How Not to Think about Mass Transit

Michael Paul Williams, a feature columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, takes a dim view of a decision by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to discontinue a subsidized bus route between downtown Richmond and Chesterfield Plaza. “Chesterfield, despite its dramatic demographic shifts and an increasing poverty rate, continues to turn a blind eye to residents who don’t own cars due to choice, age, disability or the inability to afford one,” he writes in his column today.

He indicts Chesterfield’s decision without ever revealing (a) how much it costs to maintain the service, (b) how many passengers used the service, or (c) how much the subsidies amount to per passenger, much less asking (d) how such a sum might be spent more beneficially in other ways.

The prospect of such reasoning taking hold in the Richmond region and driving the expenditure of real money should be terrifying in the extreme to anyone who objects to the squandering of tax dollars on symbolic gestures rather than on remedies that actually work. Walk with me through his column and despair.

Williams writes:

The supervisors gutted the budget of the Route 81 Express, creating the ridership decline they used to justify killing it. What exactly did the board expect from a route that offered one round-trip in the morning and a single one-way trip from downtown Richmond to Chesterfield in the afternoon with no stops in between? The board couldn’t have undermined the bus route more effectively if it had let the air out of the tires.

He has a point. Sort of. True, the route structure was idiotic. From Williams’s account, it sounds like the Chesterfield supervisors were trying to provide mass transit on the cheap and the route was doomed to fail. The obvious solution, however, is to pull the plug on the project before wasting any more money — just what the board did. The alternative is to double up on a bad situation, spending money to beef up the schedule or add interconnecting lines in the hope of creating critical mass. But what would such an arrangement look like, how much money would it cost, and how many people would be likely to ride that route? Just how much money does Williams propose throwing at the problem?He doesn’t say. He just wants more.

Williams brushes close to enlightenment when he quotes Jesse W. Smith, Chesterfield’s transportation director: “The county really doesn’t have the density to support traditional bus service.”

Bingo. The rule of thumb is that people are willing to walk 1/4 mile to avail themselves of mass transit. If 500 people live within a 1/4-mile radius of a bus stop, that represents far fewer potential customers than if, say, 2,500 people live within a 1/4-mile radius.  It also matters how walkable the streetscapes are. Are there sidewalks? If so, are they set away from streets with cars whizzing by at 45 miles per hour? When pedestrians cross the street, do they feel like they’re taking their lives into their hands? Is the walk visually interesting or is the view monotonous and undifferentiated?

Chesterfield is the epitome of the autocentric suburb. Given decades of low-density, hop-scotch, pedestrian-unfriendly development, Chesterfield County has a pattern of land use that is totally hostile to walkability and inappropriate for transit. Trying to implant mass transit in such an environment would be like planing a banana tree in Alaska: It can’t possibly thrive.

Chesterfield fully deserves criticism for its horrendous land use decisions, but that is no reason to compound the error by superimposing an unsuitable mass transit system. If Williams would like to spark a useful discussion, he could start by suggesting which transportation corridors might lend themselves to mixed-use development at higher densities that might one day, given sufficient redevelopment, support a bus line at reasonable cost.

“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” Williams then quotes my old friend Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, as saying. Williams summarizes Schwartz as making a point similar to one that I have often made on this blog:

In today’s competitive marketplace for corporations and employees, the suburban office park model of the late 20th Century is fading fast as companies seek to appeal to a millennial workforce that increasingly eschews the automobile and would rather walk, bike or ride mass transit to work. From Charlotte to Phoenix to Denver to Cleveland, “elected officials and business leaders recognize that transit provides a competitive edge,” Schwartz said.

That’s all very true. But it’s also totally irrelevant to Chesterfield. The transit systems he mentions serve areas that have far more people within walking distance of their bus stops than Chesterfield can ever think to have. Buses and Bus Rapid Transit might make sense in Richmond’s urban core (assuming City Council enacts appropriate zoning and invests in walkable streetscapes) but none at all in Chesterfield.

Williams then quotes former Sen. John Watkins, a Republican who represented Chesterfield County, who “was a lonely voice in the wilderness on the need for mass transit” (and who also was a prime mover behind the Rt. 288 corridor that opened up vast new swaths of the county to autocentric development). When he joined the legislature in the 1980s, Watkins observed, Fairfax County was adamant about not wanting buses, “and how they’re the biggest user of transit dollars in the state.”

Here’s the flaw with that comparison: Fairfax County had a population density of 2,862 inhabitants per square mile in 2014; Chesterfield had a population density of 742. Fairfax had nearly four times the population density! Moreover, there are sections of Fairfax that have far higher density than the average, while population in Chesterfield is smeared uniformly across the landscape. Buses make far more economic sense in Fairfax than Chesterfield.

Yes, Chesterfield has made a mess of itself. Yes, Chesterfield has created a land use pattern that makes life difficult for poor people lacking access to automobiles. But, no, compounding one folly with another is not an answer. Chesterfield needs to develop corridors of high-density, mixed-use development capable of supporting mass transit before adding new bus routes. Only then will the cost-benefit ratios look remotely favorable.

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