Transit Isn’t “Alternative Transportation”, It’s Just Transportation

One of my pet peeves  in the discussion on transportation is the pitching of things like transit and biking as “alternative transportation”. There are four problems here:

  1. If transit and biking are alternative transportation, they’re alternatives to “normal transportation”, i.e. cars. Transit and biking advocates should not be using terminology that reinforces car ownership as the default.
  2. It results in people actively seeking to provide a new mode of transportation for no other reason than increasing the number of modes available.
  3. It’s used to retroactively justify failing transit projects, e.g. “at least we gave people an alternative to their cars” (even if they’re not using it because it’s not very useful).
  4. It’s used to proactively justify transit projects that are likely to fail, e.g. “our community deserves alternatives just as much as everyone else” (even though it is likely to be difficult to design a useful, cost-efficient transit system for the community in question).

The first should be self-evident. For an example of the second, consider NYC and SF pols’ irrational exuberance for ferries. The most common examples of the third are defenses of low-ridership LRTs and commuter rails. (Ironically, buses are usually given a pass because thanks to bus bias, people expect/accept low ridership.) The fourth is usually seen in the form of communities demanding expensive rail systems where they don’t make sense and, after construction, morphs into the third problem.

At the moment, my favorite example of the second problem is the proposed bikeway for the High Desert Corridor. No one is riding their bike 55 miles from Palmdale to Adelanto to go to work, even in the relatively benign Southern California climate. It’s a recreational trail at best, and if you’re going to build a recreational bike path, why in god’s name would you put it in the same ROW as a freeway? On the other hand, if we want to make biking to work, school, and entertainment easier in the High Desert, we could probably spend the money on more worthwhile projects within the developed cities themselves. But no: planners are providing Another Alternative, so everyone is happy.

Efficiency is the Goal

The right way to look at all of this is that we have all sorts of different travel needs, and we have different options for meeting those needs. Figure out what needs you’re trying to meet, and then pick the transportation option that best serves those needs.

Let’s say you need to move an industrial transformer. Your realistic options are shipping, freight rail, and truck. Obviously the available infrastructure matters, but in general shorter distances will favor trucking, longer distances will favor rail, and very long distances will favor shipping. You’re not going to ship it or rail it from Los Angeles to Ventura. But you might put it on rail to go to Chicago. And if you need to get it from Shanghai to Los Angeles, you’re going to ship it – even if the FRNs get their Bering Strait Bridge. Biking and transit are not realistic options here.

Now obviously, that’s an extreme case – most trips don’t involve moving industrial machinery. But the same logic applies. If you accept the premise that we need a better way to move people and goods from Palmdale to Adelanto, a bikeway is not the answer. Neither are airplanes. Cars, buses, trains – they’re the options here.

Efficiency Favors Transit, Walking, and Biking in Urban Areas

Framing things from an efficiency point of view frees you from the need to spend money on infrastructure that doesn’t make sense. It also you gives you another leg to stand on in dense urban areas where providing infrastructure for one type of transportation means taking it away from someone else.  If you ask me, it’s a lot better than “social justice” arguments about providing space for all users. (Those arguments are a little rich, since bike infrastructure often seems to be deployed first in areas whose residents have the least economic need for it. As others have noted, these arguments are hard to accept when many people are treated as if they don’t have the right to be on the street at all.)

The most insurmountable challenge to cars in urban areas is geometry. They take up much more space than biking, walking, or transit. Even the most heartless auto advocate can’t deny that riding a bike for a trip of a mile or two is a better use of urban space than driving. In addition to being humane and treating bicyclists like they’re actually people, encouraging bike use improves the economic efficiency of the city. When less land is used for parking, more land is available for other productive uses.

At this point, Randal O’Toole usually jumps in and says hey, if people want to drive, shouldn’t we provide them with the infrastructure to drive? After all, you’re providing the infrastructure for people who want to bike. And maybe, from an “all users” perspective, he has a point.

But from an efficiency perspective, you get to say nope, sorry. The government’s job is not bend to your every whim. The government’s job is to provide public goods and make decisions about fair allocation of public resources that result in benefits to society. We only have so much space on the streets. And in cities, we can serve more people and more trips in a more efficient manner by providing bike infrastructure and quality transit.

This framework also you gives you a solid case against building expensive transit infrastructure to low-density areas due to the “our community is just as deserving of transit as the city”. Nope, sorry. Why don’t you try upzoning a bunch of your town, and come back to use when land use justifies the investment? (In general, it’s a bad idea to build transit and hope that land use patterns will change in response.)

At this point, Jarrett Walker might jump in and say hey, efficiency is only part of the equation for transit; we also have to provide service to low-density areas and at low-ridership times of day to make the system equitable and dependable. Fair enough. That service should also be provided in an efficient manner, which generally means by bus. You don’t get to have a subway to Chatsworth or Scarborough just because the Westside and Yonge Street got one.

By recognizing that different types of transportation are better able to serve different types of trips, we can move past the car being the default, recognize when politicians are pandering with projects that introduce a new mode of questionable value, and make the case against expensive transit projects that offer little value. Transit isn’t alternative transportation, it’s just transportation.

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