Transit Sustainability

As much as he is a fan of passenger rail, Kevin Page, Virginia’s director of rail transportation, is realistic: He understands that passenger rail in the Old Dominion is not everyone’s preferred mode of travel, and he knows that it can be difficult to justify economically.

Page espouses “transit sustainability.” Even if a local government or regional authority can cobble together the funds to launch passenger rail, someone needs to fund ongoing operations, he explained to me in a recent interview. Under Page’s doctrine, any mode of mass transit must be able to recover a significant proportion of its costs through passenger fares. The idea is to start with the most cost-effective method of mass transit — that which loses the least money — and test the market. Only if ridership increases does it make sense to upgrade to more expensive, higher-volume systems.

Thus, Page envisions mass transit routes starting, say, with city buses in city streets. They might be supplanted by Bus Rapid Transit, a higher-volume system that relies upon dedicated bus lanes. A BRT system, if supported by the market, might evolve to a light rail system, and then to a heavy rail system. The idea is to “get people more connected with transit” and move to more ambitious systems upgrades as the market materializes.

“Transit sustainability” is an interesting way of appraising the practicality of competing projects. It certainly makes more sense than doling out Virginia’s rail and transit dollars to whomever has the most political clout. I’m still not totally convinced, however. As I argued in “Midlothian Leviathan,” a private-sector, developer-driven approach to mass transit might make more sense.

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21 responses to “Transit Sustainability”

  1. Rtwng Extrmst Avatar
    Rtwng Extrmst

    Amazing logic there Jim. I’m surprised to see such thoughtfulness coming from a Kaine Administration appointee. Now if they will just apply it. There’s the rub though.

    Too bad they didn’t do that before they rammed through the “rail to Dulles” boondoggle. I’m still hoping that morass will eventually implode under it’s own outlandish cost and beauraucratic weight.

    I agree Page’s thoughts are a step in the right direction to true private-sector solutions, and should be the minimum the gov’t does before it committs billions in taxpayer dollars to projects that will weigh us down with even more billions in O&M costs for the foreseeable future on inefficient systems that will not at all solve our traffic dilemma.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I LIKE the term but I’m quite sure that the word “oxymoron” is nearby in the wings…

    Can I make a “friendly” amendment?

    “Sustainable Public Transport”

    where Public Transport is any transport (publically or privately owned) in which the passengers do not travel in their own vehicles

    Indeed that phrase with quotes around it – gets more than 30,000 “hits” on GOOGLE!

    and I don’t think very many folks would claim that Public Transport is not sustainable…. For instance, the airlines are public transport.

  3. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    “Page envisions mass transit routes starting, say, with city buses in city streets. They might be supplanted by Bus Rapid Transit, a higher-volume system that relies upon dedicated bus lanes. A BRT system, if supported by the market, might evolve to a light rail system, and then to a heavy rail system.”

    The Page approach will not work.

    I start with 4 types of service.

    1. Hourly buses for those with no other means of transportation.

    2. Handicap access.

    3. Commuter service.

    4. Fifteen minute headway service for Transit Oriented Development.

    Each needs a different marketing and subsidy approach. VA has concentrated on hourly buses which require big subsidies.

    If Page refines his ideas to supporting fifteen minute headway service for Transit Oriented Development in areas with high parking charges he would have a winner. Customers for hourly buses graduate to cars. You have to commit to fifteen minute headway service to develop the market.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Jim W., For the record, I may not have done justice to Page’s methodology by implying a stair-step approach of bus to BRT to light rail to heavy rail. That was my way of illustrating my understanding of what he meant.

    Otherwise, though, I see your point: We’re talking about transit modes that appeal to different markets and don’t naturally segue from one to the next.

  5. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    What madness in afflicts those who collect pay from public bodies on the pretense they are going to provide transport “leadership”?

    Thus opens the first draft of next weeks column inspired by the comments that Jim Bacon quotes in this post.

    Jim Ws “four” services make sense but given different settlement patters there would be vastly different overlaps and requirements.

    Stay tuned.


  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Again, just for the record, Page is certainly aware of the connection between land use patterns and the economic viability of transit. He specifically mentioned the merits of Transit Oriented Development. He made his remarks during a relatively short interview about transit rail in Richmond, however, and I did not press him for details. Don’t interpret the lacunae in my summary of his remarks as evidence of thinking, or lack of thinking, on his part.

    On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that “transit sustainability” represents the main thrust of Page’s thinking.

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    JW is right, you have to commit to 15 minute headway service to develop the market.

    When I was working on the short haul airline project we planned on 20 minute headway. But, we only planned to go places where we could fill up on that schedule.

