Posts Tagged: Public Transportation



Dutch OV-chipkaart. Does it make transit more or less equitable?

A bus-based OV-chipkaart reader in the Netherlands promises to make transportation easier for millions of Dutch strap-hangers. But is it an equitable solution?

A Thought Experiment: You live downtown and you’ve got to travel a distance of 1.5 km, drop off a package and return home. If you lived in Toronto (as I do), the trip would cost you $6.00 round trip by subway.

Would you pay it?

A great many people would probably say answer ‘no’ to the above question – I know I wouldn’t. Six bucks, after all, is a lot of money for what is nothing more than a 40 minute trip.

Most public transport fare schemes are tilted in favour of the long-distance commuter. All-in or even zone-based travel means the further you travel, the more you save. Short-distance commuters, on the other hand, are often left with the choice of either walking, biking or paying high prices for little distances travelled.

But a new Dutch transit fare scheme seeks to change that.

With little fanfare from the rest of the world, the Netherlands has been slowly moving towards a unique system of integrating all public transport options around a single national fare card and pricing scheme.

That system, the OV-chipkaart, has admittedly met with its share of bumps along its way towards full implementation, but the single-trip pricing scheme is what should interest people here most.

Generally speaking there are three dominant fare structures within public transportation:

  • Zone-based fare structures (such as in Hong Kong or London) set a specific price to travel within zones and between zones. For example: If you originate in Zone A and terminate in Zone A, you’ll pay $1.00. If you originate in Zone B and terminate in Zone A, you’ll pay $2.00.
  • Unlimited one-way fare structures (such as in New York City or Toronto) set a one-way price to travel from Point A to Point B using an unlimited number of transfers and vehicles with stop-overs typically not allowed.
  • Time-based fare structures (such as in Rome) allow a rider to travel to an unlimited number of destinations, using an unlimited number of transfers and vehicles within a given time window. In Rome’s situation, for example, one pays €1.00 for 75 minutes of unlimited travel time anywhere within the network.

Granted, all of the above are subject to things like monthly passes, day passes, etc., but for the sake of simplicity, we’re talking only about single-trip fares.

The OV-chipkaart is a hybrid of all three. The system works like this:

Every year a base rate per trip is set nationally for all public transport agencies. In 2012, that base rate is €0.83.

Each transport agency within its own defined area is then allowed to set their own per kilometre fare. In the case of Amsterdam’s GVB, for example, the per km fare is €0.142.

Traveller’s must use their OV-chipkaart to “check-in” using an electronic reader or turnstile when they begin their journey, make transfers between vehicles and “check-out” when they finish their journey. The OV-chipkaart calculates the fare and deducts it from the user’s electronic “purse.”

Interestingly, riders are allowed a 35 minute window between transfers. That is, if a user “checks-out” of one transit vehicle but then boards another within 35 minutes, the base rate is waived and the journey is considered ongoing.

That allows for a huge number of errands and stop-overs to occur that most other systems would strictly forbid.

Ultimately, what this system does is drive up transport prices for long-distance commuters while driving down the price for short-distance travellers.

Applying Amsterdam’s fare structure, extrapolating it to a place like Toronto and using the 1.5 km example given earlier, the total round-trip would cost ~ $1.60, not $6.00.

Were there to be a stopover longer than 35 minutes (say, for a work day), the price would still only be ~ $2.60

Conversely, someone travelling 20 km to work would see their round-trip price increase from $6.00 to ~ $9.25.

Current practice in transport planning does tend to disincentive public transportation for those that live, work and play within central, geographically small areas. Paradoxically, these urban dwellers are the most likely to ride public transport but are penalized with the highest per km fares.

On the flip side, those long-distance commuters within inner-suburban and suburban areas are the least likely to use public transportation and any increase in fares will only exacerbate the situation. Furthermore, large swaths of inner suburban areas are dominated by the economically disadvantaged who are already living paycheque-to-paycheque. A more than 50% increase in their public transportation costs would be devastating.

Our basic understanding of economics tells us two contradictory things here: One the one hand, we understand the idea that people should pay a proportional amount for a specific good or service. But at the same time, we also understand that the more of a good or service you buy, the less you should have to pay per unit.

So the question is easy to state, but difficult to answer: Which fare structure is more fair?

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Alternatives Analysis Thought Experiment

A thought experiment:

Imagine a city that wishes to build a medium capacity transit system in a specific, given configuration. Due, however, to the unique geologic, social, political, cultural and economic state of the area the following applies:

An LRT, BRT or CPT system (for the sake of argument, you could include any technology you wish) built in this time-place will all have the exact same performance-cost package as one another.

That is, the estimated speeds, capacities, costs and safety levels – everything! – are identical.

Is this impossible? No. Highly unlikely, yes, but not impossible.

After all, a technology’s performance-cost package is not determined solely by the technology itself. Rather, (at least half) a technology’s cost is determined by the geologic, social, political, cultural and economic environments in which a given infrastructure technology is built in.

If we accept the previous idea to be true, then there is certainly some infinitely unique combination of factors that could result in the former scenario. That is, that a time-place exists whereby the strengths and weaknesses of LRT, BRT and CPT would all cancel each other out and we’d be left at a state of equilibrium. In this state of equilibrium, no technology is superior or weaker than another in any quantifiable way.

