Category Archives: Maps

The Geography of Potential Conflict: American Troop Stockpiles and Chinese Indignation

I’ve always felt like studying at the National War College would be this period of sublimely bellicose science fiction, reading up on the strategies of Patton and Hannibal and attempting to graft them to the comic book capabilities of the modern war machine. Or maybe even a really, really complicated game of Risk, but instead of calvary and cannons you have Predator Drones and Corner Shot equipped infantry. I may never get to peek behind the walls of Ft. McNair, but this week everyone with a marginal news connection got a glimpse at geopolitical conflict preparations when President Obama agreed to install 2,500 additional members of the U.S.M.C  in Australia as a defensive foil to China’s heaving presence in the Pacific.

American military bases aren’t exactly novel across the Int’l Dateline—we’ve been in Japan since the Emperor’s surrender and Korea since partition—but with Sino-American tensions tightening over economic issues bilateral and otherwise there is the perception that any deep breath anticipates a tsunami. Let’s take a look at a slightly annotated map of the Pacific Rim; the blue markers represent U.S. Military bases (thanks to Google Maps, boredom killer):

Screen Shot 2011 11 16 at 9.26.25 PM The Geography of Potential Conflict: American Troop Stockpiles and Chinese Indignation

Map of U.S. Military Bases in Pacific

It may not be the prettiest rendering of military omnipresence but this gets the simple point of American ubiquity in the Pacific. There are multiple bases in both Japan and Korea, two countries that feel equal queasiness towards what they see as an extension of American pugilism (Okinawa in particular has seen the synthesis of pacifism and sovereignty bound by searing memories) and Chinese territorial gluttony (China sees the South and Eat China Seas as sovereign property, the half a dozen other countries in the area beg to differ). Bases still dot a curve mirroring the Eastern coast of China from Guangzhou to Beijing with several bolted into geographic neighbors Japan and Korea.

It’s foolish to think that America would enter into any sort of armed conflict with China in the next five years, especially with the European economic situation needing every solution on the board; the concept of Chinese sovereign wealth funds flooding the European bond market may be politically and patriotically unpalatable (and has recently been tabled) but these are odd times. But the geographic formation of force is undeniably symbolic and the Chinese have taken notice of any perceived and real American incursions into regional spheres of influence. Potentially more important, though, is that the Chinese are now strong enough to bluntly challenge those moves with thinly veiled considerations of retaliation; 20 years ago they would have settled for shallow sabre rattling or simmering silence.

We are not on the precipice of Napoleonic pinpricks, but it’d be naive to think that conflict is an impossible hegemonic endgame between United States and China. The American flags raised around the Pacific Rim were not created with one eye towards the Middle Kingdom—its destruction at the hand of the Japanese durring WWII and subsequent starvation under Mao gave no indication of its future power—but now it seems like the presence of the Stars and Stripes may be a study in Clairvoyance 101 at the National War College.

The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

Gizmodo has some absolutely stunning renderings of the Thames Hub, a Foster + Partners proposed transportation center that would connect Southern England to the continent and the  by means of high-speed rail and would presumably become the gold standard of wildly grand infrastructure projects. From Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz:

This thing is crazy. It aims to be a central hub for absolutely everything, with multi-level underground railroads and highways that will connect it with London, the rest of Britain and to Europe through the Channel Tunnel. It will also include a new Thames Barrier that will extend the protection of riverside lands against floods, further expanding the surface available for construction.” 

estuary aerial credit foster   partners The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

I really don’t want to go into the details of the project because the pictures alone either make you queasy or rapturous, any amount of detailed description would border on redundant. It’s huge, it’s ambitious on par with Caesar, it would change the complexion of England’s signature waterway, and the effects on the surrounding environment would presumably be negative. Nevertheless, I really like this project, not only for its attempt to transform the transportation vernacular in England. While it may be the id-driven Cro-Magnon in me, there is something beautiful about grandiosity when it’s paired with pragmatism and adventure, something whimsically human about it.

medium highspeedrail section credit foster   partners The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

medium estuary airport section credit foster   partners The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

medium p06770 fp439165 The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

medium p06770 fp439164 The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

There’s been a lot of griping about the coverage the Occupy Wall Street protest is getting in widely read media outlets in the United States and abroad. Some consider it the reconstitution of the pacifistic protests of the 1960′s; coherent message was left to the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, the youth were there to simply stop a war and it didn’t matter if they had signs saying different things. The lack of media coverage, for them, is simply another chapter in the saga of man-against-money and a sign that the editorial boards at the Times, Post, Picayune, and Tribune are too deep in the pockets of financiers to see the boiling discontent in Southern Manhattan. Others, however, see reality.

