Transit’s Two Solitudes: “Choice” vs. “Captive” Riders (2009)

Transit’s Two Solitudes: “Choice” vs. “Captive” Riders
Chris Bradshaw, October 31, 2009 (written for Ottawa Transit Journal, accepted but not published)

It was while attending the second annual car-free cities conference in Toronto in 1992 that I first heard the terms above.  The terms are used by the transit industry to bifurcating their customer base.  Those who ride transit, but who have a car available were considered “choice” riders, since they had a choice between driving and transit; while the rest were “captive” to transit.  The speaker, Eric Mann of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an anti-poverty project, has since gone on to rattle his city’s metropolitan transit authority (MTA) by getting a federal court order in 1998 to end discrimination against ‘persons of colour’ who tend to rely on the more traditional bus system that runs on main streets, rather than the  newer – and very expensive – light-rail, bus rapid transit, and subway lines that connect the far suburbs with the city core.

The dichotomy explained my own experience in Ottawa.  My suburban period involved commuting by express by from Blackburn Hamlet.  It was good service and reasonable in cost.  It allowed me to leave our single car for my stay-at-home wife.  In 1981 when we moved to downtown, I switched my commuting to cycling initially, and then to walking.  We still had a car, although it was driven fewer kilometres.  I used the bus enough to realize that service downtown was poorer, the shorter rides overpriced.  Outside of rush hour, the clientèle was quite different: seniors, mothers with young children, disabled, and students.  Only when we retired in 1995 did we get rid of the car.  The car-free experiment proved a bit tight; and in 2000 we co-founded Vrtucar.  In 2007, concerned about my future travel options, I joined the Ottawa Seniors Transportation Committee.

Short History of Transit

In the middle of the last century, North American cities were experiencing a decline in transit systems, thanks to the many people buying cars and to th transit governance regime that allowed local government to prevent fare hikes.  The transit company owners were caught in a vice, and stopped expanding into newer areas or replacing their older trolleys.  The answer for the operators was simple: get what they could from the only available buyer – municipalities.  Municipalities, in turn, justified their acquisition as a service for those without cars.  The idea of transit being for the car-deprived, or “transit-captive,” began.

The other patronage group arose because of the intervention of municipal transportation engineers.  They had a problem they want to download onto transit: rush-hour congestion.  If the transit authority extended the newer bus routes further out, couldn’t they attract sizeable numbers of folks with cars to them?  At that time, the vast majority of urban jobs were in the core (now fewer than 25%), and commuter had to pay for parking.  But how do you get people with cars into buses?  You had to make sure the service was reasonably priced, rapid, and pleasant.  There was a downside for transit: it would be attracting a very large group of fussy riders who would create “rush-hour” for the transit company, requiring many additional buses and drivers, both of whom would sit idle for most of the agency’s service week.

The peak-hour-only “express” buses first were routed along the fastest routes available.  Later new freeways were used.  Although these were faster than arterials, they still shared the car’s congestion.  The ultimate solution has been to replace road sharing with separate rights-of-way: either transitways (as Ottawa has done, now copied around the world as BRT, or bus rapid transit) or rail lines, which have become more popular in North America for its more comfortable ride, despite the need to transfer more.  Ottawa council has recently endorsed a $6-billion, 25-year plan to convert the bus way system to light-rail, and separate the parts of the system with shared roads: downtown (tunnel) and Western Parkway (still being negotiated with the NCC).

Less effort was made to attract the growing proportion of suburbanites who commuted to jobs elsewhere, even though roads that skirt the urban area also get congested.  The difference is that these latter roads are easier to expand, thanks to less dense adjacent development, deeper setbacks, and foresight by city planners to reserve rights-of-way (at developers’ expense) wide enough for later expansion.  Contrast this with roads radiating from the city core: fronted by expensive and dense commercial, institutional, and residential developments.