    Yes, airlines are public transit, but we let airlines go broke when they don’t work.

    JB’s comments are pretty close to that advocated by Winston & Shirley: let private enterprise operate transit, and let it go broke where it won’t work.

    Then, when you find out where it does work, you can work on plans for expansion and multiple coverage patterns that will work, coincident with the development needed to support it.

    In the meantime, 95% plus of everyone else is still going to need to travel to work, at least until there is a lot more “required” telecommuting.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    …”Yes, airlines are public transit, but we let airlines go broke when they don’t work.”

    we do? isn’t the phrase “airline bailout” pretty much conventional wisdom these days especially with all the extra security?

    re: 15 minute headways

    I don’t know squat about transit other than what I hear and read but why is 15 minute headways an important figure? Is this an abitrary number or has it been derived through experience and surveys?

  9. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley


    The 15 minute headways come from combining the 45 minute radius for destinations with easy schedules. More land use for destinations within a 45 minute radius is one feature of good community design. This is another way of describing the development density sweet spot.

    It has the advantage of separating typical hourly transit service which I labeled buses for those with no other means of transportation from service for transit oriented development. It’s not TOD unless there is transit. That is transit that will get you to your destination in 45 minutes including waits for busses.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    JW – thank you.

    does the 45minute radius arc define the virtual boundaries of TOD?

    I know.. dumb question.. but I thought I’d ask…

  11. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    The area within the 45 minute radius is the area that can be considered when determining accessible jobs services or housing. You start with a house, an office or a store and draw the 45 minute radius. It is a way of expressing the advantage of density for TOD.

    It can also be used in a quick and dirty approach. Everything in a 45 minute diameter is within a 45 minute radius. Transit TOD puts the offices, and shops in the 45 minute diameter around the station with housing and services in the 90 minute diameter. The density is lower closer to the edge of the diameter. This means that you have a blend instead of an edge.

  12. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    JW – I’m confused. I’ve been taught that TOD is density around a transit stop (normally rail) that is within 1600 feet or so of the transit station. It is a distance that can be and is easily walked. How does the 45 minutes fit into the equation?

  13. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Your view of transit oriented design is more limited then mine. TOD should be applied to Rail Stations areas. This is your 1600 foot radius. It can also be applied to trolley lines, and bus routes.

    We started this series with 4 classes of bus service and noted that “Fifteen minute headway service” was necessary to develop a TOD market. This then was followed by the comment that 15 minute headway provided transit service to the 45 minute accessibility circle.

    The concept of accessibility circles is more general than the 1600 foot radius from a rail station but the walking radius from a rail station describes one accessibility circle. Another example is the number of customers within the accessibility circle of a restaurant. This circle would center at the restaurant and the size would be the time to get to the restaurant. The 45 minute circle is based on studies of trip origins and destinations. You ask 1000 individuals to keep a diary for a week and use their answers to plan transportation for over a million individuals.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I note that Wiki opinion distinquishes between TOD and Transit-Proximate Development.

    “This type of development includes transit-oriented development, but, according to some planning officials, can also describe development that is not transit-oriented development. Thus, transit-proximate development can include results where, despite the location of dense development near transit, the development does not take full advantage of — or fully encourage the use of — the public transport node. For example, transit-proximate development could include buildings with extensive parking facilities typical of suburban locations, a lack of “mixed-use development” (housing, workplaces and shopping in the same place), or a lack of extensive pedestrian facilities that would make it easier for people to reach the public transport node.

    when I first read this.. I thought the article was making a point with respect to TOD with comprehensive walking facilities AND easy access to public transport and …

    … what I would call.. TOD-Lite…where perhaps buses with 15-minute headways would/could stitch together areas that were not as pedestrian-capable.

  15. Groveton Avatar

    What happens to the economics of public transportation if the most recent part of the following graph continues upward at its present trajectory?

    What is the consumer preference curve for public transportation at increasing oil prices?

    To me, the most ominous two word on that very complex graph are “Asian growth”. That is not an embargo, a fluctuation or a “blip”.

  16. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Thank you, Groveton, “Asian growth” is precisely why I believe we are about to enter a new plateau of energy prices — particularly oil. As long as the Asian economies, particularly, the Chinese economy, grow, they will exert relentless demand on global markets for oil. At the same time, we have run out of cheap sources of oil. I’m not one of those who worry that we’re going to run out of oil any time soon (100 years from now is another question), but it’s undeniable that the oil trapped in Canadian tar sands or located under 5,000 feet of water will be far more expensive to extract.