It’s inarguable that income inequality and poverty are burgeoning problems in this country and much of the blame can be laid at the doors of misplaced priorities and a favorable regulatory schematic. Because protesting against abstractions is a difficult task without professional propagandists (no, the Tea Party groups are not made up of savant sloganeers) most turn to symbols and the canyon down on Wall Street is the most tangible embodiment of excess the protesters can think of (rather than, say, Westport or Stamford or, um, Towaco) so they gather, MacBooks in laps, and espouse whatever it is they espouse.

Occupy Wall Street Anti B 007 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

Photo: The Guardian

It’s easy to make light of people “doing” something from the comfort of a desk; bloggers skirt risk catholically, the internet provides universal anonymity. The Occupy Wall Street participants are active and dedicated and charmingly unorganized. They are there because they see the world, as many good minds do, in terms of fair and unfair, the latter coming around a lot more than the former lately.

It’s inarguable that income inequality and poverty are burgeoning problems in this country and much of the blame can be laid at the doors of misplaced priorities and a favorable regulatory schematic.

Unfortunately the protesters, who’s hearts are undoubtedly in the right place, are chasing the tail and not the head. Rising poverty and stagnant opportunities weren’t caused by financiers anymore than the hostage crisis was caused by President Carter, the cascading scenarios dictated the results rather than the individual actors. The mystifying belief that financial institutions stole cash out of our hands (TARP fund aside—do you want to imagine what would have happened without that? Didn’t think so.) is conjured heuristically—relative deprivation is a strong emotional argument.

Since this is a blog on urban problems let’s get to the main point: the current economic mess we find people—rather than institutions—in today is a symptom of significant underinvestment in urban infrastructure, especially in poor and predominantly non-white neighborhoods. Public transportation maps and playfully informative Census renderings  make it unnervingly easy to look at correlations between transit access and incomes in a city like New York or Los Angeles. The consummately talented info-artists over at the Center for Urban Pedagogy  made this (screenshots are the best I can do because embedding something this beautiful is beyond my coding skills. I really, really encourage you all to visit the site; it has statistics on every neighborhood in NYC and the income distributions are stunning, visually and informationally):

Screen Shot 2011 09 25 at 10.08.26 AM 1024x546 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests


Screen Shot 2011 09 25 at 10.15.34 AM 1024x548 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

Statisticians would warn me against weighing one variable too heavily especially in something as mercurial and fluid as a city, but neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Astoria are frustratingly uncluttered. In the most extreme cases you can walk 15 blocks and never see a subway stop. For a neighborhood in New York to be this barren is indicative of disproportionate access to integral urban services like transit and the potential benefits that come along with it.

…the current economic mess we find people—rather than institutions—in today is a symptom of significant underinvestment in urban infrastructure, especially in poor and predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

There are systemic issues in policy and investment that are manifesting themselves in poorer people and deteriorating faith. Wall Street has, of course, made mistakes that fed failures in the mortgage market and retirement funds, but greed is an equal opportunity vice and the myriad anecdotes of overextended credit backed by promises of a quick profit find the hands of the protesters pointing back at themselves. The anger at bankers and equity gurus and hedge fund managers is about one thing: inequality. The thought that income gaps are best solved by making the top come down is burning a candle without a wick. The passion and cause can be directed towards a more meaningful vector; leveling the playing field through access to public goods is achievable and supremely important, asking billionaires to turn over their paycheck isn’t.

