In September of last year, the Denton County Transit Authority (DCTA) launched an on-demand ride service called GoZone. Think of GoZone like a publicly sponsored Uber or Lyft. A rider downloads the app, enters their desired destination and pickup location, and is picked up by a driver. Because the service is meant to act as public transit, the rides are heavily subsidized – rides currently cost a promotional rate of just 75¢, which will be raised to (the still quite cheap rate of) $1.50 when the promotion expires.
Although a cheap, Uber-like service sounds like it would be a convenient solution for car-less folks looking to get somewhere, it is incapable of actually serving the role that public transportation should. Well run public transit does serves a vast variety of roles. Among other things it:
- Reduces traffic and demands on road networks, allowing us to use more of our town’s space for housing, businesses, and parks, and other things we can all enjoy, rather than cars
- Saves everyone money, both on personal expenses, and taxes
- Reduces environmentally damaging emissions, fighting global warming, and protecting the health of people who live near our roadways.
- Provides reliable service
GoZone does not, and more crucially cannot do these things. It provides some utility to the broader Denton transit efforts (it could connect folks outside the bus network to the network, and it allows us to map out where we should add service to meet demand). To understand why it cannot ever succeed as a primary transit solution, let’s dive into how public transit provides the benefits it does, and why the way that GoZone works is in direct opposition to those benefits.
Reducing Demand on Roads and Saving Our Space
A system in which everyone uses cars necessitates that our city build enough roadway and parking for everyone to use those cars, a system in which many people use bikes or cars frees up that space, as you can see in the video below.
Note that the video actually undersells the advantages of buses – as vehicles build speed, they require more and more space between each other for safety. The Texas Department of Transportation recommends 3 seconds of travel time between vehicles. This means at 25 miles an hour, each car takes up around 100 feet of lane, in addition to its size. At 40 miles an hour, with 10ft wide lanes (a common lane width for suburban roads, like on University Drive/380), each car takes up around 1750 sq feet, easily enough to fit a small business in. Since GoZone vehicles are not high capacity vehicles, they do not save us road space.
Since buses can fit so many people, and only require one driver to do so, even a half-full bus is a very cost efficient way to move people around. Driving a car in Texas is estimated to cost over $500 a month, and most of that expense is gas and car parts, so the money doesn’t stay in our local community. GoZone saves the rider money due to the highly subsidized fare, but obviously costs around as much in practice. Some savings are made by increasing the utilization of a single vehicle, and decreasing the need to spend money to maintain parking lots, but also requires paying a driver. Compare this to a city like Berlin, where cars account for only 32% of trips, and a BVG monthly pass can be had for under $100. One driver per vehicle goes a lot further for a bus than it does a small van, and buying a small number of buses and building a small amount of road for them is a lot cheaper than 2.5 cars per household and the road space to accommodate them.
Burning gas is bad for our planet’s long term health, and our near term health. Climate change is known science, and just as less money is used by an efficient public transit system, so too is less gas used to run a bus-oriented transportation system than a car-oriented one. SUVs alone are the second largest contributor to increases in emissions from 2010 to 2018, as this graph from The Guardian shows.
Even if everything went all-electric, laying road and building vehicles is also highly emissions intensive. As your one uncle pointed out, “building all those new cars was probably worse than the environment than just letting people continue to drive their old ones.” One point to your uncle on this one.
Even absent concern about climate change, the pollution cars put out also has direct health impacts. Studies show that living near a busy street can cause a whole battery of health issues, including kidney damage, lowered IQ in children, increased diabetes risk in kids, and high blood pressure, among others. The fewer cars on the road the better, and again, GoZone does not aid in this cause.
Providing Reliable Service
It’s perhaps this aspect of GoZone that is most damning. GoZone is designed to fit into an array of Denton public transit services, which means its goals have to at least nominally align with theirs – moving our community around. Unfortunately in most of the USA (exceptions including Chicago and NYC), public transit is viewed as a charity for the poor. Ticket prices are heavily subsidized (notably, the cost of driving a car is heavily subsidized – gas taxes do not cover road costs), but with a sort of tacit understanding that the service doesn’t have to be good. This does not have to be how well run public transit works – modern transit standards call for public transit to be as fast or faster than driving – but must be how GoZone operates. Because it is public transit, fares must be low. Otherwise we could just refer to Uber as public transit. But low fares have consequences.
As anyone will tell you, the less a thing costs, the more people will buy it. The IRS estimates driving a car costs $0.52/mile, which means GoZone is cheaper than driving yourself if the trip is a mile and a half long. So demand for GoZone rides would be very high if money were the only cost. Uber and Lyft, GoZone’s free-market counterparts deal with this by dynamically pricing rides. Want to go from Dallas to Denton just as all the bars let out? They’ll “surge charge” you, to the tune of potentially hundreds of dollars. Because GoZone is public transit, it cannot surge charge you money. So it surge charges you time.
In the same way that it might “take” $80 to fill your tank, waiting for a ride “takes” time. Both are limited resources that people looking to get places spend to do so. Whereas Uber surges costs to dissuade people from riding, GoZone simply surges wait times. If you book a GoZone during peak times you may be given a projected wait time of 30 minutes, which is a cost to the rider. Or, like one Denton RC reporter, you may be given a wait time of 10 minutes that is not kept, with no contact from your driver, until you book a Lyft nearly 40 minutes later. GoZone’s internal dashboard shows that from September 2021 to January 2022, 165,000 requests were made. Of those, 49,000, or 30%, were not accepted by riders, cancelled by riders, or rejected by Gozone due to lack of capacity. And this is inevitable.
These time costs, the rejected rides, the cancelled rides, are the way that GoZone manages demand. If you doubled GoZone’s funding, doubled the number of vans on the road, the number of drivers working for low wages with no benefits, people would get places on time without dropped rides for a few days, maybe a few weeks. But word would spread “GoZone is actually good now!” “I took it yesterday and I barely waited at all!” And demand would rise again, until the service was back to being bad for everyone. Up to an absurd investment in GoZone, $1.50 on demand rides will always have a long wait time, because that wait time is the cost a rider pays in place of a market priced ride.
Compare this to the effect of doubling the number of buses on the road (if the investment is used wisely) – wait times would fall. Riders would get places faster. Buses could go more places. Because buses carry so many people, and can allow transfers, a network can be built. Adding a new bus to the road represents an increase in freedom for riders. Free to wait less, free to go more places. And this capacity is not absorbed by a new rider coming along. There’s space for everyone on a bus.
The caveat, of course, is that Denton’s bus network is not very well designed, but that is fixable. The basic economics of supply and demand that ruin GoZone are not.
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