Thought Experiment: The Cost of Multi-modality

Post by Steven Dale

Whether we’re talking about Light Rail, Urban Gondolas, Monorails or PRT systems, I’ve recently begun to hear an argument against multimodal transit systems that I’ve yet to hear before: The cost.

From a transit agency accountant or city finance perspective, multi-modality is nice in principle but incredibly costly to implement.

Let’ s walk through this issue with a simple thought experiment:

Imagine you’re in charge of a 30 year old transit agency in a medium-density, medium-sized American city that’s worked exclusively with a fleet of ~200 buses over those decades. Recent population growth and an infusion of money from the Feds allows you to expand both your service level and coverage.

You have two choices:

Your first choice is to stick with what you know and buy another ~ 50 buses. The buses option isn’t ideal. The curvilinear layout of your road pattern means buses routes will be highly circuitous and indirect, thereby increasing travel times and headways between vehicles.

On the flip side, you’ll only have to hire a handful more mechanics and make a relatively minor expansion to your maintenance and storage yards. You’ve already got all the equipment you need; and well-functioning procedures and processes are already in place. In other words: There’s no learning curve.

The cost savings associated with no learning curve mean you can expand the system to a relatively great degree. But the bus compromise mentioned above suggests your expansion plans will generate only marginally more ridership.

Your second option is to go with a different technology. For the purposes of this thought experiment, it doesn’t matter which. You could go with Light Rail, Gondolas, the CableRailGyroCopter, the Dutch Superbus, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that whatever your technology choice, it will provide a superior level of service to the buses you’ve been running for the past generation. The route alignment will be direct and will likely cause a decent increase in ridership.

The catch is that your agency has no history of dealing with any technology other than bus. That means there’s a learning curve – a steep one.

You need new maintenance facilities, new processes, new drivers, new mechanics, new schedules, new everything. Not to mention all the consultants you’ll have to pay to understand and realize this brave new transit world. After all that, there’s not much money left over to actually build the transit system. That means you’ll only be able to build half as many kilometres of new transit lines than if you went with the simpler bus option.

That situation is further reinforced by the lack of economies of scale you will experience in Operations & Maintenance that will inevitably drive up your per trip cost per rider. Were you to go with bus, your per trip cost per rider would actually decrease due to the economies of scale you would experience upon opting for the first choice.

So which do you opt for?

I currently know of no research that delves into this issue of the cost of multi-modality in public transit, but think it to be a fascinating area that’s worth exploring. If you know of any such research or have any personal/professional experience in this area, please give us your thoughts in the comments below.

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  1. I think it's also important to consider short term and long term effects. These are all short term results, but what will the cablerailgyrocopter or LRT line mean in the future. If you install part of a newer, more direct technology now, and conquer the learning curve today, it will be that much easier to expand tomorrow, plus without the huge learning curve.
  2. Matt the Engineer
    There are other benefits to staying with buses. With more of the same, you have more redundancy. If you need to keep 3 spare vehicles, then you already have these 3 spare buses but you would need to buy 3 new streetcars as spares. If you need an extra 2 drivers on call in case of illness, you now have to have 2 bus drivers on call and 2 streetcar drivers on call. Etc. Something I find interesting in this is that the structure of government can have a lot of influence on this. Seattle's transit authority is run by a county government. The county is huge, so buses make sense almost everywhere except in the city (which only has 1/3 the population of the county). Rather than trying to administer a seperate system for the city, they stick with buses. But San Francisco has a city-based transit system, so it's natural for them to run streetcars. What I'd love to hear more about is what drives cities like Istanbul. They have about every transit system imaginable, and they all work great together. If they chose buses alone they would have failed miserably at movng people around, but they somehow rose above the keep-one-technology mentality and made their city simple to get around in. Last week I was in bus-only Jakarta. Ugh. It takes an hour to get halfway across town, even using their BRT (bus rapid transit) system. Buses are not real mass transit.
  3. But what city of any size isn't already multi-modal just because of it's own history and/or it's own particular geography? Isn't the argument moot?