Trains on Your Schedule

Getting around in cities all over the world has remained relatively the same over the last half a century: we get picked up by buses or subway cars and, after a few stops and the inevitable delay, we disembark and step onto well-stamped concrete or pavement. The evolution of public transportation -outside of the meteoric rise of information technology- has been a boring, straight line, but the systems themselves, those systems cannot be reduced to linear conclusions. Transit maps, while a feat of utilitarian beauty (and now, interactive dynamism), are views from 30,000 feet where lines are perfectly straight and bank at distinct angles rather than gradual turns. That level of analysis can’t define rider demand at the individual level and demographic mapping from sources like the Census and Immigration Bureaus aren’t granular enough to predict demand sources on an individual scale.

mta kick vign maps 1024x500 Trains on Your Schedule

Demand based transit planning has always been a conundrum for the luminaries at transit planning administrations across the country. Transit theorists borrow a term from economics in calling public transit demand “lumpy” because it faces peaks, plateaus, and nadirs on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. More buses and trains in the mornings and afternoons, less in midday. The lumpy economic theory is good for broad analysis. There are obviously more riders going to and coming from work in cities that have large populations using transit to get to work and most of them arrive around 9 AM and leave around 5 PM. In cities like Boston where a major demographic population is students, the schedules have more flexibility: some students have their first class at 10 or 11 AM —oh, how I miss being a student— and leave their designated zones much earlier or much later than their professional counterparts.  Still, typical demand based model are employed: 9 and 5 are peaks, all other times are not.

A potential 3rd way for transit planning may exist at the crossroads between internet startups and industrial ingenuity. The two paths represent a divergent means to similar end: provide a consumer a product while altering traditional precepts concerning supplies. The dissolution of boundaries between supply and demand allowed Japan to become a behemoth in automotive and electronics manufacturing and spurred some business savants to base a multi-billion dollar industry off the collective desires of the American public.

Japan’s reinvention of Fordism-era stock rooms, dubbed the “just-in-time” or JIT economy, allowed a land-scarce nation to become the lynchpin of Asian automotive production. Instead of storing parts onsite and paying housing fees for things that may not be needed for days or weeks, the pioneers at Toyota designed a system where parts were delivered only as they were needed. The desired effect is a streamlining —see: less costly— of supply chains and almost non-existent onsite storage costs, a strangely high cost item for auto-manufacturers. This is where we can see the mercurialization of supply but the true abstraction of demand comes from a team of stateside innovators.

The emergence of demand based services like Groupon and Living Social aren’t based on novel economic ideas driving consumers. For consumer demand sites that use a “trigger” to determine when a deal goes on and when it doesn’t —Groupon requires a given amount of people purchase the “groupon” before it is actually offered, hence the playful moniker— the concept is tangentially and, potentially, unconsciously based off the keystone economic theory of market equilibriums. One caveat to this theory is that corrective forces for a glut of demand, which typically include prices increases because when more people want something they’re rationally apt to pay more for it, don’t find a home in these companies; prices for the “groupon” remain flat for the duration of the deal.

 Trains on Your Schedule

What does that have to do with public transportation? Unless you’re riding SEPTA or some of the older systems in Europe and Asia, you now use a card, not a token, to pay your fare. Those cards produce time stamped records of riders and generate volume records that feed into a central database and those receipts are used for the demand models that have been discussed earlier in this essay. What if, instead of those ridership statistics (displayed with graceful practicality in the National Transit Database) going towards long-term demand models they were applied dynamically and geared towards deploying buses and subway cars where they were most needed any time of day. Riders would swipe, tap, or insert their cards and, for the purposes of illustration, the mercury inside a sort of demand thermometer would rise until a train or bus is deployed on its efficient track or route. Instead of subway cars perpetually packed at 5 PM because of linear deployment schedules, there would be a smoothing of the deployment process coupled with real-time ridership numbers.

Would the difference in operating costs run expenses past the burgeoning weight of MTA salaries and benefits? If there was a chance to run fewer trains or buses due to a dynamically produce demand model, would Jay Walder be able to balance his books a little easier?

