Fixing Existing Service First
In the past twenty years, cities have paid renewed attention to public transit - but only fancy and expensive public transit. Light rail and BRT lines have sprouted throughout the country, especially in areas which we do not associate with transit, such as Phoenix. One problem with all of these lines: they are expensive to operate and have caused service reductions of normal bus service in most of the new cities that opened one. Reducing bus service is bad enough when reasonably good bus service existed in the town before the opening of a new rapid transit line. It is even worse when terrible bus service exists in the city, and instead of spending money to make it adequate the city wants to spend the money on a shiny new rapid transit line instead.
As I write this in March of 2012, no city illustrates this principle more than the city of Detroit . In an unusual situation, the city of Detroit has two separate bus systems that are completely independent of each other. The two transit systems, which have historically been so poor that low-income residents are forced to own cars even though the expense may cause them to forgo necessities such as food, have recently become much worse as a result of the recent recession. In the past few months SMART, the suburban operator, has stopped going past the city limits of Detroit except during peak periods on some lines, and a couple of weeks ago D-DOT, the city operator, significantly slashed the little service that was left, including the elimination of 24-hour service that the transit dependent relied upon on their four or five hour daily commutes to suburban jobs.
Into this mess come marching politicians and urban planners who desire to spend considerable amount of money building and operating a new light rail line. Originally envisioned to operate from downtown Detroit to the State Fair Grounds at the city limits, the current plan is to only operate a three-mile line in the downtown and "New Center" area. Since these politicians have identified no new operating funding for this line, D-DOT will have to pay for it - and it is hard to imagine what bus service they would cut to pay for it, as there is so little left. Due to its limited reach, this line would be expected to be patronized mostly by suburbanites who drive down from the suburbs for a sporting event and use the line to access cheaper parking lots farther away from the stadium. Overall, opening a new rail line while the bus system is in such a deplorable condition would be similar to buying a Mercedes when your house is falling down due to termite infestation. Fortunately, the FTA seems unlikely to support this project.
Transit behavior of this kind is not limited to Detroit. Consider Omnitrans of San Bernardino, CA for example. Currently Omnitrans service ends at around 6:00 PM on Sundays and Holidays, meaning that if you are transit-dependent you have to shut yourself in your home all Sunday night. Despite operating a service that makes it impossible to build your life around transit if you are a green passenger, instead of spending money to improve the service span Omnitrans is currently planning a BRT system called sbX, which will travel from Cal State - San Bernardino to Loma Linda along the same path as their busiest route. Why is Omnitrans spending money on the construction and operation of an expensive project when their existing passengers are not served well? It is not hard to understand why politicians and urban planners design transit for the choice rider and green passenger ; after all, the planners themselves would fit the description of those kinds of passengers. However, cutting service that people need in order to survive in order to fund what is in essence a weekend amusement ride for suburbanites who have cars, is definitely wrong. Not only is it wrong, it is possibly a violation of Title VI as well.
Transit systems that engage in this behavior sometimes wonder why their new rapid transit line does not have as high ridership as they hoped it would. In my mind, if you build a new line along a corridor that has poor existing transit service - and therefore low ridership - then it should not surprise you that your new line also has low ridership, albeit probably higher than the former transit service it replaced. Systems would be better served to replicate what Vancouver, B.C.'s Translink does. For Translink, the improvement of transit service along a corridor is a slow but steady progress that begins with improving conventional local bus service to frequent service levels, continues with the introduction of bus rapid transit, and culminates with the extension of rail service along the corridor. Following these steps ensures that a corridor will have enough demand for each iteration of higher-order transit, and also means that all existing service has been maximized before money is spent on new service.