Better Transit – Flex Vans
THE FLEX VAN SOLUTION
Community Transit could dramatically increase ridership and revenue and greatly improve the quality of service for those who do not own cars.
I am talking about the flex van concept employing CT union drivers: Using UberX technology vans of various sizes would give rides from home to Transit Centers and from Transit Centers home at the end of the day. Many people would gladly pay an extra $2 to $3 each way for this service. With six to ten riders in a van, the service would break even or produce a cash flow.
Our Park and Ride lots are totally maxed out. The freeway buses and Link Light Rail will always be limited successes unless we figure out a way to get riders to and from transit centers.
A flex van system would also help the carless to get where they need to go – to work, to shopping, to church. The system would target those who really need rides instead of offering rides at random to a population which mostly is not accepting the rides offered.
I am asking that this proposal receives due consideration. I am asking that you assign this issue to a committee and that Community Transit make this the subject of a feasibility study.
There is continuing debate over what we could do to alleviate traffic congestion. Writers in the Seattle Times suggest that we preserve what we already have, build bicycle highways, and stop waging war on cars.
Another suggests that we improve our mass transit system, however, no matter how much we spend upgrading mass transit, it will attract more riders only if we make it easier for passengers to get to and from mass transit.
The solution is a flex van system where riders would summon vans through apps on their cell phones or pagers.
The Daily Herald of Everett commented that my flex van proposal was “good”.
Flex vans would pick people up where they are and deliver them to the transit center. Such a system would not have been feasible before pagers, cell phones and smart phones became ubiquitous.
We can see such a system working successfully in the case of UberX. See: www.uber.com. Flex vans would use “fuzzy logic” to pick up and deliver people.
An UberX ride across Lynnwood to the Lynnwood Transit Center would cost around $12. If there were six passengers in a flex van, the cost of transporting a person from home to the Park and Ride would be only $2.
If we implement a flex van system, we would employ more Community Transit drivers, but we would have greater ridership, including greater ridership on the profitable freeway routes, and therefore greater total revenues. People would pay more for such a service. We would not be depreciating million dollar buses by driving them around mostly empty most of the time. Vans could also pick people up if they are waiting at bus stops or if they flag the van down and have a transit card. Flex vans would also give rides to carless people and those who prefer not to drive but are not eligible for DART, which I will discuss below.
See my letter to Governor Inslee and the Department of Transportation.
See reply from DOT.
See Seattle Weekly article on for-profit app-based taxi services, with many or most vehicles operated on a part time basis.
LYNNWOOD PARK AND RIDE
Lynnwood Transit Center has 1,368 parking spaces, but is maxed out by 8 a.m. From most places in Lynnwood it is not easy to get to the Lynnwood Transit Center by bus. Some passengers do get there by bus, some by bicycle, some on foot, and some by being dropped off (at the “kiss and ride”), but most drive to the Transit Center. If they find no parking, most will drive on to their destinations. And so the number of passengers who can be served out of Lynnwood is limited.
Our freeway bus system and later Link Light Rail will always be limited successes unless we figure out a way to get more people to and from the transit centers.
How do we get more riders to and from Park-and-Ride and light rail stations and thereby reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles from roads and freeways? I suggest we implement a flexible and spontaneous van program which would carry commuters from their homes in the morning to the transit centers. At the end of the day the vans would carry them back home. I call these “flex vans”. Flex vans would not drive fixed routes but would pick people up where they are and deliver them to where they are going. Flex vans would solve what I call “the last mile problem”.
The Lynnwood area would be divided into a dozen or so zones, with vans waiting for freeway buses at the transit centers or “orbiting” each neighborhood zone. A van would probably pick you up within ten minutes. Is that too long to wait for a chauffeured (but shared) ride in an energy efficient van?
Community Transit would sell a pass which would include flex van door-to-door service. Through smart phones or pagers, flex van pass holders could summon a ride to grocery, doctor, work, or transit center. We now have the computing power to make a flex van program work.
THE CARLESS AND THOSE WHO PREFER NOT TO DRIVE
The second problem focuses on the carless and those who cannot or prefer not to drive but are not eligible for DART. Community Transit delivers bad service to those who do not own cars or cannot drive or who want to go somewhere on Sunday. Buses are infrequent. Many areas are not served. There is no Sunday service. Some carless people need Sunday service so they can get to work, get to church, or visit friends. The solution again is a flex van system which would pick these people up where they are and deliver them to where they want to go. With four, six, eight, or ten riders on board, a flex van would be more economical that our often mostly empty buses. We could have a hybrid or all-electric system of vans and reduce our carbon emissions. I would urge Sound Transit to charge for parking at transit centers, which would make sense if riders had a better way to get to the transit centers.
The use of big buses which drive fixed routes is a holdover from the days of the trolley. Trolleys cannot vary from their tracks. Flex vans are not so limited.
Flex vans of different sizes would replace buses on all routes where ridership is low and on all bus routes at night where ridership is low. The buses which would not be used for local service on under used routes would be shifted to the freeway, because more people will be using the freeway buses – because more riders will be able to get to and from the transit centers.