Broad brushes never end in masterpieces for transportation planning. To say that all we need is a Groupon-based transit-on-demand system is ill-intentioned simplicity and may end up damaging routes that don’t serve very many and at the same time those that need the most. Equality will always be the foil to efficiency and pulls that turn to pushes are inevitable when the only options you have on the table are fare hikes, layoffs, and service cuts. There is opportunity, though, for a dynamic alternative where instead of using swaths of populations as our starting points, we begin the process with a single rider swiping a single card riding a single route. We exist at the center an ever-rising pinnacle of innovation, not just with technology but also in ideas. Transportation planning has not just been a footnote to those advances; it’s been near the center, where it belongs.


Well Look What I Found…

The family bulldog had to go in for some x-rays in Tustin, CA and I took the opportunity to walk around the office park where the veterinary emergency offices are. For those of you familiar with the less-dense areas of Orange County (Tustin used to house the El Toro air force base) the dominant landscape features are bi-level concrete office buildings and 6-lane roads with an afterthought of a sidewalk. Typically it’s intimidating to even get out of your car much less wander around, especially with summer flowering. But I had some time to kill and didn’t see much to eat, so I took a stroll and look what seemed to pop out of nowhere:

train station 1 1024x764 Well Look What I Found...

A big, beautiful train station. Tustin isn’t a hub of major economic activity in California much less Orange County. Like I said, office parks dot the various arterial roads and there are some long-range bus routes that provide spoke service to this station’s hub, but there aren’t more than a few hundred jobs within walking distance of this station, though those bike racks suggest a potential cycle-bound population, hopefully. That being said I’m encouraged by even seeing an Amtrak/Metrolink station somewhere within shouting distance of some jobs in Southern California (Santa Barbara’s station is in the middle of downtown which is great) because it at least provides an ample commuter population that could feed public transit investments.

The Amtrak and Metrolink network in Southern California also stretches from San Diego to Santa Barbara, a corridor of about 300 miles. The map, rendered below, resembles a transit directory more than a train geography which is a nice change from the typical landscape out here (Tustin is one stop south of John Wayne Airport):

train map metrolink Well Look What I Found...

I had no idea I could have a one seat ride from Orange County to Ventura, for $16.50 no less. The fare calculator on MetroLink’s no frills website actually shows drivers how much it would cost to drive from one station to another; the same trip wold cost $55.18 if I packed up the car and spent the weekend in Ventura.

As Californians we’re predisposed to an auto-addiction. Car culture is the dominant culture here and it’s near impossible to get anywhere without driving if you live in the suburbs like my mother does, but the fact that this map even exists speaks to the willingness to go after public works projects in a landscape that can be unforgiving to anything without four wheels. Who knows, maybe the tired soul below is the first of many who, instead of firing up the engine, grab their bikes and a train ticket:

train station with bike 764x1024 Well Look What I Found...

To the Museum!

You can get most places in Boston taking the bus or the subway, you just can’t always get there without transferring a couple times. To go from MIT in Cambridge to Fenway Park, you can take the Red Line train to Park Street and transfer to the Green Line to Kenmore Square. You could also take the #1 bus to Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue—and walk another 0.6 miles. Or you can walk 1.3 miles, which would probably be a shorter trip that either of the previous options. Either way you won’t be getting to that game on time if you don’t give yourself a good 30 minute window, and that’s with one of the most urban integrated stadiums in the world.

Connections between points of interest in a city as small as Boston should be a cornerstone of transit planning, but current transportation strategies are based around short-route buses which tend to lose a few thousand dollars a day on average and effective, but still lacking, subway systems. In Boston, where subway systems are the oldest in the United States, it’s difficult to criticize only the planning policies; city plans and locations of interest change every generation, but buses have flexibility in routing with low capital sunk costs (signage, small stations). They can change.

The poorly made map below —poorly made by me, not the luminaries over at Google— shows how one would get from Back Bay, my neighborhood, to the three major museums around Boston: the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Museum Map

The green line is the transit route: from Copley to the Museum stop, then after running around two of the better museums in the country, you get back on the train to Park Street, switch to the Red Line to South Station, and switch again to the Silver Line; then do it again on the way back. Or you could drive, which is the blue line. But you really, really don’t want to drive here.