Another difference between suburban and downtown jobs was parking.  Downtown never had enough of it, and offices and stores didn’t generally have any available (or what was available was for customers).  Although some older buildings were demolished and converted to parking lots, the supply and higher land values never allowed parking to become free.

Captive vs. Choice Riders

One of the clearest implication of the choice-captive dichotomy has to do with “elasticities” in demand, that choice riders would leave transit more quickly in the face of higher fares or poorer service than captive riders.  However, a paper from the U.S. Transportation Research Board concluded: “It was found that traditional models underestimate the variation in mode choice for captive users, while overestimating the attractiveness of transit for choice users”

Although these were considered industry jargon, they were used in public reports, such as a 2005 OC Transpo report on downtown transit congestion.  I searched other literature, and although I found use of the terms with the meaning I have ascribed to them, I didn’t find much suggesting that they resulted in different service or treatment.  It appeared not to be a class thing.  Yes, the terms carried a connotation that “choice” riders would be treated better than “captives,” consistent with my anecdotal experience.  But what about systemic differences?

First, the two kinds of riders don’t use the service at the same time.  In general, choice riders ride at rush-hour, while captives mostly don’t use it for commuting and thus ride mid-day, evenings, and weekends (those captives with jobs either commute centrally, but on older routes, or to suburbs in the opposite direction – called “reverse-commutes” by the industry).

Second, the quality of the service is also different.  Movement by transit in the parts of town where people without cars tend to live is by routes 1-18, which don’t use the transitway.  Their stops are closer together, travel is slower (although more direct than many suburban services negotiating “spaghetti” road patterns that prevent through traffic and confuse non-residents).  With main roads closer to each other, walking distances are reduced and route choice is better.  The shorter walking distances are important to captives who have lower stamina and walking challenges.  Also, bus frequency doesn’t fall off as much in evenings and on Sundays as much as their suburban counterparts, thanks to the density of patronage.  That is bad for captives in the suburbs.  Also, stops and stations out there are more isolated, where there are fewer “eyes on the street.”

Third, routes on the transitway used primarily by choice riders are more frequent, and routes go further before transfers are required.  Even as OC Transpo adopts the ‘hub-and-spoke’ system, as a prelude to shifting the system to light-rail, the type of service in the suburbs will involve longer rides and faster speeds.  The way “services” (shopping, municipal services, doctors’ offices) are clustered is different: in older “pre-automobile” parts of the city are fully mixed along main streets linearly, while the most shopping is grouped into malls (excluding food stores), and others are spread around indiscriminately.  Unless one’s destination is one of these nodes or unless one lives within walking distance of one, service there will involve transfers.

Finally, there is the fare system.  Although the fare system is ignores the choice-captive dichotomy, it affects the two groups differently (besides the obvious one that captives are generally poorer and have more difficulty in finding the money to pay fares or buy passes).

1.    Ottawa has stuck with flat fares, rather than a system that charges by distance, which better distributes OC Transpo’s time costs (bus capital and driver salary/benefits) and distance costs (diesel fuel and maintenance costs) to the respective users.  This is usually done with a zone system, but that is hard to monitor.
2.    It also doesn’t charge extra for peak-hour service, which choice riders use exclusively.  Although an extra fare is charged for a few longer express routes, this is for the expedited service, not time of day or distance primarily.
3.    Another element in the fare system is the high premium for cash fares.  It has dropped slightly from a 50% surcharge to 30.5% in mid-year.  This surcharge, I suspect, catches more captive than choice riders.
4.    Some captive rides get special fares: seniors get free Wednesdays (just instituted) and monthly passes at over 60% off, but they pay the same for single rides.  Children under 6 ride free, while those under 12 ride for half-fare.
5.    The 90-minute unlimited boardings that come with a (free) transfer is another plus for captive riders who tend to take shorter rides and spend less time at destinations, thus increasing the chance of doing a two-way trip on a single fare.
6.    A final element is the unlimited-use monthly passes.  They are clearly priced with the daily commuters in mind.  First, they are priced to give commuters a volume discount for their $84.75 (the break-even point is 36 single fares. vs. 38-42 for a month of work trips). Second,  commuters are more likely to know in advance that they will travel enough to buy one and  have enough money at one time to pay in advance.  The car-less working poor might get the most use from a monthly pass, but their jobs tend to be less permanent (the same factors working against them investing in a car).

