I’ve written here before about how density can aggregate demand for transit and that this is one of main reasons why density is so important.  In an ideal world would be a very dense one where demand for transit is so high that a business case could be made to charge people what it actually costs to run transit and even make a profit doing it.

Here’s a story from Indonesia where transit authorities are going to extreme lengths to stop something called roof riding, the practice of riding on top of commuter trains.

The railway said it resorted to using the concrete balls after previous anti-roof-rider efforts  including greasing the roofs, spraying roof riders with colored water, and detentions and fines didn’t stop the practice.

You might think that these roof riders are just free loaders, catching a ride for free on the train to evade the fare. Nope.

Adi [a transit official] told the Globe the real problem isn’t freeloading riders, but that there aren’t enough trains to accommodate demand.

Part of this story is about how different we look at things compared to the rest of the world. For some of us, a little bit of crowding or an extra minute wait makes transit inconvenient. For much of the rest of the world transit is the primary mode of transportation; cars are just too expensive and governments have built infrastructure to accommodate the car.

I’m not saying Indonesia is the ideal world. I’m sure it’s far from perfect. But I love the idea that there is a place where demand for transit is so big that officials are trying to keep people from getting on the trains with concrete balls. I don’t think anyone around here has any concrete balls, especially when it comes to serious up zones around transit. Until then we can dream and strive for a time when we run out of trains and someone has a profit motive to open another competing mass transit agency, either using rail or something else.

24 Replies to “Transit and Land Use: It’s All About Demand”

  1. As it so happens, I just took a train most of the way through Java. I normally travel in the lowest class when I take a train in a foreign country, since I find it much more fun to interact with regular people. But I was told it would be very hard to get a ticket in the lower class, and we’d be packed in like sardines. Plus with no air conditioning and 100F+ interior temperatures for hours on end, it’s not the most comfortable experience.

    And yes, I saw several trains with the roof just as packed as the video shows.

    Java has 138 million people and is about as big as California (with 4x the people). There are few roads that go across the island, and the roads are packed with cars and motorcycles. The train is the best and fastest way to get around.

  2. What if we don’t think of them as free loaders, but ‘Pre-payers’ instead. Looking back through Rogers Aug 31 post, we explored the virtues of eliminating the farebox, to which most agreed it would never work on medium sized or larger systems. Anything free, would create the concrete ball syndrome and attract lots of undesirables.
    What if the cost of free parking is considered? Or the cost of collecting fares, or the cost of replacing our roadways and toll collection schemes, or the hidden costs of providing petroleum above the per pump gallon price, or any number of costs society pays indirectly for transportation is considered in the equation? Would we be better off with crush loaded rail and bus cars, instead of 1.4 occupants sipping a latte, cruising down the HOT lane from Everett in 2030?
    I hold little hope society will shift the transportation costs it currently funds, by whatever means, into funding transit to the point of utilizing the system being built to it’s maximum capacity.
    A look at ST ridership projections (Financial Plan 2011 pg.12), show ridership for link rising from it’s current 7.8 mil/rides per year, to over 10 times that to 83.7 mil/rides per year by 2030. The same documents show Exp.bus and commuter rail remaining flat, rising from 15 to 17.3 mil/riders by 2030.
    If concurrency laws fail the Puget Sound, and density is driven by mostly local factors, and fares continue to be an accountants playfield of rules and variable pricing schemes, then we’ll never reap the benefits of 20+ billion sunk into ST through Phase 2. {End of Rant – resume normal programming}

  3. What it would take to get that kind of demand is either:

    a) Mass poverty
    b) Mass disability
    c) Much more preferably a marketplace that bought into transit as cost-saving.

    The issue should be, respectfully, selling transit as worthwhile for the hoi polloi.

  4. Some required reading for you, Roger: “The Lunatic Express”, new book by Carl Hoffman. The author determined to travel all the way around the world on the service available to the vast majority of the world’s population. Start with the chapter on commuter trains around Mumbai, and don’t miss the visit to the morgue especially reserved for transit casualties.

    Reason people risk their lives like this every day is they need to get to work, so they and their families don’t starve to death. Chapter on van service in Nairobi is modern classic on the exact type of free-enterprise paratransit which light-rail critics advocate. Might be good to sponsor a program to send local light-rail critics to Kenya to work in the industry for awhile.