Alright so the museums are on opposite sides of Boston, a city that has a unique geographical layout that prohibits pragmatic and predictable transit planning. It is not so unique as to prevent visitors from seeing three different museums in one day without —it depends on where your starting point but let’s use Copley Square station as an origin and endpoint— making a total of six single seat trips. Going from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Institute of Contemporary Art could take as long as hour depending on train frequency, overloaded Green Line trains, and the ambiguity of the Silver Line.

I used this example because it’s the most visually identifiable and its geographical contrast is severe. If we were going on pure self-interest I would have complained about the lack of any direct connection between Copley Square and Harvard Square; two centers of population and financial health. What needs to be considered is this:

- Boston’s aesthetic and tourist geography has changed. If we, like all great cities, want our tourists to ride mass transit without confusion and frustration, then we need to make our bus routes, and eventually our subway maps, more fluid. This isn’t to say that change we change mainlines where low-income and vulnerable communities need them most; we need to eliminate bus lines that lose money due to low ridership and create long haul routes that go between incubators of culture, commerce, and education.

- Contrary to current urban planning vogues, clustering of social institutions can be successful if done in the right way. Vienna’s Museumstrasse and Los Angeles’ burgeoning Museum Mile —funded by the billionaire philanthropist and art patron Eli Broad— can be seen as both long-term and emerging arts agglomeration projects. Museums, unlike restaurants, universities, and pedestrian squares, don’t necessarily benefit the neighborhoods they reside in; if they’re old they are products of institutional wealth in places like New York’s Upper West Side, and if they’re new they are built with neo-industrial infusions where the museum complexes become neighborhoods unto themselves. The latter is an option for a much-maligned and now defunct urban planning theory, “city beautiful”, to have a self-aware revival.

Wien Museum To the Museum!

- Buses and transit are receiving some ingenious influxes of new technologies, but the concept of the bus route hasn’t been revisited for half a century. Bus routes should be able to be fluid based on demand and need, especially for low income and disadvantaged people. We have sophisticated traffic engineering programs that can monitor everything from highway peak load to intelligent traffic signaling, isn’t it time we developed these smart programs for transit?

Transit is Happening Somewhere (MN)

Contrary to popular belief, there is still a taste in Washington for writing checks and advancing infrastructure projects. Minnesota’s twin cities of St.Paul and Minneapolis received $478 million for a near $1 billion project that will lower travel times between the city centers to about 40 minutes in 2014. The near half-a-billion dollars is a record for Federally funded transportation projects in the Land of the Gophers and here are the geographically (too) specific details:

The Central Corridor line, which is about 12 percent complete, will run from downtown Minneapolis along Washington and University avenues to the Capitol before turning down Robert and Cedar streets in downtown St. Paul. Its easternmost stop will be on Fourth Street, in front of Ramsey County’s refurbished Union Depot.

Trains will continue without passengers into a Lowertown operations and maintenance facility at the end of Fourth Street, next to a site envisioned by St. Paul officials as a future St. Paul Saints ballpark. (Via Pioneer Press)

I’ve never been to Minneapolis or St. Paul so I don’t know how exactly these maps will look but I do like the plucky Minnesota Twins and the friend that brought this topic to my attention, Joe Mielenhausen, hails from the North Star state. Here’s a map to put it into relatively perspective courtesy of the Metropolitan Council, Minnesota/St.Paul’s metropolitan planning organization:

mn map Transit is Happening Somewhere (MN)I’ve usually written these pieces under the guidance of fiscal restraint when it comes to high-octane infrastructure projects, not because I don’t think that transformative transportation projects are a bad idea but because I think that improving what we have is a cheaper and, in some cases, more effective alternative. That being said I like this idea coming out of the Cold Country for some reason. Schematically, it’s reminiscent of BART which unites two neighbor cities (though Oakland gets the short end of the stick) via heavy rail. The project is also an elegant fiscal construction, funded by a combination of Federal grants (as mentioned above), a quarter-cent sales tax increases on several counties (those being affected positively by the rail line), and state funding matches.

