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In Mexico, there are public buses and private mini-buses. The private mini-buses travel on large circular routes that intersect, so that you can move from one to the other quickly. Most professionals take the mini-buses. It's still faster, cheaper, and more convenient than driving, but without the status issue. The mix of public/private buses is interesting, something not done much in richer N.Am.

Nancy, that's fascinating, and fits exactly with the theory that the risk of loss of social status is a barrier to people taking public transport.

Hi Frances,

I'm a regular bus-rider in Vancouver (#44!). When I moved here from Toronto, I noticed a very large difference in the social status implications of transpo choices. In Toronto, many of my financial industry friends took the subway every day. It was totally normal. You might even subtly brag about your social status by mentioning what stop you get on (which implicitly reveals your neighbourhood).

In Vancouver, there is a very different thing going on. You do not see the same mix of people taking transit--much more skewed toward the lower socio-economic end.

This may be due to the layout of the city and how it is serviced by transit (of course that is endogenous, though). But there is a strong Toronto-Vancouver difference in social status cues coming from transit use.

Kevin - and perhaps there are intra-Vancouver differences also? On the North Shore, where buses bypass Lions Gate bridge traffic, the bus has greater time-saving potential. Another thing that's different about Vancouver is the viability of cycling (weather, cycle lanes, overall fitness of the population etc), which takes middle-class commuters off the bus. And also the absolute number of people in the lower socio-economic end.

But I agree with your basic point - and suspect that there are differences all across the country in the socio-economic status of public transit.



You forgot the physical aspects. Where I live, taking transit means standing up for half an hour while holding on to an overhead rail and getting thrown around like a rag doll, while breathing other people's air and subsequently catching a cold every two months.

For me, it is the option to passively stand and sit versus pedalling hard to beat the traffic while maintaining 360 degree vision and noting all the drivers smoking, applying make-up and talking on the cell.

Biking and hiking allow full expression to the road warrior thing and that pumps the brain. It is perfectly legal too.

My priors lean to the bet that time and security trump status. Perhaps 'status' is simply a signal of faster, safer trips. I'm trying to think of a counter example, one where individuals take clearly higher time and other costs for pure status purposes.

I live in Calgary, and several routes run a BRT or 'Bus Rapid Transit'. When I lived near one of these routes, my money and time costs were reduced considerably. The best psychic benefit was watching the scores of vehicles halted at a light while my fellow passengers and I whizzed down the bus-lane. I also enjoy transit during the winter, as I don’t have to deal with other drivers directly. I would bike or walk, but like many people in Calgary, I’m too far away from my work to commute by bike and again, because of winter-road conditions, biking is difficult 6 months of the year.

Regarding the social-status thing – if you manage to get enough middle-class people onto the bus or train, I’m guessing the bums behave themselves a little better (Social Influence through Compliance).

Regarding mini-buses, the last transit strike in Calgary was over this very issue -- i.e., what is the proper compensation for operating a smaller vehicle. From what I remember, they do get paid a little less than drivers of the larger buses, and we see many more now on the roads.

To aid the troubled progressive, one can think of the many benefits of taking cars off the road. An extra full bus (50 people) means about 50 more cars off the road. Less cars leads to a quicker commute, cleaner air and a quieter city. Surely those are benefits we all share?

Nenshi has complained that there is no national public transportation strategy, and aside from a tax-credit, I don’t see what else they can do given the different needs in different cities (and of course, the age-old ‘throw money to the provinces/cities’).

(As an aside, I really don't mind the smelly bum--middle-class people can stink too--I only mind the aggressive one!)

I grew up in Toronto, but have lived in Vancouver for almost a decade.

Smelly bums are my main gripe about the transit system in the Lower Mainland. Not only do many of them smell, but they are also shameless free riders. As soon as it's warm enough, I try to get off the bus and walk to the office. Sure, I'll be sweaty, but at least I won't smell like other sweaty commuters. (I'll smell like sweat and car exhaust.)

In Toronto, because of ticket booths and turnstiles, bums generally stay off the subway and busses unless they pay a fare. I guess we're just too nice and trusting here in Vancouver.

