Buses, Details, and Ideology

There’s a danger, in responding to James Kennedy’s commentary on a 6/10-connector bus lane, of falling into a quibble of details.  For the most part, this isn’t my fight, inasmuch as I’m more ambivalent about a “dedicated bus lane” than is RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse, mainly because I don’t have time to dig into the details.

If I were to try to construct a “conservative case” for the bus lane, as Kennedy has taken as his project, I’d probably flip his narrative and suggest that the selling point is really the possibility of getting buses out of car traffic.  If a boulevard would be less expensive, and if it would be more in keeping with local preferences, and if it would free up land that the government could sell for private development, then getting buses, with their frequent stops, out of the way of cars would mitigate the effect on traffic flow.

In broader economic terms, the efficiency of transportation isn’t just the number of bodies it can move, but the activities that each form can and will enable, and the dynamism and freedom enabled by personal motor vehicles is a large benefit for rigidly scheduled public transportation to overcome.

From a position of ambivalence, though, the details are critical, so when Kennedy writes…

A bus is capable of carrying as many as 80 people in the space of two cars. That’s a 40-to-1 space advantage.

… I have to question his math.  He’s assuming that all buses run at maximum capacity while all cars run at minimum capacity.  If we look at minimum capacities (i.e., drivers only), the bus is half as efficient — actually worse, because the bus driver isn’t really going anywhere.  If we look at maximum capacities, the bus’s efficiency is only eight times greater.  And that’s if we only look at a limited stretch of road, without considering the rest of passengers’ trips.  Even within his essay, Kennedy alludes to additional expenses and inefficiencies in order to get people to the bus stop.

This relates to a larger conceptual quibble I feel compelled to make.  When arguing how much more efficient busing could be than it is, Kennedy focuses on a Woonsocket-Providence run, and says it would help to get legislators out of the mix and stop making so many stops, to draw more riders for a quicker trip from the main hubs.  But when talking about the benefits of a 6/10 bus lane, he highlights the many stops it could make running through an urban area.  These are parts of different arguments.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that the case for a particular bus-related project can’t be assessed in its ideal or handled as a theoretical discussion of the value of public transportation.  A single bus lane, or a single bus, isn’t some distinct project; it’s part of a system that inherently includes the challenges of getting people to their stops, dealing with political imposition of inefficiencies, addressing labor unions’ tactics for ensuring that their members never actually become less expensive for taxpayers, and so on.

Of course, there’s also the matter of data.  I notice that Kennedy doesn’t make reference to current ridership in the 6/10 area.  If every bus in the area is running to capacity, then coming up with a solution to increase capacity without affecting car traffic would have a “conservative case.”

The reality is, though, that a progressive governing system, like we have in Rhode Island, will tend to swamp just about any reasonable considerations for something like a dedicated bus lane.  Nothing can be expected to become more efficient, because progressives give influence to special interests that are self-concerned and that profit from inefficiency.

As our recurring theme goes, around here:  Freedom first. Growth first.  Reform first.  Putting government projects and services first only reinforces the corrupt system that we have.

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