The level of cooperation and fiduciary responsibility is a good sign that there is still a desire for better transportation among average Americans and transit is becoming a higher priority for more and more urban dwellers. Minnesota, in all its magnanimous glory, has made a move towards transit and it’s a move in the right direction. Go Twins (cities).

Tower in the Stars

Co-Op City is a good northern boundary for New York City. It’s the first set of real skyscrapers you see driving on Interstate 95 south from New England; they’re sort of a concrete and steel set of Cairn stones leftover from a different age of architecture and urban planning. Most people see the grouping of “+” sign shaped buildings for what they are: an odd post-apocalyptic moonscape of apartment blocks, the type of place Kurt Russell or Jean Claude Van Dam would be trying to escape from in an early 1990’s action movie. Urban planners and, for completely different reasons, artists usually see Le Corbusier.

The French architect, planner, and artist has been the subject of several excellent full-length biographies and studies so I won’t attempt to add the bibliography here, but there’s a certain merit to explaining his most influential legacy: the Radiant City. Le Corbusier imagined the ideal city as a set of lawn darts. Babel-like towers would house thousands of urban dwellers in one area and they would commute —typically via underground trains and highways— to another set of towers where offices and administrative facilities were housed. Everything else would be a fantastic emerald green.*

Co-Op City, along with Government Housing Projects in Chicago, Baltimore, and other parts of New York, is viewed as a condemnation of the entire theory; proof that bigger isn’t better when it comes to urban planning. Large scale theories are not immune to ironies though, and often the critics of house projects look towards what they know best rather than think about the people who actually live in those buildings. Housing Projects are also known by a general non de guerre: affordable housing. The innocuous phrase is simply a euphemism for housing for the poor.

Poverty, at least in this country, begets poverty (his blog has covered the issue of decentralization before albeit in a roundabout way). Poor people do not emigrate to urban areas for the possibility of a better life as they do in India and China; in the U.S. the poor are often already there, mired in low-wage, low-growth “careers”, disproportionately affected by crime, drugs, and unemployment. The slums of Mumbai and Detroit have very little in common; the tide in India, no matter how uneven, still raises all boats. In the U.S. the tide has receded, leaving Greenwich and Lake Forest afloat.v

The emergence of the Radiant city style housing projects in American is a geographical canard. People living in the projects aren’t poor because they live in the projects; they were poor when they got there. But urban planners usually see it the other way around because that’s the overwhelmingly visual proof and it is distinctly visceral. The truth is, while Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities are not practical in theory or in application they aren’t the why, they’re only the where.

vLe Corbusier’s ideas are flawed to be sure (however the vogue of sustainable living has inadvertently led to the reemergence of vertical living, something Le Corbusier championed) but his ideas were never meant to be applied to anything more than urban theory. He was first an artist, more Gehry than Olmsted, and had never visited American soil before his ideas were adopted sight unseen. He was also a shameless self-promoter and was wont to endorse his ideas where there was very little rationale for application. The Radiant City was geared towards the Parlor crowds of Paris when Le Corbusier was working; terrifying to the cultural bastions of vie Parisen (especially his vision of Paris’s future) and fascinating to the industrial minimalists of the day.

* The concepts runs against the grain of Jane Jacobs, a woman whose life’s work was a crusade against the top-down pursuit of Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities. An untrained urban planner, though as a journalist she was a keener observer than theorist, she considered Boston’s North End and New York’s Greenwich Village —her own home— the organic, and superior, foil to Le Corbusier’s ultimately geometric plan. I mention Jacobs very briefly here because I plan on making her the subject of a much more lengthy study in modern urban theory.

Mapping the Future

rotherham buses Mapping the Future

Rotherham Bus Map Screenshot (Copyright Rotherham Metropolitan Council)

I think Rotherham’s heart is the in the right place but I’m not sure this was the best use of government funds. It looks like a rainbow colored nightmare of an anthill. While actually seeing the route of a given bus may really help passengers understand travel paths, some questions need to be asked: why didn’t they separate the maps by bus routes instead of stations? Why didn’t they slow down the animation to a point that is actually useful? Why is it so damn cartoony? All in all, a valiant attempt Rotherham, but let’s stick to concepts that actually help people over ones that just look good.