Maybe turnstiles have an effect on the social perceptions of transit use.

The slow speed vs. alternatives and low cost of buses may also contribute to their lack of social status. Anyone on a bus that adds an hour to their commute in order to save three or four dollars is advertising what value they place on their time. Revealed preferences and all that.

westslope: "I'm trying to think of a counter example, one where individuals take clearly higher time and other costs for pure status purposes."

It's so hard to separate out loss-of-status costs from other psychic costs (the ones so memorably summarized in Weird Al's "Another one rides the bus".) Rabbit talks about breathing other people's air. While researching this post I came across an article claiming that public transit users do indeed catch more colds, and certainly I figure that walking to work in the winter reduces the number of colds I get - the germs can't survive the frigid arctic air. But breathing friends' and neighbours' air is surely less objectionable than breathing strangers' air? And that's what we're talking about - riding the bus with "people like us."

Certainly in Vancouver taking public transit can be faster than driving, but the roads are still pretty clogged.

JamesT - we throw enough money at roads - throwing a bit of money at things like Vancouver's Evergreen line would be a good idea, too.

But I think the lesson of Vancouver is that one of the best ways to build support for public transit is to have a really lousy road system. And that's where the politics of it all become fascinating. Because Vancouver is not a megacity, the residents of the City of Vancouver - actually a fairly small area, bounded by the harbour in the north, the Fraser River in the south, and Boundary Road in the east - have veto power over highways coming into the city. And they've said 'no thanks.'

Robillard - "Maybe turnstiles have an effect on the social perceptions of transit use."

That's fascinating. Actually, I only paid for three of my five bus rides in Vancouver. The first evening I only had a five dollar bill - I offered to give it to the driver, but she insisted on just giving me a fare receipt and letting me ride for free. The next morning the bus's fare collection machine was broken, so everyone rode free.

So you're right about the ease of riding Vancouver public transit for free.

Andrew F - but buses don't have to be slow. In Vancouver the buses that bypass bridge traffic are fast, as are the Ottawa buses that use dedicated routes and multi-occupancy lanes on the highway. The killer time cost in terms of taking the bus is waiting for the bus to arrive - when buses run once every half an hour or once an hour, and don't always keep to schedule, it's faster to cycle (or, sometimes, to walk).

I live in Portland, OR where we have very nice trains and busses. Public transit is also socially priveleged because of widely held environmental beliefs. This works well in the city proper, despite free riders and smelly bums. Once you get to the periphery, however, commute times are prohibitive- an hour or more longer than rush hour traffic, causing very few middle class people to ride. Perhaps because of this, it starts to seem dangerous. It's an issue of violence in poorer neighborhoods. Our neighborhood is fine, but it is serviced by the same train as really bad neighborhoods further out. Junkies pass out on hot days; men with meth scars on their faces try to pick up women as though they were at a night club; random crazy people scream oscenities; groups of young men or women pick fights. Social status may be important, but safety explains more about US public transit. My husband got me a car after I told him about my commute. There's little worse in a commute than a solid half hour of thinking "Why won't he leave me alone? Please God, don't let this guy get off at my stop." but being too afraid of antagonizing him to say anything. And Portland is a much safer city than most in the US.

Kevin: "And also the absolute number of people in the lower socio-economic end."

Is this based on evidence or just an observation? Just surprising to me since on the routes I have been on I have anecdotally noticed the opposite, but my sample may be biased.

I recently moved to the Vancouver area, and I found the #44 going downtown in the AM and out towards UBC in the PM to appear to be middle to upper-middle class (Point Grey and Kitts residents who work downtown). I have now moved and now take the Canada Line (skytrain) and it does not appear to be weighted towards lower socio-economic status. This may again be due to commuters who work in the downtown core where parking is very expensive.

I think urban density and zoning regulations play a part. If you take public transport in most Asian cities, you get a huge mix of people on a bus or subway. When I've taken public transport in mid-sized or smaller North American cities that are less dense, like Edmonton or Louisville KY, then routes seem more neighborhood-specific, and you see more class differences between routes. On the other hand I've taken long bus or subway rides in Asian cities where the ridership mix didn't change much.

