I felt like going for a run today, but not a long run because it’s still cold outside and I haven’t been running in a while. I decided to run to my gym, do a short workout, and then run back home. I only live about 1.4 miles from my gym, so it’s about a 10-minute run. On the way out of the gym though, I found myself thinking, “I’m pretty tired. If I had brought my wallet, I might be willing to take the bus home.” This was immediately followed by a second thought, “It’s not worth $2 to go 1.4 miles anyway.”
This got me thinking about transit’s role for short trips on the way home:
- Why should a 1.4 mile trip cost the same as a trip across the whole city?
- Does anyone with a choice actually use transit for these short trips?
- How far would I have to drive to spend $2 of gas (or $1.75 in Columbus)?
- Should transit be priced differently?
For most people in Columbus, a car is a reality of life. I previously noted that the 2008 Census American Community Survey found 97.5% of workers in Franklin County have at least one vehicle available. So the cost of vehicle ownership and insurance are sunk costs for most people. Variable costs are what matter when deciding to make a trip by car or transit. These include gas and some percentage of maintenance, which amounts to 19 cents per mile according to the IRS. At that rate, you would have to travel 9.2 miles ($1.75 / $0.19 per mile) on a bus before it’s cheaper than taking your car (obviously results will vary based on your car’s MPG and the price of gas).
However, to go 9.2 miles on a bus could take a while, 44.5 minutes at the average COTA bus speed of 12.4 MPH in 2009. That is likely to be a lot longer than a car trip if you have that option available. So basically, most transit service (around the country, not just in Columbus) is too expensive for short trips and too slow for long trips. So why would people take transit? I could only think of a few reasons:
- No car available – Whether by choice or affordability, there is that 2.5% of workers who don’t have a car. This is remarkably similar to the 2.2% transit users reported by Kiplinger here, but I haven’t fact-checked that number.
- Monthly pass – If you have a pass or a Buck-ID, there is no extra per trip cost to ride transit, so you may be more likely to take it for short trips.
- Parking – If a destination has limited or expensive parking, that can change the time and cost equations for the transit versus driving comparison. In Columbus, that means transit is basically useful for going downtown or to campus, but most of those campus-based trips are using Buck-IDs anyway.
- Work en route – Some people would rather read or get some kind of work done on transit that they can’t do while driving.
- Partying – Transit makes a great designated driver if you’re going out drinking.
So what can transit providers do to make their service more appealing? There are lots of possibilities. They could and should try to speed it up to make it more competitive with cars. People are willing to sacrifice some time riding transit because they can do other stuff like read, but not too much time. They could try to sell more monthly passes, or create special arrangements with employers just like they do with students. They could give away a month or more of passes to people who agree to give up their car. They could offer free wi-fi.
I think one major potential solution though is a change in the pricing structure. Some kind of distance based pricing would probably be best in theory, but a per mile system is impractical given the typical fare collection system on a local bus service. A zone system could help some, but unless there are a lot of zones, it probably wouldn’t make a difference for most short trips. It also introduces new problems like added system complexity (for passengers and drivers) and still have high pricing for short trips that just happen to cross a zone boundary.
I’m wondering if reducing or eliminating fares on certain routes or at certain times of day would encourage people to take transit for short trips that are otherwise not worth the cost. I’m guessing, and this is just a guess, that most crosstown routes have extra capacity, or maybe most off-peak trips, or weekend trips. You could encourage more people to use transit at low-demand times or on low-demand routes by charging a different fare. This would encourage transit trips that aren’t to the CBD, where parking economics make transit more appealing.
The downside of such an idea is of course that COTA may be giving up revenue by charging less (or nothing at all). Consider though that fares only pay for 17% of operating funds anyway, or $13.8 million in 2009. I don’t have any numbers, but I would guess that since the current system is mostly designed to serve downtown, that most of those fares are monthly passes, student fees, or single trips to downtown. It may not be that big a financial hit to operate some free routes or time periods.
I would suggest phasing something like this in. Try free Sunday trips, or free late-night trips, or free crosstown routes, or some other low productivity route. Measure how it impacts ridership. Determine if it’s worth expanding such a policy or rolling it back. My ultimate goal is to provide as many trips per service hour as possible. I think this may be one of the most practical ways to boost ridership in a place with high automobile-ownership rates. What do you think of this kind of idea?