer to take BART both ways. That’s more cars in the am and pm commutes.

    Late night transit means people who are out and drunk can get home without risking the lives of themselves and everyone else. If people aren’t driving, they’re certainly not driving drunk.

  • Ben

    If we are comparing apples to apples why not also include the energy costs of producing the automobile vs the transit vehicle fleet. Otoole also forgot to mention extra street lanes for private automobiles and also parking spaces. How does that make the prius look? If Otoole is just looking at fuel use for each mode, his view is skewed. Transit oriented development aka city development allows people to walk and bike places too, instead of driving.

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