Regarding drivers' salaries: if the average bus trip is 15 minutes and the average number of riders on a bus is only 10, then each ticket needs to cover 1/40 of the driver's hourly wage. If the driver earns $20/hr, that's 50 cents per ticket. I think public transportation tickets in North America are typically upward of $2, so drivers' salaries would seem to be at most 25% of the price - a nontrivial fraction, but is it enough to tip the cost/benefit balance for a lot of people?

I find that communications technology has made riding the bus much more enjoyable and productive. Smartphones and tablets have revolutionized public transportation IMO.

I wonder a lot about issues of habit with busing. As a child, I was never driven to school, it was always the bus for me. And as an adult, while I also bike or walk some days, I still frequently use the bus, and it's never occurred to me to drive. (The $200+ monthly parking fees also act as a nice disincentive.) But it rarely occurs to me to use the bus to go places aside from work...it's just not part of my normal routine.

There's no doubt the buses in Edmonton are slow and uncomfortable, yet the routes that go downtown are still packed with middle class commuters, so long as you stick to rush hour. Ride the bus at other times, and the dynamic is far different. The few occasions I've taken buses outside of rush hour have been distinctly uncomfortable experiences.

The last bus I took was from London Heathrow airport (National Express, intercity?). Before we started off, the driver stood up and told us all politely but very firmly what he would and would not allow on *his* bus. Example: "No smelly food; and if I can smell it that means it's smelly". I was very pleased to see him take ownership and authority. Suddenly felt much safer and more comfortable. "This is a guy who knows what he's doing, is going to make sure it's done right, and is reasonable but won't put up with any cr*p from the passengers". I nearly clapped when he finished speaking.

(I rarely take a bus, but did one year I was working at the Bank of Canada, because it was 1 bus almost door-to-door.)

Transit economics are amongst the more popular conversations at work. As one might expect, we are distributed through and around Vancouver. In a nutshell the transit decisions comes down to the following nearly unanimous scenarios:

If you live in Vancouver:
For personal journeys, take transit for individual travel and drive if 3 or more people. For two people or if you need to have parking close to your destination, the decision is rain=car, sun=bus. (A transit trip is $5 per person if you are out more than 90 minutes.)

For work journeys people walk, bike, drive, or taxi. The cost of parking + car <= cost of the bus + time/inconvenience + risk of dirtying work clothes.

If you live outside Vancouver and NOT near the West Coast Express:
Major event, take transit.
For everything else drive - unless you are catching a plan or ferry in which case transit is pretty convenient and avoids the hassle of parking.

If you live near the West Coast Express, commute in for work but since the train doessn't run both directions or at all on weekends, for personal journeys you drive yourself. The train is truly wonderful - comfortable seats, wi-fi, tables, electrical plugs, plus an espresso/breakfast bar.

Personally, and this is not supported by any data review other than my own finances, I think the price point for the lower mainland public transit south of the Fraser is carefully chosen to equal the MC of driving, which is the political upper limit before the media could easily point out that driving is cheaper. I highly doubt this is profit maximizing for Translink, but it neatly discourages riders who own a car from clogging the busses and is the maximum price that can be charged to the remaining transit users. My colleagues disagree and think I'm cynical...

I ride the skytrain into Vancouver and it sends a chill down my spine every time I pass metrotown and see the long lines of people waiting for their bus. Horrible, I could never do that.

Trains are the way to go. Problem with trains is the up front cost that seems to freak every accountant out. Not to mention most people don't want a train running planted across the street from their house. Although a subway would negate that complaint.

Peter, you're an economist and your colleagues think your cynical?? Never heard of that before....


Physical Costs: The cost of walking to the bus stop and waiting in freezing or sweltering weather.

Uncertainty costs: The risk that unreliable public transportation will not get you to your destination on time. As someone who used to live in east end Toronto and depended on streetcars, this was the greatest deterrent to public transportation use. If I had an important meeting I had to build in a 40-minute cushion (in addition to the normal 45 minutes), and even then I occasionally had to take a taxi.

