What is Transit?

Meaning of Public Transit

Transit is a common stand-in word to mean “mass transportation” or “public transportation.” Mass/Public Transportation as defined by wikipedia(Jan 2018):

is a shared passenger-transport service which is available for use by the general public, as distinct from modes such as taxicab, carpooling, hired buses, and transportation network companies, which are not shared by the general public without private arrangement

Since the vast majority of mass transportation options in the US are provided by the government and funded by taxes it is easy to perceive that “public” in public transit implies being government run/public-subsidized transportation. But globally the term “public transit” is not exclusive to tax-supported transportation, it can be used to describe privately owned for-profit operations such as new Florida Brightline train or the many privately owned transit operators in Japan. These are public transit options because they are shared and anyone of the general public can utilize the services despite agencies realizing a profit, which they can then reinvest into the business or distribute to shareholders. This definition of public transit does exclude any service that is accessible only for a select group of passengers such as those “who have a smartphone app” or “can only make a reservation online”, like Uber or Megabus. Taxicabs and limos are also normally not considered public transport because they are not shared and typically are used for a limited number of parties/individuals at a time.

How did US transit get to this point?

The United States in the early 1900s had a robust privately owned transit rail sector. The US Federal government supported building the first transcontinental railroad, finished in 1869, connected California to the Omaha then to the east coast rail network. Prior to cars and planes the train was the most popular way for people to get around. And to ensure mobility to Californians private railroad companies operated service everywhere in the state providing transportation within cities and inter-city service. In California alone there was electric rail from Chico to Sacramento to Oakland(Sacramento Northern Railway), Petaluma to Santa Rosa(Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad), Fresno to Visalia(Visalia Electric Railroad) and the rail network even went as far connecting to Arcata, CA(Arcata and Mad River Railroad). San Francisco alone once had several railway and cable car companies running within its borders. Transit service in California was effective, private and successful.

Then in the 1940s, the private automobile began its era of domination of North America. Taking advantage of the mobility granted by automobiles North America cities planned and constructed to maximize those advantages and meet the needs of automotive mobility. Workers were no longer constrained by the limitations of their feet and rail. This resulted in widespread use of single-use zoning and low-density urban sprawl, both policies left public transit at a strategic disadvantage. Single-use zoning forced unidirectional commutes meaning half the cost of a vehicle is going a direction with little to no passengers twice a day, resulting in deadhead trips(non-revenue travel time). And with low density neighborhoods fewer prospective passengers are served per mile and routes are designed to be indirect to cater to residents at the high cost of time to the boarded passengers and the hourly paid drivers.

These popular zoning policies limited the prospect of the usability of transit in the future and indirectly secured auto-dependency. Obvious to low density communities the effort and time to walk to the closest bus stop, wait for the infrequent bus and take the time-consuming route to get to their destination is an infinitely less convenient experience than walking out the door to their car and driving to wherever they need to go. These communities were built to be driven through for essentially every occasion. To the transit agencies serving these communities this is an unrewarding burden as well. The long-distance travel induces more wear and tear on vehicles and requires more fuel and labor, which adds cost to these agencies. With limited political and financial support for public transit and an inability to compete with personal convenience, they tend to run barebones peak-focused services.

Transit continues to be relatively successful in cities built pre-automobile like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. These cities were structured with walkability in mind, during a time that residents walked everywhere. To get to a train or ferry stop, to work or to local restaurants and markets residents relied on services being accessible and neighborhoods being easily traversed. As such city planners at the time built around these constraints, relying on density and mixing commercial with residential long before the ideal auto-dependent visions had been realized. Pre-automobile designed cities may be unable to support the high traffic volume of vehicles like Los Angeles or Fresno but considering they are some of the highest density cities in the state transit, along with cycling and walking, still meet the needs of most denizens.

Private transit consolidated and attempted to be profitable in the new automobile world with the move to buses and motor coaches. Railroads allowed their exclusive railways to be paved over with public roads. They quickly found providing bus service was not going to be competitive with the independence and convenience of privatized driving. With the local to federal government focused on supporting the automobile with free off-street parking requirements to the billions on dollars spent on public roads and the interstate highway, transit didn’t stand a chance. Private multi-regional railroad companies across the country gave up on passenger service to consolidate into 7 major Railroads. They focused their efforts on using their right of ways to transport freight, a far more profitable and less customer burdensome service. Their abandonment of regional passenger service led to the creation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation(Amtrak). Recently new private operators have tried getting into the public transportation business. Both for the luxury(Leap) and for the commute but without public subsidy or corporate sponsorship it seems unlikely that private transit will become profitable and often undermines the government owned transit services.

Though the services were not profitable many jurisdictions still found value to providing urban public transportation. To continue to exist as a service within an unsuitable environment, public transit options had to be subsidized. Many services including San Francisco’s MUNI Metro, and East Bay’s AC Transit, even New York City’s subway were acquired from the death of private-owned mass transportation businesses. In the US there may only be one or two public transit routes that can be considered “profitable”, where fare collection is greater than the operating costs. For example Amtrak’s Acela Express, the premium rail service in the nation, is said to be their sole route that makes profit. Train service often gets the closest reaching high Farebox recovery ratios, notably BART farebox revenue is 70-73% of its total operating expenses, and Caltrain recently has managed 60+% of its operating cost paid by fares. But no US public transit agency has achieved profitability from providing service.

To be continued…