Column: Higher bus fares would reduce ridership, increase use of cars
Oahu’s traffic is a classic case of a collective action problem. Everyone hates traffic, but almost everyone contributes by driving, often alone.
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Oahu’s traffic is a classic case of a collective action problem. Everyone hates traffic, but almost everyone contributes by driving, often alone. All of our lives would be better with viable alternatives, but no one wants to be first.
Most of us are not willing to use alternative forms of transportation like riding the bus, or cycling, because those alternatives do not seem viable. Bike lines are limited and may feel unsafe. The bus service is currently slower than cars, has longer wait times, and routes may not be convenient.
However, if many more people used these alternative modes of transportation and their infrastructure was increased, they would be safer, faster and more convenient.
As cities like New York have shown, increasing bike lanes creates positive feedback loops. By making cycling safer, it encourages more cyclists, which makes cycling safer, which encourages more cycling, and so on.
Likewise, expanding the bus service and routes encourages more riders, which allows further expansion. Or better yet, carving out bus-only lanes, so that buses are able to move more quickly through traffic would make riding the bus better than driving. More people using alternative forms of transportation is a much more efficient use of our roads and makes life better for everyone. The city should do everything possible to encourage adoption of these alternative modes of transportation.
Although it has been controversial, especially from a cost-benefit perspective, the completed rail route will also be a key component of alternative transportation. These alternative forms become even more viable when they are integrated with each other, with rail to bus to cycle, or vice versa. For example, for many commuters in Japan, the primary use of bicycles is to get to and from rail stations.
This is why the recent proposal by the city to increase bus fares is a huge mistake. It moves the city in exactly the wrong direction.
By increasing fees, it discourages use of the bus and thus encourages driving individual cars. The fewer people use the bus, the less of a viable alternative it becomes, and so on in a negative feedback loop. Since those on the bus are doing everyone a huge service by not driving, TheBus should be free and paid for by those driving their own cars.
The regulation that a percentage of TheBus’s revenue must be paid for by fares is also short-sighted and should be eliminated.
On the other side, the city should enact policies to discourage driving, like congestion pricing or increasing the gasoline tax. In order to avoid such taxes being regressive and punishing those least able to pay, there needs to be a widely available and low-cost alternatives, like cycling or TheBus.
The more directly the fees are tied to the actual decision to drive, the better. So congestion pricing or a gasoline tax are preferable to increasing registration fees. They should create some discomfort, since that is the whole point. Such taxes are initially unpopular and face strong opposition. But after they are enacted, most citizens strongly support them, because they can see how much they make life better for everyone, drivers included.
It is clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Traffic is dangerous, bad for the environment, and imposes significant psychological costs. Studies have shown an individual’s satisfaction with their life is inversely proportional to the length of their daily commute. There is a solution, but no one wants to be first. The recent proposal to hike bus fares is exactly the wrong decision.
Jesse Palmer was raised in Laie and grew up riding TheBus around Oahu.