Now I walk 20 minutes to work. It is heavenly, even on the worst winter days.

Hi Joel,

the quote you put after my name is from Frances; not me.

I don't have data on the income gradient of transit users--I was making a personal anecdotal observation.

My claim is this: The proportion of 6-digit earning professionals riding transit is much higher in TO than in Van. I don't say this because I care only about 6-digit earning professionals, but because they are the upper tail of the income distribution and I think they are largely absent from Vancouver public transit. I think this changes the socio-economic perceptions.

Riding the 44, do you really see a lot of mid-career nattily attired go-getter professionals? I don't. You do on the subway in Toronto. This might be a bus v. subway thing more than anything else.

The 44, more than anything, is UBC traffic coming and going, so quite different than the rest of the system.

Comparing UofT economics department to UBC, there are only a handful of us transit-users. Much higher proportion of transit users at Uof, I think. That's because it is very convenient to live near a subway station and get off at St. George for UofT Economists. Much less convenient at UBC. But that's the point, right?

(BTW, we have as much higher proportion of bicyclists (many year-round too), so one shouldn't infer that we are a bunch of car-lovers at UBC! But again traveling by bike means they aren't on the bus.)

Gnash equilibrium - "if the average bus trip is 15 minutes and the average number of riders on a bus is only 10, then each ticket needs to cover 1/40 of the driver's hourly wage. If the driver earns $20/hr, that's 50 cents per ticket." - I'm not sure on the math on that one. I'd be willing to bet on an average bus trip length of closer to 1/2 an hour than 15 minutes, and 10 is actually a reasonable high average number of riders given the low ridership at the start and end of routes, allowing time for breaks, etc.

Peter - "I think the price point for the lower mainland public transit south of the Fraser is carefully chosen to equal the MC of driving" - but, as you point out, driving offers economies of scale for three or more people, so it makes sense for a family of three to buy a car. And then once you own a car, the only cost of driving is the marginal cost, so driving becomes pretty tempting. Perhaps with more family-pass type options people might be tempted to opt for public transit rather than a second car?

A decisive factor for me is that with transit someone else is driving. I enjoy driving--on a fun open mountain highway on a roadtrip. In November in pitch black with rain pouring down and light-defying pedestrians darting across traffic-jammed streets? No thanks, I'll do some reading on the bus instead.

Joel - the absolute # of people thing is based on neither evidence nor observation - it was just a suggestion to Kevin of something that might be a relevant factor.

Kevin, I really think it might be partly the route that you're taking - Canada Line to the airport is probably a slightly different demographic, as is the #152 Upper Levels - Queen's. (My husband described his four months taking the bus from Burnaby out to UBC as 'suburban hell with scenic mountains in the background'.) Though the point made earlier about lack of turnstiles was an interesting one.

opps, sorry Kevin. Thanks for clarifying my error.

Just wanted to add a comment about the value of driverless trains. One of the biggest benefits of driverless trains from the perspective of the operator is not necessarily the flat cost of the driver's salary, but the flexibility they offer.

Unionized drivers come with an unbelievable burden of rules regarding hours worked, hours on call, seniority of drivers etc. (And rightly so.) Skytrain can add a train or two during an extremely busy rush hour fairly easily. It takes a couple of workers not much time to get a vehicle out to the rails, and then the rules governing automatic train control (car spacing, headway etc.) take over. Nothing to it. Now you have 10 cars running up and down the route instead of 8.

Imagine adding a bus to accommodate a busier-than-normal rush hour...yeah, not so easy.

On the flip side, if things are really quiet for some reason (weather, everyone went home early to watch the hockey game), Skytrain can remove a train or two from service to save money.

Curtains between first and caoch because of the incomfort of erasing social lines? For the first-class overpaid corporate hacks but not for me in coach...
intercity buses? Montréal-Québec have wider and better seats than Air Canada aircrafts have on the same route. They long had electric jacks and you can use your phone at all times ( not sure its a plus). And recently they added Wi-FI.
The smelly bum? Try July 15th 2003, on the M1 up 1st avenue in Manhattan with the woman changing her...)

