Transit: The Great Compromise

I’m going to do something I haven’t done done in my writing since it became cliché in high school. I’m going to open with a quote. Nay, two quotes:

A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, “Huh. It works. It makes sense.” ~ Barack Obama, The New Yorker

A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied. ~ Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm

It may be that the difference in these two statements are more a reflection on the differences between their authors than on the nature of compromise. After all, one is a very successful politician, and the other is the cynical co-creator of Seinfeld and the brains behind the wry Curb Your Enthusiasm. I would like to think, though, they reflect two very important attitudes about compromise that we all feel simultaneously: they are important and sensible, but they suck.

When it comes to transit, this compromise can be found everywhere. Indeed, the fundamental advantage that public transit systems hold is that they are able to aggregate the needs of large groups of passengers in order to improve the efficiency of moving them around. Because of this, transit is unable to provide a complete travel service to every individual in the way that a car does. Even with a transit service that is optimal on the whole, it’s still sub-optimal for everyone, and everyone has a less than perfect experience. This is a fallacy that I have heard time and again in various forms: transit is sub-par for me, so it must be sub-par on the whole. Often, it’s articulated with stories of buses running empty through suburban neighbourhoods, or how the bus happens to come at the precise wrong time in the mornings, or seems to run down the wrong streets.

‘Waiting’ You vs. ‘Riding’ You

These compromises can provide some interesting thought experiments. For example, consider yourself as a passenger waiting for a bus. At that moment, you want the bus to stop for you at your stop. Once you’ve boarded, however, you wish the bus didn’t stop at all, until it reaches your destination. The same person’s thought process is contradictory based on when they are on the bus or not. And so, the transit system must be a compromise between the ‘you’ on the bus, and the ‘you’ waiting at the stop. And of course, this leaves everyone unhappy.

There are a couple of other interesting compromises and competing factors, beyond those which I have referenced in my ‘optimize this’ posts found here, here, and here. For example, a transit agency might think it useful to publish the scheduled times at stops, so that passengers can use the information to plan their trips. This move will also raise the expectation of passengers as to the arrival time of the bus, and the reliability of service. By providing consistency in the form of schedules, the transit operator is also increasing the expectation of accuracy.

There is also a dangerous possibility in compromise: by trying to appease all of these competing parties, it is easy to try and go down the middle. This “middle of the road” solution might actually be worse than going one way or the other. There is a very real possibility that you can make things worse by cutting the baby in half and leaving nothing for anyone.

Modelling Compromise

In my research, we attempt to avoid this by combining all parties together into one mathematical model. We try to take everyone’s grumblings and concerns and put them all together into one big melting pot, and make the “total grumble” as small as possible. In essence, we are exploiting the wonderful mathematical opportunity that a compromise presents in order to make Larry David as happy as possible. Or, more on point, as least grumpy as possible. For me, that’s a good piece of music. For me, that makes sense.

My hope, after reading this, is that you are willing to appreciate transit for the compromise it is. It’s not perfect. It will never be perfect. It should never be perfect. All it can be is a little better.

2 comments on “Transit: The Great Compromise”

  1. Pingback: It’s Not Just a Bus – It’s ‘Enhanced Walking’ | Klumpentown

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