By Jarrett Walker, February 6, 2014
How important is it that mass transit run all the time — midday,
evenings, and weekends? In places like San Francisco or Manhattan,
all-day service is obviously essential. In low-density suburbs 40 miles
away, it's equally obvious that transit's main role is the rush-hour
But as wealth moves into urban cores and lower-income people are pushed out to suburbs,
the needs for transit are changing faster than our transit politics.
All-day, all-week mass transit is becoming an urgent need not just in
the core, where it supports diverse and sustainable low-car lifestyles,
but also across a suburbia where travel needs are no longer strictly
In most cities, the case for abundant all-day, all-week transit goes like this:
1. Opportunity. Financially stressed people —
especially students and service-sector workers — are rushing around all
day, trying to get to jobs, training, and daycare. Their days are full
of deadlines, and not just at rush hour. An all-day, all-week transit
system gives these people opportunities, including access to a greater
range of jobs, without burdening them with the cost of owning a car for
every adult in the household.
2. The "guaranteed ride home." Peak-only services are
risky. You can get trapped if you have to work late or leave early, so
peak commuters value service at other times, too, even if they never use
it. What's more, you won't use transit to get there unless you're sure
you can get back, so the ridership at various times of day is
interrelated. An empty evening bus is just a piece of an all-day
offering whose availability throughout the day may be the real cause of
3. Bang for buck. Peak-only service is expensive: it
governs the size of an agency's fleet and maintenance facilities, and it
creates awkwardly short driver shifts with high overhead costs. One-way
express runs also require a driver to be paid to travel in the
reverse-peak direction for every peak-direction trip, because work
shifts must start where they began. That's why, for most regional
agencies, the service with the lowest subsidy per passenger is frequent
all-day service in busy areas, not peak-only service. Half-empty buses
and trains at noon can be much more cost-effective than crowded buses at
5 p.m., especially if the latter are running long distances with
passengers in only one direction.
4. Sustainability. Finally, of course, if a city wants
to evolve into a more sustainable place with less reliance on cars,
then quality transit must be running all the time. The high cost of life
in places with excellent all-day transit is the clearest signal that
such transit is a good investment that builds value.
With all those arguments behind all-day service, why does it often seem
to be hanging by a thread? Why, when an agency must cut service, does
it feel pressure to devastate midday and late-night service instead of
cutting more evenly across the day? Why is the peak service often
protected from cuts despite what is often a high subsidy per rider?
Nobody proposes abandoning peak commuters, but as cities grow, and grow
more dense, all-day transit demand almost always rises faster than peak
demand, so peak-only service declines as a share of the whole. At some
point, this requires a conscious paradigm shift for a transit agency —
from "we're a commute agency that runs some midday service" to "we're an
all-day agency that runs extra service on the peak."
Commuter rail lines, whose business model is predicated on peak-first
thinking, can be especially resistant. An interesting trend of the next
decade will be the effort to reinvent the inner-urban portions of
commuter rail lines as two-way, all-day frequent rapid-transit services.
This will require new thinking from managements, unions, railway
regulators, and policymakers who are all used to focusing only on the
peak commuter. But as the London Overground and Crossrail are proving,
it makes no sense for such valuable rails to be left underused where the
all-day demand is so high.
But the most interesting barriers to all-day service arise through our
transit decision-making process, especially transit agencies' eagerness
to respond to public comments. It takes time to understand and comment
on a transit issue, or to plug into an advocacy group, so it's almost a
tautology that transit agencies hear disproportionately from time-rich
people, such as seniors and the non-working disabled, rather than from
busy people. All-day frequent transit can be very successful, but the
people who benefit most rarely speak up to demand it. They're too busy.
The more challenging problem is false polarization. Frequent
all-day service helps a diverse range of people who aren't necessarily
used to agreeing with each other. Much of America's polarizing rhetoric
around income, for example, is designed to make both wealthy and poor
people believe that if the other side is gaining, their side must be
losing. So it's hard to sell them things that benefit them both, as a
robust all-day transit system does.
A commuter stands on a train platform waiting for a subway train.
For example, busy low-income people can benefit either from lower fares
or from increased service that saves time in their lives. A lower fare,
though, is a targeted benefit for low-income people, while improved
service benefits both them and others. So when a low-income advocacy
group pushes for lower fares instead of more useful service, the group is insisting on something that benefits only them, rather than something that benefits them and others.
At the other end of the wealth spectrum, every transit agency hears
from developers and their advocates who want special transit service for
their development, often because they located in a place where
cost-effective transit is impossible. They value only transit
expenditures that are specifically for them, not caring what this does
to the city or transit network as a whole.
All of these self-interested postures are at war with the most
fundamental fact about transit: it thrives on diversity. Where transit
is at its strongest, as in San Francisco or Manhattan, you see the
diversity of the city on the bus or subway, including the diversity of
incomes. Those networks transcend individual interests because they are
so broadly useful.
For transit to succeed, transit managers must look beyond everyone's
self-interested demands and find the patterns — like lattices of all-day
— that make transit the most useful to the most people. In the end, the
volume and diversity of all-day ridership show this to be the best way
to forge permanently successful service, the kind of service you can
build a city around.
But that kind of network doesn't look like what any one interest group would design for itself. Will anyone speak up for it?