Looking for the masses on mass transit

COST Commentary: This outstanding, editorial page article by Ashley Sanchez, published in the Austin-American Statesman, addresses one of the most often misunderstood myths regarding public transit. The term “mass transit” is often used to describe train transit. It is not mass transit.

In reality, there is nothing urban train transit can do which bus transit cannot do just as well or better. Bob Lanier, very popular Mayor of Houston (1992-1998), is credited with the following quote:

“First they [rail’s supporters] say ‘It’s cheaper.’ When you show it costs more, they say, ‘It’s faster.’ When you show it’s slower, they say, ‘It’s serves more riders.’ When you show there are fewer riders, they say, “It brings economic development.’ When you show no economic development, they say, ‘It helps the image.’ When you say you don’t want to spend that much money on image, they say, ‘It will solve the pollution problem.’ When you show it won’t help pollution, they say, finally, ‘It will take time for rail to do some good”.

This quote is just as insightful today as it was more than 30 years ago.

Austin-American Statesman

By Ashley Sanchez, Regular Contributor, February 22, 2013

Mass transit is a misnomer. After all, the masses move about by car. The relatively small number of
Central Texans who move about on transit are primarily those who don’t have a car, either because they
cannot afford one or because they cannot drive due to old age or disability.

Last week, the Round Rock City Council heard a presentation about using gondolas for public
transportation. The concept has gondolas passing overhead at 30-second intervals, thus giving it three
advantages over rail. It would be considerably less expensive to build, less disruptive to automobiles
and freed from timetables.

But a gondola system shares some of rails’ significant flaws. It confines people by infrastructure to
a fixed route, and it requires an additional form of transportation for people to access its entry
point and to arrive at their destinations from its exit point.

Those flaws are enough to ensure that gondolas, like trains and buses, would not appeal to the masses.
Rather than squandering precious resources trying to provide transit for those who won’t use it (Be
honest: That’s the vast majority of us.), Round Rock leaders should instead figure out the most
effective way to provide transportation to those who cannot drive (as baby boomers age, that number
should continue to grow). By that metric, gondolas don’t make the cut.

One proposal for moving gondola riders to the line’s entry and exit points is a car share program.
However, for passengers who are unable to drive in the first place, that would be useless.

Round Rock leaders should strive to provide effective transportation for those without cars rather
than providing alternative modes of transportation for car owners. The former objective, because it is
narrowly tailored, can lead to success. The latter, because it is broadly construed, can lead to
micromanaging the masses.

Consider the wild goose chase that results when governmental entities pursue those who don’t want to
use transit systems. Sometimes they play mind games – trying to guilt people into giving up their cars
in the name of protecting the environment. Other times they up the hassle factor of driving by making
parking scarce or ridiculously expensive and by increasing traffic congestion by eliminating road
capacity to make way for rail tracks.

In the name of transit policy, by using tax incentives and other means, some governing entities try to
tell people where they should live and businesses where they should operate (next to the rail line,

Round Rock leaders can liberate themselves from all those hassles by understanding their mission
clearly. The masses have their own transportation and simply need governments to provide safe,
efficient roads. A minority, however, lacks transportation, and the city should properly find ways to
serve them.

Of course, some Central Texas leaders contend that rail is popular here, citing standing-room-only
trains as substantiating evidence. The fact is, however, that there remains unused capacity on
existing trains, and rather than moving the masses, Capital Metro’s rail line moves a small fraction
of the region’s commuters each weekday at massive expense.

As for rail’s popularity for special event such as F1 race days and South by Southwest, moving those
crowds can be effectively and more cheaply accomplished with buses.

Gondolas and trains are old technologies with inflexible routes. They do not suit Central Texas’
spirit of innovation and dynamism.

Round Rock can show true regional leadership by eschewing mass transit. The masses don’t use it.
People without cars don’t need a system that serves the public at large; they need a system that
serves them.

By keeping their focus on those residents, Round Rock leaders should be able to find innovative ways
to efficiently address their transportation needs.

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