    Along with the book, go see “Slum Dog Millionaire”, especially the scene where they kid gets the movie star’s autograph. Would be good to distribute book copies and movie tickets at events of both major US parties. These train riders and autograph-getters are our competition under real capitalism. It’s a great future for those who are up to it.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Something else you might really want to think about, Roger: like every other element of human existence, “density”, however you define it, is dangerous to make a goal out of for its own sake.

    By all accounts, The Black Hole of Calcutta enjoyed record-setting population density. So did a certain German installation at Auschwitz which, judging from contemporary footage, was served by an extremely efficient electric rail system.

    You’re also quoting an official who admits in his own words that the reason working people- many of them fare-paying passengers- are riding on the roofs of trains is that the system isn’t meeting their needs.

    What he’s not saying is how much less demand there’d be for roof space if so much public money in his country didn’t “fall off the back of a truck”, like we’d say in our own eastern states. In Indonesia’s case, military trucks, bought with generations of public money that could have bought a lot of transit in places like Seattle.

    “Far from perfect” covers a lot of moral territory, in addition to the parts of the world’s physical geography your readers would die fighting rather than live in . So out of respect for the reputation of The Seattle Transit Blog, you might want to pick your next example of a desirable system from someplace where the government sets a higher value on human life than on a transit fare.

    Also: considering the reasons people ride on those roofs, thousands of people will just learn how to duck. And also steal those weights and sell them.

    Mark Dublin

    1. “… Auschwitz which, judging from contemporary footage, was served by an extremely efficient electric rail system.”

      How could it be efficient if you can’t get a return ticket?

      1. For the record, Oswiecim, Poland which the Germans referred to by its German name after the October 1939 annexation, had steam-powered railways.

        Indeed, Poland operates to this day regularly scheduled (or “timetabled” as the Brits would say) mainline steam hauled trains.

        While it is merely speculation on my part, I suspect that the Germans used trains because they did not have the time to extend the Reichsautobahn, the limited-access expressway system which the U.S. Interstate Highways system is based entirely upon, east from Breslau, Germany, the city we now call Wroclaw, Poland

        So your implied connection between any rail systems and genocide really quite untenable.

    2. Leaving aside the Godwin’s Law invocation, the kind of density we’re looking for is *dwelling unit* density. The vast majority of the best urban neighborhoods in the US and elsewhere have 100+ dwelling units per acre. Slums in the US routinely have much less.

      What you’re describing is overcrowding, which is universally agreed to be a bad thing. The Census defines overcrowding as a ratio of people to rooms greater than 1, and severe overcrowding as a ratio greater than 1.5. (Rooms includes all general-purpose rooms, but not special ones like kitchens or bathrooms.)

      In the US, it’s much more common to see overcrowding in areas with relatively low dwelling-unit density, simply because there aren’t enough rooms/homes for the people who want to (or can afford to) live there.

  6. Where they see problem, I see opportunity. Add seats (and seatbelts) to the roof and charge half price.

  7. You have to separate out demand for “transit” — which now connotes a complete ethic of density, centralized control, and factors other than trains and buses — with demand for transportation.

    As far as density per se, here in Colorado I visited Boulder yesterday and spent some time along the Pearl Street mall. This is a very wide, multiblock open air pedestrian mall, with shops and restaurants along the sides. Its very urbish, yet spacious walkable place…there are no cars in the mall, although there is ample (some paid) parking nearby.


    Boulder is a nice city, or town maybe, some high tech with IBM nearby and of course the campus. The thing that struck me is that Seattle — despite all its claims to walkable places and city life — has almost nothing like this mall in this little CO town! Maybe Pike Place? But the street part of it has cars and the sidewalks are narrow, hard to walk. Pioneer Square is the same thing.

    So once again, it comes down to implementation. Here is a really nice, walkable, people friendly place in a low density right sized city, nestled right up against the beautiful Rockies.

    Oh, oh. Why did I tell you about it…now you’ll want to build 40 story condos…because “people want them”. Right?

    Population (2010)
    • City 97,385 (city proper)
    • Density 3,884.1/sq mi (1,499.9/km2)
    • Metro 293,161

    1. The picture is a great example of the kinds of plazas we should have. Yes, Pike Place is the closest equivalent here. Westlake Park was an attempt but it didn’t succeed as well. (And I’m not talking about the Pine Street closure.) There’s a new plaza at the Westlake SLUT terminus, which will never achieve this scale of use, but still it’s better than what was there before.