In outlying areas and at night, all those buses being driven around mostly empty most of the time would be parked or be converted to freeway use.
For those too poor to own a car and who are completely dependent on public transit, a flex van program would be life changing.
Important: Walking, jogging, and bicycling are other good ways to get to an from transit centers. Read more about bicycling friendly improvements here.
OBJECTIONS TO A FLEX VAN SYSTEM
Some will say that a flex van program would be expensive. I respond: More expensive than what? More expensive than widening the freeways? More expensive than converting every transit center into a multi-story parking garage? More expensive than the wasted hours we spend stuck in traffic? More expensive than most of the buses here in Lynnwood driving around mostly empty most of the time? More expensive than our current transit system, which is subsidized around 80% by our sales taxes? More expensive than driving a single occupancy vehicle, which costs on average around $745 per month to finance, operate, maintain, and insure?
People would buy a flex van pass if it would cost them less than what their cars cost them. They might go back to being – shock – two car families instead of three car familes and save a lot of money. They might go back to being – shock – one car families and save even more money. They might eve become – shock – no-car families and save even more money. They might rent a car from the transit system when they need to go on a trip.
I would suggest that we start charging rent for the privilege of parking at the transit centers. It is a valuable privilege to park on such expensive ground. There are times when people need to park there – when they are in a special hurry, for example, and there should be spaces available for them.
I would suggest that we charged for a flex endorsement on the Orca card, and charge the real value of the service. If the real cost of the door-to-door service is $2, $3, or $4 per direction, that is $4, $6, or $8 per day, the monthy cost would be $86, $129, or $172 per month. If it costs $745 per month to own, operate, finance, and insure a car, then the monthly fees that we would charge for flex van service would be a bargain.
Those would be the standard charges for those able to pay. Those who can afford to pay the real cost should pay the real cost. For those of limited means, there should be a sliding scale, going down to $0 for the unemployed, those earning minimum wage, and those of limited means.
The freeway buses carry so many passengers that they come close to breaking even on a cost versus revenue basis. With flex vans breaking even, the system will come closer to covering its operating costs. That would be a revolutionary concept – a transit system that covers its operating expenses!
This would free up sales tax capacity that could be used to fund Link Light Rail all the way to Paine Field, Everett, and Tacoma. Is it possible to extend Link to Everett without raising the sales tax? Maybe. Maybe we could get to Everett with a smaller sales tax increase – using the flex van concept.
Objection: A flex van program would just add more cars to the roads. If a flex van were driven around empty, it would be adding one car to the roads. If it were carrying one passenger, it would be adding one car to the roads but taking one car off the roads, which would mean it would break even in number of cars on the road. The cost of the driver would be an additional cost. The depreciation of the flex van would be an additional cost, but it would be offset by the fact that the passenger’s car would not be depreciating. The flex van could be an all-electric van, and so it would emit less carbon than a private vehicle which might burn gas and not be warmed up.
If there were four passengers on board, the flex van would be adding one vehicle to the roads but taking three away. This would apply to the freeways as well. With fewer cars on the freeways, the freeways will flow better, and cars will burn less fuel. Those who need to drive will be able to.
Objection: Too few riders will sign up for flex van service. Response: Lower the price until you find a price where a sufficient number of riders will be willing to join. Charge for parking at the transit centers, and give commuters a choice between paying for parking at the transit centers or paying for the flex van.
Objection: Too many riders will sign up. Response: The more riders who use the flex van system, the more financially feasible it becomes. More vans can easily added if there are more riders. Full vans carrying four to ten passengers are more economical than half million dollar buses frequently being driven around mostly empty most of the time.
Conclusion: a flex van system would take more cars off the road than it would add. It would open up roads for those who need to drive. It will bring in more revenues and help reduce the amount by which bus service is subsidized by our sales tax. It will make it feasible to extend light rail north and south without raising the sales tax rate or by raising it less than we would have to others. We will give a lot more for our money.
Some propose that we enact congestion taxes in order to reduce the number of cars on the freeways – the stick method. I say that the carrot is the better approach: Give commuters an option better and cheaper than driving solo.
A flex van system would reduce carbon emissions. Are we serious about reducing carbon emissions, or is this just a phrase that we pander to? What would do more to reduce carbon emissions than to get half of our commuters to leave their single-occupancy vehicles at home?
BUS RAPID TRANSIT
We read in the Seattle Times that bus rapid transit is having problems in Ballard. BRT cannot work if the streets are too crowded with cars for BRT buses to be – rapid. The solution is to make it so easy to use public transit that riders will gladly leave their cars at home, which we can accomplish only by giving commuters what they now get by driving their own cars – door-to-door service.
A flex van system might improve our ferry service. Vans would carry commuters to the ferries. Buses, vans, taxis, and rental cars would be waiting on the other side to carry them on to their destinations. There would be fewer vehicles on the ferries. Long ferry lines could be a thing of the past.
We have thousands of school buses which sit around mostly idle most of the time. Flex vans could be used instead of school buses. Currently our children must walk several blocks and wait in the dark and the rain for buses. Instead, flex vans would pick them up at home in the morning and deliver them home after school. School start times could be adjusted so that flex vans would carry children after carrying workers to the transit centers or to their jobs. School districts would save money; children would travel more safely; parents would worry less.
