A while ago I mentioned in passing that a transit system cannot simultaneously attract choice riders and focus itself on the lowest common denominator. This tension comes up in nearly every transit policy debate, and usually invokes groups with at least one of three limitations: limited mobility, limited English proficiency, or (extremely) limited funds.
The problem is easiest to illustrate with limited mobility. Imagine that Metro has enough resources to send four buses an hour through a neighborhood towards downtown. There are several ways they could deploy this service: all on one central arterial with 15 minute headways, on two arterials every 30 minutes, or hourly on four arterials. Obviously, the right answer depends on the width of the neighborhood, the grade of the hills, and the completeness of the sidewalks.
Nevertheless, the contours of the argument should be clear. 15 minute frequency, given reasonable reliability, is enough that it’s there when one needs it, and the bus schedule need not dictate your appointments. If the bus routes also avoid pathologies like circuitous routing and opaque information, many car owners would be happy to leave the auto at home for trips in the direction the bus takes them, or dispose of their vehicles altogether.
The counterargument, of course, is the proverbial little old lady that lives on one of those neglected arterials. It’s hard for her to walk all those blocks to the stop, and no one wants to be the bad guy to cut off her connection to the world. This aspect also comes into play when Metro tries to straighten a route or consolidate stops.
Reform of the fare structure and fare payment system often runs afoul of advocates for the poor. The most salient example is resistance to the introduction of ORCA adoption incentives through differential fares or abolition of paper transfers. More ORCA usage would of course speed up operations, but is frequently stymied by the very small segment of the poor that literally cannot collect $5 for a one-time ORCA purchase, or have no access to the multiple means of recharging a card. Those of us who would gladly pay more for a better riding experience cannot do so because of its projected impact on the less fortunate.
As the fare for a short hop on the bus is already pretty high, one way to increase Metro’s farebox recovery is to make the fare system more complex. Together with ORCA adoption issues and focus on one-seat rides, this presents challenges for people with limited literacy, digital access, or English proficiency. Change is unpopular because people have already labored to figure out their trips within a very complex system, and resistance to change is what preserves the complexity of that system.
The sum of all these concerns is to keep the transit system in stasis, leaving transit advocates with no hope for “better,” only “more.” Certainly, a transportation system has to take care of the most vulnerable among us. But we ought to have higher aspirations for a transit system, and making everyone suffer through slow and infrequent service effectively sabotages any hopes for that.