Most importantly for the sustainability of transit, what does it cost to mauve a passenger on a transit trip via bus versus streetcar. Both move at about the same speed, mixed with traffic. We can assume the average streetcar trip is the same distance as the average transit trip, at about 5 miles.
The math here is easy. Just take the operations and maintenance budget reported for each transit agency and divide it by the number of trips provided. Both are routinely reported to the FTA and put in a chronological table in the NTD. The twist is that I needed to adjust for inflation, using the standard Consumer Price Index (CPI) to adjust the prices of maintenance. Adjusting the price of transit maintenance by the cost of eggs and shirts is an odd thing to do, but it is more realistic than assuming a 1991 dollar is equal to a 2010 dollar. I wish I had more dats on street car cost of operations to see how the deflation seen over the last 4 years compares with bus inflation over the last 23.
Of the comparisons I’ve run this last month on capacity, energy, and cost, this is actually the most dramatic difference I’ve seen between bus and streetcar. Average operating cost per passenger for streetcar are almost a quarter less than average bus expenses. Maximum bus costs per passenger are off the charts, even above $100 per trip in some years, for some particularly ill-chosen metro bus systems. The minimum bus costs per passenger bump along at less than 50 cents in most years, much less than the minimum for streetcars, at over $1.50.
Hearing about my own transit system’s woes this week, I was struck that the rail transit system was supposed to be entirely self financing. More on that later.
I’ve been reading a piece by Randall O’Toole, which categorically condemns the prospect of transit altogether as an impediment to wider car ownership. He has at least been honest enough to disaggregate transit modes from each other, streetcar form bus, automated guideway from commuter rail. These are all much different modes in terms of their speed, size, headways and expenses. While he was trying to make a general point about the inefficiencies of transit, his numbers made a point about he value of ridership. Transit vehicles are heavier and more expensive than even the largest passenger vans, so the only way to make them more efficient than traffic is to make them better occupied by traffic. This obvious point is missed by many transit agencies in practice, but what can they do? They don’t control land use after all. The purpose of transportation is to get people there on time. The road system does this for traffic by connecting every parking lot to every other parking lot. Transit systems, if they want to compete with this, had better connect more origins to destinations. Not necessarily by more transit, but by more stuff around every transit station. A transit stop or station surrounded by single family homes on quarter acre lots is a tragic waste.