Imagining such a bizarre and unique time-place exists: How would you determine which technology should be built?

For most, the answer would be obvious. Some would say bus, some would say rail and a far, far, far fewer group would say cable or gondola. It would be a gut reaction. Of course you should build rail! Of course you should build bus! Of course you should build gondola! But why? In our imaginary scenario, there is no competitive advantage to choosing any technology. Why choose one at all?

In such a scenario, luck of the draw, surely, would be the only fair and equitable way to award this contract. But – rest assured – the bidders, planners, consultants and policy-makers would refuse this lottery. Instead they’d invent all sorts of specious and spurious arguments hoping to demonstrate why their technology was better, even though there was no serious manner to do so.

Assuming the lottery idea is – as it most assuredly would be – drawn, quartered and left for dead, what then guides whatever decision is made? The only reasonable thing to expect is bias, personal preference and payola. What you like and what you’re paid to like is all that really matters. How else would you choose?

If we start from the assumption that all technologies are equivalent, we quickly see that the decisions we make are not guided by rationality at all. They’re guided by a whole host of other reasons that have nothing to do with merit.

Of course no city is faced with the scenario laid out above. But as transit technologies – in terms of capabilities – grow closer and closer to one another, how can we expect our decision-makers to act on facts alone? And when a decision-process is under way, do you seriously expect nothing but facts to come into play?

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The Ten Day Traffic Jam

Last week, a variety of news outlets (Associated PressCBCNew York TimesThe Drudge Retort and dozens of others) reported on a massive 100 km long traffic jam outside Beijing, China. The jam lasted ten days and stretched into Inner Mongolia only to ‘vanish’ seemingly overnight.

Of all the reports on this story, the one that caught my eye was from The Globe & Mail. In the article, they quote the mayor of Beijing via government report saying “getting people out of their cars has not been easy. Last year the rate of people who took public transportation for their daily commute in Beijing was only 38 per cent.”

According to the article, Beijing’s road network is virtually over capacity or will be by 2015 and despite having the worst “commuter pain” of all major cities in the world, new car registrations are up 23.8% over last year.

And yet, Bejing has a massive public transportation system that includes subways, buses and suburban commuter lines.

The Beijing Subway Network. Image by Wikipedia user Ran.

In other words: Despite having an incredibly useful public transit system and ridiculously bad traffic congestion, transit is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of commuters. While it’s no where near as bad as in North American cities, it’s certainly surprising that transit gets such a small share.

Two months ago I wrote a post called Form vs. Function. In it, I questioned Jarrett Walker’s assertions (here, here and here) that function and ‘Usefulness’ (his word) are all that matter when trying to lure people into using transit. I argued that transit, as is currently designed, doesn’t create ridership as much as we might like to believe. Even cities with ‘Useful’ transit systems still do not attract the majority of commuters that the private automobile does.

In Beijing, we’re seeing that very phenomenon on display because mode choice isn’t always a function of logic or Usefulness, it’s also a function of emotion, ego and pleasure.

The private automobile, remember, is as much status symbol as it is a means of getting around. They are also undeniably more pleasant to ride than public transit. Public transit, after all, doesn’t even offer you a cup holder, let alone seat warmers, surround sound systems and GPS.

According to Jarrett’s Usefulness theory, people in Beijing should be streaming away from car ownership because car ownership is clearly not Useful – as evidenced by said 10 day traffic jam. In a city like Beijing, the private automobile doesn’t display Usefulness, instead it’s Uselessness personified.

And yet people are flocking to it.

Beijing disproves Jarrett’s Usefulness theory and suggests that something other than the harsh light of utilitarianism is necessary to lure people to transit. As I see it, it’s the design of public transit that matters. The quality of the ride matters as much if not more than the Usefulness of the system.

After all, the quality of a ride in a car is apparently so much better, tens of thousands of Beijing residents would rather sit in their private car in a 100 km long traffic jam than ride the train or bus. For those people (and the increasing number of car owners in Beijing), it’s not a matter of Usefulness or function, it’s a matter of form, style, comfort and pleasure.

Or maybe we’ll all just be saved by The Chinese Tunnel Bus™.

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Inflexible Inventory

Ultimately, the problem with public transit is one of economics. Our current transit systems have no ability to adjust the supply of their inventory levels (seats) to match a given demand (ridership) at a given time of day. Its inventory is completely inflexible:

  • Rush Hour: Too much demand, not enough supply.
  • Late Night: Some demand, no supply whatsoever (typically).
  • All other times: Far too much supply, not enough demand.

The problem is compounded by the unidirectional nature of the demand versus the bidirectional nature of the supply. During the morning commute, riders need to go from Point A to Point B. Point A being home and Point B being some form of central business district, whether that be a financial core or a suburban office park.

But for a standard transit technology to satisfy that need it must move from Point A to Point B and then back to Point A in order to service more riders. Trouble is, that means vehicles and drivers spend fully half their time traversing a route with near empty vehicles which are not generating revenue only additional costs. Too much demand in one direction, too much supply in the other.

So long as transit vehicles are expensive and drivers costly and necessary, these problems won’t disappear.

Solution: Drive down the cost of returning vehicles to origin so that it’s marginal rather than almost half. Far easier said than done.

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