What is the difference in these two scenarios:

Scenario 1

There is signficant congestion on the main highway in the region.  Thousands of drivers have to spend a frustrating amount of time stuck in traffic.  And the cost is considerable.

Take the number of cars delayed in a day, multiply by the length of the delay and then further multiply by the value of the drivers’ time, and you come up with the cost of congestion. 

For instance, 50,000 drivers delayed by 10 minutes x $15 an hour = $125,000.  In a year of 260 workdays, that’s $32.5 million.  And that number (which is conservative) is used to justifty the capital costs of widening the highway to reduce the congestion.

Scenario 2

The transportation agency in the region is short of resources needed to expand the transit system.  But its political masters are loathe to increase taxes.  And so they demand an audit, determined to address the assumed inefficiencies in the agency before entertaining anything that could be characterized as a tax.

An independent audit is commissioned, and the report confirms that, indeed, there are ways to improve the efficiency of the system.  One way: increase the amount of time between trains on the rapid-transit line.  Another: reduce the frequency of or eliminate low-volume bus routes. 

It works out that 50,000 passengers would be waiting a total of 10 minutes a day – the same as for drivers.  But there is no estimate of the time value – because that value is assumed to be zero.  Actually less than zero.  In this case, delay = efficiency.  The more delay induced, the more savings to the agency, and the less need to raise revenues or build additional capacity.


In these two scenarios, time is treated completely differently.  In one, delay is a cost; in the other, delay is a saving.

Why is this?


  1. Actually, it may be true that transit riders are not as organized as oil producers or new car dealers, but that is not the point.

    You hardly see any organized opposition to transit expenditures. I do not recall ever seeing commentary from the car dealers, the CAPP, or even the truckers associations, criticizing transit expenditures. If anything, such organization support such expenditures, because they know that such things benefit their constituents. Some of them do, however, criticize when road space is to be removed, or road maintenance and expansion spending is proposed to be reduced.

    And the individuals and groups who comment in favour of transit spending are many and vocal.

    The point is that their voices are not equal. Many politicians do not take the lobbying, protesting and pleading of transit advocates seriously, because they are of a different generation. They do not see transit riders as taxpayers and voters, in the same way as drivers.

    But this is changing, of course, as time marches on. Eventually, a younger generation of politicians will be incharge, with different attitudes about who their constituents are.

  2. I wonder whether you’ve seen this:

    The author examines the assumption that speedier roads save time, and concludes that there’s almost no evidence for it. Drivers basically just travel further in the same time, and use greater speed to broaden their access to destinations.

    This, of course, favours investment in transit. People travelling by transit typically take longer to get where they are going than drivers, and actually will reduce their travel time if transit gets faster. (Up to a point—given really fast transit, they too will travel further, rather than shortening their commute time.) Greater speed for drivers, though, consistently results in greater distances travelled, rather than saved time.

    This is not, of course, an answer to your question, which may be slightly too tidy an opposition. Wasted time is not treated as a cost in one case, and a saving in another. It’s regarded as a cost in the case of driving, and used to justify expenditures to reduce it—dubiously, according to the study above. It’s simply ignored in the case of transit, which is not dubious but entirely irrational. If the transit riders’ time is be assigned a value of nil, why have transit at all? Why not tell them to walk?

    Adam Fitch probably has it right, though I’d put a bit more emphasis on the psychology of decision-makers. Virtually all those making big-dollar decisions are affluent professionals in their later years, who drive essentially everywhere, and have done so for decades. They simply have no personal understanding of how non-drivers plan their trips, how they organize their lives around the kind of transportation they use, what their priorities and values are. They can understand the frustration of a traffic jam, because they have experienced it. They cannot understand the frustration of a rainy-day pass-up, because they have not experienced it.

    Of course they have ways of calculating the benefit of this choice versus that choice, and all kinds of design guides. But when it comes to setting broad priorities and trying to reflect the public’s values in policy, they’re bound to go with what they think people want—and that will be an emotional judgment, heavily biased by their own experience.

    To return to the study linked above, though, I’d like to offer another thought. Planners, and especially politicians, talk about transportation investment as though spending needs to be fairly allocated among the different groups of users: motorists, transit riders, cyclists, walkers. Three of those obviously do benefit from investment, but it’s not at all clear that you can actually do anything for motorists. The more you spend on faster roads, the further people drive, and the more likely they are to choose driving over other options for any given trip. So allocating a ‘fair share’ of funding to motoring may be pointless. If money spent on motoring results in essentially no time saving, capital investment should go entirely to other modes, and only maintenance and upkeep funds allocated to motoring.

    Upshot: the planners you discuss have it exactly backward. Time savings for transit users should be considered an economic gain, and used to justify investment. Time savings for motorists are illusory, and should be ignored. That’s no doubt much too simple a view, but it’s better supported than the contrary.

  3. The common perception of public transit by governing elites in North America is that public transit is a form of welfare, provided to those who do not have the means to provide their own transportation. Naturally, the value of time of those who receive any form of welfare is zero and therefore there is no political cost if you require the recipients of said welfare to spend more of their time to access it.

