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Monday, December 3, 2012

Is Columbia a good place for mass transit?

     Recently I listened to a Freakonomics podcast about whether mass transit always has a beneficial impact on our environment.  Does mass transit always have a smaller "carbon footprint" than other modes of transportation?  To summarize the podcast, this is true only in areas with enough density to have high usage of mass transit.  New York City, with its highly used subway system, is an example of just such a place where mass transit is an extremely effective mode of transportation.  But what about places with less population density?  As it turns out the relationship of density to effective mass transit is not always an easy one to determine.  Some mass transit systems in lower density areas are more effective than ones in higher density areas.  One of the factors in the use of mass transit is a community's perception of mass transit.  This was brought home to me when my daughter lived in Atlanta.  Atlanta has some of the worst rush hour traffic congestion in the United States and yet it has a subway system that is underutilized. Being most familiar with the Washington Metro system and its universal usage by almost everyone in the area, I asked my daughter why more people didn't use the Atlanta subway system.  Her answer was that the public perception was that it was only used by poor people who didn't have a car.  The television stations reinforced this perception by frequently reporting on crimes that happened around the subway stations.
    A second factor in the use of mass transit is the proximity of mass transit stops to locations of high density.  Having to drive to a subway stop seems to be a negative factor in the use of mass transit.  If you see the high density housing being built next to the Rhode Island station of the Washington Metro or in Silver Spring you can see how attractive it is to live near a subway station.
    Thirdly, the comprehensiveness of a mass transit system plays a role in its usage.  Comparing the subway systems in New York and Washington to the Baltimore subway shows the importance of comprehensive subway systems.  With the Baltimore's limited system it has never been an effective commuter system for most people to use.  Unless you live in Owings Mills and work at Johns Hopkins Hospital it isn't much of an alternative choice for commuting.
    So finally the question is what could be an effective mass transit system for Columbia?  How effective are our options utilizing Howard Transit?  Are Columbia and other areas of the County served by Howard Transit dense enough for mass transit?  Are their enough car-less people in our area that they have to depend on mass transit?  Are large buses the most efficient vehicle for the ridership in our area?  I think we have all seen large buses with only one or two passengers.  Have you ever seen a Howard Transit bus full or even half full?  I have always had the question of why vans aren't the primary vehicle for our mass transit given the limited usage we have in this area.  How can we feel good about the "carbon foot" of our large buses carrying a couple of riders?  Is Federal and State funding for mass transit limited to large buses?  Given the limited usage of our present system would it not be more efficient to consider something different such as a greater use of para-transit for meeting our mass transit needs?
    These are just some observations from a non-transit person so maybe there are some facts of which I am not aware.  I would be glad to be filled in on that information.

P.S.
    Check out this week's HoCo Library happenings.

P.S. 1


  Looks like the beavers at Lake Elkhorn are busy again.  I saw one swimming around a couple of weeks ago.

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