One of Cap’n Transit’s best contributions, in my opinion, is the idea of transportation myopia – where people get so focused on transit that it becomes the goal in and of itself. We have to remember that transit competes with cars. If you’re going to advocate for a highway project (something I reserve the right to do on this blog) or even take a neutral position, you need to ask yourself what impact that will have on the viability of transit. In this context, Cap’n Transit has defended some commuter rail projects with disappointing ridership, San Jose’s VTA, and Amtrak’s long-distance services, the point being that low ridership does not occur in a vacuum.
It is important to remember that different modes of transportation are indeed competing with each other, but we’re still missing a crucial component: the do-nothing alternative. Because highways and transit are not only competing against each other, they’re also competing against doing nothing. The do-nothing alternative is what you pick when all the transportation options available to you are so terrible that you decide to not even make the trip at all. For example, if you’re in Westwood and your friend wants to have dinner in Studio City, your highway option (the 405 to the 101) is crappy and your transit option (Metro Rapid 761 to the Orange Line) is crappy too. You might decide to just stay home. This is fundamentally different than choosing between a good highway and good transit. In other words, having bad highways does not make up for having bad transit.
Notice the distinction. Cap’n Transit is wrong to say that transit can win by default. If we extend the baseball analogy, the important thing is not which team wins, but how many spectators each team attracts. Two evenly matched professional teams are going to attract more spectators than two evenly matched teams of beer league scrubs.
Why does this matter? Because there are economic deadweight losses associated with the do-nothing alternative. In the short run, it means lost opportunities for businesses in your city. In the long run, it means that existing residents and businesses will leave your city, and prospective residents and businesses will choose to locate elsewhere. In economese, having a poor transportation system makes matching more difficult by increasing transaction costs.
In human terms, consider the lost romantic connections attributed to the G Train in New York. As Second Ave Sagas notes, the G Train isn’t objectively terrible, but it is relatively terrible if you’ve oriented a car-free life around the excellent Brooklyn-Manhattan or Queens-Manhattan subway lines. Cap’n Transit says the G Train is in competition with the BQE. Fair enough, and it is appropriate to ask why NYSDOT seems hell bent on widening the bridge over Newtown Creek, especially given the zero probability that the rest of the 278 will be widened. Nevertheless, the solution to the G Train’s woes remains a better G Train – better headways, restoration of service to Queens Blvd, and rectification of the ridiculous lack of connections to other lines.
The long-term dynamic effect is something that our environmental review process is ill-equipped to understand. From the standpoint of an environmental impact report, the impacts of doing nothing are almost always negligible. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I touched on this when I wrote about greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of transportation, poor systems may cause people and businesses to do nothing in the short term, resulting in economic losses, and to locate elsewhere in the long term – perhaps in places harder to serve by transit, or where environmental impacts may be greater.
This is why I’m bothered when I hear urbanists wish that we had low quality highway infrastructure because it would increase transit ridership. Wishing for crappy freeways is, like shuttle envy, making excuses for bad transit instead of trying to make transit better. So anytime you’re looking at your city’s transportation system, remember: transit and cars compete with each other, but people can also do nothing. Transit needs to be high quality, in both absolute and relative terms.