Overselling Transit


A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times eloquently illustrated the limits of mass transit in modern societies. This is not to imply that that transit does not have its place, nor that it does not provide a most useful service where it can. The problem has been the overselling of a mode that has very serious limitations. This has led to misallocations of financial resources that could be more efficiently used for the roadway expansions that would relieve traffic congestion and reduce both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while encouraging greater job creation and economic growth.

The op-ed in question was by Karen Leonard, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and Sarah Hays, a Los Angeles architect. The article noted the neighborhood opposition to the "Expo" Line (Exposition Boulevard line) and efforts by the authors to gain support for the line. The neighborhood in question is Cheviot Hills, a tony neighborhood with a median house price of $850,000 in the city of Los Angeles and located between Beverly Hills and Culver City.

What is significant about the op-ed, however, is not so much the neighborhood as the concluding line and the author credits.

"So we continue to walk our neighborhoods talking with our neighbors, hoping that this time the quiet majority will finally prevail and we will all gain the choice of leaving our cars at home.

Karen Leonard is an anthropology professor at UC Irvine. Sarah Hays is a Los Angeles architect. They are co-chairs of Light Rail for Cheviot Hills (lightrailforcheviot.org)."

UC Irvine? It is doubtful that the Expo line will make it possible for anyone in the foreseeable future who lives in Cheviot Hills to "leave their car at home." The University of California, Irvine is located in the middle of Orange County, approximately 50 miles from Cheviot Hills.

It is useful to consider what leaving the car at home in Cheviot Hills would mean for a mythical professor at the University of California, Irvine once the Expo line is fully operational.

On Monday*, the professor needs to be in class at 8:00 am, which requires arrival on campus by 7:45 a.m. On the assumption that the mythical professor lives in the middle of Cheviot Hills, the trip would involve leaving the house at 3:45 a.m. and walking 20 minutes to the transit stop. The favored Expo light rail line would likely not be available that early, so the first leg of the trip would be on a bus. (If the Expo line is operating early enough for the trip, the professor could leave home approximately 25 minutes later).

Three transfers later, the mythical professor arrives at the campus, at 7:20 a.m., in plenty of time to have coffee and get to the classroom before 8:00. While the professor requires four hours from leaving his or her car at home to the necessary arrival time at campus, a neighbor could have driven nearly all the way to Las Vegas for breakfast.

If it is assumed that the mythical professor is able to get out of a staff meeting at 3:00 pm, the return trip would take more than 3 hours, part of it on the Expo line.

Tuesday would be little better, assuming a 10:00 a.m. class start and that the professor gets away by 5:15 p.m. The trip to Irvine would have the advantage of starting on the Expo line, but would still take more than 3 hours, door to door. The return trip, including bus rides, a Green Line ride, a Harbor Freeway Busway ride and an Expo light rail ride would be about 4 hours and 30 minutes, with little wait in Irvine for service.

These transit commutes would hardly be comfortable or productive, though they would include all conventional forms of transit available in Los Angeles (there are no trolley buses, inclined planes or ferries in Los Angeles). The total door-to-door time would be up to 7.5 hours for a work day of 7 hours. Needless to say, it is unlikely that with this schedule, any professor would ever leave his or her car at home.

Finally, there is a myth people cannot leave their cars at home and walk or take transit to work. In fact, there are probably no work locations in urban America where people cannot choose to live close enough to work to walk or take transit. But choosing to leave the car at home is not as important as other choices, even for advocates for transit improvements. Otherwise they would live close enough to leave their cars at home. Of course, most people value other things more than leaving the car at home, such as a nice neighborhood, a nice car, a low crime rate and a host of other considerations. Otherwise no professor would live in Cheviot Hills and work at UC Irvine. Indeed, they would probably live in the faculty housing made available by UC Irvine.

All of this illustrates what transit cannot do; provide automobile competitive service for most of the trips that are taken in the modern American (and even European) urban area.

