People will use public transit if it's the lowest cost way of getting from point A to point B. Costs have three components.
The first is money costs – the cost of gas or a bus fare or a train ticket.
The second is time costs – the opportunity cost of time spent driving or riding or walking or cycling.
The third is psychic costs or benefits – the satisfaction of putting pedal to metal, the quiet relaxation of sitting on the Skytrain and gazing out over the North Shore mountains and, last but not least....
Public transportation can have moderate or even high social status. Take airplanes, for example. Because flying appeals to people who can afford to pay for convenience, better off people take planes, so travelling on an airplane confers some social status on the traveller.
Subway and metro systems have a more ambiguous social status. The low money cost of taking the subway makes it appealing to lower income people, reducing its status. However, if the time cost of taking the subway is less than the time cost of driving, high wage people (for whom time is money) will still have a reason to take transit. So, with sufficient traffic congestion, subway systems can retain social status.
What about buses? Commuter-oriented express routes and buses servicing time-rich retirees have middle-class appeal. But low money costs and high time costs – buses are usually subject to the same traffic congestion as cars and stop more often - mean that there is always a risk of the bus becoming the loser cruiser.
That forms of public transport differ in their terms of social status makes it easier to understand public transit debates. Ottawa, for example, is facing a choice between expanding a bus-based Transitway system and building a new rail-based transit system. Might the passion that some have for trains over buses reflect the relative social status of the two options?
The status dimension of public transit creates dilemmas for those who seek to expand transit ridership.
The last few days I’ve been riding the #135 down Hastings Street. The route goes straight through Vancouver’s notorious downtown East Side. But it doesn’t make many stops there. And I was happy about that, because I share every bus rider's fear of having a smelly old bum standing next to me.
There is a trade-off between providing transport services to the truly needy, and creating services that will be appealing enough to get middle-class commuters out of their cars.
Airlines know that people are uncomfortable with the compression of social distance forced by travel. That’s why there’s a curtain between first class and the rest of the plane, and why executive class passengers have their own lounges.
Would buses be more appealing if there were first class coaches equipped with free wireless?
Middle-class appeal is partly a matter of comfort, but largely a matter of convenience. Unfortunately, the need for convenience creates another dilemma for transit advocates.
Vancouver’s Skytrain system appeals because it is fast, and it is fast partly because the trains shoot above Vancouver traffic, and partly because trains come every five minutes.
Running Skytrains frequently is economically viable because the trains are driverless.
The greater a driver’s salary, the more passengers are required to make a route profitable. With no drivers, a route is profitable as long as passenger fares cover fuel costs and wear-and-tear.
The need to cover higher salary costs offers a possible explanation as to why public public transit systems like Ottawa’s run large buses every half hour or every hour. In the UK, privatization of the bus system led to greater use of minibuses – small buses that run more often - in medium-sized towns. I would suggest this innovation was possible in part because privatization also led to a substantial fall in driver's wages.
Public transit usage versus decent salaries for drivers – now there’s a trade-off to make any progressive person uncomfortable.
The percentage of commuters travelling by bus in the US has declined steadily over the past 50 years. Can buses ever regain their former ridership?
There are innovations in bus transportation happening across the country. Vancouver’s buses have bike racks on the front – it’s possible to take a bus into town, and then cycle for miles around the waterfront. A cyclist using the bus is making an environmental statement “this is my choice,” not an economic one “this is all I can afford.” A number of cities have U-passes, where the cost of a bus pass is included in all university students' fees. Toronto offers weekend day passes, which allow an entire family unlimited travel for just $10/day.
But I don't think we're anywhere close to realizing buses' public transport potential.