Transit systems struggle because of low population density? Because rich people don’t use transit?

Is Silicon Valley’s mass transit system underfunded because the population density is too low, or because rich people don’t take mass transit?  Last week I posted a couple items about the Google Buses – generally speaking, the privately operated bus systems run by several Tech Companies in the SF Bay Area – that are used to bypass a dysfunctional mass transit system, and get employees to work regardless of how far they live from the office.

The issue is that several Tech companies in Silicon Valley have set up private buses as a benefit to their employees, that also lets the Tech companies claim some Green Cred by helping their employees avoid driving to work.  The idea is interesting and has several benefits, but it acts to undermine the publicly owned mass transit systems by starving them of riders.  See here and here for my previous coverage.

Partly the reason the tech companies do this is because the SF Bay Area mass transit system sucks.  A complicating factor is that their offices are not close to mass transit backbone services (BART and Caltrain), nor are there good feeder systems between BART or Caltrain and most of the office parks.  Someone wishing to use mass transit to get to work most often faces a last two miles problem of how do you get from the train station to the office when the bus system sucks?

Embarq has just released a study on the Social, Environmental, and Economic Impacts of BRT systems.

BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit, is similar to a light rail system in that buses have a dedicated lane, and run frequently, but are implemented using normal buses running on rubber wheels.  It lets a city build a fast mass transit system on regular streets rather than having to build a dedicated infrastructure.

One thing found in the study is that it primarily benefits low- and middle-class riders.  The ultra-poor cannot afford a BRT ride, and the rich simply don’t see the need to take transit at all.

It raises a question – if the rich don’t ride mass transit, are they ignorant of the need for mass transit and then make decisions as if mass transit doesn’t exist?

More importantly, it is largely the rich people who write the checks that fund politicians coffers.  Since they largely don’t use transit systems, their political donations are unlikely to be tied to requests for transit system improvements.

And, let’s face it, the rich have more clout in influencing government decisions than do the rest of us.

Over on Salon.com is a great analysis of this idea.  One of the core points is that richer people can afford cars, can afford to drive all the time, and are more likely to drive, or be driven, everywhere.  When someone whose idea of normalcy is to drive gets into political office, or tries to influence politicians, it’ll be from the standpoint that the correct method of travel is to drive.

But there are plenty of reasons to support anti-driving policies, rather to support policies that favor pedestrians, bicyclists, and mass transit.  These include land use, grid lock, and avoiding the sedentary lifestyle that causes the obesity epidemic.  Cars, and their parking spots, take up much more room in parking lots and highways than do bicyclists, pedestrians, or transit users.

An example in the Salon article is New York, and specifically New York City.  It’s a dense city with lots of people relying on mass transit completely, and there are stereotypical Manhattanites who don’t even own a car and never drive.  But the outgoing Mayor is a Billionaire, the incoming Mayor is a Driver, and the Governor is a Driver, and the transit system is struggling from neglect.

Back here in Silicon Valley, it was a conscious choice for several decades to build at low population densities, and office buildings that are 1-2 stories high.  They were afraid of becoming a Manhattan.  But what happened is Sprawl, and long commutes with clogged highways.

Another thing which happened is the high speed transit lines in Silicon Valley largely do not connect well with either housing or office areas.  It seems the problem here is low population density, but there is a large segment of the culture that’s well paid tech workers who can certainly afford cars, and very expensive ones at that, and hardly think about the transit system.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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