    Eventually, the economies of the industrialized world will devise ways for cars to run on electricity. But guess what: Coal is subject to the same phenomenon of depletion as oil. You mine the easy-to-get stuff first, and when that’s gone, you mine the expensive-to-mine stuff (thinner, deeper coal seams). An energy system based on wind and sun may be green, but it will be expensive.

    The era of cheap energy is coming to a close. That’s why it’s so important to emphasize conservation and energy efficiency — at a micro level (inside our homes) and a macro level (in the way we organize our communities).

    (Pro forma disclaimer: I am NOT arguing for more government controls. I see government as a major part of the failure to adapt.)

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There seems to be a thought that Asia/China might NOT quickly adapt technology and, in turn, suck up the fossil fuel resources…

    I think it is much more complicated than that and that to assume that China/Asia would not change/adapt as quickly (or quicker) as the rest of the world to leverage newer techologies to their own benefit might be shortsighted.

    Is it totally out of the realm of possibilities that China/Asia would wean themselves off of oil/fossil fuels as fast or even FASTER than us?

    All it will take is one more – breakthrough in vehicle-sized lithium-ion batteries to dramatically (and quickly) change the energy landscape in a decade or less.. in my humble opinion and .. I’d predict that China/Asia will become early adopters of such technology.

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    With regard to transit sustainability ….

    .. folks ought to be paying attention to the use of Cordon Tolls both in Europe and now comptemplated in the US

    … because the strategy is virtually every case – is for cordon tolls to do TWO things:

    1. – Discourage cars in areas that are served by Transit

    2. – Use the cordon tolls to pay for transit improvements.

    So far.. though.. we’ve not seen new transit combined with new cordon tolls as an integrated strategy… as all the existing examples of cordon tolls are “backfitting” to existing transit-served areas.

    Clearly where TOD is being promoted … and the “in-your-face” challenge is automobility.. how much better would a NEW TOD area be .. if it STARTED with a cordon toll?

    For instance.. right now.. in some TOD.. there have been agreements for development to limit available parking spots for autos.

    Why not cut to the chase – and implement cordon tolls to explicitly control the numbers of autos?

    Just set the toll.. see how many autos there are.. then keep raising the toll.. until the desired (lower) number of autos is met?

  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    … see… whatja I tell you – China is already ahead of us!

    BEIJING (AFP) – Beijing is planning to ban a million cars from the city’s streets for two weeks next month as a test-run to ensure clean air at next year’s Olympics, officials said here Wednesday.

  20. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Those who want another view of Local Rail might like this:

    The view from Europe is different.

  21. Groveton Avatar


    In an odd way I agree with you. What’s odd is only that I think stronger government controls will turn out to be a necessity.

    The free enterprise system is the best economic system in the world. However, it has faults. One glaring problem is the challenges that free enterprise systems have in meeting consumer needs during times when underlying commodities suffer discontinuous change. As a example for illurtrative purposes only – what would the free markets do this quarter if the cost of oil tripled over the next five years?

    Not very much.

    Companies operate on a quarter – to – quarter basis and consumers make buying decisions based on today’s environmnet. In a world of steady change – this works fine. However, in a world of discontinuous change – it works poorly.

    From the rationing of key materials during WWII to the long lines at gas pumps in 1979, the free market has proven its inability to react quickly to discontinuous fundamental change. More recently, the personal bankruptcies associated with ill conceived sub-prime house loans prove that consumers are all too willing to take a short term view even though history has repeatedly proven this view to be economically poor.

    I submit that energy costs are an example of fundamental discontinuous change. I further submit that the free markets will handle this change poorly and increased governmental control is warranted.

    Specifically, all energy usage must have substantial tax increases. Electricity, gasoline, natural gas – all sources of energy.

    In a perfect world, these increases in tax would be used to reduce other forms of taxation – like income taxes for example. People would have the opportunity to improve their net worth by being somewhat frugal with the highly taxed energy items while paying lower taxes on their income.

    However, in the real world, the politicians can be trusted to spend all the additional monies collected on idiotic initiatives.

    Yet, there is perhaps a ray of light – a national energy tax where the funds from that tax cannot be spent until the budget deficit is zero for two consecutive years.

    If the governemnt announced the tax as an escalating tax over each of the next 20 quarters, business woould be immediately incented to produce products that minimized energy use and, therefore, helped consumers avoid the tax. Consumers would have “hard and fast” numbers to consider as they made their choices.

    In the end, I believe this approach would forstall what will otherwise be a traumatic energy price led recession / depression in the Unites States.

    The Federal Reserve uses interest rates to avoid recession – why not the IRS?

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