Large Objects on Transit
My examination of bikes on board buses leads to a larger question: how can transit agencies deal with large objects on transit? By large objects I mean anything that takes up a seat. Examples include the aforementioned bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, shopping carts, and luggage. Let us look at each one in turn.
A bicycle takes up space that could be filled by two other passengers. In addition, the sharp metal edges found on them can cause a safety hazard to the other passengers. Due to the small space available on buses, it is hard to imagine bicycles ever been allowed on board to any great degree. Rail cars, which are bigger, have more room for bicycles, and some transit agencies even make special arrangements for cycles by providing separate bike cars (Caltrain) or special spaces where bikes can be secures (like on Phoenix and the new San Diego light rail cars). One caveat: we are not talking about folding bikes here. Folding bikes, by being able to be reduced in size to dimensions able to fit in the seating area, are the perfect way to bring bikes on transit.
Depending on the configuration of the bus, wheelchair users can take up to as many as six seats. However, due that they are a special class and protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act , and that the alternative to having them on board a conventional bus is to have them use expensive paratransit, wheelchairs are one large object that will always need to be accommodated on board a bus or rail car.
There are few things that cause more driver - passenger conflict than the bringing of strollers on board the vehicle. Strollers that are folded and can be stowed in front of the seat are fine; large strollers, that are usually left in the aisle, are not fine and cause a safety hazard as people entering or exiting the vehicle are liable to trip over them. Leaving children in the stroller is even worse as the flimsy "stroller" brakes will offer no protection in the event that the bus has to make an emergency stop.
Shopping Carts / Luggage
First, as it is illegal to remove store shopping carts from the store area without permission, buses and rail cars should never allow branded carts on their vehicles. More common are personal shopping carts, which are similar to luggage. Any shopping carts or luggage than can fit in front of the seat are fine; larger sizes could be carried upon the payment of an additional fare, as shown more below.
Overall, as passengers bring more "stuff" on board transit vehicles and transit vehicles keep getting more ridership, the conflict between stuff and people will increase. Instead of blanket bans on particular items, I urge transit agencies to consider charging people extra to bring large items on board. Currently, no American transit agency I can find charges people in this matter, although Long Island Rail Road charges cyclists a one-time $5 fee to bring their bikes on board. Once bike racks consistently get full, charging a fare to use them will lower demand enough so that it can be satisfied while at the same time increasing revenue for the transit agency. There is a clear incentive for transit agencies to allow wheelchairs to ride for free, as any wheelchair riding a conventional bus is much cheaper than if they were to use paratransit. Strollers that can be folder up are not a problem; it is the "super" strollers that can hold two or more children that take up space. Why not change fare policy so that each adult can bring only one children along for free? Shopping carts and luggage that cannot fit in the seat in front of you are two examples of large objects that should be charged another fare. Hey, even paying twice the regular transit fare is still far cheaper than taking a taxi to the airport.
Some transit agencies, including Tri-Delta Transit in Contra Costa County, California and Long Beach Transit, also in California, are experimenting with providing dedicate space for strollers, suitcases, and other things (Tri-Delta) and by ordering buses with flip up seats to allow stowage of large objects (Long Beach Transit). While both cases are excellent examples of transit agencies responding to this issue, neither solves the primary problem that each suitcase brought on board the bus means one less person can board. The only way to get a handle on this problem is to charge to bring such objects on transit.
Charging for large objects is a way for transit agencies to improve revenue without the need to resort to bans which are often selectively enforced due to the desire of many drivers to avoid confrontation. It also makes sure that the priority of the transit system - carrying passengers not people - comes first.