Buses Just Don’t Make Money

Cities and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPOs) don’t create transit authorities to make money; they’re there to serve the people. That being said, it’d be nice if our public transportation systems at least broke even. There’s not a large-scale (more than 200,000 people) transportation system in America that has a balanced budget solely from fares. Las Vegas maintained near neutral budgets with their effective bus system but then shot themselves in the foot (or buried themselves in the desert, if you like) when they built that stupid monorail.

 Buses Just Dont Make Money

The MBTA is a relatively typical transit agency: an above average subway system with a middling, bordering on subpar, bus system. The latter is what this post is about.

The average cost for a bus ride in Boston is $0.71. Now that is based on National Transit Database (NTD) 2008 calculations so let’s just say with inflation and potential changes in demographics it’s $0.75*. The cost to run a route ranges, but let’s take a basic example: the 59. We have a map below:

59 bus route Buses Just Dont Make Money

Now it goes from Needham to Watertown, so the expectation is that the ridership will be a little less robust than if it was downtown or along a population line so I’ll give two incarnations of the calculations below. Before I do that, let me explain what I’m doing here: these are basic calculations performed on Excel based on the National Transit Database spreadsheets and the MBTA’s schedule. The terms are self-explanatory except for “farebox recovery ratio” which is the percentage of costs covered by just the fares that passengers pay. So here are the first set of numbers:

excel 21 Buses Just Dont Make Money

This bus route loses $3,117.20 a day. Does it even matter how much that is over a year? That’s $3k every day. Now here’s something interesting: we can adjust these numbers to create a budget neutral bus route by increasing the average fare (not pictured here) until that 21% magically becomes 100%:

excel 100 Buses Just Dont Make Money

So the budget neutral fare here is $3.37 which is more comparable to commuter rail prices than bus fares. Is that too high a fare? Most likely yes. Public transportation demographics are especially sensitive to price spikes for individual rides. Low income and minorities dominate urban transportation systems and demographics among monthly pass holders, who by definition pay lower per ride fares, tend to reverse that trend though not in volume. An increase to $3.37, or the introduction of a variable rate model, would be an increase of nearly $2.00; beyond prohibitive for the typical T rider.

 Buses Just Dont Make Money

So what do we do? There’s a lot of answers and I’ll most likely be going through a few of them in detail in later posts. I’ll describe the two sides of the spectrum right now though.

1. We charge what it takes to neutralize the budget through fares instead of concessions and subsidies. I don’t think anyone expects the riders to cover the entire MBTA bill though; there’s a reason we pay sales taxes, gas taxes, etc. So let’s say we have a fare hike to $2.50, comparable to New York’s system. It’s a lot, and it will price out low income and minorities while bailing the MBTA out of its crippling debt services, but some one has to lose out in every scenario and raising fares is the simplest and most effective way of doing that. User fees are brutally effective and unquestionably fair.

2. We leave the fares where they are and leave the MBTA to their regularly scheduled fare hike calendar. Public transit is a necessity in a city; urban areas are by definition land scarce and personal vehicles costs are at a premium. By artificially suppressing mass transit fares the MBTA is able to effectively, and appropriately, subsidize those who cannot afford to suburbanize or use private transportation. These fees are better absorbed by those who can afford them through innovative finance vehicles such as congestion pricing and variable tolling. Commuters are a demographic that can and should bear a large portion of transportation costs. They benefit immensely from the agglomeration economies in Boston but do not pay the premiums of living in a densely populated area.

These are two options on either side of the gauntlet and each have clear cut losers and winners. Fare pricing isn’t simple, but it’s something we all deal with on a daily basis whether we like it or not. What’s the answer here? No one’s really sure, but with the MBTA suffocating from debt, letting fares and  user fees stay stagnant can’t be an option much longer.

*This takes some explanation. Because fares aren’t uniform across the board the calculation of average fares is more complicated than it sounds. Seniors, children, and the disabled receive significantly discounted fares and the weight of monthly, weekly, and daily passes count depending on trip volumes which is a tedious exercise at best. The NTD databases are excellent though, so I’ll trust those guys.