Here's How to Improve Mass Transit

A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 30 2013 2:36 PM

The Cheap and Easy Way to Improve Mass Transit  

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Today my local transit agency announced that it will be improving bus service along many routes (routes depicted on map) especially on nights and weekends. 

This is a great idea and a great opportunity to vent my frustration that politicians often seem systematically biased in favor of high visibility construction projects rather than simple and cost-effective enhancements in bus service.

One of the best things about using a few marginal dollars to enhance your night and weekend service is that your city probably already has the buses it needs to do this. All you need to do is hire some more bus drivers to actually drive the buses rather than leaving them in parking lots overnight. A related issue is that it only takes a few extra buses to improve really bad frequencies. Going from "every 30 minutes" to "every 15 minutes" is a gargantuan improvement in service quality. And last but by no means least, because there usually isn't that much traffic congestion on nights and weekends, buses can go quite fast as long as they actually show up.

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Improving prime-time bus service is more challenging. You need new vehicles and you need the political will to do things that alienate car commuters like signal priority or enforcing dedicated lanes. Still, in the grand scheme of things that kind of service improvement is relatively cheap compared to a big construction project. Which isn't to say you should never do a big expensive construction project. But if you can manage to get the money together for giant projects, you ought to also be able to get the money together for relatively cheap low-hanging fruit. If your goal is to improve transportation and not just maximize the number of ribbon-cutting ceremonies, that's really important.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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