Objection: Parents might worry about having their children ride with adults. Response: The flex vans that would be carrying children to and from school would be carrying children only. For children in high school, there should be no concern about their riding with adults. All of the adults would be registered and their identities would be known.
WE NEED A COMPREHENSIVE
TRANSIT AND TRANSPORTATION PLAN
A flex van system would attract more ridership than does a system operating only buses – because it would deliver a more complete and comprehensive level of service.
Assume that you live in Lynnwood and have been transferred from the Everett Boeing plant to the Renton Boeing plant. Assume that Point A is your home ; Point B is the Lynnwood Transit Center; Point C is the Renton Transit Center; Point D is the Boeing plant in Renton. Our current transit system does not deliver you from Point A to Point D. It delivers you from Point B to Point C, but it does not get from Point A, your home, to Point B, the transit center. Nor does it get your from Point C, the Renton transit center, to Point D, your destination at Boeing Renton. Our current system offers commuters a fragmented transit service, and that is why most people decline to use it.
Our long-term goal should be to develop a train, bus, van, and rental car system that would provide fast, safe, non-stressful, affordable, and environmentally responsible transportation to most parts of the city, county, and eventually the region, with passengers able to leave their cars at home.
WE NEED A LONG TERM TRANSIT AND TRANSPORTATION PLAN
Washington needs a 50-year transportation and transit plan.We need to envision where transit and transportation can be in 50 years and make sure that everything we build now fits with that long term vision. Transportation improvements we are building now should be pieces which will work with the transportation plan we expect to have in place in fifty years.
Washington has no long-term transit and transportation plan. The current approach is to keep making expansions, adaptations, and adjustments to a flawed plan – instead of changing the plan.
We should get past the belief that we have to “build something” to solve our traffic and transit problems. The freeways and highways are already built. We just have to use them more efficiently than we do now. We jam them up with too many SOVs (single occupancy vehicles) and we max them out to the point where they do not function efficiently.
We do not have a capacity problem. We have a lot of empty seats on a lot of our buses. We have generally three empty seats in the typical single-occupancy vehicles which jam up the freeway.
Afflicted by our any-growth-is-good mentality, we tax the capacity of the system by making more people and more cars to max out the system. Our species has an unconscious and so far unstoppable urge to develop every developable square foot of the planet. There will be 9.0 billion of us by 2050. We are sleepwalking blindly towards ecological catastrophe. We will kill off 75% of the species in the world by simply denying them a place to exist. Our highway expansion program is a tool for furthering the Great Die Off. And most people assume this is fairly inevitable. I do not.
I will give you an example, the debate about whether we should build acres of free parking around transit centers. We have gigantic Park and Ride lots around the area. They are intended as a mechanism for making it easy for drivers to take the bus instead of drive on the freeway during rush hour.
We fail to ask whether there is some alternative to big Park and Ride lots. There is. Subscribe Park and Ride users to a ride sharing program that would pick them up at their front door – in all kinds of weather – and drive them to the Park and Ride. After work the ride sharing program would deliver them back home – to their front door.
All of us now carry smart phones or non-smart phones. A flex van system is more feasible now than ever before.
A transportation utility district would be set up, preferably as part of Sound Transit or Community Transit or Metro, which would deliver door-to-door service. Many people would sell one or two of their two or three cars. Some would go carless. We would be doing something to get us closer to complying with the Kyoto greenhouse gas protocols. Bus routes which carry few people would be discontinued, and they would be replaced with a flex van service which would provide the comprehensive door-to-door service people need.
Door-to-door service would not cost more than our current system. The current transit system is very costly. We pay sales tax to cover around 80% of the operating cost of our bus system. Fare box receipts cover only around 20%. And that does not even cover the cost of buying the equipment. Our current system is frightfully expensive, and it does not take enough vehicles off busy highways and freeways. We are not making enough progress towards meeting the goals set out in the Kyoto Protocols.
I would love it if someone would pick me up and drive me to my destination. I would pay for the service, especially if it meant that I would save the cost of licensing and maintaining one of our two cars.
For further discussion of these possibilities please visit http://comprehensive-transportation.blogspot.com.
TAXIS AND RIDE SHARING
Informal ride sharing – mediated through cell phone apps – is now a big thing throughout the United States, and in Seattle. Apps such as Lyft, Sidecar, and UBERx have become very popular.
Many taxi drivers are switching to UberX. Taxi companies themselves are adopting the UberX system. For taxi drivers the big problem is down time. My taxi driver friends tell me that they can sometimes spend three-quarters of the day just sitting idle waiting for a call. There will always be a place for taxis, because there are times when a person wants a private ride all the way to his or her destination.
Likewise, there will always be a place for UberX, which presumably would offer taxi-like private rides instead of the shared rides which the flex van system would offer.
THIS CONCEPT DESERVES PROPER CONSIDERATION
I am asking Community Transit to give this idea the consideration it deserves. I look forward to meeting with the committee which will be assigned the task to look into this proposal.
James Robert Deal, Lawyer
WSBA Number 8103