As I return from a trip to San Francisco, I reflect on how different my transportation needs and experience are between there and my home base in Columbia, South Carolina. This was the second of two work-related trips this year, and was a relatively long one of two weeks. During that time, including vehicular weekend trips, probably 70% of my segments were on mass transit, while during any period of time back home, none are. I find it strange, especially given that I grew up in with mass-transit as my default mode of transportation from childhood through high school, that my behavior is so incongruous.

This is a common conundrum for many transit planners across the Southeast, and one with which I empathize. Given my upbringing, why don’t I take transit more? At the same time, as I observe our local buses, I generously estimate most of them operate at less than 10% capacity: I’m clearly not the only one. So, I thought I’d deliberately walk through the mental calculus I’ve gone through in the past to see if I could figure out what it would take.

Time-To-Destination & Frequency

The first challenge for public transportation in addressing my needs is my own proximity. At less than four miles from my home to work, my 95th percentile commute time is 15 minutes door-to-door, even at peak rush hour. Given that there are no busing lanes or prioritization, the necessary stops taken by my local bus is at least 25 minutes.

That alone doesn’t give me much pause: there are clear advantages to a 25 minute trip working or reading compared to 15 minutes of engaged driving.  The problem occurs when that difference is exacerbated due to frequency.

At best, the bus to my neighborhood arrives every 30 minutes and falls off to one hour outside key commuting times. As someone who regularly works ‘outside the norm’, I now have a +/- 30 minutes opportunity cost at the best of times (15 minutes average from ideal departure time each way), with a frequent opportunity cost of 60 minutes.

So in that calculation alone, we’re looking at a 10 minute fixed cost plus a 30 minute variable cost. This problem become compounded when I need to make a meeting that’s not in walking distance of my office, assuming the 30 minute transit interval gets me to my destination at time reasonable close to the meeting.

…and so?

Given my travel schedule, I’m not the ideal commuter, nor one that an urban transportation planner should aim for. At the same time, I don’t think my thought process is far off for most of the travelers who have a more ‘traditional’ commuting habit to the same place of work each day. The problems may be strategic and fixable (route mapping, marketing, and partnerships with high-density developments and employers) or more societal and intractable (like urban density, which maxes out at about 4700 persons/square mile in my mid-size city while many areas of the Bay area contain of densities of 10,000+).  Regardless, I’d welcome any efforts to get me out of my car.

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