It is also worth recognizing that transit has been substantially improved in Los Angeles over the past 20 years (whether it has grown cost effectively is dealt with in another article). Spending aside, these improvements have made it possible to make any one-way trip in the Los Angeles urban area in less than four hours, at least during the middle of the day. This is to the credit of the Metrolink commuter rail system, the subway, rapid busways and the more rapid of the light rail lines. But this is hardly tempting to Angelenos whose median commute time by car is 24 minutes. As elsewhere in the nation (and as in Western Europe, Canada and Australia), transit can sometimes compete with the automobile to core (principally downtown) locations. The suburban to suburban trips, however, largely are simply beyond transit's capability.

Of course, some drivers commute much longer, as in the case of the mythical professor at UC Irvine, whose trip would be between one and one and one-half hours each way. In Los Angeles, 8 percent of people in cars have commutes that are more than one hour. And virtually all of them find this commute, however maddening, is far shorter and more comfortable than a similar trip taken by transit.


*Correction: The Monday trip from Cheviot Hills to UC-Irvine has been corrected to reflect a subsequently identified better itinerary. The article has been revised to assume this trip.


Photograph: Interstate 5 (on the way to Irvine) in Orange County

Wendell Cox trained on the Exposition corridor between the University of Southern California (USC) and Culver City (near Cheviot Hills) as a member of the USC cross country team. He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (one of two agencies merged later to form the MTA) and participated in decisions to authorize the Green Line light rail line, the Harbor Freeway Busway, the Red Line Subway and Interstate 105, all used by the mythical professor commuting to UC Irvine.

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Three transfers later, the mythical professor arrives at the campus, at 7:20 a.m., in plenty of time to have coffee and get to the classroom before 8:00. While the professor requires four hours from leaving his or her car at home to the necessary arrival time at campus,

reply from Karen Leonard, the co-author of the LA Times op-ed

I wrote Professor Leonard asking whether she was aware of this article and for her reply which I have reproduced below. - Bruce McHenry

"It's too bad Mr. Cox did not contact me before writing this. I am not mythical, I am real, and I commute to UCI two days a week(sometimes more for meetings) in a carpool (I have been setting my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as does my carpool buddy, for more than 30 years). When I have to go down alone, I have a Prius with a carpool sticker. Using the carpool lane, the trip typically takes 50 minutes each way now.

"I am 71 years old and plan to retire in another year or two, and then I will be using the Expo line and others to get around in LA. I work at home MWF, writing up my research for publication; in the UC system, research and publication is as important, if not more important, than teaching. We teach 5 courses a year, at UCI in Anthropology, and two long days down there handles the teaching.

"I got interested in the light rail systems in LA as I contemplated retirement and more recreation in the city. It is a real pain to drive downtown or to Santa Monica from Cheviot Hills, but I am still healthy and will be able to walk to the Westwood station.

Excerpts from the conversation with Leonard and associates

JAN 6, 2010 11:16 AM PST

Dear Dr. Leonard:

I appreciate your reply to Mr. Cox's article in newgeography. Nobody expected that you would commute to work by transit. That is the problem. Especially in LA, the vast and diffuse nature of the start and end points, and the multiple destinations to which people go in a day, make transit problematic.

Where we engineers are experiencing difficulties, and would like your help, is in raising awareness of the fact that new technology can provide transportation that is dramatically superior in every regard - time-to-destination & congestion, convenience, energy efficiency, noise and air pollution and the eventual cost.

Our problem stems from the difficulty in educating the voters and the legislature, and the venture capital community. Both are needed because the time horizon, the scale of the investment and the risks of developing the technology cause a kind of market failure with respect to developing major innovations of the transportation system.

As your experience has shown, it is much easier to raise funds for something that people already understand. Everybody has experience light rail. The basic technology has not changed since the 19th century. The Expo line will be over $1 billion. That is not very much money as far as the military is concerned but it is several hundred times more than has been allocated to systemic innovations for transportation. These will inevitably arrive and dramatically change the paradigms.

Our efforts would be hugely accelerated if a few percent of the money now being spent on Expo were earmaked for competitions to develop radically better technologies that will come to serve Angelinos every day transportation needs. And it would not be just for Angelinos but to serve the transportation needs of virtually everyone in the world.