OC Transpo’s fare system ignores the extra costs the choice riders impose: a) the longer average rides,  b) the small 10 percent of the service week when they occur, and c) the one-way direction of the rides, requiring buses to travel empty for more kilometres than in-service.  There are some offsetting costs for certain transit-captives, but these costs are less than if those riders switched to paratransit.  Even those who don’t switch could represent higher costs if they fall on buses or during boardings, or if they claim discrimination under Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabled Act is in place.

Conclusion:

I find the captive-choice dichotomy is problematic, and reflects out-of-date thinking.

1.    Captives have more choices that the language suggests, and choice rides have fewer.  Catpives actively consider and use walking and ridesharing.  Many use cycling, even though the City infrastructure for this is wanting.  Some also use taxis.  Further, captives are more likely to live close to the services they would otherwise need to drive to.  (www.walkscore.com rates all addresses in North America for walkability and ‘location-efficiency’.)
2.    Most ‘choice’ riders are avoiding paying parking fees in the city centre and its surrounding areas, as well as at  university/college and health campuses.  “At the work end of the trip, parking pricing is an important factor in the behavior of choice riders. The cost and availability of parking directly affect many riders’ interest in transit.”
3.    Carpooling (or ridesharing) is a choice, but in Ottawa, it is a fairly weak one.  This is partly due to the lack of perks carpoolers receive (e.g., access to transit lanes, or free parking). As a result, most are “fam pools” in which one spouse, who works near to expensive parking, is driven to work by the other spouse who works where parking is provided free or very cheaply by the employer.

The saddest outcome of the captive-choice dichotomy is that the strategy it reflects provides just enough transit to justify large rapid-transit schemes, but too little to allow most households to use it for non-work trips (85 percent).  A much better way of looking at riders is to reverse the current thinking and find an single ideal transportation identity for citizens.  That requires first accepting the Green Transportation Hierarchy.  That Hierarchy accepts walking as the mode to be favoured most, followed by cycling, then transit, and finally by driving.

There are signs of significant change in the air.  Oil is running out and getting more expensive.  Climate change is a major guilt factor.  Driving is getting more expensive, and rules banning activities which distract (hand-held cellphones) serve to remind young people and those commuting with a laptop that driving time is not productive.  And, younger people find time walking and using transit to be more productive and pleasant than time behind a wheel.

But the growing masses of seniors are lurking out there, too.  They share the distinction, with young people, as being the most accident-prone of drivers, although they compensate by driving less and avoiding darkness and congestion.  It is for the safety of all they they have more travel choice.  The challenge is to improve transit so it is equal in “independence” to having a car. An innovative seniors driving network is being developed by Portland (ME)-based Independent Transportation Network (www.itnamerica.org), which is testing its model in Edmonton.

To get even more people to abandon car-ownership, we should co-promote transit with carsharing  (Vrtucar sells a package of membership and annual OC Transpo pass).  Another good move would be to move to smart transportation cards, allowing graduated fares to be implemented.

Finally, to get a more level playing field between driving and transit, all levels of government need to introduce various user charges – CO2, road-costs, tolls, and congestion fees. The subsidies for transit are significant, but far less than the “free ride” drivers get.  With these innovations, transit would be able, I believe, to operate without subsidies, thanks to the combination of more riders, reduced ownership, and graduated fares via smart cards. With carsharing using the same card and expanding into suburbia, the card would be a “car on a card.”

Society has justified the massive expenses to accommodate the automobile, even when few owned one, by the quip “There are two kinds of people: those who have a car and those who wish they did.” With the steps I have suggested, we will turn that around with “There are two kinds of people; those who can live without a car, and those who wish they could.”

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