Positive and Negative Interactions

This is a theoretical post about a practical matter that arises whenever multiple variables interact. Two variables x and y, both correlated positively a dependent variable z, are said to positively interact if when x is larger, the effect of y on z gets larger and vice versa, and to negatively interact if when x is larger, the effect of y on z gets smaller. If z is transit ridership, let alone any of the direct benefits of good transit (good job access, environmental protection, public health, etc.), then it is affected by a slew of variables concerning service provision, infrastructure, and urban design, and they interact in complex ways.

I have not found literature on this interaction, which does not mean that this literature does not exist. The papers I’ve seen about correlates of bus ridership look at it one variable at a time, and yet they are suggestive of positive as well as negative interactions. More broadly, there are interactions between different types of service.

Positive interactions tend to involve network effects. These include the interaction between transit and transit-oriented development, as well as that between different aspects of rail modernization. Whenever there is positive interaction between variables, half-measures tend to flop; some are a reverse 80/20 situation, i.e. 80% of the cost yields 20% of the benefits. In some cases, compromises are impossible without making service useless. In others, some starter service is still viable, but in its presence, the case for expansion becomes especially strong, which can lead to a natural virtuous cycle.

Negative interactions occur when different improvements substitute for one another. One straightforward example is bus stops and frequency: frequency and the quality of bus shelter both impact bus ridership, but have a negative interaction, in that at higher frequency, the inconvenience coming from not having bus shelter is less important. In some cases, negative interactions can even lead to either/or logic, in which, in the presence of one improvement, another may no longer be worth the economic or political cost. In others it’s still useful to pursue multiple improvements, but the negative interaction implies the benefits are not as great as one might assume in isolation, and transit planners and advocates must keep this in mind and not overpromise.

Door-to-door trip times

The door-to-door trip time includes walking distance to and from the station, waiting time, transferring time, and in-vehicle time. Each of these components affects ridership in that longer trips reduce people’s propensity to choose public transport.

There is strong positive interaction between variables affecting the trip time. This is not directly attested in the literature that I know of, but it is a consequence of any ridership model that lumps the different components of trip time into one. If public transportation runs faster, that is if the in-vehicle time is reduced, then the share of the other components of the trip time rises, which means that the importance of frequency for reducing wait time is increased. Thus, speed and frequency have a positive interaction.

However, at the same time, there is a subtle negative interaction between speed and service provision on buses. The reason is that bus operating expenses are largely a linear function of overall service-hours, since costs are dominated by driver wages, and even maintenance is in practice a function of service-hours and not just service-km, since low speeds come from engine-stressing stop-and-go traffic conditions. In this case, increasing the speed of buses automatically means increasing their frequency, as the same resources are plugged into more service-km. In that case, the impact of a further increase in service is actually decreased: by speeding up the buses, the transit agency has reduced the share of the door-to-door trip time that is either in-vehicle or waiting at a stop, and thus further reductions in wait time are less valuable.

In the literature, the fact that investing in one portion of the trip makes its share of the overall trip length smaller and thus reduces the impact of further investments is seen in research into ridership-frequency elasticity. My standard references on this – Lago-Mayworm-McEnroe and Totten-Levinson – cite lit reviews in which the elasticity is far higher when frequency is low than when it is high, about 1 in the lowest-frequency cases and 0.3 in the highest-frequency ones. When frequency is very low, for example hourly, the elasticity is so high that adding service increases ridership proportionally; when frequency is a bus every few minutes, the impact of service increase on ridership is much smaller.

I’ve focused on in-vehicle time and waiting time, but the other two components are sometimes within the control of the transit agency as well, especially on rapid transit. Station design can reduce transfer time by providing clear, short passageways between platforms; it can also reduce access time by including more exits, for example at both ends of the platform rather than just at one end or in the middle. As such design positively interacts with other improvements to speed, it makes sense to bundle investments into more exits and better transfers with programs that add train service and speed up the trains.

Network effects

There is positive interaction between different transit services that work together in a network. In the presence of a north-south line through a city, the case for east-west transportation strengthens, and vice versa. This is not a new insight – Metcalfe’s law predicts usage patterns of communications technologies and social networks. The same effect equally holds for fixed infrastructure such as rail, and explains historical growth patterns. The first intercity steam railway opened in 1830, but the fastest phase of growth of the British rail network, the Railway Mania, occurred in the late 1840s, after main lines such as the London and Birmingham had already been established. 150 years later, the first TGV would start running in 1981, but the network’s biggest spurt of growth in terms of both route-km and passenger numbers occurred in the 1990s.

Using a primitive model in which high-speed rail ridership is proportional to the product of city populations, and insensitive to trip length, the United States’ strongest potential line is naturally the Northeast Corridor, between Boston and Washington. However, direct extensions of the line toward Virginia and points south are extremely strong per the same model and, depending on construction costs, may have even higher return on investment than the initial line, as 180 km of Washington-Richmond construction produce 540 km of New York-Richmond passenger revenue. In some places, the extra link may make all the difference, such as extending New York-Buffalo high-speed rail to Toronto; what looks like a basic starter system may be cost-ineffective without the extra link.

Network effects produce positive interactions not just between different high-speed rail lines, but also between transit services at lower levels. Rail service to a particular suburb has positive interaction with connecting bus service, for which the train station acts as an anchor; in some cases, such as the Zurich model for suburban transit planning, these are so intertwined that they are planned together, with timed transfers.

Network effects do not go on forever. There are diminishing returns – in the case of rail, once the biggest cities have been connected, new lines duplicate service or connect to more marginal nodes. However, this effect points out to a growth curve in which the first application has a long lead time, but the next few additions are much easier to justify. This is frustrating since the initial service is hard to chop into small manageable low-risk pieces and may be canceled entirely, as has happened repeatedly to American high-speed rail lines. And yet, getting over the initial hurdle is necessary as well as worth it once subsequent investments pan out.

