Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Optimizing Local Public Transportation

January 29, 2008, 3:15 p.m.

The Press-Citizen reports this morning that the City is thinking of adding a taxi service to supplement the buses. Rachel Gallegos, "City to expand bus service," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 29, 2008.

In the past I've blogged about the duplication in our bus service. Nicholas Johnson, "Rational Economic Thought," October 2 and 3, 2007. ("Face it, all of the 'cities' in this metropolitan area -- Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, University Heights, Tiffin, you name 'em (including the University, a 'city' in its own right) -- don't have a combined population any greater than a large apartment area in one of the world's larger cities. We have an unbelievable duplication of governmental units, bus and other transportation systems, school districts, police and fire departments, and so forth."); and Nicholas Johnson, "Regents Confront Bully, Guns on Campus," July 20, 2007 ("It's bad enough we have our own university bus system in a small community with some six or seven public transportation systems.")

Little has been done about this duplication of bus service -- or other governmental functions -- so far as I'm aware.

But, unlike some of those who've put comments into the Press-Citizen's online story (e.g., "I don't think some of you realize that it's the city's responsibility to provide transportation, food, clothing, shelter and entertainment for everyone. Those of you with jobs must give more so that everyone can have everything.") I recognize that the provision of local transportation systems (in addition to roads and parking garages for those dependent on automobiles) are often (and appropriately, in my judgment) provided by government. Local transportation systems are part of basic infrastructure like water and sewerage systems, gas and electric networks, communications facilities, roads and bridges.

From my perspective the issue is not whether we should have local public transportation systems, it is how such systems can be structured and managed so as to provide the greatest possible service at the most efficient cost. (Of course, duplication becomes an issue as well, as does cost control and the formula for setting of free or reduced cost fares. The duplicative Cambus system, for example, is a free bus service.)

And it is from this perspective that I have long thought there should be a study of a mix of possible conveyances in an integrated system.

Too often I see full-size city buses at odd hours with few to no passengers. Maybe that's the most efficient way to do it. I haven't done the calculations.

Clearly, large buses make sense (intuitively) on routes, and at times, when the passenger load is heaviest: "rush hour." But there are other routes and times when and where they may not.

My vision has been of a 24/7 computer-linked system (not unlike those used by large-urban-to-airport shuttle services) for areas of the community more than two or three blocks from the heaviest traveled bus routes at other than rush hour. Rather than either taxis or big buses, these would be multiple-passenger vans. The vehicles' locations would be tracked by GPS. The addresses of those calling for service would be mapped on the computer. The computer would constantly calculate and instruct the vehicle drivers on the most cost efficient routing for pickups and delivery in an effort to minimize wait and delivery times. Fares would be set (as they are now, presumably, for buses) at a level that balances a "user fee" and subsidy.

There are, of course, many other things we can do to minimize the costs associated with transportation (environmental as well as financial). We can do more to encourage walking and bicycling. We can provide housing closer to workplaces to make that feasible. We can promote the use of electric and hydrogen vehicles. We can increase the availability of satellite parking lots -- with regular public transportation from them to workplace locations (similar to what some rental car companies do at large airports).

But public transportation -- buses (and now supplementary taxis) -- will continue to have a major role to play. In our efforts to minimize duplication, while improving service and cutting costs, smaller and more flexible vehicles -- whether my computer directed system or the City's new taxi service -- can make a major contribution.

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