Sunday Statshot with Nick Chu

A quick look at some of the things that make intercity bus travel work (or not):


With the launching "Megabus", intercity bus travel is no longer confined to seedy bus depots and is actually no longer considered a last resort travel option. It's popularity has skyrocketed - esp amongst young adults. Image by flickr user Shreyans Bhansali.

Fastest growing form of intercity travel: Buses

Number of intercity bus trips in 1960: 140 million

In 1990: 40 million

% decrease in intercity bus service between 1980-2002: 50.6%

“Curbside” bus carrier – Megabus – inauguration date: 2006

First time in 40 years intercity bus travel grew: 2007

Percentage of Megabus riders between age of 18-34: 50%

Median annual income for male workers aged 25-34 in 1980: $46,700

In 2008: $40,000

Percentage more average wage worker earned in 1970 than today: 18%

Percentage of riders booking their Megabus tickets online: 90%

Cost per mile of Megabus ride: $0.08

Amtrak: $0.33

Plane: $0.62

Car: $0.28

Annual passengers: 4 million

Percentage increase in ridership in 2010: 48%

Amtrak ridership increase: 6%

Airline industry ridership increase: 5%

Number of gallons of fuel reduced due to curbside bus carriers: 11 million

Equivalent: 24,000 cars off the road

Curbside bus passenger miles travelled per gallon of fuel burned: 196

Conventional bus: 136

Intercity rail: 66

Cars: 44

Carbon emissions reduced: 242 million pounds

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Duck Season!!! Rabbit Season!!!

The 1950’s Looney Toons animated short Rabbit Fire is perhaps one of the best-known of all Bugs Bunny cartoons. It’s an influential piece of work that’s invited all kinds of scholarly conversation.

In it, the confused and generally helpless Elmer Fudd is hunting for rabbits. Self-servingly, Bugs Bunny convinces him that it’s not actually rabbit-hunting season. Bugs claims it’s duck-hunting season instead. This – quite understandably – raises the ire of Bugs’ long-time nemesis Daffy Duck (who appears out of nowhere).

The two engage in an almost never-ending argument over whether it’s Duck Season! or Rabbit Season! With no objective outside way to resolve the debate, Elmer becomes increasingly impatient and angry and lashes out, firing indiscriminately at both Bugs and Daffy.

The genius of the work is that there is no single authority to answer the question. Surely in the rational world outside of cartoons, a park ranger could answer the question very easily. Yet the film’s creators wisely leave all semblance of authority out of the debate as it increases the drama and prevents any side from having objectivity on their side (you’ll see where I’m going with this below).

I can’t help but imagine the LRT vs. BRT debate in much the same way.

Like the Duck Season! Rabbit Season! debate, both sides claim a position (LRT is the best! No, BRT is the best!) that is impossible to prove. The two sides are virtually equivalent, both with a performance-cost package relatively similar to each other. There are plusses and minuses to each, but both are reasonable facsimiles of each other.

Conveniently, authority is left out of the conversation and when such authority is brought in, it is typically just as partisan (see the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute and Light Rail Now! for two such groups) Like in the cartoon, it’s a great way to increase the drama, humor and entertainment value of the situation, but really only causes confusion, anger and frustration.

Unfortunately, in this debate, the public is cast as the exhausted and impatient hunter, Elmer Fudd. We’re mere observers in a debate that has no judge, no jury and no solution. We’re powerless onlookers whose opinion switches every moment we hear a new talking point. All we really know is that someone’s face is going to get blown off and – like in the cartoon – it’s likely to be our own.

One thing we’ve tried to do with The Gondola Project is get above the knee-jerk, reactionary mode-choice debate. LRT’s great when implemented in the right way, poor when implemented the wrong way. Ditto for BRT. Same for Urban Gondolas and CPT. Again, it’s about multi-modality and options. We believe transit planning isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s about match the right tool to the right task at the right price. Sadly, this is a position other transit advocates don’t seem to share.

Hopefully sometime in the near future, LRT and  BRT will find a way to elevate their feud to something a little more than cartoon-level antics. Until then, it’s likely to be a never-ending farce resulting only in people getting hurt.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Forecasting as Voodoo

There’s nothing more common and consistently wrong in the transit planner’s toolbox as ridership forecasting and projections. It’s like voodoo: 90% of the time it doesn’t work, and the 10% of the time it does no one knows why (hint: it’s not because of the voodoo).

So here comes Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant saying if Los Angeles had forsaken its program to build streetcars and light rail and instead “run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders.”

Meanwhile, quoting the LA Times article above, Jarrett Walker echoes this philosophy stating that “if you really want a transformative boost in transit ridership, the single most effective thing you could do can be done entirely with paint and signs: converting traffic lanes or parking lanes to bus lanes.

It would be great to see Tom Rubin (and to a lesser extent Jarrett Walker) prove his claim. How can he know that Light Rail directly decreased ridership and that bus ridership would have doubled the number of riders? How can he make such a sweeping prediction?

He can’t.

There’s no way to make that claim unless Rubin has access to a time machine capable of visiting an alternate universe and reporting the results back to our current universe. And if Rubin did have such a machine, why is he wasting his time as a transit planning consultant?