Either-or improvements

In the introduction, I gave the example of negative interaction between bus shelter amenities and frequency: it’s good to have shelter as well as shorter waits, but if waits are shorter, the impact of shelter is lessened. There are a number of other negative interactions in transit. While it is good to both increase bus frequency and install shelter at every stop, some negative interactions lead to either-or logic, in which once one improvement is made, others are no longer so useful.

Fare payment systems exhibit negative interactions between various positive features. The way fare payment works in Germany and Switzerland – paper tickets, incentives for monthly passes to reduce transaction costs, proof of payment – is efficient. But the same can be said about the smartcard system in Singapore, EZ-Link. EZ-Link works so rapidly that passengers can board buses fast, which reduces (but does not eliminate) the advantage of proof-of-payment on buses. It also drives transaction costs down to the point of not making a monthly pass imperative, so Singapore has no season passes, and it too works.

Interior circulation displays negative interactions as well. There are different aspects of rolling stock design that optimize for fast boarding and disembarking of passengers, which is of critical importance on the busiest rail lines, even more than interior capacity. Trains so designed have a single level, many doors (four pairs per 20-meter car in Tokyo), interiors designed for ample standing space, and level boarding. Each of these factors interacts negatively with the others, and in cities other than Tokyo, regional trains like this are overkill, so instead designers balance circulation with seated capacity. Berlin has three door pairs per car and seats facing front and back, Zurich has double-deckers with two pairs of triple-wide doors and has been quite tardy in adopting level boarding, Paris has single-level cars with four door pairs and crammed seats obstructing passageways (on the RER B) and bespoke double-deckers with three pairs of triple-wide doors (on the RER A).

Finally, speed treatments on scheduled regional and intercity trains may have negative interactions. The Swiss principle of running trains as fast as necessary implies that once various upgrades have cut a route’s trip time to that required for vigorous network connections – for example, one hour or just a few minutes less between two nodes with timed transfers – further improvements in speed are less valuable. Turning a 1:02 connection into a 56-minute one is far more useful than further turning a 56-minute service into a 50-minute trip. This means that the various programs required to boost speed have negative interactions when straddling the boundary of an even clockface interval, such as just less than an hour, and therefore only the cheapest ones required to make the connections should receive investment.

Conclusion

Good transit advocates should always keep the complexities that affect transportation in mind. Negative interactions between different investments have important implications for activism as well as management, and the same is true for positive interactions.

When variables interact negatively, it is often useful to put a service in the good enough basket and move on. In some cases, further improvements are even cost-ineffective, or require unduly compromising other priorities. Even when such improvements remain useful, the fact that they hit diminishing returns means advocates and planners should be careful not to overpromise. Cutting a two-hour intercity rail trip to an hour is great; cutting a 40-minute trip to a 20-minute one may seem like a game changer, but really isn’t given the importance of access and egress times, so it’s usually better to redeploy resources elsewhere.

Conversely, when variables interact positively, transit service finds itself in an 80% of the cost for 20% of the benefits situation. In such case, compromises are almost always bad, and advocates have to be insistent on getting everything exactly right, or else the system will fail. Sometimes a phased approach can still work, but then subsequent phases become extremely valuable, and it is useful to plan for them in advance; other times, no reasonable intermediate phase exists, and it is on activists to convince governments to spend large quantities of upfront money.

Transportation is a world of tradeoffs, in which benefits are balanced against not just financial costs but also costs in political capital, inconvenience during construction, and even activist energy. Positive and negative interactions have different implications to how people who want to see better public transport should allocate resources; one case encourages insisting on grand plans, another encourages compromise.

4 comments

  1. Dan

    Is it worth it for smaller cities and suburbs to pair with companies like Uber and Lyft to get that last mile and decrease end-to-end trip times?

    • Oreg

      The German “Anrufsammeltaxi” is something like that: Taxis servicing a fixed route, typically a bus route outside of that bus’ service time, but only if summoned ahead of time by a passenger.

  2. RossB

    When it comes to transportation, just about everything has diminishing returns. Build that new highway and it makes a big difference. Each additional lane becomes a smaller and smaller improvement. Run buses every hour and at least people have service. An increase to a half hour is not as big an improvement, but still substantial. Each extra bus makes things better (30 to 20, 15, 12), but not as much as the improvement before. A shelter or bench of any sort is much better than nothing. Provide both, or a more comfortable seat and it is better, but not that much better. Individually, or in combination, this is how most transportation improvements work.

    The exception is the network effect. This is why transit is different. It scales. Keep adding new transit routes, and you keep improving things. The same is true of roads, except that eventually you have roads everywhere anyway, and the biggest problem is car congestion. Congestion works the opposite way. The more cars you add, the worse things get (maximum throughput on a road is *not* where you have maximum cars on the road). But if you keep making new investments in service, you keep adding to the network.

    But of course, some improvements are more cost effective than others. Extending a subway system deep into a suburb may not add many trips at all. The riders were used to taking shuttle buses, and very few people travel from suburban park and ride to suburban park and ride. Improving frequency adds to the network effect (if measured in “places you can get to within a given amount of time”) but again, there are diminishing returns. Express buses, new routes, all of them help, but some help more than others. That is the interesting part about transit design, and why there are no hard and fast rules. Each decision has to be weighed against alternatives to determine the best value (and often the choice is not clear, but merely based on the best guess).

  3. Pingback: Why You Should Complete High-Speed Lines | Pedestrian Observations

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