Do I have your attention?

Best regards,
Bruce McHenry


1:16 PM

Dear Dr. Leonard:

It is good to find that you are not mythical at all.

I could indeed present to Transit Coalition and Friends for Expo. The ideas that I would advance are not just my own but those of multiple companies with several different and promising transformational innovations. My role is to promote the development of technology competitions intended to advance both the state-of-the-art and public awareness. The prizes and cost of putting together the competitions would be a very small percentage of the cost of Expo.

Please let me know details about your meetings. Are they regularly scheduled? How much time may I have for presentation and discussion? Who will be in the audience? Are they able to influence budgeting for Expo and the inclusion of a special item?

Also, would you like me to quote your reply in a post to the Cox article? I would be pleased to do that and also to announce that you are involved with others who are also interested in advancing the state-of-the-art.

Best regards,
Bruce McHenry
CEO, KeyPrize.org


The previous email caused a reply from one of Professor Leonard's associates to which I responded as follows.

2:28 PM

Dear Bart,

You mention a subset of the technologies that I would propose for development awards. I suggest that we also consider three or four more approaches.

As the nearsest term example, please consider on-demand ridesharing using smart phones and integrated in car devices, based on what the Dept. of Transportation has rechristened Intellidrive - a faster, longer distance and more reliable WiFi for cars - that also provide smart tolling, signaling and crash avoidance.*

You mention PRT. Did you know that most the engineers interested in new electrified, easily elevated guideways for personal vehicles are now advocating that those vehicles be dual-mode meaning able to also drive on the road? (The concensus of the same engineering community has long been that Maglev is not a key technology - unless it is evacuated tube Maglev. The reason is that Maglev overcomes only rolling friction which is secondary to aerodynamic drag, and does this only at a very high capital cost.)

Finally, I am personally the leading advocate, globally, of making cars that hitch to each other physically as well as electronically, to form hybrid-electric trains.** This will build upon work now being done in Europe under the SARTRE program to couple cars to follow each other automatically at close range. The difference is that the physical coupling will give electric cars unlimited range and eliminate the need for a expensive (and heavy) batteries, now key factors in the decision to not buy electric cars. Getting mostly electric cars in the fleet will lead to electrificiation of the busy roads. It will simply be a matter of being able to fund the bus bars along intermittent stretches of the main roads out of the savings that will come from using utility generated electricity instead of gas and diesel (inefficiently) burned on board.

All of these approaches are in need of financial stimulus. Though they will take longer to deploy than Expo, except maybe on-demand ridesharing, but the R&D will lead to self-sustaining enterprises.

Thanks for your interest.


* On-demand ridesharing in LA will suddenly wipe out transit. Average car occupancy nationally is 1.2 persons. In LA, it is probably the same or less. Average bus occupancy in LA is about six people by my own sampling of passing buses. (Note that if you ride buses, your perceived average will tend to be much higher.) Ratio of running cars to buses in LA: about 300 :1 (rough estimate). What is the unused capacity of cars relative to the existing demand for buses? Conclusion: Rapid adoption of car sharing that provides faster and generally more pleasant and desirable journeys than transit will quickly provide manyfold the capacity of the transit (and taxi and airport shuttle) system over a much more extensive and finely grained network. This is a solution that will arise spontaneously in the private sector. However, it could be enormously accelerated by public expenditures that would be a small fraction of the cost of Expo.

** See my Transportation Research Board paper at http://discussit.org/transportation.


Professor Leonard then allowed that I had broadenened her interest and I sent the following to her and her group.

4:21 PM


We don't really want personal vehicles to run on train tracks, a design from the 1820's. Trains come off the tracks, and the emergency stopping distances are poor which is one of the reasons that light rail vehicles have a higher rate of injuring and killing people than any other kind of vehicle. The other reason of course is that they can't steer.