"Curtains between first and caoch because of the incomfort of erasing social lines? For the first-class overpaid corporate hacks but not for me in coach..."

Jacques, if you think the seats in coach are uncomfortable now, just imagine how uncomfortable they'd feel if you could actually see the people up in first class swilling champaign while reclining in their big cushy chairs.

I've been pretty much off inter-city buses since my trip from Kingston to Toronto in front of a smelly fellow wearing hospital scrubs covered in blood (amongst other things) who spend the entire trip talking quite loudly with his neighbour (poor bugger) about how he just got out of prison, and about all the violent crimes he's committed and how, geeze, it's a couple of hours and he could kill for a smoke (which he did - smoke that is, not kill - in Whitby, at which point the bus driver left him behind. It doesn't take much to imagine how relieved his neighbour was).

Bob Smith, the folks in first class actually pay for most of the cost of an airline trip. The marginal cost of an airline seat is basically nil (apart from congestion, obviously), so the markup on each seat varies wildly depending on what the market will bear.

When we do things for status, we often rationalize them in some other way. E.g. "I love my mac because of the F3 key and spotlight" "I love my BMW because it's so much safer than driving a Toyota Matrix" etc. So I'm slightly skeptical about good reasons for not choosing public transport (and, yes, that applies to "I just love the Ottawa winter air in my lungs" too).

anon "the folks in first class actually pay for most of the cost of an airline trip" - at least those who are not airline employees, upgrades, people travelling on frequent flyer points, etc?

Onion headline: 98% of Americans agree: other people should take public transit.

Chris J - and here's a link to that article. Totally classic Onion - I love the slogan "Take The Bus... I'll Be Glad You Did."

When I used to regularly ride the bus in graduate school, the experience was rather shocking. Its not just a matter of the the sheer inefficiency of waiting 30 minutes for the bus, and the inefficiency of plodding along...

Two of my experiences:
- Waiting for the bus near 11pm. Man comes up and asks, "what time is it". "Will the bus come soon?" Then proceeds to start talking, high points: he goes to Santa Monica pier to fish--no job. He met a girl and got her phone number. He used to work at a government library but he lost his job... because he went to prison for manslaughter. Now in sum, I think he was a nice guy, but I was sure glad he didn't follow me off of the bus.

- Riding the bus in the morning. Mother and child seated ahead of me. A mentally and physically handicapped adolescent gets on the the bus (in a wheelchair). Mother and child proceed to joke about and tease the other boy. Moreover, they did so in single-minded fashion for some time. This wasn't just some off the cuff jibe by some other youths.

Being worried about smelly bums belittles what is frankly a real concern: the people on the bus are not a random draw from society. The priors are different.

On top of these disadvantages... driving a car (particularly with one other passenger but even for a single person in hybrid) is actually more efficient than riding the bus. The reason for this is quite simple. Buses are large, mostly empty, and make a lot of stops. Buses seem efficient because of selection bias. You are most likely to be riding the bus when everyone else is most likely to be riding the bus, and therefore your impression of the utilization is much higher than the actual utilization. The same applies to all forms of mass transit.

Here is some data for the US--I grant that the situation might be different in other places with different population densities:

This data is compiled from:

No important people take the bus.

The social status argument seems important in many European countries, where train travel is ubiquitous and nearly every train still has both 1st and 2nd class compartments. I also recall that the Paris metro used to have 1st and 2nd class cars (don't know whether it still does.....) I wonder whether introducing 1st and 2nd class compartments on commuter rail in Canada would boost ridership....

The #135 SFU to/from Downtown is the most frequent (5 to 10 minutes) bus in North Burnaby and has the highest ridership in the many tens of thousands a day now that it is semi-'express' from Kootenay and extends from SFU to downtown.
Transit has revived the #14 Hastings trolley line all the way from the legendary Kootenay Loop to UBC Loop. A very long way, and enough time to read 2 chapters of a bad economics book.