    This perception of public transit is fortunately on the decline across the political spectrum, although a significant fraction of the right wing and libertarian elements of the spectrum continue to hold it. And they are well represented by our current abysmal provincial masters.

    This debate on the role of transit (whether it is a service provided by government to ensure widespread mobility or as a form of welfare to the lower rungs of society) has been playing out for some time. Left wing and centrist minded political elements seem to have embraced the transit-as-service side, sometimes to the detriment of addressing the mobility needs of the aforementioned lower rungs while focusing on pursuing so-called ‘choice riders.’ This may be a desirable outcome but I find it unfortunate that the second assumption of this construction, namely that government and it’s agencies can assign a value of zero to the time expenditures of certain segments of society, continues to hold considerable sway in our world today.

  4. No delays for transit riders don’t count yet congestion pricing factors very large in the justification of a road project.

    Take getting across Surrey with Transit from Kwantlen in Newton to Kwantlen in Cloverdale. It takes 20 minutes to drive it according to Google and 1 hr with Transit. Try going between Langley and Newton and the time goes up to 1.5 hrs.

    Why isn’t this a justification for much higher frequencies for transit and additional bus routes in the South of Fraser?

  5. The Province defense has this to says to Judge Price:
    “We value the time of the transit riders: see all our roads with bus lanes, like the recently built one on Hwy 91 speeding up access to the Canada line, but what is the point to spend provincial money on Transit, when at the other end of the line, CoV is making a mess of the bus system!
    See what is going one with this bus #5. Here, the city owning the street put Zero value on the time of the transit rider, why we should?”

    GM representing COV:
    “Objection, Objection. The Province hypocrisy is beyond belief: Don’t they know there is a foodcart in the middle of Robson? How could we ask it to move, when there is only elders and infirms on the bus, whose could use Handydart anyway? As proof of our good faith, we remind to your honour that The city calls for a subway on Broadway.

    Judge Price:
    “ditto, I call Witness Doherty to the bar”

    Court clerk SR:
    “Mr Doherty is sick: he got a cold lining up for the 99B in the soaking rain at Cambie”

    Judge Price
    “doesn’t there is a bus shelter there?”

    GM representing COV:
    “Nope. we don’t value the waiting time of transit users, Anyway, we know the opinion of Mr Doherty, and we don’t like his bus lanes ideas: They make parking cars more difficult. We proudly claim that under our watch, not only no new transit lanes have been opened,
    but we even made sure the buses go slower on the existing ones, when not outright banning them of using it. But before the Province misrepresent facts, see our nice plan calling for rapid transit everywhere…Hopefully medical science progress will keep your honour alive long enough to see it happens,”

    Judge Price
    “Thanks GM, I call witness Shiffer to the bar”

    Court Clerk SR
    “Mr Schiffer had to left the region after having explained that slowing and messing up transit was not good transit policy. I feel the pain”

    Judge Price
    “ah! Next Witness is Voony”

    Court Clerk SR
    “Voony is trapped in the bus #5: No hope he shows off before the end of the audience, so here is what he has to say in case of you have missed it:
    http://voony.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/block-51-wheres-the-transit/ , he also said that the highway picture is a nice enough one for his blog”

    The Province:
    “Your honour, why put the onus of the bad on us?”

  6. In Scenario 1, the commuter plays an active role in the transportation service – i.e. performing the driving and bearing the operational costs of the service. The commuter is incurring additional costs (gas or car co-op costs) as time rolls on. So in addition to elapsed time due to delay, there is also the additional direct out of pocket operational costs to the commuter.

    In Scenario 2, the commuter is passive in respect of the operation of the transportation service. The commuter pays a fixed fare (independent of time). There is no additional out of pocket operational cost to the commuter arising directly from the delay. That additional cost (increased fuel costs, reduced throughput) is borne by the transit agency and is one step removed from the commuter’s pocketbook.

    The “direct” versus “indirect” impact of delay on out of pocket costs may be a source of differing attidtudes between Scenario 1 and Scenario 2.

    If transit fares were based on time (like a taxi fare or co-op car rental) – then perhaps there may be more pressure from the users of the service and an equal emphasis between scenarios on the weight associated with delays.

  7. “In these two scenarios, time is treated completely differently. In one, delay is a cost; in the other, delay is a saving.”

    To put it another way –
    Scenario 1 – the delay incurred by the commuter is a cost to the operator (the commuter himself/herself).
    Scenario 2 – the delay incurred by the commuter is a saving to the operator (the transit agency).

    The burden or benefit of the delay – from an operational perspective – lands in two different places in the two scenarios – that is why they are different.

  8. There’s a lot more (way more) of the population sitting in their cars being angry at delay and taxes. To them the delay to themselves is a delay. The cost to increase the speed of transit for others (not them) is a cost. Making transit more convenient doesn’t help them. It costs them.

    And that’s the majority of people. Politicians don’t get elected pandering to the minority. They get elected via “populism”. You know, pandering to the majority.

    If you want more money from the majority to fund transit, well you better do it in a way that also (in at least some way) directly benefits them.

    Anything but won’t be very popular….

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