Instead, pretty much all of the post-PRT engineers are proposing some kind of steel beam based support system. Being able to inexpensively elevate their guideway designs is attractive because the grade separation means that the traffic can be free flowing. However, this generally means that the vehicles will only be for personal use and light freight. It simply costs too much to elevate sections intended to carry heavy loads - even though that is what we have at our freeway interchanges. However, the resulting guideway systems would be able to deliver as many vehicles as 16 lane freeways and even passenger loads comparable to busy subways (50,000 persons per hour) right into downtown with about 1/10th the footprint of a road carrying conventional cars. That means they can be put up alongside the big avenues and eventually that many of those lanes could be reclaimed for other outdoor uses. Their energy efficiency should be in the range of 200 MPG-equivalent and they should be quiet. There are other alternatives for wheels besides steel-on-steel and rubber on asphalt. Sticky tires aren't important since emergency braking can be accomplished - much more effectively - by gripping the guideway. Unfortunately, this scenario is still at least ten years away from the start of deployment. Still, now is a good time to start budgeting on the order of $10 million a year to kick off the R&D. The sooner we start, the sooner we'll get there. There are a half dozen entrepreneurs with serious designs. Let's have competitions that begin to sort them out.

Hybrid-electric roadtrains are nearer term still using rubber on road. The public costs of implementing them are within the existing yearly budgets.

But you should find that on-demand ridesharing is the most exciting because it will give non-drivers a brand new and appealing alternative virtually overnight. There's a critical mass problem to overcome in order to get people using the system but once that is achieved, on-demand ridesharing is likely to be one of the most rapidly adopted applications ever.*

mobile: +1 310 751 4336
laptop: +1 (202) 684 6617
skype: bruce_mchenry

* That will be unfortunate for Expo and all Metro. For how long will the city subsidize them when there are no riders left? What will become of all their drivers? How long until there is grass pushing up through Expo's tracks all over again?


Anyone who is interested in following up on my suggestions is encouraged to contact me. In addition to the contact information above, my email address is bruce.mchenry@keyprize.org

all modes of transit?

what about the funicular and the heritage streetcar?

also there's a people mover in Orange County (and a certain monorail :) )

Underselling Transit

"These transit commutes would hardly be comfortable or productive, though they would include all conventional forms of transit available in Los Angeles (there are no trolley buses, inclined planes or ferries in Los Angeles). The morning trip would require 6 transit vehicles, 125 stops and an hour and 10 minutes of walking."

Actually, a transit trip from Cheviot Hills to UC-Irvine taken by a sane person would look like this:

1. Expo Line to Union Station (via transfer to Red Line)- ~45 minutes
2. MetroLink Orange County Line to Tustin: 65 minutes
3. Organge County Bus 471 to UCI campus- 25 minutes

Total: 135 minutes (figures include reasonable allowances for transfer and wait time). 3 vehicles (2 of which are comfortable-ride rail)

Not an ideal trip, but not as ridiculous as the trip suggested by the author of this post. Certainly not out of the question for a trip only taken a few days of the week, especially given that the majority of the trip would be on rail, which is conducive to getting some work done while riding. Im not sure if the author purposefully selected the most cumbersome transit trip possible for his example, or is merely ignorant of the transit system and neglected to do any research.

Author Responds

Dear Jacobean...

Could you please provide the details of a trip from Cheviot Hills to the Irvine campus where the professor must arrive by 7:45AM (time each transit vehicle is boarded, time trip ends, time next transit vehicle is boarded, etc.)

I realize that the Expo line schedule is not yet available, however the time savings between the present bus system and the future light rail line will not be more than 20 minutes.

Thank you.

Wendell Cox

I would be willing to

I would be willing to further examine this hypothetical trip from Cheviot Hills to Irvine if you can provide a compelling argument as to why this example is at all relevant to the merits of the Expo Line.

You've selected an extremely impractical trip (which most transit advocates would even agree is most suited to automobile) to somehow condemn the entire Expo Line as ineffective. What about trips from Cheviot Hills to University of Southern California, which will now be faster, more comfortable, and extremely reliable? Surely many people that make that trip will chose the Expo Line over driving. Do you think more trips originating in Cheviot Hills are destined for Irvine than for USC? I find that unlikely.