Why we don't take the bus in California

There has been a lot of debate here in California about public transportation since the high speed rail program, thankfully, came to a halt. I say thankfully, because the train was doomed from the start. Firstly it was never going to be high speed rail like they have in Japan or Europe and even  if it was, those require massive government subsidies and have low ridership.

This entire debate over trains made me look at the local smaller scale public transportation options we have, I was prompted by a friend of mine posting a photo of himself taking the bus to work and being the only person on a massive 40 passenger bus. That got me thinking... if no one rides the buses, but the buses keep running how much is that actually costing taxpayers, since one paying passenger does not foot the bill for the other empty 39 seats on the bus, how much of the time are these buses just empty.

So I looked into it, according to a study by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the average bus cost a local transportation authority around $397,913.33 (in 2007 dollars) and when you add in the costs of facility maintenance, drivers, spreading the cost out over the 12 year life cycle average of a bus, you're looking at around $81,159.07 per year (using the FTA 12 year life cycle and Los Angeles area average bus drivers salary). 

Now that cost is the same regardless of if the bus is full or has just one passenger on it. According to the American Public Transportation Association riding public transit saves individuals on average of $9,242 annually. It sounds pretty good, save nearly $10,000 a year! This however is a little misleading because it includes government and union employees who are offered free fares and includes costs for parking in major cities. Plus it was a national survey, including the go anywhere subway system of New York which is far more convenient than any system we have in the California. But the thing I found is that all the numbers of per-mile cost, annual cost, etc... were all based on all 40 seats being occupied all the time by full priced passengers. If you have ever driven around So Cal you will notice that the buses are never full, but why is that. Why are we over building transit systems for citizens and visitors that don't seem to want to use them?

Why don't we take the bus in California? 

Well one of the main issues is time, our public transportation systems are a mess, in Southern California especially. The "Greater L.A. area" the name makes it sound like it would be one cohesive community, but it is made up of five counties, nearly 100 cities with populations over 60,000 residents, and a total population of over 12,872,808 people. So if you live in Riverside County and work in Los Angeles, your commute could have you crossing in and out of four counties, each with their own regional transportation system. While the larger Metro train system does cross over those lines, the train is limited to just a few stops not near where most people live, requiring you to take a bus or a car to get to a station. All of these changes, combined with a lack of express buses or trains means an average commute of 25 mins by car, can take over 3 hours by bus/train.

Now this is where I get people telling me that there is no way that it could take that long to take the bus. I can hear people yelling now as they stomp their Birkenstocks into their sustainable bamboo flooring. "I ride the bus, everyday!" Well I am happy for you, but for the bulk of us it just does not work. In the case of my buddy he walks out to the corner about a mile from his house, jumps on his bus goes about 10 miles down the route, and walks about half mile up to work. It is ideal. But he is the exception not the rule, below are some real commutes and their estimated times driving compared to public transportation. 

My commute around 29 mins, the bus would take over three hours and required me to walk over 2 miles. 
Here is a friends commute, drive 33 mins, public transport 2 hours.

A college student commute, you would think they would have a regional bus stop in the Rancho/Ontario area and an express that went to the College, but no a 26 min drive is over 2 hours by public transport. 

Another common commute of another friend, 28 min drive, 2 hour by bus, train, and walking.

Here is a long distance one, an hour by car or over 3 hours by train/walking. Believe me you really want to walk around Lancaster in the summer.
Average commute times by WNYC shows the Greater Los Angeles area commuter has about a 25 min commute.
Now before you think I am just some bus hating (ask me about my Greyhound story) anti train, right wing, gasoline drinking nut. I like trains... when they work, I have taken buses and trains (not in the US) that were nice, but the problem with the buses and trains in California is that they don't fit into our existing lifestyle. It is the same reason why the Tesla works when other alternative cars failed, because it fits into the way people live today.

If I could pop on a bus or train and be within a 5-10 min walk of my office and it got me there in 20-25 mins I would consider it, but just like everyone else. I am busy, I don't have an extra 6 hours a day to spend sitting on a bus driving around in circles. I know, I know "But you could read on the bus, work on your laptop or iPad and use that time to be productive." Sure and if I did not have a choice I would, but I would much rather sit at home with my wife and read a book or work on my laptop after a 20 mins drive home.

What needs to happen is a radical rethinking of public transportation and what it does and how it fits into the lives of everyday people. Could those tax dollars be better spent on more effective solutions? According to the FTA the average cost of operating a bus per year of $81,159.07 but a monthly pass is only $47 per month per rider for my local Inland Empire bus pass (not counting the discounted senior and student passes). The data is not clear from the Omnitrans (our local bus line) budget report, but out of over 85 million dollars in operating budget just over $15 million is generated from fares and advertising sales, meaning the rest ($70 million) is tax money.

Even though only around 5% of the population uses public transportation, those who do have the highest percentage of long commute times. 

They say that we need these systems for the working poor who have to use public transportation to get to work, but shouldn't we be working on a system that would maximize their productivity? Give them an option to get a second job, work more hours, go back to school, or spend time with their family? With  $70 million dollars in tax money being spent to keep this system on the road every year, and with an average of 50,000 users Omnitrans could just buy each rider a $1,400 used car and give them back 4-6 hours a day.

I know there has to be a better answer for our public transportation needs, but before we give the same group of people that can turn a 20 min drive into a 4 hour ordeal more tax money for bullet trains we should really look into improving the systems we have. If you have ideas on how better to move people around So Cal please post them in the comments.