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SpyOne
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One big problem with the "if your bus was late to pick you up, you don't pay the fare" issue is it addresses only one kind of late: if the bus takes longer than it should to get me to my destination, I am just as late but I already paid my fare. And amen to Pantheon: the typical reaction to any penalty for late transit will be the agency's putting unreasonable slack into the system to prevent late arrivals. Like if you punish the airlines for flights that arrive late, they could just add an hour to the predicted length of all their flights and they'd almost always be early. Stupid may not be limitless, but it runs pretty deep.
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I don't think that zero-car households is a good barometer for what we really want to achieve. There are things that a car is useful for where transit really is not, and not ever going to be. It in no way threatens a good transit-centric city if the people who live there want to own cars. It is much more about how much people USE cars, not how much they OWN them. It is, in fact, a victory when someone decides to keep a car in a garage out at the edge of the city for a weekly trip into the surrounding rural area to visit a relative, but to use transit to get to and from their car as well as to and from work, shopping, and entertainment. Although it is also a victory when someone realizes that the amount they are paying in insurance, maintenance, and taxes makes no sense given how infrequently they actually use their car.
Toggle Commented Jan 21, 2010 on three paths to a low-car city at Human Transit
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Somebody wrote to Cecil at The Straight Dope about this very issue. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2917/is-mass-transit-a-waste-of-energy The Straight Dope is a Chicago-based syndicated newspaper column where the premise is you can ask any question at all and get an answer direct from Cecil (who "knows everything") or from an expert in the field. Any question at all. "How long would the power stay on if we all turned into zombies?" "Why did the Beatles break up?" "Did Thomas Jefferson smoke pot?" And today, "Is mass transit a waste of energy?"
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Alon said, "In addition, cars today last longer than they did in 1970, so there's less depreciation. A Honda Civic costs about the same today as a Ford Pinto did in 1970 relative to average income, but it will last twice as long." I couldn't disagree more. Cars today are designed to be disposable, like Bic lighters. Most cars made in the last 20 years are junk within 10 years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the past buying a 30 year old used car was not bizarre. (Those anecdotes would include that my oldest brother's first car was 30 years old (a 1948 Chevy in 1976 for $100) and the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" was about a 1932 Ford and written in the 1960s.) Of all the cars I have owned, the newest was 9 years old when I got it and the oldest was 23, and I can honestly say that the cars are getting progressively worse at surviving wear-and-tear: a 1970 Dodge Dart wasn't really broken in until it had passed 150,000 miles, while the early 80s Reliants were famous for suffering fatal engine malfunctions beween 70 and 110,000 miles. My 23 year old 1974 Toyota was still solid, but my 10 year old 1989 Honda CRX had trim parts that had actually started to dissolve and the driver's seat was worn through to the metal. Modern cars have longer warranties, but really seem designed to go directly to the junkyard when the warranty expires, whereas a 1960s American car was designed to pass through several owners during its useful life, each driving it for several years and for thousands of miles.
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Pantheon, you missed the one important assault on personal automobiles that's already underway: purchase price. In 1970, a Ford Pinto could be bought for a bit over 1100 hours work at minimum wage, or 28 weeks at full time (40 hours a week). A High School kid working 20 hours a week could save enough to buy a new car in a bit over a year, and he wouldn't be financing that car, he'd be paying cash for it. Today, 28 weeks at 40 hours a week at minimum wage comes to ... $8120. Can you buy a brand new car for under $9000? (this point was a bit more obvious a few years ago, when 28 weeks at 40 hours a week came to under $6000). As cars become more expensive, they become inaccessible to a larger portion of the population. Add to that expenses of owning and operating a car (in 1970, an hour at minimum wage bought 5 gallons of gas, these days more like 2 or 3), and a minimum wage worker really can't afford a car. (And if you think "Well, cars get much better mileage today so 3 gallons today will go as far as 5 gallons in 1970", that Pinto got 25mpg city so it would get 125 miles on 5 gallons, compared to a new Chevy Cobalt (a $15,000 car) that seems to get about 30mpg (the manufacturer only wants to tell me the highway mileage) which works out to 90 miles on 3 gallons. So even if he has a car, today's minimum wage worker cannot go as far for a hour's pay as one in 1970 could.) Sorry if I got a bit ranty, but when I was a child and my brothers were buying their first cars, a good used car could be had for 2 weeks pay at minimum wage, and by the time I was buying a car they cost 5 times that. (Today 2 weeks at minimum wage gets you $580.)
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There is another tool besides tolls and congestion pricing that cities can use to encourage transit use, and I believe Seattle is already using it: parking. I had heard that Seattle had some very high parking fees, but I decided to look for some proof online. I didn't find any specific proof, but I did learn that on-street parking goes for $2.50 an hour. Some neighborhoods have non-metered on-street parking, but these are limited to 2 hours or so unless you reside there ($45 per year for a vehicle sticker exempting from the time limit on a specific block). I could find nothing about city-owned parking lots or garages. Private lots I could find rates for charge about $6 an hour. The figure I had heard a few years ago was $10 a day to park downtown. I found a few references to validation, but all of them pertained to short shopping trips, so that is of little help to a commuter. At a site called "Virtual Tourist" that seems to be a collection of user-contributed comments to help tourists, on a page titled "Parking - Seattle Warnings", I found this comment, "The best way to park in Seattle is to find free or cheap parking and then take an inner city bus to your destination." So, this poster's advice to how to park in downtown Seattle is "don't", or more completely "leave your car somewhere safe and cheap, and take the bus around the city." One would assume residents have learned this trick already. I had also heard that Seattle used money from municipal parking fees to help fund their transit, which sounds like a dandy idea. Now, I'm still in the realm of rumor and conjecture here. I would welcome comments from Seattle residents about their experience, or even just from someone who's google-fu is superior to mine who could share some links. But even if everything I've heard about Seattle is false, I think the principle still holds: make it expensive to park downtown, then offer a decent public transit service to (and around) downtown, and folks will flock to transit and leave their cars at home (or in convenient park-and-ride lots).
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Jan 4, 2010