      We don’t need 6-10 story condos on every block. But they do need to be somewhere because there’s a severe shortage of inner-city housing to meet the demand — otherwise the prices wouldn’t be so high. You could replace some of the buildings in this plaza with 6-story buildings and it wouldn’t ruin it — as you can see on Broadway and Bellevue Ave in Seattle. You’d probably want to keep some low-rise buildings too: a mixture of the two.

      But you have to look beyond this plaza to the rest of the city. I don’t know much about Boulder in particular, but I imagine that within a few blocks of here it degenerates into auto-dominated sprawl. A real “streetcar suburb” would be pedestrian-scaled like this throughout the city. Of course there must be streets for cars, but they shouldn’t be allowed to overwhelm the city.

      Thanks for the picture.

      1. Boulder wants fast train service to downtown Denver, where they *are* building 6-10 story apartment buildings and condos, and even 40-story ones, and where they are filling up fast.

        Not everyone wants to live in tall buildings, but an awful lot of people do.

        By the way, to the usual people who are complaining about “density”. Don’t confuse different meanings of density. *Everyone* wants a large apartment (large bedroom, large kitchen, large living room, lots of storage space). Not everyone wants a large *yard* or a large *lot*. *Nobody* wants to have to walk long distances to work.

        Ideal density for most people has large numbers of large apartments right next to workplaces with a large park opposite. In other words, Manhattan next to Central Park, and there’s a reason that’s the most expensive (== popular) location in the US.

        The remaining minority, who really want large yards and lots, generally basically want to live on farms (or hunting grounds, or gardens, or other ‘agricultural’ locations), because their pastimes are essentially agricultural. This *is* a minority.

        “So once again, it comes down to implementation.”
        Gotta agree with that!

      2. Be careful when you say everyone. Not everyone wants an arbitrarily large apartment, and many people want a space that others would consider absurdly small. Some people like having a 30- or 60-minute walk built in to their day. Some people like mowing the lawn. Some people love shared walls and some people hate them. Not everyone in the former camp wants to live on Central Park East, and not everyone in the latter camp wants to live on a farm.

        Also, people have different levels of intensity with which they like or dislike things. I hate riding in cars because I get carsick. Most people dislike traffic, but some people really hate it, while others are willing to put up with a 60-minute commute each way in return for living on a private island (or what have you).

        The one thing that is pretty much universally true is that people know what they like and don’t like, and they know how much they’re willing to compromise (including price).

        It’s reasonable for society to set taxation and spending policies to encourage social goods (like walking) and discourage social bads (like pollution and congestion). But it’s a big mistake to try to design a city/region/nation under the assumption that everyone wants mostly the same thing (or the same types of things).

      3. “Also, people have different levels of intensity with which they like or dislike things.”

        Absolutely true. I have met very few people who say “This place is just too large, at any price.” (You can always subdivide it.) So I say everyone wants a large apartment — but some people barely want it, and some people want it a lot.

        I’ve met very, very few people who actually like mowing lawns for its own sake. They work as professional lawn mowers.

        You’re right that some people like to have a long trip built into their day. That *is* unusual, but it *does* happen.

        “The one thing that is pretty much universally true is that people know what they like and don’t like, and they know how much they’re willing to compromise (including price).”

        Actually, this isn’t true at all, as outrageous numbers of social studies have shown. On many topics, people literally do not know what they like. To be clear: they know *while it’s happening*, but get them ten minutes later, and they have totally false views about their own tastes.

        An infamous one is house size versus commute time. Most people, when they aren’t actually commuting, underestimate how much they hate commuting (as measured when they are commuting). Most people, similarly, overestimate how much enjoyment they will get out of extra rooms in a house (though I forget how they did that study — it was clever).

      4. I’m not disagreeing with your point that there’s massive variation in taste. Result: you have to start building variations even if people say they don’t want it, and see whether they like it once it’s there.

      5. “you have to start building variations even if people say they don’t want it, and see whether they like it once it’s there.”

        It makes sense as an experiment, but it won’t make sense to a developer. If I’m building a home for me to use, I can build it according to what I think I want. If I’m building it for sale to the general public, the best bet is to build what I think that public wants to buy. Building some variation that is not favorably received could be a very expensive mistake.

  8. I’ve done the roof thing in Ecuador. There the cars are little more than boxcars and riding on the roof is the only way to go if you want any air. And the view is better.

    1. That makes sense. It must have been over 100F in the train I rode in Java, and that was in business class (a reasonable number of people per car).

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