Still no 24 hour buses though, and only 4 public washrooms in the entire uncivilized city of Vancouver, none in Burnaby.
Major late night cuts in the region announced for April 2011 on many routes--like once an hour instead of 30 minutes. The explicit argument was as you put above, $160 an hour to run a bus, but only a few passengers.
I remember the old low-seat Japanese buses that were the only ones in the fleet powerful enough that could climb the Burnaby hill.
I even remember the various mid-street concrete islands in the middle of streets to step out to and mount the streetcars. All gone.
But the first trolley line to be taken out in 1912, still had the tracks on the street and the bricks adjacent to the tracks on MacLean street still today. Third Avenue west had their tracks taken up about 2 decades ago.

Transit does have a weekend policy for their passes: 2 adults and 4 children ride on the one pass. It is considered a going to Sunday church deal, but should work on Fridays to the mosque too.
QUOTE- "Sunday and Holiday FareCard Special
On Sundays and Statutory Holidays you can use your FareCard to take five other riders with you for free! A total of six riders is allowed: Two adults (14 and older) and up to four children (13 and under) can ride on a single Adult FareCard, West Coast Express 28-day Pass, or Annual Employer Transit Pass. (Does not apply to Concession Passes.)" end_quote http://www.translink.ca/en/Fares-and-Passes/Monthly-Pass.aspx

Wander around http://blickpunktstrab.wordpress.com for more news.

I spent a few years growing up in Beijing in a child, and they had a de facto public private system of public transit as well. The public system used a fleet of old buses and charged what I assume was a significantly subsidised price of less than one RMB, which was supplemented by quasi-illegal minibuses which charged two or three RMB and featured padded seats and air conditioning. These mini-buses were private affairs, and tended to feature a man driving and a woman yelling the price and bus line number at bus stops. This was back in the mid-90's.

The last few times I've gone to Beijing I've noticed the old public bus fleet being replaced a new fleet of much nicer buses. With the opening of new subway/light rail lines, increased vehicle ownership, and the increased comforts of these new buses I've seen the number of private mini-buses diminish dramatically. Or maybe the police just cracked down on unregistered buses.

Jon - "Buses are large, mostly empty, and make a lot of stops....The same applies to all forms of mass transit."

The efficiency or otherwise of public transit really does vary a lot from place to place, and generalizations are difficult. It is true that much of the US doesn't have the population density to make public transit work - but that's a whole other issue.

Bill Lee - thanks for sharing those memories.

Alex Hoopes - interesting, that Beijing story is very similar to the Mexico experience mentioned at the start of the comments.

I live in Ottawa and commute by "OCTranspo" bus.

On weekdays, "express" routes service suburban communities, bringing the mostly white-collar workers from their home neighbourhoods to the downtown core for their government jobs. In the late afternoon, said routes are reversed, bringing the same commuters home. This, combined with the "non-express" routes which run all the time (except in the middle of the night), effectively IS a "two-tier" bus system.

My strictly qualitative observations suggest most of these commuters are part of families with two or more cars. The cars are used to commute on days when "the kids need to be picked up" and evenings and weekends for everything but getting to and from the office.

We have no kids and only one car but we use the car evenings and weekends; our free time would be utterly wasted waiting for the local buses. A round-trip between home and friends by car would take 40 minutes versus 3 HOURS+ on the local bus.

For the daily commute, the bus makes sense here in Ottawa. For anything else, OCTranspo largely earns the "loser-cruiser" moniker.

I find the opportunity cost of driving is higher than bussing, even with a shorter commute time. I'm more likely to be on time or even early for appointments if I need to plan getting there by transit, the short walk to and from the bus stop is much needed exercise, and once I'm at the stop, I can whip out my iPhone/iPad and read all the way to my destination (I second the point made by a previous commenter about technology). Every minute of driving time feels wasted.

I was going to make the same point as Cjottawa. Express routes in Ottawa are the equivalent of first class buses: they cost more, guarantee that your seat mates aren't bums, and have the extra benefit of a faster ride.

Last several times I've tried to take the bus anywhere in Albuquerque, I've finished walking (several miles) to my destination before I ever saw a bus.

So, now I just drive, or if I'm headed to the bar, walk. If I'm not trying to follow bus routes in the hope of catching a bus, the walking path becomes more efficient, too.

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