If you read the LA Times article closely you notice four things:

  1. Rubin  makes clear that the initial decrease of transit ridership in 1985 was due to an increase in fares. It’s a bait-and-switch. First he attributes the decrease in ridership to an increase in fares. He then tries to pin that on Light Rail (because the subsidy used to artificially keep bus fares low was shifted to rail).
  2. Rubin notes that traffic congestion continues to rise throughout the region and uses that as evidence of rail’s ineffectiveness. It’s a correlation versus causation error: Just because rail was built at the same time that transit ridership decreased does not mean one can attribute the latter to the former. Meanwhile, during the same period of time, LA opened one of the longest and most heavily used Bus Rapid Transit lines in North America. Why is rail to blame and not BRT?
  3. Rubin conveniently ignores the fact that transit ridership has returned to pre-1985 levels in Los Angeles.
  4. Rubin focuses on running “a lot of buses at low fares.” His argument in favour of buses is dependent upon them having low fares. The same argument could be made for running “a lot of streetcars at low fares” or “a lot of ponies at low fares.” Rubin’s argument should be rephrased as low fares increase ridership not buses increase ridership.

Generally speaking, I’m not the biggest fan of LRT because it’s rarely implemented properly. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was the cause of decreased transit usage in Los Angeles, especially when the logic underpinning such an argument is completely suspect.

I also wouldn’t go so far as Jarrett Walker does to say that any one technology or technique (bus in particular) is the single most effective means to boost transit ridership. That’s a pretty big claim to make especially without any statistics to back it up.

For any technology-specific advocate, the stakes are high. Transit contracts are some of the most valuable in the world, costing billions of dollars. It shouldn’t, therefore, surprise us that some industries play fast and loose with facts and truth. Is it right? No. But just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean we should blind ourselves into believing it doesn’t happen.

Cities, meanwhile, are continually struggling to increase transit ridership. So if a certain group of technology enthusiasts can make a specious claim that their technology can do that, maybe their technology will win more contracts and their consultants and planners will get more work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that’s (strangely) rarely fulfilled.

Selling one transit technology as the be-all-and-end-all savior of transit is irresponsible. Damning another technology using incredibly faulty logic worse still.

Note to Tom Rubin: If you do have the aforementioned alternate-universe-time-machine handy, could you please tell me who has my copy of Jane Jacob’s Dark Age Ahead? I really love that book and I have no idea who I lent it to. Also: Whose going to win the 2014 World Cup? And: What would I look like with a mustache?

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Taken For A Ride

Taken For A Ride is a documentary first broadcast on PBS in 1996. It tells the story of how a consortium led by General Motors, Firestone Tires and Standard Oil systematically worked to uproot the American streetcar network and replace it with roads, buses and private automobiles.

The short hand for this incident is the National City Lines Conspiracy (or the Great American Streetcar Scandal) and has its share of supporters and its detractors.

Those who believe in the conspiracy believe it whole-heartedly, and portray General Motors as a scheming, money-hungry corporation that is solely to blame for America’s shoddy public transit infrastructure.

Those who don’t believe in the conspiracy tend to say streetcars were too expensive to begin with and replacing them with buses and cars was simply a natural economic event.

Complicating the debate is the case against National City Lines, whereby the US government found that General Motors, et al did not conspire to monopolize the public transit industry, but did conspire to monopolize the provisions of supplies and parts to its subsidiaries.

The debate rages on to this day, 60-80 years after the original transgressions.

My guess is the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. GM, et al probably were up to some shenanigans, but they probably weren’t solely responsible for the death of public transit in America.

Nevertheless, Taken For A Ride is a classic, and well worth exploring with an open, skeptical mind:

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.




How you define a problem determines how you solve it.

Most transit agencies, planners and governments tend to define an urban public transit problem as a decision between Roads and Rails:

Should we use buses, light rail/streetcars or subways?

It’s no surprise then when buses, light rail/streetcars or subways are the end result. That’s what happens when you define a problem from its middle, rather than from its beginning. You get mediocrity, the status quo and exactly what you expect. Better instead to start the discussion where the discussion starts:

How do we move the number of people we need to move through a given environment as quickly, cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible?

Define a problem from its beginning and you’re bound to get more than just Roads and Rails.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Cable Propelled Transit Is Not Plug and Play

Sentosa Island Urban Gondola

Sentosa Island Urban Gondola

To use CPT properly you have to be creative, original, daring and ultimately a little bit mad. That madness is good and important, especially nowadays when cities viciously compete for talent and tourists. Homogenous, cookie-cutter cities no longer make the grade. People want remarkable.

Light Rail (LRT), Subway and Bus technologies are useful (sometimes) but they are not remarkable. They are common; Plug and Play. No planner, policy-maker or politician really has to think about how the technologies work or how to use them. Just throw down some tracks and you’re done. As a result, they tend to be one-size-sorta-kinda-fits-all. They’re technologies that aim for the average. They do most things alright, but rarely exceptionally and never cheaply.

Cable, on the other hand, is not one-size-sorta-kinda-fits-all. Cable is a custom technology, capable of delivering on the exact wants of a city. And it delivers that custom solution with a higher level of service than traditional transit technologies and for a fraction of the price. It can be used in such a variety of different ways, in such a variety of different environments, to accomplish such a variety of different goals that it requires deep creativity and deep thinking to implement. But the rewards for that creativity and deepness are vast.

Consider the above picture of urban gondolas terminating in a skyscraper at Sentosa Island, Singapore. Whatever madman stood up in city council chamber and said “let’s put the station in a skyscraper” deserves our accolades if for no other reason than he had the guts to say it. We should be celebrating innovation, creativity and diversity not strangling it.

So here then is your challenge, creative cities of the world: Stop just calling yourselves creative and actually be creative. Ask yourselves: What could we do with cable in our city? Don’t just do what everyone else does. Be yourself. Be different. Be remarkable. Be a little bit mad.

Creative Commons image by ericlbc

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.